Daughter of the moon and other stories

Daughter of the moon and other stories

Material Information

Daughter of the moon and other stories
Zimmerman, Shannon
Place of Publication:
[Tampa, Fla]
University of South Florida
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Dog shows
Mother-daughter relationships
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- Masters -- USF ( lcsh )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


ABSTRACT: All of the protagonists in this collection of stories are starving. The world around them buzzes with the electric hum of modern society, a siren song that tempts these girls and women with the promise of love, opportunity, affluence, and dreams. Instead, they find themselves lost somehow, left behind, victims of circumstance, confused by dysfunctional families, and romanced by the media. They no longer know themselves, and stumble in their quest for happiness. They are lured into competitions with imaginary adversaries, and sometimes lose. The less control they have in their own lives, the more desperate they become, often going to great lengths to satisfy their hunger for love, acceptance, and security. A little girl wants nothing more than a normal, loving family in "Raylene," and when she tires of dreaming her life were different, she decides to do something about it.The protagonist of "The Broken Lamp" is plagued by the desire to be free of her financial concerns, and loses herself in this desire to the point that her marriage is threatened. The pursuit of love, in "Management Material," leads a movie theater employee to find happiness, although not in the way she expected. Old friends attempt to rekindle their connection in "Common Ground," desperate to regain the closeness of their adolescence. "Daughter of the Moon" features a woman with a family secret that she has kept since childhood, a secret that she now must dig up if she ever wants to move forward. And, in "Falling," a woman longing for acceptance devises an unconventional plan to win the adoration that she has always yearned for. The characters in these stories occupy the same psychic state. They are wounded, fragile, idealistic, and painfully self-conscious.Disillusionment with an impervious world serves only to resurrect repressed feelings, leaving the characters with a cognitive dissonance that they work tirelessly, if aimlessly and foolishly, to reconcile. Unable to satiate themselves, they cannot avoid feeding the darkest dreams that always lurk in the shadowy corners of consciousness.
Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of South Florida, 2008.
Includes bibliographical references.
System Details:
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System Details:
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
General Note:
Title from PDF of title page.
General Note:
Document formatted into pages; contains 98 pages.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Shannon Zimmerman.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of South Florida Library
Holding Location:
University of South Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
002046375 ( ALEPH )
495989320 ( OCLC )
E14-SFE0002656 ( USFLDC DOI )
e14.2656 ( USFLDC Handle )

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Daughter of the moon and other stories
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by Shannon Zimmerman.
[Tampa, Fla] :
b University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 98 pages.
Thesis (M.F.A.)--University of South Florida, 2008.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
ABSTRACT: All of the protagonists in this collection of stories are starving. The world around them buzzes with the electric hum of modern society, a siren song that tempts these girls and women with the promise of love, opportunity, affluence, and dreams. Instead, they find themselves lost somehow, left behind, victims of circumstance, confused by dysfunctional families, and romanced by the media. They no longer know themselves, and stumble in their quest for happiness. They are lured into competitions with imaginary adversaries, and sometimes lose. The less control they have in their own lives, the more desperate they become, often going to great lengths to satisfy their hunger for love, acceptance, and security. A little girl wants nothing more than a normal, loving family in "Raylene," and when she tires of dreaming her life were different, she decides to do something about it.The protagonist of "The Broken Lamp" is plagued by the desire to be free of her financial concerns, and loses herself in this desire to the point that her marriage is threatened. The pursuit of love, in "Management Material," leads a movie theater employee to find happiness, although not in the way she expected. Old friends attempt to rekindle their connection in "Common Ground," desperate to regain the closeness of their adolescence. "Daughter of the Moon" features a woman with a family secret that she has kept since childhood, a secret that she now must dig up if she ever wants to move forward. And, in "Falling," a woman longing for acceptance devises an unconventional plan to win the adoration that she has always yearned for. The characters in these stories occupy the same psychic state. They are wounded, fragile, idealistic, and painfully self-conscious.Disillusionment with an impervious world serves only to resurrect repressed feelings, leaving the characters with a cognitive dissonance that they work tirelessly, if aimlessly and foolishly, to reconcile. Unable to satiate themselves, they cannot avoid feeding the darkest dreams that always lurk in the shadowy corners of consciousness.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Advisor: Rita Ciresi, M.F.A.
Dog shows
Mother-daughter relationships
Dissertations, Academic
x English
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856
u http://digital.lib.usf.edu/?e14.2656


Daughter of the Moon and Other Stories by Shannon Zimmerman A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Rita Ciresi, M.F.A. John Fleming, Ph.D. Ira Sukrungruang, M.F.A. Date of Approval: November 21, 2008 Keywords: Florida, women, dog shows, re union, mother-daughter relationships Copyright 2008 Shannon Zimmerman


Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Falling 5 Throb 16 Management Material 33 Common Ground 42 The Broken Lamp 54 Daughter of the Moon 57 ii


Daughter of the Moon and Other Stories Shannon Zimmerman ABSTRACT All of the protagonists in this collection of stories are starving. The world around them buzzes with the electric hum of modern society, a siren song that tempts these girls and women with the promise of love, opportun ity, affluence, and dreams. Instead, they find themselves lost somehow, left behi nd, victims of circumstance, confused by dysfunctional families, and romanced by the media. They no longer know themselves, and stumble in their quest for happiness. They are lured into competitions with imaginary adversaries, and sometimes lose. Th e less control they have in their own lives, the more desperate they become, often going to great lengths to satisfy their hunger for love, acceptance, and security. A little girl wants nothing more than a normal, loving family in Raylene, and when she tires of dreaming her life were diffe rent, she decides to do something about it. The protagonist of The Broken Lamp is plague d by the desire to be free of her financial concerns, and loses herself in th is desire to the point that her marriage is threatened. The pursuit of love, in Management Material, leads a movie theater employee to find happiness, although not in the way she expecte d. Old friends attempt to rekindle their iii


connection in Common Ground, desperate to re gain the closeness of their adolescence. Daughter of the Moon features a woman with a family secret that she has kept since childhood, a secret that she now must dig up if she ever wants to move forward. And, in Falling, a woman longing for acceptance devi ses an unconventional plan to win the adoration that she has always yearned for. The characters in these stories occupy the same psychic state. They are wounded, fragile, idealistic, and painfully self-consci ous. Disillusionment with an impervious world serves only to resurrect repressed fee lings, leaving the charac ters with a cognitive dissonance that they work tirelessly, if aimle ssly and foolishly, to reconcile. Unable to satiate themselves, they cannot avoid feeding the darkest dreams that always lurk in the shadowy corners of consciousness. iv


INTRODUCTION I was at the public library donating some books recently, and the woman helping me unload them, likely because of the eclecti c mix and sheer volume, asked me what I did for a living. Im a writer, I said. The librarian appeared impressed. Once I was in my car, I was horrified. I hadnt been th inking; Id just blur ted it out. I hadnt intentionally lied. Id never said those words before, and I wasnt sure why Id say them now. Maybe it was because, in helping her sort through my books, the glimpses of so many covers and titles of beloved stories flashi ng before my eyes made me recall, in a matter of seconds, images, descriptions, and ch aracters Id been internalizing for years. Maybe I felt I needed to claim them in some way. Perhaps, in feeling possessive, it was my way of saying that I loved the stories so much that I could tell them myself if I wanted to, albeit less skillfully. That possessiveness is what drove me to write when I was a child, although I wouldnt have called myself a writer then anymore than I woul d have said that I was an actress because I played dress-up. Lying was ba d, and I had to lear n early the difference between telling a lie and using my imagination. Fortunately, I was off the hook from lying about what I did because that wasnt a question asked of kids very often. If asked what I liked to do, however, writing was always at the top of my short list. 1


My mom likes to recall that my first wo rd was book. Well, technically it was a confusing mispronounciation, but it was clear what I wanted. E ach night, at bedtime, she read from Maurice Sendaks Where the Wild Things Are or Shel Silversteins A Light in the Attic or the popular 70s anthology Free to Be You and Me And each night, after she turned off the lights and closed the door behi nd her, I closed my eyes and recreated these other worlds these artists illustrated with their words and drawings. In that way, I made them mine. My goal was to extend that imaginary life that I so cherished beyond bedtime hours and attempt to communicate my interi or, imaginary world. Though I was unaware of this at the time, I began to write. The y ears when I was in kindergarten and first grade, my school adopted a whole-language approach to learning, so my reading and writing was encouraged there as well as at home. I was given assignments to write poems for Mothers and Fathers Day. I made up stories and drew pictures of my friends and me holding hands. Once even, with a little bit of guidance, I did some performance poetry at my elementary school. I was the wind and I made the sails go. I was the wind and I made the clouds blow. In my pink leotard and cape, streamers taped to my back and an elastic unicorn belt fastened at my waist, I recited my lines unse lf-consciously, twirling and twirling, dizzied by the s potlight and attention and the fun of telling a story that I made up myself. My mother is a smart woman, so before my younger brother was born, she had me write and illustrate a book about how babies were made. I titled it, aptly, Baby, and included crayon drawings of wh at I thought life inside a uterus would look like. When 2


my brother came home from the hospital, it fe lt as magical as the performance had. Once again, so I felt, my writing seemed to produ ce real results. Disappointment only set in years later, once I got to know him. Having the imaginary seemingly actualized and having been given such positive reinforcement about my own writing made it im possible for me not to seek it out again and again. So by the time I was in high school, wearing combat boots and sporting pink hair, it was too late. All throughout my teens I tried to escape to the safety, solitude, and joy I experienced when writing so young. I wr ote poems for other boys to give to their girlfriends and notes to diffe rent friends every class pe riod, confessing everything Id gotten away with over the weekend. I wrote stories about characters who lived hard and died young, a mix of the gothic and personal of e qual immaturity and flimsiness. I didnt know it, but I was like a drug a ddict chasing that first elus ive, exhilarating high. And, like a drug addict, but because my life had become complicated beyond what I could control, it was never the same. The wr itings were just empty gestures. Still, I persevered, even at the onset of panic that comes with adulthood. So it was, finally, in my mid-20s, I made my way into USFs creative writing graduate program. And, although those first few storie s werent much better than the things I wrote when I was a teenager, even I began to see that my writing got exponentially better. I had support again and positive reinforcement, both at home, from my husband, and at school, from my peers and professors. I ha d, though in a different context, a firm structure to work within. This time, I ha d true artists to guide me along the way. 3


So far, the few things Ive sent out ha ve been accepted to online literary magazines and a locally owned web site. The MFA program has given me more to work with than just my desire. Im satisfied enough with the skill that Ive developed to keep pursuing my writing, because this is where I thin k it really begins. I was finally able to escape for a while, in Cooper Hall, and allow myself to be consumed by the imaginary a few nights a week. The years I spent earning th is degree helped me relive the thrill I experienced reading and writing as a kid. My husband and I will be the first two students to earn an MFA from USFs creative writing pr ogram. I do feel like I can stop chasing a future in writing is within my grasp. Wh ile I may not be able to say, as I did the other day at the library, that writing is what I do for a li ving, I dont think the answer I gave is completely untrue. If the librarian had only rephras ed the question slightly, asked me just whom I thought I was, Id have been telling the truth. 4


Falling I wasnt going to make the same mistakes that everyone else did. I wasnt going to worry too much about how still Eros coul d stand while the judges were groping him or how perfectly he could walk in a circle. I wasnt going to go ap eshit training him the way some of the handlers do, because I believed that if I did let myself care too much about any one thing, then tragedy would strike, like when the Challenger blew to bits or when the Smurfs went off the air. I just re minded myself of what I read in the paper the year before: This popular female dog trainerthe girl Cesar Mill an of Floridaspent too much time teaching her bichon frise to ca tch the ball. I imagined that dogs whole life was invested in catching th at fuzzy little ball. Thats why, when the trainers fouryear-old nephew came over to her condo one afternoon and thre w the ball out the window, Pauly the bichon went after it wit hout hesitation. Right out the window and down four stories. They found the ball wedge d next to the tire of a parked car. I knew something else, too: that winni ng best in show wa s never about the dog. Watching Glory Ann Sibet on cable after I wa s fired taught me that. She was the golden girl winning all the circuits, and she looked like a pageant quee n. She wore her dark hair in a teased bun and had long red nails. The camera always stayed at least ten seconds longer on Glory Ann than on her dog, and the close-up was on her! Always, the broadcast 5


ended the same way. The camera would focus on Glory Ann as she waved to the crowd, panning down just long enough to see the bl ue ribbon draped over her dogs head, and, inevitably, the sunlight would catch in the jeweled brooch she wore on her lapel, washing the whole scene in a momentary kaleidoscope of color until fading into a burning white. Who could help but be a believer? She wa s dazzling. She commanded attention. Glory Ann, with her white-stockinged, muscular legs and long, straight neck. All confidence, all charm. She could make a Chinese crested l ook good. You could tell th at Glory Ann Sibet had not grown up in a retirement community w ith parents as old as grandparents, playing shuffleboard on Sundays. You could tell that she didnt have to bleach her mustache, that she probably didnt even have a mustache. Her days may have been spent in salons and boutiques (among the living !), but she still ate an d slept and shit like everyone else. This is what I told myself. All I needed was forty-seven dollars tota l. Twenty to register Eros with the American Kennel Club and twenty-seven to sign him up for the Lake Wales All-Breed Regionals, a televised event one month away on a Saturday. Thats not counting the fivehundred dollars I spent on Eros, the bargain price the breeder sold old studs for. When I was in first grade, I decided I wanted to be a nurse. I was given an outline of a nurse and a box of crayons. I wrote my name and nurse in wobbly letters, across the top of the page, and I did my best to co lor inside the lines. My mom was surprised when I brought it home. She said she thought I wanted to be an actress. Didnt I want to be on stage? Didnt I want adoring fans? No, I sa id. This is about the white dress. 6


Wasnt long, maybe immediately afterwards that I forgot all about chasing that white prettiness. That is, until high school, when I started watching soap operas and saw nurses who only answered phones and brought people water and an endless flow of square-jawed men with feathered hair, he lpless in a hospital bed. Six months after graduatingforget the two to four years Id have to put in if I wanted to be an actual nurse I was a patient-care technician. This means that I collected peoples fluids their blood, their urine. It means I was paid $10.47 to hold forkfuls of congealed gravy and turkey in front of former teachers and pr iests toothless, seismic mouths. It meant I had to mop up the stinking sludge from a ninety-year-olds cooling diaper and then massage body lotion onto his hollow butt cheeks. Until recently when my boss, whos named Kat with a K and who wore a wig ugly as the hair around a whales vagina, fired me for calling in sick too often. And anyway, all of us even the nurses wore scrubs. Eros was tall as I am standing on his hind legs. He had green eyes that reminded me of agate marbles like the ones my brother used to collect when we were little and, mostly, sienna-colored, shaggy fur though th ere were some places above his eyes and on his muzzle that had gone white and that Id la ter been able to blend in with a little bit of hair dye. He sat with a proud chest, mouth hanging open and ears back. Until I got him home, back to the doubl e-wide in Saddlebag, a 55+ community which my parents had owned since the early eightie s and left to me when they died. (Michael had his own townhouse and wasnt interested.) Maybe it was because I had so many boxes around and he was feeling claustrophobic, or maybe it was just the shock of being with someone 7


new, but I had to hold Eros off by putting my fo ot on his neck or else he would lick, lick, lick obsessively, and even then, he nibbled my toes. I began to worry that, instead of walk ing around the ring at the show, he might just throw his paws up on my shoulders and tr y to hump me. But when I did a practice runeven though everything is shaped like a re ctangle and you have to step over some thingshe stayed by my side and sat when I asked him to. It was the day I brought Eros home that I put on the rhinestone and tulle dress Id bought just for the dog show. In the mirror I c ould see that Id made the right choice. Looking at myself with the sunlight stream ing through the vertical blinds, my insides leapt in triumph. I could outshine even Glory Ann. My brother Michael called my dress a get-up. As in, no one would be caught dead in that get-up. He came by after wor k, his girlfriend Tina waiting in the car, supposedly to borrow a serving bowl. When he saw Eros in his crate, he pinched the sides of his nose and shook his head, as if my getting a dog somehow complicated his life. At J.C. Penney, where hes manager, he likes to start every training going over the company motto Honor, Confidence, Service, and Cooperation. He even has it framed in his office like one of those motiva tional posters you see in classrooms and telemarketing centers across the country. He al so likes to tell new hires that he shares a birthday with the founder, James Cash Penney. Wheres the big bowl with the ye llow flowers on it? he asked. You mean the one with the oranges on it that mom bought at some crappy yard sale? Why? 8


