Piri looked at the ebony spleenwort struggling in its clay pot--the little water-hoarding plant seemed to be choking from the stench in the air. She climbed on top of the radiator and attempted to force open the one remaining window of her classroom that had not been nailed shut. A stink-bomb had been set off earlier in the day and, like the smell of skunk, its odor permeated her clothes and hair. As she jumped down, she knew that when she came in the next morning, the custodians would have shut the window for the night, and the morning would begin with the stench.
Piri picked up her bag and briefcase from the oak desk with a missing drawer and a large empty heart carved into its blackened surface. She thought of the job she had left twenty-five years ago at a theatrical agency and the rosewood desk she used to glide her hand over, feeling its warm polished surface.
At this point, her mind always wandered, and she would find herself floating through her life where the past, for a moment, seemed more real than the present.
"Lady, you always giving me trouble. Them windows gotta be nailed shut or you gonna get vandals."
Piri watched the custodian take out a hammer from his tool chest. She knew it was no use telling him that there was nothing in this room to steal.
"I thought the smell might..."
"Yeah, yeah. The smell. You people donna how to control them kids--that's the problem."
"Couldn't you just wait a day or two until the smell...?"
"I spray for you. When you come in tomorrow, you gonna think a garden is growing." Piri knew it was his way of getting rid of her. And she knew that for Christmas she should have given him a larger and more expensive bottle of scotch, and she couldn't remember why she didn't. She made lists of things and invariably thought she didn't have to refer to the list because she'd remember everything, but she never did. Her ex-husband, who was a school librarian, called them janitors and thought they shouldn't get anything extra for doing their job.
She heard the hammering as she walked down the hall toward the elevator. If she were one of the younger teachers, she thought, the custodian would probably leave the windows open even without a Christmas gift.
* * *
Piri signed the book at the Brooklyn shooting range with relief--she was the only female member and never felt quite welcome. She always tried to arrive in the middle of the afternoon when the range was deserted. It was also easy and more private to slip into a T-shirt and jeans. It didn't seem as if only a year had passed since she had set out to write an article for the teachers' union newspaper against the use of guns of any kind. The thrust was toward making inner city schools safer and that would mean getting rid of handguns. But when she began her series of interviews withlaw enforcement officials and gun experts, both pro and con NRA, she found herself listening with fascination. All of these shooters were involved in target shooting only and discussed their weapon of choice as if it were a Zen experience. She was envious of their passion, and this reaction startled her. She wondered how well she knew herself. It took her six months to get a gun license after filing an application.
She remembered her first lesson, and her initial repugnance to the sounds of gunfire. But she loved the silken feel of the pistol's wooden handle that she thought of as tamarisk or terebinth. The hanging target quivered like a living thing, and she was shocked at the realization that the weapon in her hand could take the heart out of anything.
Now Piri welcomed the quiet as she removed the automatic from its case, attached the dot sight, and released the magazine. There was pleasure in the ritual of slipping the cartridges in and hearing the magazine's soft click. She knew that if any of the men were here they would probably snicker at her weapon, and she was planning to look into the Swiss Hammerli or maybe the German Walther. There was the sound of the overhead fans whirring, but Piri thought for a second that she heard a soft scraping sound. She set the target to fifty feet, inserted her earplugs, and slipped on the clear plastic glasses.
At her job chaos reigned, but here she found herself released by the ritual and precision and control over a skill she was gradually beginning to master. Even though she was tall enough, she had difficulty holding a heavy weapon steady. She began to lift weights, and now instead of the two-handed stance with the Smith 4l, she used one hand, her other hand tucked in her pocket. She felt the power of her body and its fine balance as if she were young again. She pictured her ex-husband watching her, and how shocked he would be. What she liked most about shooting was how completely it emptied the brain. When she adjusted the right earplug, she heard that scraping sound again. She thought it was mice even though it wasn't the same sound that they made in her classroom. When she listened again, she only heard the whirring of the overhead fans. She replaced the ear plug, raised her arm and steadied the electronic dot sight. This would be the only time during the course of the day that she was going to get what she was aiming for. It was an ordinary target, and she thought how nice it would be if it were a painted eye.