Tina and I are getting married. She wants it for the bridal shower, which you are invited to, of course. Do you mind? Not everyone needs a stupid piece of paper to feel like a grown up. I meant, do you mind about letting us bo rrow the bowl. And grown up? Youre wearing some hideous old prom dress and youre covered in dog fur. And you havent even finished unpacking yet. Go ahead, lets talk about growing up. Should I be more like you, walking around like Im some kind of frat boy who never got spanked as a kid? Shelly, Im not your competition. I just came to get the bowl and maybe a congratulations. You could at l east pretend to be happy for me. Bowls in the third cabinet on the left, top shelf. I didnt tell him that this was the dress, as in a dress of some significance that he will probably come to remember for the rest of his life. I didnt say that Eros was an investment in my future. I didnt tell hi m that I had found something to care about. That day I didnt know what I know now. That I was falling through open space, finding nothing to hold on to because I was looking for all the wrong things and that the end, cold and hard as concrete, was coming fast. That, despite what I thought, Id become like Pauly, the bichon frise who died trying to catch the ball. On the day of the competition, I was still oblivious. All I was thinking was how simple a thing it was: your dog could win best in show, and your entire life could change. Take Glory Ann, for example. She wins a s how, and the next day her name is in the 9


paper, then, the next week, her picture. She buys a special shelf for her first trophy, and, in a years time, she has to buy another shelf. After shows she stays for autographs and then climbs into her luxury sedan, away fr om the gleaming brightness, and touches her brooch, a soothing reminder that she has arrive d. This is her new life and its all that matters anymore. No one knows if she wa s tortured in high school or if she has embarrassing habits or how many boyfriends shes had. And no one cares. Because she has created a change of observable significan ce, causing her past to collapse into her present, the way one ocean wave breaks into the next and is only distinguishable on the rise, topped by that white riff. I got up to my alarm clock on the day of the competition. I wanted to practice the moment the judge shook my hand, the moment the storm of applause and camera flashes began. I would win, probably only a certificate or a ribbon at this poi nt, and then Id be ready to advance to the next le vel. Id dominate the local, regional, and statewide circuits and eventually end up at Westminster. By then, all the contes tants would know my name, my signature look. Id be a local celebrity recognized at the grocery store. A book I read about becoming a handler recommended that women wear neutral makeup and business attireskirt suits and sc arves. There was nothing about personal touches, like jeweled brooches or rhinestone s and tulle. But th is book was written by a former award-winning AKC handler from New England, and you can t trust someone whos had a cut-throat agenda creeping around in her head for fifteen years. A winner is someone who stands out. Glory Ann had fi gured that out on her own, and now I would take it one step further. This was America and that meant there was room for more than 10


one winner. All I wanted was to put on my dress and unfurl my curls from their rollers and practice saying the words, We are expr essly grateful today for the opportunity before us. Thats what I was doingm outhing the words to my self in the mirror when I noticed a gag sme ll, like stinkhorn mushrooms, coming from my kitchen. It had to be Eros, who was asleep in his crate. He was on his side, his long legs poking through the grate, and I thought go ahead live it up now, cause youre not going to do anything but what I tell you later. I ha d to crouch down close to that reeking mouth of his in order to slip the leash around his neck, and thats when I saw it. What looked like a king-sized Gobstopper lodged between his gums and upper li p. The way it stuck out made him look ridiculous, all his red wh iskers poking up like broken antennae, as if he were a snarling Elvis impersonator. I t hought I could massage the lump away the way I do with my abdominal fat, but he yelped a little when I touched it. I knew he probably wouldnt stand for it, but if I could squeeze just once and hard, it might pop and dissolve by the time we made it to the show. He was wide awake now, rattli ng his teeth, his eyes locked on my hand. There was no way I was getting anywhere near that thing again. Plan B of my dream went a little somethi ng like this: Eros and I cross the field to the grooming tents, where all the pooches are perched on their grooming tables, only seconds before the show starts. The other ha ndlers look and feel sorry for me because I barely have time to run a brush through his co at when our number is called. In their head they write me off as an amateur. Out there, in the ring, my skin prickles under the crowds gaze. We do our lap and it is like we are so in sync, our legs moving at the exact same moment, two completely separate creat ures impossibly occupying the same space in 11


the same way. When they look up and see, around us, that spectra of light from the thousands of rhinestones on the bodice of my dress, everyone under the tent emits a silent gasp because, even if they cant quite arti culate it, they know, at a certain level of consciousness, that they are seeing the physical embodiment of fate. And after I shake that judges hand, I pull a Ziploc baggie from my purse and hold it up. In it is a knotted ball the color and texture of wadded bubblegum Ill say, This almost prevented us from being here today, but we were able to overcome it, as we will overcome all that stands in our way. It will seem, to all who hear it, a small thing. But soon reporters will realize my story is marketable because its a story about perseverance for children and old people and hard-working people down on their luck. Michael and Tina will come by to return the serving dish. By this time my wall art will include two framed blue ribbons a nd newspaper clippings. Each will have the word winner on them in bold lettering so they can be read by someone across the room. I wont have to say a thing b ecause right then the seed will be planted. The seed will grow and tell Michael, in no uncertain te rms, the difference between a winner and a manager. He will come to know that a manager is something you work for, while being a winner is something youre born with. One is onl y a possibility, while the other is just a matter of time. I will not rub this in. I w ill not name-call. I will not invite a group of friends over and then lock him out. I will love him because he is my brother. I was left in the nippy waiting area, shivering with all the mutts, while Eros was hauled off to an examination room. I told th e vet, Cut this thing out and make sure you 12


use that see-through thread. There was a hush in the room, even though I was surrounded by at least ten broke n-down dogs and their owners. Thats why I didnt get upbecause my dress and stockings made too much of a crinkling noise when I moved, like someone opening a bag of chips in an auditoriumand I wanted to wait and let someone else go for the peanut butter cookies that couldve been dog treats on the foldout table that Id been ey eing since I walked in. I got a canker sore when my mom made me run for class secretary in fifth grade. It was huge and white, and I couldnt stop touc hing it with the tip of my tongue. It was big enough to make my bottom lip jut out just th e slightest bit so that when it came time for me to give my speech, I was so conscious of it that I slurred my words. Even a week after the election was over and my defeat was forgotten, the sore was still there. I remember I was so mad at my mom then for causing me to have this sore. I knew I would have never made a fool of myself if she hadnt put so much pressure on me. This is what I was thinking about, about how I caused Eross canker sore, that it was an example of transference, my anticipation beco ming his anxiety, when the vet came out to talk to me. He had on a lab coat over his scrubs and a clipboard that he read from before he spoke to me. He said, Eros needs surgery. I was lucky to have caught it so early. The cancer spread to his jaw, and part of his jaw wi ll need to be removed. Hell be fitted with a prosthetic and good as new. I asked him to repeat himself. 13


He asked, Would you mind staying just a few minutes longer until all the paperwork is done? It was not really a question. He took me by the elbow back to my chair and said that reception would call me in just a few moments. I knew without the vet telling me that th ere would be no dog show. Eros may not even be able to leave until the next morning, and by then it would be too late. I took a hard look around me. People sitting, absently clutching their dogs leashes or stroking their dogs heads, pretending to read some article in Dog Fancy A puddle of urine pooled in the corner next to the scale. So me little terrier dog whim pered, its skin patchy with mange and its head trapped inside a plastic cone so that it looked like he was wearing a bullhorn. The dog across from me had one of those squished-in faces, and when he looked at me, I saw that one of its eyes was milky blue and clouded over and leaked fluid into the folds of its muzzle. Nearby, a big mutt dressed in a cheerleaders outfit farted audibly, so that everyon e had to pretend not to smell it. Look at all these dogs, I thought, and a ll these people. Broken, needy, and smelly, and Eros no different. I exhaled the ai r that Id been holding in my lungs, closed my eyes, and brought my hand up to my forehea d. I was thinking that here I was again. I thought I had left the hospital to do something different, to find my calling, but here I was again, different sorts of patients, but still the same smell of disi nfectant and shit. I mustve looked saddened, because the woman next to me said, I hope your kids okay. I looked at her, a middle-age woman w ith fake blonde hair wearing a blue tracksuit, like she was just in from a jog. What? I said. 14


I hope yours is okay. I overheard the ve t. The little dog by her feet whined, and she picked it up and held it on her lap, stroking it. You know, my baby had his penis amputated. She said this as if it were supposed to be some sort of comfort. I couldnt help but look down at the dog on her lap. She held its chest in one hand, keeping the dog upright while she rubbed its belly. Her other hand moved slowly down, all the way down, until the loose flap of skin that used to hold the dogs penis played between her fingers, and she brought it back up. I was disgusted. I fought back the urge to gag. Who were these people? What was it that made them think this kind of be havior was okay? No one else seemed to notice. They were all lost in their attachme nts to their own animals. I couldnt help but wonder if this is what the big dog-show handlers were really li ke. If they felt what these people felt. If thats what it takes to be a winner. When I stood up and started walking out the door, the receptionist called my name. Miss? she said, Miss, what about your dog? I heard her, but I kept walking until I was out the door and into the hard light of day. 15


Throb Raylenes mom called them sun worshippers. She didnt move her hands when she spoke, like she usually did, but stayed perf ectly still in the chair, her chin pointed toward the sky, her eyes closed, behind her sunglasses. Raylene knew her mother was referring to the hundreds of people scattered a ll along the shoreline, as far as she could see, almost all of them, by this time of the afternoon, collapsed face down onto their beach towels. Her mothers legs and arms were covered with beads of baby oil that refused to melt into her skin. Raylene could smell it ju st by thinking about the clear plastic bottle; even that was enough to give her that disorien ted feeling, like she ha d just come off the tilt-a-whirl. In the morning, shed had to pull the straps of her mothers bikini top down and rub the oil into her back and shoulders, pick ing out the pieces of hair that got stuck in the mess. Watch it, her mother warned. Raylene hated the way it felt, the oil dr ipping down her arms, slipping beneath her fingernails, making her hands so sticky that sh e couldnt touch her f ace or eat any of the snacks they brought until she could find a bathroom with soap and water to wash them in. To curb the nausea, she tried to pretend sh e was smelling maple syrup instead, the kind she and her family collected in the Adirond acks every winter before they moved from 16


Lake George, New York, to Florida, a year ago. She tried with other things, too, hoping that if she imagined the sand were snow or th e ocean were the lake that she would feel as she had before they moved, happy. A boy bobbing in the ocean. He was too far away for Raylene to see his face, but she hoped it was her brother, Henry, whom sh e was supposed to be keeping an eye on. Where do they all come from? The sun worshippers? Canada. New York, mostly, same as us. You can only put up with those winters so long before you go crazy. Raylene privately disagreed. Sun wo rshippers were people who upset their whole lives to live near the beach full time; most of the people tanning themselves were only vacationers. Recently, when her mom calle d Raylene and Henrys father to find out where the child support check was, shed sai d, Actions speak loude r than words. Shed heard her mother say it many times, but this time something clicked. What her mother said was true; Raylene didnt need to remind her mother how much shed loved the winter months, the ice-skating, the snow cone s, the sleigh-riding and tubing they did at the Rosencrantzs farm each year. She didnt have to point out that she wasnt like her mother, or Henry, or all these vacationers on the beach; she wasnt a sun worshipper. This was new, this separation from her fam ily, this independence. It was exciting, the way she felt she could slip it on at will. Shed only discovered it hours before they left for the beach, once she realized she could do as she pleased. Raylene was changing in the master bathroom she and her mother shared after the divorce, when she saw an old tube of her mothers lipstick in the 17


trash. Raylene had always wondered what th e violent shade of pur ple would look like on her, so she plucked the tube from the pile of tissues, looked on the bottom to make sure it was Throb, the shade her mother wore on a daily basis, and opened the cap. The stick was worn down to almost nothing, just a st eep-sloped, greasy-looking nub. Still, there was enough for a few uses, if she was careful. With the lipstick on her eyes looked more green, her skin more creamy than pasty, her hair shinier. What are you wearing? Her mother had been paying more attention to Raylenes habits lately, sme lling her breath after she brushe d her teeth, looking inside her underwear before she folded them. Raylene asked if she meant her swimsuit. I mean on your face. Are you wearing my lipstick? She set the cooler with the sodas and ice down. You threw it out. Her mother always put on lipstick before she got out of the car, even if it was only to go into the post offi ce or the grocery store. Even if she had no other makeup on or hadnt combed her hair, sh e would always take the lipstick from the console, twist the rearview mirro r so she could look at herself, and apply it in three quick strokes. It was only fair Raylene got to wear it once in a while. Im talking about what youre doi ng. Are you looking for attention? Raylene resisted the urge to be defian t, to shake her hair off her shoulders and pout her lips the way shed done in the mirror. No, Raylene said, simply. Then dont wear lipstick. Little girls dont need to be made up. 18


Raylene had the same feeling now, on the beach, as she did then. Shed had a glimpse of her mothers own limitations, her in ability to understand her, and she wasnt going to feel guilty or even explain. She only had to tolerate the lecherous heat for a few more hours before shed be back at the beach, this time at night, with her father at his rundown studio apartment, where she and Henry spent most weekends. At the Old King Cole Motel, where her fa ther lived near the boardwalk, she could walk around unsupervised. Shed done it many times before, getting milk for morning cereal from the grocery store, once even buying a pack of Winstons for her father from a vending machine in one of the bars. At th e beach, she noticed, people looked her in the eyes. As they walked down the boardwalk, in and out of shops, restaurants, hotels, their heads were always turning, looking, at the ocean, at the sky, at the seagulls, at each other. When her mother dropped them off at th e motel, after Henry climbed out of the car and shut the door, her mother took hold of Raylenes arm and warned her that she had better be prepared to give her a full repor t the next day. He wont do it here, her mother said, nodding toward Henry, who was looking very grown up with his hands in his shorts pockets, leaning against the stairs, waiting. God forbid your father would have to clean it up. Henry had begun wetti ng the bed again. Raylene helped out by getting Henry showered while their mother changed his sheets. Nope, she continued, that kind of thing is reserved just for me. She was right. Henry didnt wet the bed on the nights they spent with their father. Of course, that could be because they all had to 19


sleep in the bed that pulled down from the wall, and maybe he tried harder to be considerate. She kissed her mother on the cheek and said goodbye. Raylene stayed in the pool with Henr y longer than she would have on any other day. After all the sunbathers, lying on the lounge chairs like file ts, smoking and drinking from plastic cups, had drifted off, she and He nry continued playing fish out of water and taking turns trying to knock each other off a ra ft someone had left floating in the pool. She only got out once the sun sank low, stal ling on the horizon, a brig ht orange smudge hanging in the haze. It had been enough, these hours of play, Raylene thought, beca use Henry did not protest; he did not make her chase him around th e pool trying to catch him in the towel, flung open like a cast net. Instead, he stood there, clenching his jaw to stop it from chattering, his wrinkled fingers clasped ben eath his chin. Most of the time people probably didnt think he was he r brother, or that she was her mothers daughter, for that matter. Her mother and Henry both shared the same stormy green eyes, the same blond hair, though her mothers hair was Raylenes own blackberry shade at the roots. But here in the languid light, with Henr y holding still for so long, she could see they had the same thick lashes and that hi s chin bunched up the way hers did when she tried to keep her mouth shut. All right, come on, Raylene said, cons ciously softening her tone so she wouldnt sound bossy. Where are we going? Henry asked, teasing. 20


Raylene wanted him back in the apartment, wanted the darkness outside to settle, and her father in front of the tele vision so she could be alone. We arent going anywhere. Once Raylene showered, she sat on the floor with her hair draped over the air conditioner, letting it dry. Shed wrung the bathing suits, slung them over the shower curtain rod. Theyd be forgotten in the morn ing unless she was there to stuff them into her bag during that mad rush to gather their things while their mother punched the car horn. She had a vision of the forgotten bathi ng suits left hanging, the lone window in the shower stall going light then dark then light again, as if the sk y beyond the glass were held hostage, caught in a battle, th e swimsuits gone stiff and stale. A speck of something staggered along on a stream of artificial air before landing on her shoulder. It was nothing, just a piece of paper lifted from the cigarette ash piled high in the heavy ceramic ashtray her father rested on a pillow between himself and Henry. But it was enough to bring her back to this moment, to wonder for a fraction of a second whether her father might say no when she asked him if she could go out by herself. She might wonder more, plan her in teractions with him more carefully, if her family were still together under one roof, or she might just do it anyway. At their home in New York, everyone had their own room. No one sat together in a confined space, in this concentrated way, for twenty-four hours or more like they were here at the Old King Cole Motel. What would Raylene know about her fa ther then? She probably wouldnt know that hed rather eat peanut butter sandwiches than cook or that he fluttered his eyelids 21


without seeming to realize he was doing it whenever he spoke a bout his adolescence or got irritated. Back then, he was a perman ent fixture, but he lingered always in her periphery, a comforting warmth next to her on the couch, a bulky, friendly shadow in her bedroom doorway at bedtime. She might have had to be more careful then about asking what she could or couldnt do. Bu t now she knew he would say yes. Dad, can I have some money? Just a few bucks for some candy and soda? For everyone? I want chocolate m ilk, Henry said. Raylene thought she saw her fathers eyel ids flutter as he looked away from the television to reach into the pocket of a pair of jeans lying on the floor. He flattened a five-dollar bill and handed it to her. Are you sure you want to go by yourself? Maybe Raylene had been wrong about him le tting her go so easily. He looked at the slated window, at the opaque nothingne ss staring back because it had gone completely dark outside. She reminded him that shed gone alone other times. Your mother wont be too happy if she hears about this. Now she understood. Its only seven oclock. Besides, Mom stays out past midnight when Im babysitting Henry. Is that right? He took a sip of his beer and lit a cigarette, suddenly exhausted by the conversation. Well, your mothers an adult; she can do as she pleases. 22


Raylene hesitated just a moment longe r, unsure of whether or not she had permission. When Henry added that he also wanted Pixy Stix, she left. Enough light played across the surface of the pool that Raylene could see her reflection in the chrome handrail to apply the lipstick. As soon as she left the motel and started walking down the boardwalk, she felt di fferently, as if the tide had changed and the air and the crowd and the tumbling waves were pulling her forward, as if she could tuck her feet under and be carried forward, all the way to the end. If only she could just give it up, as he r mother would say, and allow herself to be swept along, but her first in stinct was to prickle over in defense. Instead of feeling excited by the whole fantasy beach scene, she felt threatened, distract ed, irritated by what she saw: long-haired boys not much older than herself, with their hats flipped backwards and mocking grins; women in bikini tops a nd denim jean shorts, showing off their tans; tattooed men, with sun-bleached chest hair, pu lling up to the bars on their motorcycles; people sitting on benches, sp eaking in unknown languages; a nd raspy singing and whiny guitar seeping out of a bar, the door of which was propped open by a broken pool cue. What she needed to do was close her eyes and concentrate on Lake George before she lost all memory of it co mpletely. She needed to somehow ignore the incessant suck of sand and shellthe oceans hiss, as sh e liked to think of itand remember the stinging cold and crisp taste of the lake wate r. Raylene knew, of course, that the ocean was far vaster than the lake and, in her moth ers mind, superior. Her mother had argued the point on one of their first visits to the beach after movi ng to Florida. Can you see anything there on the other side? Or there? her mother asked, pointing, antagonistic. 23


Raylene looked, hoping she would see a perimeter, a bank, a clump of trees, anything besides the torn white cloud and rippling waves. You cant imagine its size, her mother said, and shed been rightyou could die trying to swim to the other side. But, in Raylenes own mind, though, the ocean could not compare to the lakes depth, its stillness. Fantasizing about Lake Geor ge was a relief, but the more she was bombarded by nothing and no one familiar, the more difficult and less satisfying it became. If only she could somehow return. She wouldnt have her old life back exactly, she knew, and someone elsea widow, her mom had saidmoved into their old house as soon as theyd left, but she could go back to her old school, her old friends, get a canoe, maybe live with a family friend as a daughter. A few months before, Raylene had attempted to run away. Shed been caught wheeling her bicycle out of the garage. He r mother was accusatory. Youre going to follow your fathers footsteps, is that it? Are the two of you trying to punish me? Raylene spent the rest of the night apol ogizing, rubbing her mothers back as she lie next to her in their shar ed bed, listening to her cry. I didnt even know the way. I couldnt figure it out. I wouldve only made it around the block and back. It was true. Raylene had consulted a road atlas, but sh e couldnt untangle the highways in her mind and had given up. Shed left that night as planned anyway, in the hope that something would happen. She didnt know what for sure ; maybe some kindly strangers would help her along or loan her some money so she could buy a plane ticket instead. 24


Running away wasnt the answer. It w ould take too long, for one thing. There were other dangers tooshe might have to sl eep on the street or a park bench until she could find someone else to pick her up and take her farther. Shed have to find her own food, and shed risk getting lost. If her parents sent the police looking for her, she might get picked up before she even made it to New York, and thered be nothing she could do to prevent them fr om taking her back. Maybe there was another option. Maybe sh e could vanish like those girls on the milk cartons. Officer Daniel, the junior highs resource office r, said the girls who were kidnapped never came back. They were take n against their will by lonely people who wanted them for themselves. All the girls wanted to return home, to their families, who never forgot them. Raylene would have to be careful not to get mixed up with the wrong people. Her disappearance would be voluntary, so long as she c ould live in Lake George. She lifted her arms as she walked, so she could let her armpits air out without being noticeable. The prospect of bei ng taken was enough to make her sweat. A sign with the words ice cream painted in blue, frozen-looking lettering was set a few steps away from a free-standing snack shack. A small line waiting as the man behind the cart dug around inside a cooler. A boy younger th an Henry, maybe four years old, tugged on his mothers shorts. Peanut butter, the boy said. A man with the same gelled and spiked hair as the boy picked him up and pointed to a menu, reading the boy the available flavors. 25


The mother was fair-skinned, and she wore a sleeveless polo shirt. She held a shopping bag with one hand and lightly scratche d her husbands back with the other. They seemed perfectly c ontent waiting their turn. One step to the left, and Raylene was away from the crowd heading south and next to the line for ice cream. She pressed her lips together, reassu ring herself that the lipstick was still there, a nd put on an angelic smilesomething Shirley Temple might wearand hummed the only tune she could th ink of, a jingle for breakfast cereal. Her eyes wandered past the public shower the steel-barreled trash can, the dozens of sandaled feet moving past her. When the family left the line, the boy looking nervous about dropping his cone as his parents led him away, Raylene stepped in behind them. She was just going to see what could happent hat was all. Waiting and wondering were doing her no good. After shed followed the family for more than a block back the way shed come, the mother stopped stopped short, causing Raylene to catch herself by her toes. Everything okay here? the mother asked. Raylene was close to answering, but waite d as a Hispanic couple had maneuvered their way around them. The dad spoke before she had a chance to respond. Are you lost? He picked up his son and put the boy on his hi p the way he had in line, th is time in what Raylene saw was a protective gesture. Despite their questions, there was a defin ite hardness in thei r eyes, unmistakable annoyance. Raylene had never considered th e possibility that she would be bothering 26


them. She was already turned around, walking fast in the opposite direction from where they stood, back toward the 7-Eleven, where she planned to buy the snacks. The mother called after her once, something about findi ng someone to help, though it could have been imagined; it reached Raylene as a whisper. Embarrassment did not come, nor anger, nor sadness. The family was no one to her, and Raylene hadnt pushed it too far. Relief came, a trickle of sweat down her back, cold even in this humidity. Once, at a carnival, she spent almost all her ride tickets on the ring toss. Shed gone home with a stiff, oversized stuffed dog. Now, passing beneath the light posts, hearing the buzz of electricity, the panic of moth wings, catching snatches of strangers conversations, in al l their various pitches and tones, made her feel the excitement shed felt when she won the carnival prizeshe felt lucky. Everyone who passed by noticed Raylenea ll of them either returning her smile or nodding, hello. She was busy thinking of wh at she would say to show someone she was worth taking along. She might say she wa s an orphan, that she could earn her keep, that they should be able to tell she didnt belong here. She might ha ve to pretend she was someones daughter or niece; she might be given a new name; she might never see Henry again. Her mother would have to start unload ing the dishwasher herself. But the bedroom would now be hers; she could clear out the three dresser drawers Raylene used and the closet space, too, where she kept her school clothes. Shed save enough money on food and gas, she could buy that denim jack et she saw at the mall or the Rod Stewart concert tickets for the show in October. Henry wouldnt have to wait until next year to 27


start Little League baseball. Nothing much would change for her father, as far as she could tell. She hoped her portion of the child support went to He nry, and that her dad wouldnt keep it for himself. They might all f eel a little bit sad, things might be a little lonelier for a whileshe had a side-by-side image in her mind of both her mother and father, each in their homes, eyes glazed over in front of the televi sion, the rest of the rooms dark, Henry hiding underneath the covers with a flashlight. The gas station was only a block awa y. She had only to turn down one of the side streets, cross through an alley, and then use the crosswalk to get to the other side of A1A. Then shed decide whether she wanted to keep walking the boardwalk, or maybe even just stay on A1A so all the cars passing could see her. She wasnt ready to give up. To make her way to the convenience st ore, Raylene had to pass behind a Greek restaurant. A car, a shiny black sedan, sat al one in the nearby parking lot under a sodium lamp, its motor running, exhaust snaking from the tailpipe. Raylene walked behind it, almost without noticing the li cense plateNew York. The lot was deserted, so when she stopped, she was able to stand within view of the drivers side window without being too close. A sapphire blue tint on the gl ass gave the car an expensiv e look. With the light on inside, Raylene could just make out that the man had dark curl s and a collared shirt. The boardwalk was still in sight but far enough away that all sound was muted, leaving only the engines reverberation. She waved so she wouldnt seem rude. The man did not wave back, but the window came down an inch in re sponse. Raylene wasnt sure what to do next. The man 28


was watching her. She had his full attention, ye t he did not smile or lift his hand to invite her over. Her muscles tensed in anticipa tionit was his move. The car door did not open. It might even be locke d. Raylene stepped closer. At this angle she could see his head a nd shoulders and chest. She was close enough to see him blink, although the tint and light distorted his features, part of his neck and shoulder eclipsed by shadow. Her own refl ection was there in the window, too, from head to toe, the image much sm aller than she felt, longer, thin ner. She could hear a slight rustling from within. Maybe the man was moving some things out of the way, making room, but he didnt look away. Then the window came down some more, just another inch. It was faint, but she could hear the unfriendly motorized sound it made, her heartbeat gaining speed as his forehe ad and nose came into full view. There was danger in standing close enough to be touched. Heat came from the cars fender, making her leg tingle. She t ouched her lips with the tip of her tongue, remembering the lipstick. She moved forw ard as the window came all the way down. Hed lifted himself off the seat. His pants were undone, the black leather belt lying like a gash across his wh ite, hairy thigh. He arched hi s back. Raylene saw that the cords in his wrist were strained against th e skin. His hand was pistoning up and down, gripping his thing which was swollen, purpled. His eyes were still locked on hers, but he looked angry, as if he would bite her face if she stepped any closer. Sweat stood out on his forehead, despite the cool air coming from inside. A breeze lifted the hair off her shoulders, carrying with it that slick smell. Baby oil. It was enough to make her stomach lurch, and she turned away. 29


Raylene didnt even look, racing across the street to the gas station without waiting for the signal to change. Car horns sounded from somewhere behind her. She thought the man in the car might call after her, or pull into the parking lot, waiting for her until she came back out. He might steal her change or put her in the trunk, shove his tongue down her throat or put his sticky fingers all over he r body the way shed seen the afternoons her mom watched her stories on T. V. The thought of it made her head hurt, the pressure building all over her skull, a throb working its way down the nape of her neck. She would scream. There were people all aroundthe cashier, someone on the payphone outside, two teenagers by the magazine s. She wouldnt allow herself to be taken, not like this. Once she was back at the hotel, when Henry asked what had taken so long, she could say, Something has happened. Her dad would not want her to call the police. Talk to your mother, he would say. He wouldnt want to hear. On Sunday, the next morning, when her mom came to pick her up, she could show her the alley where the black car was parked and tell her what shed seen; she could ask her mother to pull in to the gas station and talk to the cashier. This is my daughter, her mother would say. Did you see her here last night? They wouldnt find the man in the black car, though. By then, hed be gone. Far away, back in New York, creeping around the shadows, waiting for other girls on their way somewhere. 30


Back at the motel, Raylene sat down by the pool. She unwrapped the chocolate bar shed bought herself, but after a few bites, set it down. She could still feel a tingling remnant of the black cars heat on her thigh. If she closed her eyes she felt fear creep into her body like oil th at stained her bones, but there wa s something else, too. Another feeling pushing forward that was not fear but caused her blood to quicken just the same when she imagined the curly-haired man looki ng at her, those eyes so blue and empty. No one hung around the pool at night at the motel, but the underwater light was always kept on. It made the pool shine brighter than everything else, almost bright enough, Raylene thought, that you could forget about the shabby plastic furniture, the discolored stucco on the walls, the junker cars in the parking spaces. She got up, went to the steps, kicked her sandals off. The water was cool on her feet. Shed go in up to her legs. Her dad and Henry were probably on the pull-out bed watching wrestling. Her mom would get mad at her for getting her clothes wet, but she wondered if her dad would even notice. Sometimes, he fell asleep wa tching TV just after the sun went down. Raylene went in deeper than shed told herself she would. The water lifted her, and, as she lay floating in the pool, she closed her eyes and held her breath. She could feel her heartbeat, slow and st eady in her chest, but now she did not see the curly-haired man or anything else, just a faint blue light from somewhere on the other side of her eyelids. It was hard to tell how late it was or how long shed been gone. The beach was surrounded by city, so there were lights all ar ound, dulling the night sky, tingeing it with color. Near the ocean everything was so da rk, itd be easy to get turned around and not 31


be able to find your way back to shore. To think, just the weekend before, shed considered taking Henry night swimming. Sh e should have known better; Henry was still too young. When she opened her eyes again, she noti ced something floating, shining in the stream of the underwater light, lost near the filters along the wall. She reached for it, but it wasnt quite close enough to grab. She swam to get it, and once she had it in her hand, she knew what it was. She must have dropped it before she left. She took the cap off, afraid the tube might be full of water, the litt le bit of lipstick that remained broken off or dissolved. But it was intact. She co uld use it again, if she wanted. 32


Management Material A psychic at the annual Renaissance Faire to ld me my fortune. There, underneath the oak tree canopies with her finger on my palm, she said, By December, you will make your heart known and be richly rewarded. This was in March. My heart felt the same as it always did, sticky with jealousy, lea ky with longing. So I decided to help fate along a little. Gina, my Wiccan roommate, and her knight/jouster boyfriend, Kevin, were engaged. The flyer for the annual Britton Plaza Theater Christmas Party had been taped up in the break room. Just down the street from where I worked, the 1.5 mile-long mall and 16-screen multiplex with di gital projectors was being bu ilt across the street. And, I believed, it was clear to everyone that Jew Baby was Management Material. I do not call Jew Baby Jew Baby inside my head. In my head, I call him Ira, because thats his name. His full name is Ira Goldberg. Out loud, I really dont call him anything at all. I just star t talking when Im close enough. If he is wearing one of his homemade nametags, then I call him Casey R yback or John Hatcher or Mason Storm. Im only calling him Jew Baby now because th ats what everyone has called him since middle school, and you wouldnt know whom I was talking about if I didnt. I did not go to the same middle school as Jew Baby, even though we are about the same age. I know how he got the nickname because we both work with people whom he went to middle school with, and those people told me that thats when everyone found 33


out that his favorite food is baby food. Plus, hes Jewish. I dont know about back then, but he doesnt mind the nickname now, and he doesnt hide the fact that he likes to eat baby food, because he is secure with himself. He brings a lunch bag full of jars of sweet potato and apple and chicken dinner mix on his first shift of the week, and stacks them in his locker. He also has a picture of the Dalai Lama in his locker, even though he wears the Star of David around his neck. I did a Google search and th e action hero, Steven Seagal, is a Buddhist. Everyone knows Jew Ba by is management material because of his confidence and because of his skills. Hes worked the box office, playroom, projector, arcade, security, and concession, and there is no one faster or more customer-friendly or with higher sales than Jew Baby. Not even Chet. Jew Baby is the only employee who can sell Ponchets our pocket ponchos for ra iny days. Jew Baby can get through a line at concession fifteen deep in under two mi nutes, without one voided order. Everyone says Chet is manager because his uncle owns the theater. Chet and Jew Baby are arch enemies, which is why I was surprised that Jew Baby was planning the Christmas party. Chet was having the Christmas party at hi s parents house because he still lived at home. They would most likely be there. Th is would be the only year the Christmas party was held there because Chet would be going away to college in August. Then, thered be a new manager, and hed be in charge of pl anning the Christmas party. Id been to two Christmas parties because thats how long Id been working at the Britton Plaza Theater. The first year we had a party in a gazebo at Hillsborough River State Pa rk. Last year, we had a party at the bowling alley. When you live in Florida, you have to get over the idea of it being cold in December. You wont even need a sweater until January, and even 34


then, you can get away with a T-shirt most da ys. So I pictured this years Christmas party poolside, on Chets screened-in patio. Jew Babys hero is Steven Seagal. He l oves all of his movies and even named his band Under Seige. He wears his kinky hair pu lled back in a ponytail so tight that it gives his eyebrows that devilish leadingman arch. Its not really so strange. Everyone who works at a movie theater loves movies. And everyone has a favorite genre. My favorite type of movie is romance. Movies like The Notebook, Titanic, Ghost Ever After A Walk in the Clouds A Walk to Remember, Pretty Woman in that order. My movies are about happiness. Back then, I fi gured it was a tie, between Jew Baby and me. Even though he had fake nametags with Stev en Seagals characters names on them and I didnt, even though Id heard a rumor that Jew Baby beat up the #1 JeanClaude Van Damme fan, just because. Still, I figured our devotion to our favorite movies was equal. And I knew from my favorite movies that ove rcoming internal obstacles (like taste) was just part of the path to falling in love. Gina and I hatched the plan one night wh en Kevin wasnt over. He dropped off a Blessed Be sign to hang on our front door, a nd then he went over to a friends house. They were the same, and thats how I knew they wouldnt last. Sure, they were madly in love, but everyone knowseven if you arent educated about romantic moviesthat opposites attract. That, and the fact that they were set up on a blind date and, in order to fall in love, your meeting has to be a chance encounter. So, even though I was listening to Gina and letting her think that she was helping me, wh at I was actually doing was suggesting the opposite of whatever she said, wh en it was my turn to talk. I did this 35