* * *
Piri fastened the burgundy lace garter belt. She spent a good portion of her paycheck on matching silk lingerie. She would be fifty-three on her next birthday, and she was planning a shopping spree at Victoria's Secret. It's what she had done for her fifty-first and fifty-second birthdays as well. It wasn't until after her almost thirty-year marriage ended that she acquired a taste for expressive lingerie. And Ben, the man who sold her new car seat covers, encouraged it. Her husband had left her for a woman with three children--the youngest boy was deaf. Their own son was a bank teller in Denmark and played semi-professional basketball for a Danish team. In junior high school, he began calling his father by his first name, Jerome.
She dressed in a long gray skirt and a matching loose woolen sweater, and was once more taken with the thought that people are seldom what they seem. She wondered if sensual and sometimes lewd under-things actually pleased her or simply filled a need for secrets creating an impression of a life she wasn't having. She did enjoy the idea of shocking her students and the people she worked with, but she also knew they thought her strange and perhaps wouldn't be as surprised as she'd like to think. She also wondered if her bouts of loneliness were connected to her taste for secrecy. Piri turned off the overhead light and took a last glance in the mirror, the soft remaining lamplight bathing her eyes in shadow. She had to tilt the full-length mirror to see all six feet of her. For a moment, she resembled the photograph of the young woman on her dresser, her mother, who had the expression of someone who has just woken up. Piri examined the prominent veins in her arms, a new acquisition since she'd been shooting. Although she felt they were kind of sexy, she covered them with her sleeves. There was one showing of The Manchurian Candidate at The Forum, and she didn't want to miss it. Part of the film was shot at the brownstone she was living in when she worked at the agency. She also loved the film for its brilliant premise and for creating an array of characters who are not what they seem.
The telephone rang, and Piri thought it might be Ben again. She knew he was inviting her for another meal at his house with his two daughters. The youngest, a teenager, ignored her, and picked at her food. The older one criticized Ben's cooking although she ate more than anyone. Piri turned the answering machine off and hesitated before closing the door behind her.
* * *
Piri always liked to sit in an aisle seat, her long legs stretched out in front of her. She loved the darkness of the theater and often thought of the exotic creatures of the night with fondness. In the country at dusk, she liked to drink beer and watch the bats come out. They usually flew out a hundred at a time and whizzed past her ears--how remarkable that was, she thought. She watched a couple in front of her, the woman playing with the man's ear. She wondered how finely tuned they were to each other. Piri missed the intimacy of a man knowing her at her worst.
Piri was on the alert for her old house in the film and, although she had seen it many times, as she caught sight of it this time, she felt a hand move up her thigh. She looked at the man sitting next to her and, even from his profile, she thought she recognized him as a new teacher in the Social Studies department, but she wasn't sure. When this happened to her as a child it would terrify her, but as an adult, she would make a point of humiliating the man.
Now she wasn't so sure about what was happening and how she felt about the steady pressure of his hand. She remembered that her husband had followed her to 200l/A Space Odyssey and sat ten rows behind watching her throughout the whole film and then followed her home. At this moment, she found the memory of thatmore repugnant than this stranger groping her in the dark. How poignant, though, that he would have to do this.
She slowly turned her body away from him as if she had been going to change her position to get more comfortable. She crossed her legs so that his hand slipped off. He quickly rose, climbed over her and left the theater. She would stop by the Social Studies office tomorrow. At least he wouldn't be someone who would molest students unless, of course, they were in a darkened theater. She wondered if he had any other secrets. The movie was coming to an end, and she knew the bad would be punished--this bizarre, unique, film had an almost fairy tale ending that she found oddly satisfying.
* * *
The school day started with the oldest math teacher in the building locking herself in the Women's bathroom for the second time that term. Piri wondered why it was always teachers or students who teetered at the edge and never administrators. It didn't seem fair.