discreetly, and I dont th ink she noticed. One of her sugge stions was that I just ask him to be my date for the Christmas party. She said that girls asking guys out was what the whole sexual revolution was for. I said th at I thought it was so women could have careers and not have to stay home with a crying baby. Gina thought romantic movies were too predictable. I knew because she told me once a long time ago. You would not expect a best friend to say your name in th e same disgusted way that she tells other people to get real. I remember that I pointed out to her that someone so critical of predictable outcomes should not have the Book of Spells on her night stand. This ended up being one of our fights that went nowhere. I knew that Gi na, like most other people, was just in denial. She was not admitting to herself the truth about life. One: That humans are dependent upon predictable outco mes in order to have successful social interactions. (This is not a dire ct quote, but I heard this, more or less, from a scientist on the Discovery Channel.) Two: (This is a direct quote from Ever After) That a life without love is no life at all. In a romance movie, chivalry is key. Thats how I knew what needed to happen. Jew Baby was in the break room eating from a jar labeled Banana-Orange Medley. I figured he must be on dessert. I sa t down, forgetting to get my lunch out of the locker first. Id packed th e usual that morning, ham and cheese sandwich, Doritos, Coke. I never packed a dessert. I di dnt know this morning, when I was packing my lunch, that this would be the day wed plan the party, and I didnt know that Jew Baby would be in the break room during my half-hour for lunc h. This was our chance encounter, and we had to act quickly because the party was only two days away. It was time to carpe diem, 36


which is another prerequisite to falling in love. I got up from the table twice before I started talking, once for my sandwich and again because I forgot my Coke in my locker. Jew Baby said wolves were cool. He hadnt noticed my French brai d, but hed seen the picture of the white wolf howling at the moon on the back of my sweater. This means he was watching me when I got up. Watching me when I wasnt looking was a clue that he was interested. I asked how the party pla nning was going. He told me he was being groomed for manager. He said that was the onl y reason he agreed to plan the party in the first place. He said that if you want to be manager, you have to be willing to do things that arent your responsibility. He said the party had to be a success. And he called it a holiday party, not a Christ mas party, so I did too. Jew Baby planned to serve only Cheetos a nd Mountain Dew. He wanted to host and play in a Steven Seagal: The Final Option video game competition. His band would perform Motley Crue, Def Leopard, and Poison covers. He was against decorations. This was expecte d, like a lover dying at the end of a romance movie. What was I waiting for? Seduction, more or less, means rescue. I told him we would grill hotdogs and hamburgers. We would string Christmas lights all over the screened-in patio. I would bring my Celebration Party Mix Volumes I and II because the music is neutral. Youd think, from the way he leaned back in the booth, crossing his arms and shaking his head, that my suggestions were outrageous and not, more or less, ideas Id stolen from the Christmas parties of the prev ious years. Finally, he uncrossed his arms and pushed the jar of baby food out of his way so he could lean in close. 37


I smelled coconut, which could have been either pomade or suntan lotion. I guessed this was when he was going to ask me to be his date. I would have to act surprised and say that Id have to think about it, because in the movies the girls always reject the boys at first. This motivates the boys to become more persistent and to recognize the strength of their feelings for you. But he leaned in just to tell me that if he didnt get manager, it would be my fault. Then he did ask me to go to the party. He said, We need to be there early to set stuff up. I slipped my glasses off and cleaned the lenses with my breath and the corner of my sweater, pretending that I hadnt heard, that I hadnt ev en registered his suggestion that we go to the party together, because I wa nted to show I didnt care for coy. Trust me, I said. I excused him for not knowing the script. After all, he was wearing his Mason Storm nametag. I was happy to help with the party; I was happy in knowing that my moment to fall in love had only been postponed. I knew that sometimes you had to be patient. The day of the party. Our co-workers filled their plates with chips and dip and baby carrots. I saw, from the knots at their ne cks, that the girls had bikini tops on under their clothes. The boys wore board shor ts, even Jew Baby, but no one was swimming yet. They sat next to the pool on lawn chai rs beneath the twinkli ng Christmas lights and made small-talk. Chet worked the grill. His parents stayed in the living room and out of the way, manning the stereo. Jew Baby was eating Cheetos, one by one, from the serving bowl, shifting his weight from leg to leg, almost in perfect time with the music. He was watching everyone. I was watching him. It occurred to me, when the tablecloth swelled 38


in the breeze as if on cue, that this was th e perfect time to give him the opportunity to thank me, to share his true feelings for me. Id been complimented at least three times in the last hour on the whole setup. There was no denying the party was a success. My flip-flops slapped against my heels as I walked towards him. He watched me. He smoothed his hair. Betsey Carlisle, the new girl with lots of freckles, tugged at his T-shirt sleeve when I was just close enough to hear. No w Jew Baby was looking at her. She said something that ended in party and he said something that sounded exactly like my idea. Out of nowhere his head jerked forward, the way a lizards does, and his orange lips mashed up against hers. I didnt see their f aces afterwards because I was underwater. I heard someone calling Mindy! Mindy! fr om far away, like the other end of a tin-can phone line. If this were a romantic movie, I tho ught, Jew Baby would jump in after me, pull me to the shallow end, and out of the water, so he could make sure that I was okay. He would wrap a towel around my shoulders and we dge his fingers in my wet hair. All of the onlookersincluding Betsey Carlislewoul d blur into the background. He would say, Im sorry. I dont know what I was thi nking. I was afraid of screwing it up. I would say, Have a nice life with Betsey Carl isle, and start walking away. He would say, Wait. I was wrong. Dont leave like this . I would say nothi ng, but I would stay and Love is a Holiday, by Michael Bolton, would get louder so the audience could listen to the words. The twinkling lights w ould make my eyes and hair shine, and I 39


would not have my glasses on. He would ki ss me, and the camera would spin around our heads, mimicking the swirl of love each of us was feeling inside. Even though you may think so, I did not jump into the pool on purpose. I do not even own a bathing suit, even though I have lived no more than an hour from the beach my whole life. But, once I was down there, suspended in the water like Alice in the rabbit hole, I counted to thirty. No one cam e in after me. Whoever had called my name, stopped. Because my life is not a romantic movie. So I frog-swam to the steps and climbed out. I stood there on the pebble patio dripping, the blue dye from my jean shorts and the ink Id used on my inside thigh to pen I Ira, for good measure, streaming down my legs, until Chets mom handed me a towel. The interesting thing about working in a movie theater is that you get to see peoples faces as they go into and come out of the movie theater. And if they have something on like plastic heels that light up w ith every step, or if they have something that stands out physically, like a strawberry -shaped birthmark on their forehead, well, you remember. Sometimes people have an excite d face that makes all of their face muscles tight before the movie, but when the movie e nds, they are walking fast towards the door, not even looking up. Or sometimes someone is holding the hand of someone else, busying themselves by checking their cell phone s or looking over their shoulders while their boyfriend or girlfriend does all the work, like buying the ticket and getting the snacks. But when they come out of the m ovie, they are smiling at their boyfriend or 40


girlfriend and leaning in close. What Im saying is that even when they pay to see the movie that they think they will like, it is not always what they would expect. My mom gave me a book for Christmas by a professor of psychology at Harvard. He claims that humans are terrible at pr edicting what makes them happy. Our brains, apparently, have not evolved for that purpose. Our brains only evolve to help us find food and make babies. When Kevin broke o ff his engagement with Gina, she couldnt have predicted that shed fi nd new love within a week. Turns out her new love, a pug named Merlin, would never leave her to go on tour with the Ye Old Times Acting Troupe. Turns out that putting ink on your sk in is poisonous. There was once an elevenyear-old girl whose body turned blue and whose mouth and nostrils produced a purple froth from ink poisoning. Once the Royal Palms Mall and Movie Theater was complete, Jew Baby went to work there. Chet went off to school, as pl anned, but Jew Baby wasnt picked as the new manager. If someone had asked me a few months ago if this would make me happy, I would have said, No. Now, though? Tu rns out, there was someone else who was Management Material. 41


Common Ground I picked Ruby up from the airport. She was wearing a white crepe pantsuit and scarf with glowing red beadwork, and she wa s looking out of the arrival garage at an overpass, one hand resting on her suitcase a nd the other on her hip. She was a little heavier since wed last seen each other, but I was too. She was flying in from San Francisco because an aunt and uncle were renewing their wedding vows. Id suggested she come down a couple days early; we could stay with my mother, who still lived in south Florida where we grew up, and catch up on the last ten years. I imagined she was wearing the outfit she planned to wear to the ceremony later in the week. Though I wasnt as glamorously dressed as she was, I understood wanting to look nice. Id been carefu l to wear my most slimming j eans and high-heeled shoes. Wed last seen each other over Christmas break our freshman year of college. Ruby, the talented artist whod lived down the street from me on Daffodil La ne, who thought of me then as her best friend, whose real name, the Chinese name shed been born with and that was currently on her voicemail, was Mei-Lin. Now things were different. She was engaged and working at a tre ndy shoe store. I lived six hour s north of where we grew up and, though I had no best girlfriends, I had a hus band. Wed become adults, just as wed longed for in high school, with responsibi lities, intimate relationships, success. 42


Already things werent going as planned. Be fore I left for the airport, my mother told me shed mistakenly invited out-of-town guests to stay the same weekend, and Id accepted an interview back home, at the last minute, on what was supposed to be mine and Rubys last day together. I told myself she had family in the area, that we were such old friends shed understand, that we still had the day together. Id brought along an old photograph Id f ound of Ruby and me on Ft. Lauderdale beach our senior year of high school. We were each wearing a dress and holding a drink, just soda. Our hair hung to our waists, our backs were arched, and we gave the camera a sly smile. Id chosen the picture because I loved how long and muscular my legs looked in the short dress, the glint in my eyes that revealed how thrilled I was to be exactly where we were nowin an adult world. God, we look so stupid! she said, handing the picture back. I saw my mistake. One of Rubys eyes had been closed, making her look more foolish than sexy. What Id t hought of as innocent desire wa s actually desperation. I no longer flushed with embarrassment when I thought about high school, but it was true: most everything I said and did then was born fr om desperation. I even told my mother I was converting to Judaism my freshman year so I could go to Sabbath dinners and temple with a group of girls Id met. Now, I avoi ded certain movie theaters so I wouldnt have to hear teenagers squealing or watch all of their self-conscious posturing. Let their peers share in their mortification. I had moved on. 43


I merged onto I-95 and accelerated toward th e left-hand lane. As I passed the exit for Griffin Road, which had been given a ne w number, Ruby fidgeted in her seat, rocking back and forth so she could smooth the material she was sitting on. Where are we going? she asked, looking out the windshield. I thought we could go to Las Olas so we could sit outside and people watch. Get something to eat. You must be starved. I know they didnt serve you lunch on the plane. I regretted not thinking more carefully a bout what we would do during our visit. Ruby wouldnt want to go shopping or to the movies. Too pedestrian. At least being hungry was common ground. She flipped down the visor to look at herself in the mirror. She wasnt wearing any makeup, and with her sparse eyebrows and pulp-colored skin, she looked almost featureless. Im kapha dosha. I went to an Ayurveda specialist and had my mind-bodyspirit composition analyzed. Oh? She slapped the mirror shut. I went to a Hindu practitioner. Basically, I found out that damp foods, like cheese and pasta, arent good for me. Oh, and that Im supposed to learn to let go of people. She laughe d, I guess Im good about some things. Her head was twice the size of mine. La rge, but not freakishly so, like actresses on television. Id never noticed before. She had no wrinkles around the eyes or mouth the way I did; her skin was just as doughy-smoo th as it had been when we were fifteen. I 44


wondered if people often thought she was younger. I imagined itd be nice to be mistaken for younger than you were, even if it meant you werent always taken seriously. I shoved the photograph into the console. I didnt want to be reminded of all the other pictures from that day at the beach. Th e one where we posed barefoot in the waves, kicking playfully, as wed seen women on co mmercials do. Or the one where we put our hands on each others necks, pretending to kiss. It felt like a wa ll between us, even though it was just a 4 X 6 piece of paper. S o, instead, I was taking in the mannequins and racks of clothes propped up in front of th e boutiques along Las Olas Blvd. as I drove, looking at a headless mannequin wearing a co uture-looking, mother-of-the-bride gown, in silver, with lace bodice and a ridiculous, flared upturned collar on the jacket, and, the next store over, a rack of ove rpriced distressed jeans and sl ashed T-shirts being picked through by a girl sipping from a grand coffee c up. The entire street was filled with highend shops, galleries, and expensive restaurants. Id only been there a handful of times. We should go to the beach afterwards, sh e said, staring at me with that blank face. To do what? Swim? Id have to borrow my mothers bathing suit. Maybe Ruby didnt remember the other photographs. Maybe she didnt remember that I never returned the purple silk scarf shed lent me or that Id given my phone number to the guy in her art class w hom she had a crush on. Maybe she learned not to brag so much or be so bossy. Maybe she was tired of masking all of her emotions with a smile, the way she used to. Wed ha ve to take a new photograph during our visit, 45


one where we didnt try so hard to look desirable, one with our imperfect bodies displayed out in the open. Do I look any different? I asked her as I pulled in to a parking space. She cocked her head too the side. N ot really. You still have bangs. Not half a mile from where we parked we re three cafs, side-by-side, each with green awnings stretched over cl usters of plastic patio tabl es and chairs. Two of the restaurants had a few scattered customers and appeared to serve the same traditional fare expensive burgers, seafood, giant sala ds, overstuffed deli sandwiches. I decided to be generous. Pick one, I sa id. She looked at the three and right away I saw my mistake. She would choose the em pty restaurant, the one with the name I couldnt read. She would pick that one to show that she was up for anything, and saying no would expose my empty gesture, my w eakness for cheap and uninspired American cuisine. I pick the Armenian restaurant. We looked over our menus while listening to the static and pipe music coming from a radio somewhere inside. Ruby saw what she wanted immedi ately and slapped her menu shut. I settled on a chicken pilaf. For a while we talked about what had become of people we went to high school with. Neither of us kept in touch with anyone from our graduating class, yet wed managed to have vague ideas via the in ternet about whether theyd gotten fat, if they had ch ildren, where they were living. A breeze swept in from the ocean, lifting my hair off my shoulders, and I let myself lean back in my chair, stretch my legs. How nice it was to relax, to have someone 46


to gossip with, someone with whom I had a history, who knew me in a way others couldnt. How nice it is to be known! We munched on pita bread and hummus, our hands brushing against each other in the basket, sipped our waters and watched a homeless woman whod been sleeping on one of the many sidewalk benches throw off her blanket, flail her arms and shout at the passing cars. We shook our heads; we didnt know what she could be so angry about. Ou r food came on two heavy-looking plates, and we were each handed a linen napkin and a kni fe and fork. The waitress mopped up the puddles around our glasses with a hand towel. Ruby clapped. Delicious! As she ate, putting oily pieces of mint and parsley in her mouth one at a time, she talked about how glad she was that shed ha d the presence of mind to move away when she did. She said shed forgotten how mu ch she hated the tourist traps and chain restaurants and the pressure to always dre ss up and be tan. Shed forgotten how redneck it was here. I followed her eyes to the bar at the restaurant next door where a heavy man sat alone drinking a beer a nd watching television. She was right, of course. There were a lo t of elderly citizens in south Florida, and they did tend to vote more conservatively than people in California might. And nowadays, politics and religion went hand-in-h and. Id always felt as if Id grown up surrounded by diversity, a real mix of culture s, the way that cosmopolitan people do. But I imagined what it must be like in California. I didnt even need her to tell me, but she did, each word painful as if she were poking me with it. She said that in California, comfort is key. She talked about farmers markets, independent bookstores, sophisticated 47


palates, and bike-riding everywhere. I said, Thats cool, every time she paused, and I meant it. She whispered that people walking by had been glaring at the lesbian couple whod come in after us all morning. Really? I said, surprised, a nd then, with a derisive sniff, she said, Probably. We went back to looking at our plates. It was clear she was proud of herself. Shed made the right choice in moving to Califor nia. It was clear we couldnt help but feel like rivals. I watched her take in th e wide sidewalk, her fork suspended over her plate, seemingly distracted by her own thought s. Then she resumed eating, stabbing at her tabbouleh as if stabbing at Florida, its ugliness, flatness, high-rises, colossal condominiums, and obnoxious theme parks. She chewed each bite with relish, grinning as she cleaned her plate before I was even halfway through my meal. She felt guilty about it, but she said she l oved working in a shoe store. She said shed been promoted to manager. The stor e was close enough that she could walk to work, and she got a sixty-percent discount. She said shoes had become her weakness. She hadnt painted anything in over a year, and sometimes she thought about going back to school. She and her fianc planned to marry once she returned from a six-month teaching job in Beijing where her sister had moved. I admitted to hating my job, which Id told myself I would not do, and she encour aged me to see more of the world, to be more adventurous, more fearless. She was so insistent that I found myself getting excited, imagining myself on the back of a camel crossing the desert in some far-away land, until I realized that she was really or dering me to be more like her. 48