Piri caught her reflection in the nailed down window of her classroom. She had the look of a Jehovah's Witness--an outfit that she put together in no time at all that morning. But she had trouble choosing between a red or turquoise ensemble of underwear. She looked at her watch--another ten minutes before her free period. She was on the third floor and wondered if Holly would still be holed up in the bathroom. Piri hoped it would be without pills this time. She always let students start their homework in class to make sure they would know how to do it when they got home. She circulated around the room and stopped when she came to Eric who had his head down on the desk. He told her he was trying to finish a dream. She suggested he wait until he went to sleep that night. Eric was the student who wrote a poem about all the dead people flying over his house at night. The bell rang and, in seconds, the classroom was empty. Piri stuffed her papers and attendance book into her briefcase, erased the blackboard and stepped out into the hall. There was a crowd around the teachers' bathroom, and a policeman was standing next to the hammer-happy custodian who was dismantling the lock. Piri thought of slipping a note under the door reminding Holly that there were only eleven more days to the Easter vacation. But eleven days seemed too long.
Piri made her way to the Social Studies office where there was one teacher humming to himself at the copying machine. When he looked up and saw Piri he told her he once xeroxed a slice of pastrami, signed it and framed it. He was a new teacher named Alan, but he was bald and too short to be Movie Man. Piri began searching for an unfamiliar name on the posted teacher schedule. Itmight be L. Halasz, room 344, fifth period. When she looked up, he was staring at her shoulder where her brown sweater had shifted a bit revealing a splash of bright red satin. Piri wondered what else the man xeroxed. She smiled at him and adjusted her glasses as she went out of the door. In the hall, she slipped her briefcase strap over that shoulder.
Through the rear door window of room 344, Piri saw students sitting in the dark watching a film. Uh, oh, Piri thought. She scanned the room and saw a dim figure sitting on the side of the room marking papers by the light coming through a tattered window shade. His head was bent in concentration and, except for his hands, he was completely in shadow. A student had her head on the desk impervious to the loud tribal activity taking place on the screen. Piri hoped that the teacher would get up to waken her, but that was a long shot. As she stepped back, she thought she saw him turn and look in her direction.
It wasn't until the end of the day when she stood reading the notice on the teacher's bulletin board about Holly being admitted for observation that she caught a familiar whiff of something she couldn't name from the man standing next to her. She followed him to the time cards, and when he punched out number l27 and placed it in the OUT section, the name on the card was Halasz. Then she went back to the bulletin board to copy the address of the hospital so she could select a card for Holly that wouldn't depress her even more.
* * *
After her stop at the post office, Piri was driving around with 5000 rounds of .22 caliber cartridges in her trunk--the whole case costing $l60 or the equivalent of two silk teddies. She picked up some flowers and a bottle of good wine to cheer Ben up as he cooked and was being harassed by the daughter who will eat every morsel of food on the table. The teenager had taken to calling Piri Pooh. Ben corrected her each time as if it were simply a slip of the tongue. The height of the evening will be when the girls go off to their Tuesday night eating disorder workshop, and Ben lights scented candles and photographs her in the evening's lingerie before they make love.
* * *
Piri has confiscated a gun magazine from Nicholas who was reading it when he should have been taking a test on Of Mice and Men. She thumbed through the colorful pages and noticed an ad for the Hammerli at $l300 used--she jotted down the address and phone number. When she looked up, Nicholas was watching her. When she had walked through the halls on the way to her first period class that morning, she had heard a student wax poetic about the "Glock"--a weapon of choice among gangs and police officers. She wondered what Nicholas would think if he knew she was trying out for the New York State Empire Games with her lowly Smith & Wesson, considered the best cheap target pistol.When the bell rang, Nicholas handed in his paper with only his name written at the top and stood waiting for Piri to return the magazine.
"You know," she said handing him the magazine, "if you'd read the book, you'd find out what can happen to someone who doesn't have a gun." Nicholas nodded as if he was rushing right home to read the book. As he walked out the door, Piri was startled that she implied that a gun was protection, and the outcome of the book would have been different because of its presence.
Was she that desperate to have students read? And was that what she really thought? She didn't want to consider that perhaps her stance was shifting. She tried to catch Nicholas in the hall, but he was already lost in the crowd of passing students. It was at moments like this that she felt guilt at having dropped the anti-handgun project. She would speak to Nicholas on Monday. When she punched in each morning, card #l27 had not been moved from the OUT section--Halasz had not been to work since the day Piri stood watching his class from the hallway. Although it was the end of the week, and she was exhausted, she hurried out of the building--she was going to try out a Hammerli.
* * *
Piri had not been to Ben's for a Tuesday night dinner for over a month, and she was starting to find his messages on the answering machine irritating. He thought that once he had managed to put a stop to his daughter's calling her Pooh that a problem had been solved. She sat on her bed and listened to his voice imagining the way his mouth formed the words with his moustache barely moving. The older daughter had the same overbite and the habit of glancing around a room as if she needed to know where the exit was just in case. Listening to the last message, something shifted in Ben's voice that made Piri feel uncomfortable, almost threatened. She would have to call him back at some point, but she didn't really want to.
* * *
Piri spent five hours at target practice the week she was eliminated from the Empire Games roster. She had either been steady and too slow to shoot or fast enough but inaccurate. She'd taken to soaking in a hot tub for hours listening to old doo-wop records. She thought of smoking a cigarette during these long baths but always forgot to buy a pack. She hadn't smoked in seven years. When the phone rang, she was prepared to hear Ben's voice again telling her that his daughters would be away for the weekend. But it was a man named Naylon --she couldn't tell if that was a first or last name, and he had seen her at the try-outs, and he belonged to the same gun club, and he would be glad to give her pointers on shooting with the electronic dot sight. She felt heat rise to her face as if he had lavishly complimented her. She saved his message and played it every morning before going to work.
* * *
The long-stemmed roses Ben sent had dried up and settled into a deep red, curled and blackened at the edges. His note had been written with a heavyblack marker, and Piri had thrown it away as soon as she recognized Ben's scrawl.
She didn't understand why she needed to keep Ben's dead roses. When she pulled open one of her lingerie drawers, the soft folds of silk seemed unfamiliar and a little dangerous. It was Ben's last threat of sending the photographs he took of her to the principal of her school that prompted Piri to change her phone number.
* * *
At the shooting range, she could hear Naylon coming by the soft scrape that his shoe made on the stairs. He had her father's dark eyes and small ears. But it was his voice that Piri found so seductive, and his limp added to the mystique. He did medical research with lasers, and Piri imagined that it took even more skill to hit cancer cells, which she thought explained his flawless shooting. These Friday afternoons with him now sustained her throughout the week, and she wondered if they would ever extend to the evening. All she knew about him was that his wife had died three years ago, he liked bitter beer, and had a dog named Moses.
* * *
Instead of avoiding the principal, Piri went out of her way to pass him in the halls and to stop into his office in the morning for a cup of coffee as if she was politically ambitious. She had her story worked out--she had been led to believe that the photographs were for a new lingerie catalogue for mature women. Except for his interest in scuba diving, the principal was an incredibly boring man with an unhealthy preoccupation with I.Q. scores. His wife was an ex-nun who liked fur. All this was more than she wanted to know. Since they were becoming such good pals, she toyed with the idea of getting him to unsuspend Nicholas on a weapon's possession charge for which Piri felt partly responsible. But she would settle for having a talk with Nick on Riker's Island. So far, the only person who knew she was a shooter was Naylon, and this she felt was a form of intimacy.
* * *
Piri's Jehovah's Witness look seemed to be fading. Her favorite dress was a deep purple silk that she wore with matching suede shoes and silver hoop earrings. She packed up her collection of incriminating underwear and dropped it off at an uptown thrift shop run by very excitable Russians. It was the end of a stressful week, and Piri headed for the gun club where Naylon was waiting for her. She was advanced now, and he was going to teach her to shoot with an open sight.