Ruby got up to go to the bathroom, while I watched the people walking by. It was a sunny, cloudless day. Wed sat at a little wr ought-iron table and Id aimed my back at the sun. It was March, still cool enough to wear pants, but hot enough that sweat would leak through your dry-cleaned shirt if it stay ed in the same place too long. Somewhere close by, someone was smoking a cigarette. I breathed deeply through my nose, savoring the heady smell, even though Id quit, for good. Hey, did you do something to your teet h? she said, retu rning from the bathroom. They used to be more rounded. I felt self-conscious, talking to her. Be ing aware of my teeth made me want to keep my mouth closed, whic h only made me want to la ugh, exposing my teeth. The question shocked me, as if shed asked me if Id killed someone. I couldnt think fast enough. I dont know. What do you mean you dont know? Either theyre different or theyre not. I lied. I told her a dentis t had filed them straight. Th at it was so long ago, it took me a second to remember. Didnt even ask me. Just went on ahead and did it. I couldnt tell her that Id done it myself in college. With an Emery board. I didnt want my friend to thinking I was vain. She raised the corner of her mouth in a pitying smirk, then shook her hair off her face like she was shooing a fly. I shouldnt have asked. I was just curious. Did you really need to go to a medicine man to find out that you shouldnt be eating too much pasta or cheese? I was leaning in so that the table s edge pressed against my chest uncomfortably. I mean, is something like that not obvious? 49


We spent a few more minutes there so she c ould finish her tea, listening to bits of the conversations going on around us. I hadnt taken into considera tion that she wouldnt jump on me out of sheer excitement when I picked her up from the airport, the way she did the single time we reunited in college. I hadnt considered th at she wouldnt smile anymore or that shed clear her throat all of the time or have such a severe haircut. I didnt know if we could be friends again. Even without the eye liner and lipstick she always used to wear, she had that wide, fa miliar face, a face no longer familiar because Id been waiting ten years to see it. The waiter brought the check. She took her bank card out of her wallet and put it in the bill holder. The waiter swept it up before I even had a chance to take out my own card or ask him to split the check. Ill pay you back, I said. Its fine. We started walking. The homeless wo man was being led by the arm by two uniformed police officers, and I unconsciously stopped for a moment to watch. She was quiet and her head was down. I thought it odd that someone whod been cursing the world a moment before could become so suddenly shy. She looked up briefly from beneath her wild tangle of hair, and our eyes met. It wa s like looking into the eyes of a ghost. It seems like theres so many homele ss people down here this time of year, I said. Oh, she said, Does that bot her you? As if it never co uld bother her. As if she was never frightened by anyone approaching her for change. As if she didnt even see 50


them as people who needed some kind of help. As if she saw the homeless as beautiful yellow sunflowers sprung up from the cracks in the sidewalk upon which they slept. I meant to tell you, I said. I had to cons ciously slow my pace to keep with hers; Id be escaping soon enough. I have an interview tomorrow a nd my mom has some guests coming into town. I told her the sudden change of plans was unforeseen, lastminute. Thats fine. If you let me borrow your cel l, Ill call my cousin. I doubt itll be a problem. She tried twice as we walked, but no one answered. She called an aunt instead and was told that she would have been welc ome, if only she wasnt already housing half of the wedding party. We passed Ocean Walk, the big pink hotel with a food court, arcade, and shops in the lobby that were ope n to the public. Ten years ago we would have stopped for a frozen yogurt. I followed Ruby inside. All the stands in the food court but the pizza place had been boarded up. Pigeons were flying around the elevator shaft. Even though it was a relief to be in the air-conditioning, I di dnt have the patience to look around at all the old shops, shops I knew were long gone. Without thinking, I ducked out of a side door and back onto the boardwalk. I waited for Ruby, but I did not go back inside. She was there when my phone rang. She talked to her cousin from the hotel to the car, speaking in Chinese, a language Id never attempted to understand or even ask about. I felt that familiar hot flush that I only knew as shame. It wasnt shame fo r having to go back home early, but for something else. I propped up the photo Id br ought along to show he r the night before on 51


the gearshift. On second thought, the photo wasnt the problem. There was no desperation in the sexy pose, only excitement. My seventeen-year-old self had felt very grown up that day. And thats what was most important then, because if I was grown up, I could have everything just as I wanted, and I would be happy forever. The wide eyes. The arched back. The desire to escape the constraints of childhood. At some point after college, though, the career, the marriage, the suburban house that I had anticipated had robbed me of the freedom that had so attract ed me to adulthood in the first place. The scramble to pay bills every month dominated my concerns and left me with no time to connect with other people. Not in the way I had when Ruby and I were young. Not like in the picture. I knew the meaning of desperation. Ruby couldnt stay with her cousin tonight, but he coul d pick her up at noon the following day. I offered to cancel the intervie w, knowing that she would insist I go. I said we could stay with my mother again, onl y it would be tight with these other guests. Finally, I got to what Id known was our only option all alongthe nearby Super 8. We stopped by to pick up our suitcases, to tell my mother she didnt ha ve to worry. Shed been cleaning, even though Id cleaned the hous e myself only the day before. She looked relieved when we told her, although she in sisted her old friends wouldnt mind. The more the merrier, she said. Our room had double beds and HBO. I tu rned the TV on. I couldnt think of anything exciting to do. I hoped shed agree to a drink downtown or, be tter yet, that she would agree to see a movie after all. Ruby took off her shorts and T-shirt and carried a 52


toiletry bag to the bathroom. Back in colle ge, shed been a nude model for her fellow art students. Now she stood in an unflattering pose, heel turned out, belly relaxed, a pose that could only say Im comfortable being na ked. This isnt my fault, you know. She said she came all this way; she shouldnt have to worry about finding a place to stay at the last minute. Id come a long way too, but Id been wrong about a lot of things and I knew it. Youre right, I said. I ts not your fault, but here we are. 53


The Broken Lamp The night he broke the lam p, Id been sighing as loudly as I could and jerking my legs around trying to wake him up. If he woke up, I might not say anything because it might just be enough to have him feel unc omfortable, on-edge, unsure of why I was waking him up. Because what I wanted to sa y was Its Your Fault, You Need To Fix This. When he woke up, he just said, Im aw ake, like he knew what I was trying to do. I said: We might as well give up dreaming a bout sipping margaritas in Jamaica or buying our first house because its never going to happen for us. There are times when you make critical choices, like the time you quit as manager at the A&P and it took you three months to find a job, or the time I spent five thousand dollars on a degree in marketing and then never even finished; we made the wrong choices. Were wasting our time, this planning, this asking people for favors. Ev eryone else made the right choices, and we didnt because were stupid. Everyone else has it easy, and we dont because we were meant to struggle. We might as well burn the wish list. Thats when he broke the lamp. Our lamp had a compact fluorescent light bulb in it. We bought it because we thought of ourselves as environmentally-aware not because we wanted to save money. Our motivations werent entirely pure, though. Buying things like spec ial light bulbs and recycled toilet paper made us feel like we were problem-solving, making us feel better 54


about our current situation, wh ich was that we didnt know how not to be poor. But this light bulb was one of only two because we didnt have enough money to buy them all at once. Nothing in our apartment had ever b een thrown against the wall before, and I thought the lamp made an impressive crash. There was even a cruel black smear marking the site of impact. The shards were not as sliver-thin as the old light bulb would have been. The compact fluorescent light bulb had an opaque coating un like the old, regular light bulbs, so when I swept it up it just look ed like I was sweeping up broken shells. The first time I realized I could garner sympathy through hardship was when I was five. I made up an elaborate lie that got me into trouble. Id made up lies before, but this was the one that left a littl e scar. I blame it on the movie Annie and the show Little House on the Prairie I didnt know much, but I knew that hardship warranted a lot of attention. I was on my way to the bus stop, and I saw, partially covered by dust from the dirt path, half of a pear-shaped pi ece of glass with a metal base. It was automatic, the way I started hopping on one foot. I hopped all the way across the stre et with the glass in my pocket. My fellow school bus passengers ha d been watching my approach, so by the time I got there, their faces were concerne d. When one of them asked me why I was hopping around, I said because I had a piece of glass in my foot. On the bus, someone asked me why I didnt have crutches. I said because my family was too poor. Then a girl named April said her brothers old crutches were in her basement and I could probably borrow them. 55


When I got to school, I told my teachers the same thing. All day things were handed to methe lined paper, the box of cra yons. I didnt even have to ask. When it was time for music, I got to leave five mi nutes before everyone else and hold Ms. Whites hand. I was drunk with power. The first thing I heard when I got home was my mother saying my first, middle, and last name. Shed been on the phone. One of my schoolmates parents wanted to know if Id like to borrow he r sons old crutches. My mom said she was beyond angry. The next day, I was told, Id have to tell th e class Id lied and apologize. I dont know if I felt like crying, but I know that I didnt. I knew why he broke the lamp. From th e age of three until the time when I moved out of the house, my mother said that I was impossible. I could have just as easily said, I love you. Well work through this together. My being impossible was a choice, which meant that I didnt mind the outcome. It meant I didnt care how far I pushed him. His long body was bent in half like a st raw and he was using his fingertips to get the smallest pieces of glass, the ones that even the broom couldnt get. He said: We cant have you stepping on any of this. A hospital bill is the last thing we need. I detected a slight quaver in his voice. I thought maybe his face looked the same way my mothers had all of those years ago: heartbroken. He wouldnt ask, but maybe what most stung, the way it had for my mother, was that I really seemed to believe that I wouldnt be taken care of. I didnt slip my arms around him. I di dnt apologize. I just climbed back into bed. 56


Daughter of the Moon Nokomis imagined that if she had ever co me home to visit in the thirteen years since shed left, her mother would perch he rself at the end of the floral-patterned armchair in an effort to hide the worn piping around the seat cu shion. Her stockinged, tortoise-thick legs would cro ss at the ankles, and she would hold a glass of lemonade in one hand, the other hand fluttering around her frosted and teased halo of hair. Lunch would be on the porch beneath the red umbrella that cast a soft pi nk tint over everything, making her mothers creamy face look younger, more exuberant than Nokomiss looked now, or ever had, for Nokomis had her fath ers swarthy skin, golden as the moon. Its so stuffy in here! Lets sit outside, can we? Bet we can smell the jasmine with that breeze coming through. Her mother would ask if she was dating anyone, adding unreasona bly, that it was high time she had a grandchild to spoil rotten. This would remind her of an anecdote, (the kind that she never shared around anyone but N okomis, careful to never appear boastful in company) something about how she couldn t help but spoil Nokomis, her only baby, by always allowing her to pick out a treat from the grocery store before they left (whether it was a cookie from the bakery or a new coloring book). After all, she was just a young mother herself, not yet old enough to forget the sting of not having any new Barbie dolls 57


to bring over to friends houses or being denied an ice cream cone whenever she accompanied her father into town, no matter if it was over a hundred degrees outside or that the Twistee Treat was right ne xt door to the hardware store. There were benefits of being a young mother, oh yes. It was impossible to deny that shed b een spoiled, for she knew now that she had, and that wasnt what she wanted to do anyw ay, was it? Make a case for her mother as a liar? No, not that. Yet, she couldnt do what her mother, Aveline Talbert the good Christian, wanted, either, what she imagined her mother often received from all her church friends. She couldnt allow herself to be pinned down or made complicit, and with Pepper, their Catahoula-shepherd mix, long gone and no other guests. Thered be nothing to distract from her mothers eager face a nd her solicitous nod but the sun-baked yard, looming constant in her periphery, the golde n citrus woven like a strand of Christmas lights up and over the tree branches. No. It was better to be alone in the empty house, letting her toes sink into the familiar heavy-cut pile carpeting, so lush (so extravagant in this tiny home built for Civil War veterans to live solitary, quiet lives) th at visible footprints were left behind as Nokomis made her way from the garage entran ce to the kitchen. Better to have the chalky air all to herself. (For Aveline preferre d powdered cleaners and freshenersComet and carpet deodorizerover the more popular sprays .) Better to hear nothing but the clanking of the vertical blinds as th ey brushed against one another, propelled by the air conditioner whenever it kicked on, like the swell of an ocean wave, the jangle of a wind-chime. 58


Better to take it slowly enough that she could think clearly, and work effectively, and get back quickly to her loft in the trendy SoHo district of South Tampa. You wouldnt recognize Honey Springs, No komis. Come and see! You have to see it to believe it! Her mother had been right. Nokomis had sat in traffic for forty-five minutes, her leather seat slick with sweat, the back of her tee shirt and the seat of her shorts damp, despite the air c onditioner strategically aimed at her face and sandals. In Florida, the afternoon temperature in midJuly easily reached one hundred degrees inland, and wading through the humidity was su ffocating as breathing through a plastic bag. What had been pasture and orange grove s thirteen years ago had been sold, leveled, and transformed into car dealerships, stri p malls, and gated communities. Shed rubbed her eyelids, blinked painfully in an effort to soften her dry, cr inkled contact lenses so that she could read the signs: Publix, Bealls Outlet, Bill Shemp Toyota, Nissan of Honey Springs, Cardinal Cove, Lakeview, Oakwood Villas. Again and again, every few miles, she found herself stuck at a new streetlight or wedged helplessly in a left-hand lane piled dangerously with brand-new, fuming, luxury sedans and SUVs, their turning lights blinking psychotically, threatening to send her into an epileptic seizure as they impatiently waited to turn into their tree less, tidy, secure little utopia. Now that her mother was gone, an accidental death during a routine surgery for carpal-tunnel syndrome, Nokomis has come b ack to Honey Springs, back home to the frame vernacular house with the milk-white jalousie windows that have to be cranked open by hand, to 6039 Abbott Rd. It is a relief to be in her mothers home, the place 59


where Nokomis lived from the age of six until the summer before she turned eighteen, without having to tolerate her mothers hi ccupping laugh (one that Nokomis could not imitate without finding herself in a coughing fit), or a carefu lly laid lunch on the back porch set with nothing at all to look at but a rutted yard full of yellow prickly grass and an exhausted-looking lemon tree, its trunk permanently tilted to the north after a hurricane that hit when it was still young, reminding Nokomis of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and a pilgrimage of fire ants maki ng their way to who-knows-where? Maybe a rotten knob of a gray limb or the tips of the sun-spotted leaves. Despite the half-moon nicks her fingernail s left on the expensive cowhide steering wheel, Nokomis preferred this drive home to the one shed imagined. It was not as if shed needed her mother to tell her that the Honey Spring staples from her childhood (the drive-in movie, Cassies Bridal, Guthrie s AllYou-Can-Eat BBQ ) had been bought out or out-competed by chain restaurants and monolithic superstores. As copy editor of one of the largest newspapers in the Tampa Bay area, Nokomis often had written the headlines for the very articles her mother carefully clipped from the community section of The Suncoast Post and hand-delivered in a sealed envelope, slid ing it across the tabletop at one of their favorite restaura nts like a Mafioso commissioning a hit. Such a shame. You remember Dotties spicy sweet-potato fries at the Starlight Drive-In? Well, I dont have to tell you! What she hadnt anticipated was the whole-body relief she would experience in finding her hometown so urbanized; it was as if this urbanization was somehow seeping its way inside her own body. She hadnt been fully aware of the steel 60


valve that had developed between her shoulder blades over the last week until she felt the handle gently lift five miles down State Road 54, releasing some of the pressure, allowing some of the stored-up an xiety to drain away. What she imagined: driving fast down a one-lane road greased with diesel fuel and rain; overhead, smoldering clouds with sp lotches of lead gray blossoming at the center, staining the edges; centuries-old, wi nd-whipped oak tree limbs tangled in power lines all the way to Main St reet; massive semi-trucks ille gally swerving around her tiny Miata, their colossal trailers warping the wind, their tires tearing across the asphalt; and nothing but the resulting moan filling her head as she drives and drives and drives. Well, not entirely. Her imaginings of what it would be like to return home were really just impressions; things felt but not fully understood. Though she knew that one day a return home was inevitable, the date se emed so distant, so far removed from her hustle and bustle, mildly glamorous life, that the full measure of her fear was as unknowable and terrible as the idea of hers elf as a bride, as someones mother. She a wife, but not a mother. Fair Nokomis bore a daughter. Instead, the fear of the drive home, of being home, flickered like candlelight shadows on the far reaches of her consciousness. Thirty-one years old isnt old, after all. And Aveline, just 47, too young to die! I made the appointment, honey. I go in at 9 a.m. next Thursday. So you can stop hounding me. This is Mom. Playful messages on the answering machine always followed by the same sober reminder. Ridiculous! I know who you are, Mom! 61


Six days ago, Ms. Cade, a friend from Avelines womens group at Abundant Life Church of God, who still gave Aveline hideous handmade elastic hair-ties with beaded and feathered tassels to give to Nokomis, waited for Aveline to be wheeled out into reception. Ms. Cade had been ready. Shed put away her knitting, tossed her coffee cup and wadded up tissues into the trash can, put her own purse strap over her shoulder, held Avelines quilted purse on her lap, and stood, ca r keys in hand. It was twelve oclock on the dot, a full three hours after shed brought her friend in, and she still had to get her home, fed, and propped up in bed so that sh e could rest until the anesthetic had completely worn off. And she had grocery s hopping and a trip to the drug store to make yet! Soon. Im sure it will be soon, Ms. Ca de, the woman at the front desk kept assuring her. Aveline was wheeled into reception at 12:06. She was groggy, tired, wanted sleep. She had her hand on her chest. Even then, she did. Ms. Cade had taken her home, propped the pillows behind her friends head, taken the serving tray she used for casual get-togethers, just the plastic one with the br ight red cherries and apples on it, from the trunk of her Oldsmobile, steadied a glass of wa ter, a scrambled egg, and a piece of toast and carried it to Aveline, w hod kicked her shoes off and climbed into bed as she was told, but who was still wearing the Capri pa nts and button-down shed worn into the hospital that morning, and who was, by this ti me, pressing on her ches t, complaining that it hurt. She needed to eat; thats what I told her. Eat and shed feel better. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome was the diagnosis, from all of Avelines years as a dental hygienist at Dr. Belton Dental Center, her fingers gr ipping aspirator cleaners and 62


drill hand pieces, arms aloft over ten, someti mes as many as fifteen, open mouths a day. The strain of keeping her hands steady so that she didnt make anyone cry out in pain, the repetition of having to apply ju st the right amount of pressu re with her thumb, index, and middle finger so that the scaler didnt slip (this effort, over time, causing entrapment of her median nerve.) For a long time, she just thought her hand was falling asleep. Later, there were nightmares: her right hand torched like broom sedge at the end of her arm, her clammy hand quaking with fear in a steel-jawed trap as th e seconds ticked by; an axe chipping away glass-thin shards from a frozen block of ice, revealing a bleary-pink hand, shapeless as an embryo, locked inside. Four days of work, out with no pay, trying to make a fist with the hand so red and swolle n that her sapphire band and silver butterfly rings were tight as tourniquets. Nokomis looked up the procedure on the in ternet, explained it to her mother over a dinner of grilled eggplants and Portobello mushrooms at the lantern-lit tapas restaurant walking distance from the martini bar with the good-looking Italia n bartender and her fifth-floor apartment. Shed be wheeled in to the operating room where shed be given a choice of local or general anesth esia. An incision would be made at the base of her hand and her transverse carpal ligament would be cut. Afterwards, her hand would be stitched up, wrapped in gauze, and shed be sent hom e, a little loopy, but ot herwise just fine. Shed be back to work in a week, good as ne w. Nokomis paused, asked if she thought she could handle the minor inconvenience involved in getting back a hand that actually worked. Her mother had only complained, her lips puckered, the muscles above her cheekbones tightened, making her look like an old-Hollywood film star: This is too 63


garlicy for me, dear. Shed been surprised when her mom made the appointment, annoyed suddenly at the time wasted convincing her to do something so simple, so obvious. Ms. Cade had been the one who had to call an ambulance to come pick up her friend, who was doubled over and moaning. Shed been the one who followed the ambulance back to Pasco General State Hosp ital, who had to dig through her friends purse to find Avelines cell phone and ask the receptionist to scroll through the numbers, looking for Nokomis. Shed had to wait until almost 5:30 p.m. when Nokomis arrived. Theyre saying theres been a complication. When she was intubated. An esophageal her esophagus, honey, they punctured it and now she has an inf ection in her chest aspiration pneumonia. Nokomis was only a couple of hours into her shift and in the midst of editing pascotchr053008, a story on a teacher salary freeze in Pasco County. Abigail Haiss, the reporter for the article, was notorious for sh ifting between past and present tense (often within the same sentence!), mistakes which Nokomis and her co-workers resented because there were always a few missed by the line editors and because Abigail was either just sloppy or else, they whispered, a rrogant. Anyone who edited her stories had to be prepared to scour every sentence and reread three or four times to check for consistency. Although it was more time consuming to edit one of Abigails articles, Nokomis often reaped unexpected benefits. She was more relaxed, focused; she could work for longer periods of time without checkin g the clock or her watch every couple of minutes for deadline, the way she normally did. She was even less hungry throughout the 64


day and thought that she may even have slep t better those nights. She was just more satisfied overall. Editing Abigails copy, above anyone elses, put her in the zone. When she was in the zone, the words she read began to hold personal meaning for her, began to resonate with her in ways that they wouldn t otherwise. The speed with which she could scan the copy accurately would increase; e ach word appeared vividly, and each word equally commanded her full attention. Yet, as her scanning speed increased, her corrections began to occur au tomatically, reflexively. She ignored her cell phone the first time it rang. She was deep in the zone. Words jumped out at her: suffer, justification, entitled She recognized herself in those words. As if the words echoed her feelings, or crea ted them, she wasnt sure which. She thought: Im having a bad day. Ill take a long bath tonight. The second time her cell phone rang she became distracted and got stuck on the word: responsibility. Aveline Talbert was moved to ICU after an unsuccessful surg ery to repair the perforation, room 201C. Her eyes were clos ed. Mascara flakes dusted the tops of her slackened cheeks. She wore a sea-green hos pital gown with a gray-colored design of vertical and horizontal lines, the kind popular on mens sweat ers in the eighties. The effect of the gown, combined with the industrial lighting, wa s that she looked like the 3D version of the computer printout from the heart monitor. She was unable to breathe on her own after surgery and had been hooked up to a ventilator. She had IVs, running antibiotics, taped to her wris ts, an intravenous feeding t ube snaked under her gown, and was out, completely unresponsive, the result of the medically induced coma given to ease 65


any discomfort she may have and to minimi ze any further damage, while the antibiotics worked to combat her pneumonia. Nokomiss first thought: This is not my mother. Not with this dental-floss hair, these eyes with feather-fine creases, th is sour-smelling cathete r at her feet. On second thought, however, something about her mother lying there, vulnerable, poised dangerously for death, looked familiar. The sashimi shed had for lunch rose to her throat and her body stiffened with guilt. Hadnt she wished this? Maybe not this exact scenario, but certainly somewhere in her wa s a coil of rage that manifested itself in fleeting anxieties and feelings of depressi on. Despite her new car and hour-long lunches, there were the days when she locked the bedroom door in her empty apartment in an attempt to keep bitter disappointments in friends, boyfriends out of her mind. Why dont they call? Is that what she thinks of me? The way she screamed, Fuck you! so loudly that she shook when someone cut her off in traffic. The night recently when she drank too much and smashed three expensive wine glasses against the wall because she liked the way the moonlight turned the shards of glas s into diamonds as sharp as her anger. The way every setback took on catastrophic pr oportions. Maybe thats why she felt her mother should suffer some for what shed done. For every action, there is a reaction. Isnt that what shed been taught? And if her mother actually did die? Would that part of her that was her mother be free to go too? The house where she grew up, where her mother had lived for twenty-four years, was, like the drive over had been, less fr ightening than she imagined. Cinnamon 66


potpourri in the bathroom. A neat drop of spa ghetti sauce on the stov e. A sheet of dust over the black T.V. screen. Cross-stitched blessings hung in the entry way and in the master bedroom. I am humbled by the beauty of a flower in the breeze surrounded by an orchestra of softly buzzing bees. The house was on a corner lot and every few seconds a passing cars headlights caught in the oak tree branches in th e front lawn, throwing bars of light over the walls of the house, over Nokom is, making her feel as if she were sinking even though she was only walking in the dark between the rooms of the house. Aveline said she loved poetry, even t hough Nokomis had never seen her reading any. Next to her collection of Preci ous Moments figurines was a leather-bound anthology of classical romantic poetry two-in ches thick. And there on the end table was the book Nokomis bought at a yard sale, propp ed up by its open pages like a picture frame, given to her as a Christmas present. The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The epic poem from which Nokomis had been named. Shed told her mother that shed misunderstood the poem she d so loved her last year of high school. Aveline liked to tell the story. Mr. Stanisczewskis English cl ass junior year. Daughter of the Moon. Thats what I kept hearing in my head fo r a whole weekend, and I had to run to his class on Monday morning and as k him because I couldnt think about it for another second. I burst in on him before the first bell rang. Who is the daughter of the moon? And it took him a while because he was startled, and he hadnt been thinking about the poem for days, like I had. When he reminded me, I named you right then, so I would never forget. Nokomis: daughter of the moon. 67


Nokomis read the whole poem before she wrapped the book. She didnt like the way the drum-beat sound of the words stayed wi th her even after sh e set it down or that she couldnt help but read the poem as if she we re editing an article. It annoyed her, the way the words clung to her, because shed ha d to go back and reread whole lines and stanzas three or four times before she coul d shake them and force them back into the larger story. Still, shed understood. Noko mis and her descendants were cursed. She wasnt sure who cursed her, although it stated clearly that it was b ecause of jealousy and hatred. She fell Mom. Fell from the sky and then had a bastard daughter who grows up and has a bastard child of her own. Thats th e story of Nokomis, Mom. Shes a fallen woman! There was more. The poem was the story of the ill-fated Hiawatha; a cautionary tale against greed, desperat ion, power. The poem itself a last breath, an attempt to survive extinction. Aveline had only smoothed the cover of th e book as if straightening an apron and then she tapped her bangs, which were hair-s prayed into a fluffy arbelos. The lights on the Christmas tree Nokomis had wedged in ne xt to the electric fi replace blinked like a neon sign. Well. Keep your voice down. That was it! No counter argument about Eve and how all women are sinners (which Nokomis had been prepared for.) And certainly no explanation, no discussion, no admission of guilt (which Nokomis had also been prepared for.) Not even a hand pat. After her mother pulled out of the parking garage (honking her horn twice, the noise echoing embarrassingly), Nokomis reali zed her mother probably didnt understand the poetry she read, if she actually read any. She felt guilty for wanting to bring it up. 68


And on Christmas! Her mother probably knew what shed been alluding to (this time, as well as others) and had chosen not to go dow n that road because it was too painful. Hadnt her mother been a church-going, punctu al, generous, law-abiding, sentimental woman her whole life? A woman who teared -up with gratitude any time someone did something nice for her, even just opening her car door or sending her a card for her birthday; a woman who worked in a soup k itchen once a year; a woman who knitted caps and booties for friends childre n and, later, grandchildre n; who organized canned food drives for soldiers deployed to the Middl e East; who gave Nokomis every doll, every dress she wanted while growing up; who helped her with all of he r school projects; who saved every article she wrote; who bragged about her to her friends ( This is my daughter, the writer.); who agreed to meet Nokomis in re staurants, coffee houses, bookstores, museums, to drive the twenty, thirty, forty miles to Nokomis apartments over the years so Nokomis wouldnt have to go home? Ha dnt she been a virtuous woman? The baby, that was only a blip in her life. But wasn t that just one mistake in an otherwise impressive job as a single mother? Quickly came the resentment. A ruthless black sting that gr ipped her throat. Before she even had a chance to make it back to the elevator. By not admitting what shed done, by never talking about it, neve r acknowledging what Nokomis had seen, shed forced Nokomis to live with her secret, the silence causing her to always feel as if she was never being her true self with anyone she met. Keeping the secret and having no validation of what shed seen had caused her to feel insecure, doubtful of her own 69


choices, always second-guessing her beliefs, even doubting whether shed seen it at all, wondering if shed just been hallucinating or dreaming. The secret made her distrustful of othe rs. For if Aveline Talbert, the devoted mother, could do what she did, then what were others hiding? Maybe people did good deeds as a way of creating a disguise. Sh ed grown up without a father, without any romantic relationships that had lasted beyond six months, with girlfriends with whom she could never truly relate, could never be carefree around. These girlfriends became quickly disillusioned with he r (girls who modeled their pe rsonalities after women their age whom they saw on television and in magazines, deciding that she was pessimistic, critical, no fun). Because of all of those things, shed needed to believe that her mother had loved her. Yet every time she picked up the phone to call her mother so she could tell her about suspicions she had about a new guy she was seeing, or just to talk to her because she was feeling lonely, despite her mothers eagerness to spend time with her or her seeming pride in her independent daught er, the feeling in her gut bloomed: Maybe she didnt love me after all. Maybe there were times when she wanted to get rid of me, too. Maybe she wished she was rid of me now. At first, it was comforting for Nokomis to be able to recite the names of all of the medicines her mother was on and the correct terminology for what wa s happening to her. She could tell all of Avelines visitors (Dr. Belton and her co-worker, Darcy; Jennifer, the cousin Aveline spent summers with in North Carolina until she was seventeen and 70


pregnant with Nokomis; her half-brother, David, nine years Avelines senior; a border patrol officer from Arizona whod only met Nokomis twice and gave her curt nods whenever they made eye contact; Ms. Cade, who looked more and more guilty every day, who brought with her get-well balloons and cards signed by the congregation at Abundant Life), with the same detached pr ofessionalism used by the doctors, that her antibiotics (Dexamethasone and Arisodaminum) were increased because sepsis had set in, that the inflammation cause d DIC: disseminated intravascular coagulation. And they would all give her the same startled look becau se they wanted to ask, she knew, whether or not their sister, their friend, Nokomiss mother, was going to die. But they didnt ask. Instead, they congratulated Nokomis for being so strong, and, for the first day and a half that her mother was in ICU, she convinced he rself that her mother was not going to die. She made a promise to herself that she would never again confront her mother, directly or indirectly, with what shed seen twenty years before. Even when the night shift doctor whod b een treating Aveline (a man with a nose lumpy as a potato) pulled Nokomis out into the hallway to discuss her options, she was clear-headed and spoke assuredly, not yet comprehending that her efforts for control, that her silent deals with herself, had failed. Stage three multiple organ failure, brain death was imminent. Her kidneys had failed first. Now bacteria were beginning to leak from Avelines liver into her blood stre am. Cells in the tissues lini ng her lungs, her liver, were dying, eclipsed by necrosis, and the blood in he r circulatory system, strangled of oxygen, began to clot. 71


The tips of Nokomiss fingers purpled in Ms. Cades grip as the nurse turned the ventilators settings to OFF. Her mothers friend did her best to stifle an agonized whimper by throwing a liver-spotted hand over her mouth. Nokomis was looking at her mother lying in the bed, the IVs and feeding tube removed, thi nking about a painting by a local artist shed seen at the new gallery in Hyde Park the week before. Her mothers hair, brittle and stiff, looked like the cactus. Her face, tilted towards the ceiling, mouth open, looked as void as the spotless sand, her li ps as white and insubstantial as the cloud slashed through the vast and te rrible sky. She panicked when her mother made a painful snoring-like noise, the sc ar tissue that coated her throat causing her few mimicked breaths to sound like a saw ripping through the trunk of a tree. No one had warned her. At the end of the hall, a stairwell! Nokomis? Honey? Uncle David left the phone number for a malpractice lawyer he found on the internet before he flew back to Arizona. Ill be back for the service, and we can meet with this guy then. Hang in there, huh? Ms. Cade offered to help box up her mothers things for charity. My girls and I can get the house spic and span for you, okay? Cousin Jennys husband and sons flew down to stay with her at the bed and breakfast shed found on Clearwater Beach (which was at least an hour from Honey Springs and made Nokomis feel as if they were using her mothers death as an excuse to vacation) until after the funeral. Theres room for you, too, so you dont have to be alone. And a pool! Instead, Nokomis had returned to her apar tment with a handful of her mothers bills, made the necessary phone calls to her mothers job, her bank, Pastor Shelor, Whitfield Funeral Home (where she chose an urn for Avelines remains through an 72


online catalogue, something in her mothers st yle: pink flowers and gold trim that sat on a pedestal and looked as though it belonged in a chateau in the French countryside), and Sunbelt Haven Nursing Home. There was no wi ll, of course. No life insurance. She would let Ms. Cade clean the house. She w ould let her uncle deal with the lawyer. Those things could wait. She could arrange it so that she had only to return home once. Only for the photographs of her mother to display at the memorial service, to see if there was anything of her mothers that she might want to keep and to remove what had been buried beneath the lemon tree in the backyard so that she could put the house up on the market and be done with the whole thing for good. It wasnt until her senior year of high school that Nokomis re alized her father mustve been an alcoholic. Aveline never kept any alcohol in the house ( Lead us not to temptation!) and Nokomis never saw her drink, not even during communion where the blood of Christ turned out to be grape juice. (Although by the time Nokomis turned twenty-five, shed order a gla ss of wine or sangria to sip on whenever they went out to dinner. Cocktail time! ) Shed guessed that her mothers overzealousness regarding alcohol was more than just a product of her religious beli efs when she stumbled through the front door early one morning from a night of drinking with her friends to find Aveline in the kitchen. Shed barely had time to focus her eyes on her mothers pulsing face before she was she slapped (something Ave line had never done before or since.) Get that demon off your breath. Aveline sighed, letting her body sag against the wall. Ive worked too hard to have you turn out like him. Nokomis had been too busy working up the nerve 73