My Son Gives Me Jewels
I am one of those semi-anxious mothers whose worries slip away while their children are living under another roof -- at summer camp, say, or at college, or in their own apartments. But our worries come back when our children do. For kids, even when grown, do come home occasionally to stake out their old rooms, hook up stereos, reclaim closets and bookshelves. And what can we do but take them back, minds and hearts elastic as once our bodies were.
W.P., my twenty-eight year old son, is between living arrangements. Tomorrow he is going off to study in Nepal, and for the past three weeks we have been blessed with his company, an all inclusive package of green clay, herbs and spices, books, tapes, and dirty socks. He also brought with him, for safe-keeping, a futon, a wooden chair with a frayed seat cushion, and a black and red lacquered table that serves as a shrine. Providing I remove my shoes first, I will be allowed to feather dust the table with its sacred objects while he's gone.
It's Sunday morning and ordinarily, my husband Joe and I would be sitting down to a leisurely breakfast. But already I have gulped down my coffee, left my unrinsed mug in the sink, and gone to check on W.P. There are so many last minute decisions in the making: where to forward mail, what to do about income tax statements, how often to water his three inch tall cactus.
"When it turns really cold, Mom, be sure to move it away from the window."
I wonder if he'll think about the plant while he's in Nepal? We stand shoeless together in his old room. On the lacquered table in front of me are the spirits and deities who for the next six months will be keeping me company. Perhaps they'll help me not to forget. It's a terrible thing this memory lapse in the case of one's own children -- like a double loss.
"That's Ganga." W.P. gestures toward the bronze figurine I've just inquired about. "She guards the eternal flame. You know? And the one on her right is Lachni. Goddess of wealth?"
I've noticed lately that his explanations end in question marks. Is this a sign of humility? He is proficient in Sanskrit, speaks Nepalese and hopes to master the Tibetan language, as well. If he gets his applications done in time and is accepted, he might begin graduate work in Asian studies next fall, after he returns from Nepal. A big if, of course. But I've been telling myself that this time it's going to work out.
"What about the one with a mustache?" I ask. "He's very handsome."
"Let me introduce you to Shiva? He has a wife named Parvati. They're supposed to represent the perfect physical and spiritual union of man and woman." W.P. pauses and glances around at me slyly. "I guess you might say Shiva's the fuck god?"
Years ago when my high school boyfriend showed me some photographs of erotic Hindu carvings, I blushed. But now in my maturity my blood flows smoothly. "Those show-offy gods," I say. "The one you call Ganga doesn't look too friendly. I'm not sure I'd trust her to keep any flames of mine burning."
W.P. places his palms together and bows. "You are my ignorant, irreverent mother. I will pray for your enlightenment."
"Thanks," I reply. But the joke has gone sour, for despite a tacit agreement not to meddle with each other's souls, I suspect he does pray for me. Although, instinctively, I recoil from such mumbo jumbo, I feel ashamed and guilty, because he cares so much and this odd creed seems to sustain him.
Leaning closer to the table, I examine a delicately carved Buddha. How much its calm, sweet expression reminds me of my son when he's feeling more or less okay. I seem to remember from some requisite humanities course that Buddha started out in life as a privileged and cherished little boy. After he grew up he renounced all his worldly goods and connections -- mother, father, wife, child. When I think about that part, my heart squeezes into a tight ball. It's probably just a phase, isn't it? I keep asking Joe, even though his reply is predictable: It's out of our control; it always was, Barb.
But is this true? Don't we play any part at all in who our children are? Or if they don't know who they are, should we pretend not to notice or care?
Clearly W.P is not going to go the route of Godless middle-class Jew. As a small boy he already had a penchant for hard questions. I recall the day his nursery school teacher drew me aside with a rueful twist to her glossy red lips -- He asked me if everyone who prays is a good person, and if so, then how does God decide who wins a war? The budding moral philosopher, oy! His teacher patted her rouged cheek, and I groaned softly, knowing what she was up against.
My father, who is close to eighty, maintains that religion is a crutch. So what? I argue. We all have to try to get around somehow. In my dad's case the metaphor seems particularly apt, since he is entirely dependent on his walker and wheelchair. It's strange how when I defend him, my own doubts about W.P. vanish into the woodwork.