to hit her mother back (though she knew the moment had passed) to find out what she meant. Her fathers name was Wayde Alexander Warren, a name which sounded, she thought, like the name of a conquerer, like so meone with a biography she could check out from the school library. There was a picture of him, too. A close-up shot where hes dangling from a tree branch, shirtless, with a reckless grin and bushy sideburns. His snarled whiskers were so comical to her, and with Aveline always referring to him as a big fish in a small pond, she ended up grow ing up thinking of him as a catfish. When Nokomis asked where her father was now, Av elines answer was always the same. Wherever he wants to be. The question was a game back then. She liked the way the tone of her mothers voice dropped a nd the predictability of the an swer. Eventually, the lack of information shed been given made her distrustful of her mother, and she saw the answer her mom gave for what it really was: pure stubbornness. Her grandparents were another mystery. Aveline never explained why she had no contact with her parents even though they lived less than ten miles away. Nokomis knew that letters appeared every once in a while from her grandmother because, on those days, Aveline would take the mail straight to her bedroom, lock the door, and not come out for a long time. Once, Nokomis snuck into her mothers room and found a stack of the letters in her underwear draw er. Shed only had time to scan one of them ( Mary Helen had her baby! Daddy hurt his back and is wearing a brace now Elise ) before she heard her mothers car in the driveway. Th at night while they were watching television, Nokomis decided to confirm her suspicions. She kept her eyes on the television screen 74


and made her voice sound as peppy as she could. Mom, whats grandmas name? Luckily, Aveline had answ ered without thinking. A clue! One Saturday when Nokomis was seven, her mother changed into a black satin dress shed brought home in a garment bag th e day before. The skin under her eyes looked irritated and dry. Otherwis e, without the bright lipstic k and teased hair, she looked elegant, like someone who belonged in a lim ousine. Aveline took her car keys from a hook shed put in next to the telephone. Sh e hadnt said anything about having a day off from work. Nokomis hoped the fancy clot hes meant they would do something fun together, like drive up to Crystal River to feed the manatees. Shed already asked her mother twice in the last week. Instead of asking again, she decided to sit quietly at the kitchen table doing a crossword puzzle from an activity book her mother had bought her at the start of the summer vacation (even then, words had the power to calm her, to give her a sense of security), and wait to be surprised. Mommy needs to leave for a little while. Just stay inside, okay? And dont let anyone in. When it was clear Nokomis would be le ft home alone, she asked her mother where she was going. Aveline hesitated to answer. To say goodbye. She crossed the kitchen, leaving a trail of rose-scented perfume behind, and put her hand on the doorknob. Again, I mean. For the last time. Nokomis checked the underwear drawer peri odically after that but there were no more letters. Finding out that her grandparents had lived on the outskirts of Honey Springs was pure luck, too. Theyd just finished grocer y shopping and were pushing their cart across 75


the crosswalk in front of the store when Ave line stopped to stare at an old man with hair yellowed as an old photograph loading gro ceries into the back of his pickup. Dad? She raised her voice. Dad? The old man looked up and met her gaze, his mouth remaining stiff and flat as the horizon, before he unlocke d the door and drove off. A car thatd been waiting for them to cross blew their horn impatiently. Mom, move! Nokomis took control of the cart, pushing it quickly across the park ing lot, leaving Aveline to trail behind. There was just one envelope from Nokomiss grandmothe r with a return address on it. It was a personalized label with a curly-haired angel cartoon, and Nokomis imagined that it had been a mistake, that her grandmother had been distracted and had sent it along with the rest of her mail. Th e address was still clear even though the letter was shoved towards the bottom of the stack. No komis cut a neat lit tle rectangle around it and slipped it in her pocket. Nokomis was rejected by the two colleges most of her classmates were applying to: the University of Florida and Florida Stat e University. She did her class work, never her homework, managed to pass enough tests (som etimes by cheating) to graduate with a 3.2 G.P.A. and mediocre SAT scores. It was enou gh to get her into USF, a third-rate state school in nearby Tampa, almost an hour fr om home. Her high school years (she hoped) were typical. She had some mid-tier friends, hung out with boys occasionally, and was allowed to spend the night at her best girl friends. Most of the time, though, high school felt terminal, filled with in furiating spells of misunderstood, repressed anger (that manifested in passive-aggressive sarcasm, sullenness, lies), boredom, longing. There were short-lived moments of ill-conceived inspir ation (mostly at the start of her freshman 76


year and end of her senior year) that br oke through the inertia, but no matter how she tried (a vainglorious atte mpt at popularity by trying out for the cheerleading squad, joining the yearbook committee), the inevitable pull into reality, to the life she hadnt chosen for herself, the life she had yet to have any control ov er, was too much to overcome. Unmitigated powerlessness prevai led and, most of the time, she was just depressed. It was too late for her grandmother, but one such burst of inspiration led Nokomis to the address printed on the postage label sh ed saved. The old man shed seen all of those years ago at the grocery store was in the front yard, stooped over a honeysuckle bush with a pair of gardening shears. Gue ss you wanna come in? She hadnt expected the kind of tearful reunion you see on televisi on or in the movies, but shed anticipated shocking him, or, at the very least, having to chase him around the back of the house and force him to talk to her. Johanna, the frie nd whod driven her there and whose Fiat was parked next to the old mans mailbox, practic ally delirious with excitement, ordered Nokomis to cuss him out if he wouldnt acknowledge her. But he looked so harmless! Loose, warbly chin, sweat-stained plaid button shirt, gardening of all things! The house was a small bungalow (like most of the old homes in the town, like her mothers home) with eggshell-c olored paint as brittle and faded as the old mans hair. She followed him through the musty smelling living room to the kitchen at the back of the house. The linoleum had turned a rust color around the applia nces, but otherwise looked clean, like someone used a mop in a broad circle, careful to never touch the appliances. Used coffee filters and spoons w ith brown centers sat along the edge of the 77


sink. He moved a stack of dishes and newspa pers from the kitchen table to an empty chair so Nokomis could sit across from him. Nokomis opened her mouth to introduce hers elf, but the old man cut her off. I seen your picture. He grazed the ed ge of one nostril self-consciously. When shed decided to find him shed been filled with the kind of selfrighteousness that comes from a victims indignation. But now that she was here, she realized that she was only scorned by default. Aveline had been the real victim, though she couldnt think why. Maybe she could leav e herself out of it en tirely and heroically defend her mother against the man who had reject ed her. She could tell him that Aveline was a good mom the best and that she went to church and never said anything bad about anyone, even him, and that she didn t go around feeling sorry for herself for being a single mom, and that she was still pretty, even though she was, at least, thirty pounds heavier than she was in the pictures shed shown Nokomis of herself in high school; she had friends and lots of people really liked her. She could make him feel so guilty that he would spill his guts to her, his granddaughter that hed unfairly denied for all of these years and go immediately to Aveline and apologize. Thats not what Nokomis wanted, though. Whos that? Nokomis noticed a framed picture of a woman with short fingerwaved hair and Avelines high cheekbones propped up amid the garbage on the countertops. She could easily guess that this was the woman with the graceful handwriting who wrote her mother letters, but she wanted to make him more uncomfortable than he already seemed. 78


We were married twenty-three years. Not long enough. He looked away from the picture and down at his thumbs. My grandmother? This was what she needed from him. Information. Answers. He nodded ruefully, then cleared his throat and straightened in the chair. You dont look nothing like your mother. Neither do you. Nokomis looked over his f ace for signs of her mother while he avoided her gaze. Well, except your ears. She keeps hers covered with her hair, though. At this, he laughed, which then caused hi m to start coughing. When he settled down, he said, I always told her sh e could sail away on them things. Nokomis noticed his dentures slide in hi s mouth as he spoke. She felt sorry for him, being in this house all by himself, having to take care of himself. Still, she wanted to push a little bit more, see if she could ge t him to tell her what Aveline had done wrong. But shes never been anywhere. He raised a wiry eyebrow. Nope, not like your daddy. A buzzing started in Nokomiss ear, and her foot began to twitch involuntarily. She felt thered been a shift. She wanted to know about her father, of course, but she wasnt going to let this old man tease her. She stood. Im going to college. The old man stood, too. Glad someones going. He brushed the palms of his hands against his jeans and reached out for a handshake. He was telling her to leave. Maybe Ill give you a call sometime. 79


Her grandfather gave her a tight smile, but was looking at the fl oor. Gotta warn you, Im not much for talking on the phone. Nokomis followed him to the front d oor. Anything you want to tell my mom? Cant imagine theres much she dont alr eady know. He held the door open for her, and she stepped into the sunlight. She turned to face her grandfather, but in the shade from the awning and the veil of the screen door, she thought he already disappeared. Shed intended to, but she never did call. Getting away from home was too intoxicating. Not having to be linked to her mother, to Honey Springs, to her past was better than shed even anticipated. Her cour sework was overwhelming, and her efforts to come across as someone with as uncomplicat ed and privileged of a home life as her dormmates and classmates appeared to have been blessed with, tiring, but, more than anything, liberating. She was fi nally in control! The more time she spent away from home, refusing Avelines invitations on the gr ounds of being busy, the more she realized that she would never have to go hom e again if she didnt want to. Aveline, unsettled by Nokomiss distan ce, became anxious, impatient, and fought back with manipulative crying and mel odramatic, self-pitying remarks. You dont love me anymore! Nokomis would not be swayed to return, but she did learn to make more of an effort to see her mother, to invite her out to play miniature golf, s ee a movie, kayak down the Hillsborough River, as long as it was on her side of town. Soon Aveline dropped the 80


guilt trip and began referring to their outings as their adventures. She loved her mother, and as long as she could keep their re lationship on her terms, she felt safe. One day her junior year of college, her mother had kept her waiting forty-five minutes in the mall food court. When she finally showed up, beaming and unapologetic, she confessed shed been to see her father. Hed been diagnosed with Alzheimers, and after a car accident that left him with a cracked rib, her br other David had put him in a nursing home. Nokomis hadnt understood. Ha d they reconciled before hed been diagnosed? Had her mother been forgiven? Had he told her about Nokomis visit a few years before? Avelines face was flushed; her hands fluttered around her head as she spoke, smoothing her hair back into place. I can visit once a week, and we can have lunch together! We can catch up on things or just watch a mo vie or I can take him out on the grounds. The nurse says hell have good days and bad days, but thats all right! The more she talked, the clearer it became: if he was aware of her at all, he had no idea who she was. For a moment, Nokomis found herself caught up in her mothers excitement, even happy for her. She considered joining her, on occasion. It wasnt too late! Then, shed understood; she wouldnt go. Sh e wouldnt allow herself to get mixed up in their cowardice now. Shed been right to stay away from him these past few years, to not give him another opportunity to punish her the way hed done so easily a few years ago, pretending she was someone else the same way her mother was doing with him now. She wasnt going to pay for their mistakes. 81


Gusts of wind tore across the Gulf inland, shifting sheets of rain across the glass front doors of the public libra ry, leaving Nokomis standi ng helplessly in the front entrance, listening to the sw eep of the storm, with two hard-covered copies of Sweet Valley High tucked under her arm, plotting an escape It was late June, the summer before Nokomis entered fourth grade, and a week into hurricane season. Each day began the same way: by the time the sun rose high enough to clear away the last violet shadows, the temperature was securely in the nineties, the withered grass already unfurling, the air damp and heavy as a soaked pool towel. And each afternoon, when it was so hot that wading another moment against the rippling current of heat would put you at risk for heat stroke, the black-bellied clouds rolled in, leaving rooftops, driveways, and tomato fields steaming. In the last week, a tropical storm an d Hurricane Victor ha d been identified spiraling over Haiti, headed for Miami. Long-time residents of Honey Springs knew that local news predictions about a hurricanes cour se were mostly wrong. This far west and away from the coast, people monitored the weat her with only mild interest. Most ignored evacuation notices and left surplus plywood a nd water jugs on store shelves. The most anyone would do was drag in some porch furn iture to keep it from falling over into the bougainvillea. If she pedaled home now, Nokomis would ha ve to keep the books under her shirt. They might slip out and fall into a puddle, so the best thing, she figured, was just to wait it out. For all of its bluste r, this was no hurricane. She knew the storm would only last 82


another five to ten minutes and then, dri pping but otherwise still, would return the breezeless, cloudless world, as if not hing had ever happened. Lettie, a neighbors granddaughter who vi sited every summer, was the one whod recommended the Sweet Valley High series. She was in sixth grade, two years ahead of Nokomis, and supposedly smart, but Noko mis knew that even though she was younger, shed be able to handle the longer chapters and smaller print. Aveline had encouraged Nokomiss reading from a very early age; ev ery night Nokomis had curled up next to her mother and listened to bedtime stories. By the time she was in kindergarten, she could read her on her own. Lettie hadnt been impressed, though. Shed seemed to think nothing of it, despite the fact that Nokomis purposefully la id a towel out on the lounge chair at the municipal center pool and squinted in the sun re ading while the rest of the kids splashed each other in the shallow end. Finally, Nokomis had had to spell it out for her. Im not even supposed to be reading this. When Letties expression didnt change, she said it as clearly as she could. Im advanced. Still, Lettie had only seemed annoyed. I didnt come here to sit! Theyd been to the municipal center for a week straight, playing video games, buying flavored ices and Cokes, jumping off the diving board, but today Lettie wanted to stay home. As soon as shed seen the purpl e, sinking clouds, she stuck her swimsuit back inside her drawer and turned on cartoons. There were only a few places around town where Nokomis was allowed to go, and the public library, only a few blocks away, was one of them. 83


Something was different about Aveline th is summer. She was working like she always did, but she acted like she was living in a bubble, like she was on vacation in Aruba and not stuck here in Honey Springs, in the long stretch of dreary, mosquitoinfested days. Shed begun spending more tim e in her bedroom, taking long naps before dinner and bubble baths before bed, taking ex tra glances at herself in the mirror. Nokomis had caught her smiling at herself in the sliding glass doors, whispering something under her breath and nodding her head as if there were someone standing in front of her and not just reflective glass. Shed stopped eating breakfast in the morning, instead choosing to spend the extra time on her hair, still leaving in a rush, complaining that there wasnt enough time. Aveline didnt notice how thin the blue material of Nokomiss bathing suit was stretched, how little balls of worn fabric covered the seat where itd scraped against the pool steps and walls or how her tank tops cut into her armpits and crept up her belly every time she moved. She didnt say anyt hing about how long and tan Nokomis legs looked in her short-shorts. But shed been shopping. Over the last month, shed carried in bags from J.C. Penneys and Sears, quickly tucking them in th e back of her closet. Nokomis had seen a couple of the items: a pair of heart-shaped earrings with a few links of tiny pink stones that hung to her mothers chin, a pair of high-heeled shoes wi th a strap that fit around the ankle and an open toe. When she tried to l ook for more, to find out if any of it was for her, she found the bedroom door locked. 84


The rain had slowed to the point that it sl id calmly from the librarys roof over the wall of windows in smooth streams, as if me lting away. The sweet gum tree and entrance sign came back into focus. Nokomis used her back to open the double doors and, once outside, wiped as much water o ff of her bike as she could with some paper towels shed stolen from the ladies room. By the time she turned down Abbot Roa d., her legs and feet were wet and muddy from all of the puddles shed been forced to cross through, and the back of her shirt was damp with sweat. It was the middle of th e afternoon on a Wednesday ; everyone was still at work. With almost everyone in the ne ighborhood gone (empty, oil-ringed driveways, the dark windows, the silence and strange yellow light seeping th rough the clouds), it was easy for Nokomis to imagine that everyone ha d vanished, gone forever. They mightve been stolen by aliens, or they mightve disa ppeared into thin air to make room for a superior alternate universe. She might be th e only little girl for miles around. She could slip into the deserted homes without worry, eat all of their ice cr eam, look through all of their dressers and closets, find out all of thei r secrets, find out what it was about them that cost them their homes, their lives, maybe, while she got to stay, riding her bicycle in the middle of the street, slicing through the slick asphalt. But she wasnt alone. Ahead, a shiny black Buick was emerging from the side yard, like itd been parked out back in the detached garage. Guests never parked back there; they always stayed in the drivew ay, came to the front door, rang the doorbell. Maybe someone had sensed the neighborhoods desolation the same way she had. 85


Maybe theyd decided to take advantage and ha d chosen her house to break into, to steal secrets from! The Buick was straightened out now, f acing Nokomis, but not yet moving. She couldnt make out anything through the haze and steaming street but a glimpse at a vague outline, as a cloud passed over the sun. As the car approached, she dragged her bike between her legs, pulling off to the side of th e road, next to a gutte r, where the water was pouring like a faucet, to give the car room to pass. Nothi ng about this car stood out from any other car shed seen at he r house. It was big as a boat, a four-door, clean, just like most of the cars the men her mothers church friends had set her up with drove. Inside the Buick could be any one of the balding, fa t-fingered men whod taken her mother out once or twice, gentleman friends whod tried and failed to win her mothers affection. Usually, Nokomis was introduced to some one her mother was spending time with right away, but itd been a long time since a man had come by. As the car passed her, she noticed that the man inside was wearing a pair of sunglasses, and even though he drove slowly, like people were supposed to when kids were around, he hadnt waved or lifted a finger in acknowledgement the way everyone else in town did. It hadnt registered immediately, but she d also noticed a hangtag and a whistle hanging from the rearview mirror. White background, black bird with a circle around it. The Ravens! Her schools mascot! Without the whistle, she s till wouldnt have known who was driving, but suddenly she was able to picture who it belonged to. She could clearly see the line of school buses parked in a semi-circle along the front entr ance to the school, th eir tailpipes steaming 86


black smoke; the brick faade set back from th e sidewalk and courtyard; her classmates hopping onto the curb, their backpacks drooping to the backs of their knees. And Mr. Barrish, the school principal, the man in the Bu ick whod driven out of her yard, with his arms spread wide, directing the students we st towards the cafeteria, blowing his whistle in shrill, quick clips. Was she in some kind of trouble? Was th e school closing because thered been a fire or some other accident? Was she being kicked out because they were too full? Nokomis knew she wasnt a perfect student, but she sat in her assigned seat and answered questions if the teacher calle d on her. Sometimes she used her notebook paper for making fortune tellers when she was supposed to be doing independent work, but shed never been sent to the principal s office or had a bad report se nt home. She couldnt imagine that a little game was enough to warrant a home visit from the principal, and over the summer! Nokomis wasnt the only one home. Avelin es car was in the garage, nosed right up to the marker (a tennis ball hanging from a string), the Hondas internal parts clicking tunelessly like it was winding down. Inside, sh e was darting in between rooms, emerging from each with another itempurse from the bedroom, empty glass from the living room, keys from the kitchen. Nokomis stood in the hallway for a full minute before she was noticed. Youre home! Well, my goodness! Nokomis explained about the weather, about Lettie not wanting to go to the pool, raising her voice as Aveline continued to pace between the bathroom and master bedroom, watching as her mother sprayed on mo re perfume and fluffed her hair with a 87


pick and extra hairspray. She held out the two Sweet Valley High books, but her mom didnt seem to be listen ing, even though she nodded, uh-huh, uh-huh. Nokomis was tired of watching her rush around, tired of her we t ponytail pulling hard on her scalp, tired of wearing shorts that pinched her sides and sh irts that she had to tug down over her belly, tired of being ignored. Stop being like this! It came out much louder than shed expected. It was enough to make Aveline stop for a moment, drop he r arms, let her fingertips rest on the countertop, and meet her daughte rs eyes in the mirror. I know, honey, I know. In the fall of Nokomiss fifth grade y ear, she came home from school to find her mother lying on her back on the couch, her kne es bent, panting. It was the only other time, apart from that summer afternoon, that Aveline was home unexpectedly. The blinds that hung across the s liding glass door were closed against the steaming sun, the air-conditioner was blasting, ye t Aveline was sweating. He r mouth was open, the skin around her nose was pinched, her eyes only ope ned partially before closing again, every crease in her forehead and around her nos e, mouth, and eyes, was strained. Mom! Mommy, whats wrong? Nokomis dropped to her knees. Aveline nodded at the sound of her daughters voice, but didnt answer until Nokomis asked the second time. Its okay, hon ey. I need you to go outside and play. This is what we talked about, remember? Go down to the church. Or to the pool. Tell me what you need. Nokomis felt a prickling sensation all over. She was aware suddenly of everything around her and fe lt like she could get things under control; 88


she didnt need to leave. Ave line had told Nokomis that sometimes adults did things that children couldnt understand. That if something were to happen sometime soon that Nokomis didnt understand, she just needed to listen and do whatever was asked of her, even if she felt scared. But Aveline had been teaching her how to play Solitaire at the time, and Nokomis was too busy trying to figure out which pile to put her jack of spades in to listen. Aveline swallowed and shook her head. No. Anywhere, honey. Really. She sounded tired, impatient. Do this for Mommy. Just go somewhere and dont come home until after dark. Before Nokomis could stand, Aveline squeezed her hand hard, enough to make her fingers cross, reared up, away from the couch cushions, and grunted through her teeth. And get rid of the fucking dog. Nokomis had never heard her mother curs e before. Pepper had only been licking the underside of Avelines arm. She was a re scue dog, Nokomiss tenth birthday present, and she was still a puppy who lic ked, jumped, and nibbled on fingers. Aveline pulled her arm away from the dogs mouth, but Pepper ju st nudged in closer unt il there wasnt any escape left. Still, Pepper did that kind of thing all the tim e, and Aveline had never even seemed to notice. Nokomis grabbed hold of Peppers co llar and dragged he r into the guest bathroom, slamming the door in the dogs face, barely missing (she hoped) the tip of the puppys twitching black nose. Aveline was si tting up again, and Nokomis could see her face clearly from over the back of the couch. She looked as if she were choking, her skin flushing red, the cords of her neck, engorged. There was a whimpering sound, a 89


strangled, heart-breaking plea. For a mo ment, she thought the sound was coming from the couch. When Avelines lips parted, her whole face slackening, her body sinking back into the couch, out of sight, Nokomis took a moment to catch her own breath. Her mother didnt want her here. What was ha ppening? The only answer that came readily to mind was death, though she knew it couldnt be. Her mother had told her that no matter what something looked like, it wouldnt be as bad as she thought and that if she just did everything Aveline asked, it would all turn out all right. Get out . Her mothers voice cut through the scratching at the bathroom door, the whorl of the air conditioner as it kicked on again. Pepper was whining. Her mother was talking, so she was definitely still breathing. It felt like an emergency. Like the time that boy Tommy, in the second grade, had fallen from the monkey bars and broken his arm. He screamed and cried, but the teachers had known what to do. They took him inside, got him to a doctor, and when he came back to school the next week, everything was okay. Now her mother was hurting. If she disobeyed her mom, what would happen to the past several months? Nokomis couldnt recall a time in her life that she and her mother had gotten along so well or had so much fun together. If she would knock on doors, find a neighbor to hel p, would those fun times retreat again? Would her mom withdraw? Nokomis didnt know what to do; adults knew how to handle these things. 90


Mommy. Itd been a long time since Nokomis had called her that, but these last few months, with Aveline staying at home more and more, inviting Nokomis to bake cookies and brownies on the weekends, the two of them, mo ther and daughter, staying up past nine oclock on a school night playing Scrabble and Uno, teaching Nokomis how to do a garter stitch, itd come out naturally. And Aveline didnt seem to mind. In fact, it was almost as if Aveline were making up for lost time, time shed spent over the spring and summer either out late or alone in he r bedroom. Nokomis wasnt sure what had caused the change, but she suspected that her mother just needed a reminder of how much fun they had together and, once she saw wh at shed been missing, couldnt get enough. There were other changes, too. Aveline stopped dressing up for work, instead trading in her new pumps and jewelry for baggy shirts and pants with elastic waists. Im in a smock and a mask for heavens sake! Even though she insisted shed gained a few pounds and didnt want the embarrassment of ha ving to go up a size, Nokomis preferred her mothers sloppy appearance because she se emed more playful, readily laughing off a spill or drying her hands on her shorts. When she was sick ( just a bug!) Nokomis brought her wet washcloths to drape across he r forehead. When she was sore, Nokomis massaged her back and feet. The look her mo m gave her, the way her eyes softened, was enough to make Nokomis oblige again and again. What would I do without you? Mommys little helper! She began to answer the phone and sometimes, depending on the look Aveline gave her, would make up lies, te lling friends from church that her mother wasnt home. She could order pizza without her moms help; she learned how to run the dishwasher and washing machine; she coul d dust and make beds; she had a nappy calico 91


scarf long enough to trail behind her like a wedd ing veil that shed made all by herself. She was needed, valued, appreciated. A nd Nokomis was rewarded for it. The shy, orange-eyed puppy had been a nice reward, but even better was coming home every day to find the car already in the garage, the curtains pulled back, the bedroom doors opened, the radio on, and Aveline, humming along in the kitchen. On the other side of the glass, trimme d and layered with fresh mulch, was her backyard. It was just like any other backyard in the neighborhood, she supposed, a widepaneled statesman, sun-bleached fence, bordering a u-shaped row of hibiscus, gardenia, jasmine, and lantana; a lemon tree, squat as a sumo wrestler, its soft-bellied fruit rotting beneath its canopy; an expansive red umbre lla shading a wrought-iron table and four chairs, with matching cushions elevated on a co ncrete slab closest to the house. Standing there, so close to the slid ing glass door that her breat h clouded up her view, Nokomis couldnt imagine why Aveline had suddenly decided the yard was off limits, forbidden. Even Pepper wasnt allowed out there to run or go to the bathroom. Instead, she had to let the puppy drag her down the street to a grassy area next to a retention pond and carry around plastic bags so she could pick up after the dog. Ave lines explanation was that the bug man had sprayed toxic chemicals all over the yard. But that was a week ago. Nokomis couldnt imagine that, after all the ra in theyd had, there was any danger left. It was hard to tell if shed made the right decision when she left her mother alone, gasping on the couch, for so many hours. Shed gone first to the playground at the municipal center and sat on a bench watching kids younger than herself tearing through the sand lot, grabbing at the backs of shirts as they chased each other, until shed had 92


enough of the mosquitoes biting and the squirre ls jumping on the bench next to her. She stayed at the library, twirling racks of myst eries and romances, l eafing through childrens books with photographs of bats, lions, monkeys, and sharks in the wild, until the sun sank low enough in the sky to trigger the streetlights in the parking lot. When she came home, the house was dark, the washing machine wa s running, and Pepper was scratching at the bathroom door. Aveline was in her own bathro om, behind the closed door, taking a bath. It wasnt that Aveline appeared to be angry; in fact, she latc hed on to her daughter even more, taking her along on every errand, ev en walking out to the mailbox and back with her, as if Nokomiss loyalty would disa ppear if she werent wa tching. She seemed nervous lately, her laugh coming in shallow a nd always a little late whenever Nokomis recounted something silly or st range her teacher or one of he r classmates said. Nokomis did her best to reassure her each time Aveline stopped listening or watching the television, instead turning to look at Noko mis, her eyes filling, to question her. Something bad doesnt always have to happe n, does it? Im a good mother, right? You keep listening to me, okay? You do what I say. Although she was glad that the attention continued, Nokomis missed feeling responsible, grown-up. She opened the door just a crack, let the soupy heat hit her full in the face, and the cicadas tremulous thrum fill her ears. Pepper seized the opportunity, jumping off the couch, squeezing between Nokomiss legs, us ing her body to push the door open and out of Nokomiss hands. Pepper did a victory lap around the yard, kicking up dirt behind her, racing just out of Nokomiss grasp, ignoring the calling and hand-clapping of her owner. She finally came to a stop at the very edge of the yard, fa rthest away from the 93


porch and Nokomis, and stood wagging her tail, taunting her, lunging away from her to another part of the yard each tim e she took a step towards her. Only seconds had passed, but already Nokomis was sweating from the humidity and the fear of being caught. She ran b ack inside the house and rummaged through a cabinet where the dog food was kept until she wa s able to find a stale treat in the bottom of an otherwise empty bag to lure the dog in side with. But Pepper was digging a hole beneath the lemon tree, concentrating on a scent shed picked up and could not be distracted. Nokomis was desp erate to have the dog back inside, the door shut, and the both of them on the couch before her mom finished her shower. It didnt matter that there wasnt any real threat in the yard or that Aveline might be a little more sensitive than usual. What was important was to avoi d the weight of disappointment, so she could continue to feel the comfor t and security of a connecti on with her only parent. She had to take action and fast. She gr abbed hold of Peppers collar and yanked the dog back away from the hole. The dog thre w all of her weight into her front legs. Nokomis had to tug as hard as she could, even hanging from Peppers collar, until she finally gave up, trotted back through the ope n door, and Nokomis fell. She grabbed a handful of dirt, but before she could pat it back into place, she caught a glimpse of something half buried, protruding from the gr ound. Something bruise-colored, not brown like the rotting lemons scattered around the tree trunk. She brushed some of the dirt away, uncovering a pinched little face, a bald, swollen head. At first she thought it must be some sort of old, battered doll, but when sh e slid her hand beneath it, the entire length of the body reaching just past her wrist, saw the bent legs, the arms curled into a sunken 94


chest, the hacked off, bloodcrusted cord th ick and tangled as a vine, packed mud where the mouth should have been, and felt the wr inkled, cloudy skin slough off into her hand. She let it fall, panicking as revulsion clawed its way up her throat, torched her cheeks. She threw mounds of loose soil un til the sickening gi rl-doll was out of sight and ran back into the house, locking the door behind her. There were paw prints on the carpet, a diagonal trail leading from the door where Nokomis stood to her mothers armchair where Pepper was curled up, eyebrows flickering, trying not to fall asleep. Aveline wa s looking at the tracke d-in mess, too. She stood with her hands on her hips beneath the ceiling fan, a towel wrapped around her head, and did not look up at Nokomis. Instead, she looked from the floor to the backyard, scanning the lemon tree, the loose p ile of dirt at the base of the trunk. She stared without blinking, just nodding her hea d, and then she swallowed as if her mouth had gone completely dry. Just stay out of the yard, honey. Thats all you have to do. Nokomis kept still. She watched as Avelin e tightened her bathrobe belt, inspected her toes, then turned around and wa lked back into her bedroom closing the door softly behind her. Looking at the sliding glass door fr om an angle, she coul d see that the entire glass was filled with smears from dirty hands and Peppers nose, so she pulled the blinds closed, twisting each vinyl shade tightly shut so that only the slightest sliver of sunlight made its way into the house, too blade-thin to even cast a shadow, and then she cleaned the carpet, each paw print disappearing mir aculously into the vacuum cleaner without Nokomis even having to scrub. 95

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A shovel and a flashlight, she thought, shouldnt be too hard to find in her mothers garage. Aveline had kept ever ything neat and tidy, and her garage was no exception. The floor looked as if it had been swept regularly. Avelines car, still a Honda, but this one a red two-door, sat in the center of the space. Nokomis couldnt help but think that this wasnt th e car of someone who had anything to hide. There was no clutter in the corners. A few tools, incl uding a garden spade, were hung on pegs on the back wall. The spade would have to do. A thought flashed through her mind. Was this what she used? The same one? She tried to force the thought from her head and closed her hand around the smooth wooden handle. The flashlight would probably be in the little chest of drawers next to the door that led from the ga rage to the back yard, along with extra batteries, just in case. The spade in her hand, Nokomis made her wa y over to retrieve the flashlight, but as she did, she looked out the window in the door. The moon appeared to be just short of full, an oblong silver disc in the night s ky, and it provided plenty of light. A second glance around the perimeter of the yard, and she noticed the neighbors houses that she could see. There werent any neighbors with two-story houses; st ill she could see the tops of a few windows over the fence. On second thought, Noko mis decided the moon would be enough light to work by. She wouldn t want to draw any extra attention from the neighbors by accidentally shining a light into one of their bedrooms. Nokomis opened the door and stepped into the back yard for the first time in twenty years. The air felt warm and heavy, lying across her shoulders like a blanket. The lemon tree stood in the same spot it alwa ys had, although it looked bigger now. Her 96

PAGE 101

mother had kept up with the yard, grass cu t, everything manicured. Nokomis knew that her mother wasnt out here herself, pushi ng a mower or trimming trees, and she felt her face flush at Avelines audacity. Why would she allow strangers, or worse yet, some neighbor kid, into her yard? A moment late r, she calmed herself. Was it really that daring of her mother? Pepper had died year s ago, and she had never gotten another dog to root around out here. Nokomis knew that Aveline w ould never have given anyone reason to dig any holes. It probably just looked normal to everyone else. The middleaged woman living alone, needing her yard mowed. Nevertheless, Nokomis felt gooseflesh rise on her arms when she thought of some random kid running a mower over a grave he never knew was there. She had been purposely avoiding thinking about the grave until now. Her task had been an abstract construct in her mind. Dig a hole. Take care of a problem. As she stepped forward toward the tree, however, a more concrete reality took hold. What was she doing? After years of sile nce, she was planning to unear th the bones of her sister. Sister. The thought sped her pulse, made he r vision swim for a moment. Through all these years, shed focused her feelings on her mother, building a resentment over the secret her mother had forced her to carry, and finally, building a wall around the resentment that allowed her to maintain a relationship with the only family member shed ever really known. Nokomis kneeled at the spot under the lem on tree that she remembered. She tried to steel herself against the memories that kept coming. The discolored skin, shiny and 97

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bloated. The way it shed at the gentlest touch. The mouth, toot hless and open, full of dirt. She focused these thoughts and refo rmed them into anger at her mother. She struck at the ground, tearing it open. Her sister would not be hidden any longer. She stabbed deeper. Roots popped under the spade. She would find the bones, put them in the urn with Aveline. Then ev erything would be out. No more, Nokomis heard herself say as she went deeper. Wh ere were the bones? She had dug down right where she remembered. She couldnt have misjudged the spot. She had looked out at it every day before she went off to college. Nokomis tossed the spade aside. She plunged her hands into the hole she had opened, felt the dirt crowd under her fingernails She scraped and widened the hole with her hands, feeling for anything that felt differe nt, but everything was di rt, roots, twigs. Nothing else. As if the earth had swallowed up her sister, as if she were never really there. Nokomis knew better. She had seen with her own eyes, held her sister in her hands before covering her again in a betray al she had never forgiven herself for. She a wife, but not a mother. She thrust her hands again into the hole, and pulled out fistfuls of dirt. Without thinking at all, she opened her mouth and shoved in the contents of her right hand. She resisted the urge to choke, to spit out the mouthful of dirt, at once gritty and yielding between her teeth, filling the space between her tongue and the back of her throat. Nokomis swallowed. She felt a he avy clod slide down her throat and forced herself to swallow again and again and again until her mouth was empty, until she felt satisfied and full, until she no longer had to dig. 98


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