What makes you so sure he's not in a cult? my father keeps asking.
He stays in close touch with all of us. That's not how cultists behave.
Ha! Family ties could be a smoke screen.
Yes, and I'm the Queen of the Night. Give us a break, Dad.
My father's impression of Buddhism derives from a single vacation trip to the Far East, where he was plagued by saffron-robed mendicants. He keeps harping about a friend whose daughter was lured away by a California sect. Sometimes I am tempted to press hard on the button that raises his recliner. We call it his "dump chair" because, while it does enable him to stand, prolonged pressure on the button could cause the seat to over-rotate and send him sprawling. In the end my love for this crippled old man, who is horribly lonely since my mother died, always wins out. I have never in my life told him frankly what an oppressive force he was while I was growing up.
I don't confide much in my father. "W.P. is working out a few problems" is about as close as I have come; fortunately he didn't press for details. I've never talked about the depressions, or suicide threats during high school -- the time I glanced up at our fifth floor apartment from the street and saw a shadowy figure crouched at the window, and the curtain blowing out, and a scream hung in my throat as though my voice could reverse gravity if necessary. I didn't have to scream because the window suddenly slammed shut. The image still haunts me, though; I try not to bring it up even in conversations with myself.
There is one object on the shrine that I really love, an ornamental bell with a lilting voice. The other night when W.P. was out, I brought a pile of clean clothes to his room, and the temptation to touch was irresistible. I lifted the bell and shook the handle cautiously, producing two or three soft ding-a-lings. Then I shook harder, and the dings got louder and faster; simultaneously, and even after I stopped, the reverberations chased each other around and around inside the dome. I imagined tiny running creatures with manes and tails, all pitched to the same note, and my heart began to beat loudly in accompaniment. I felt awed, thrilled, vaguely worried, as if I might be struck dead for having touched and profaned a sacred object. I haven't mentioned any of this to W.P. Tomorrow he'll be gone, really gone.
Joe and I have been lucky these last five or six years, having both kids close by. Weeks can pass, without so much as a phone call, and still there is no sense of discontinuity. But I have to admit to some shaky feelings just now. What if W.P. decides to live permanently in Nepal? Urban and sophisticated though I am, Kathmandu seems like another planet, a spaceship cruising out there among the stars, its beeps getting fainter and fainter.
When I turn and look at him, W.P. averts his eyes. It's a bad habit of mine, lately, this staring. I am storing up his features, the way women tend to do, setting in supplies when they foresee long periods of deprivation. My untrained memory isn't reliable enough -- if only I could summon his image the way Beethoven called up chords after he went deaf.
I try to assemble the various parts, glue them together so they can't slip away from me once he goes. His face, a diamond, narrowing at forehead and chin. Jutting cheekbones; not enough flesh on him anywhere. With his lousy haircut and guileless blue eyes, he could pass for a teenager. But the nose is small and refined, teeth white and strong. He flushes self-consciously; any minute now he'll tell me to cut it out -- What's the matter with you, Mom? Sometimes he sticks out his tongue.
I wonder at my tenacity. It astounds me when I read about women who have lost three out of four sons soldiering in some barbaric ethnic war. Even so, they would be proud, they say, to send the last one into battle. If I were to meet up with one of those mothers how could I speak of my need to preserve? Perhaps it's different when you've been strafed and bombed and mined, with families around you decimated, grief and despair everywhere. Maybe then, patriotism and pride are all that remain. Meanwhile I have my son before me, and greedily I study his face; tomorrow he'll be gone.
This quest of W.P.'s takes him in and out of schools, jobs, and love. He is smart, spiritual, and miserable -- three Karamozov brothers rolled into one. Twenty-eight years old -- yes, I know, it's stupid to compare him to Joe, who was practicing medicine at that age, or myself, for that matter, who had a teaching certificate and two-year-old Sara to look after. But the fact is none of us is getting any younger.
W.P. kissed the top of my head the other day and said, Whoops, I see some gray up here.
I shrugged. So?
I'm sorry, Momma, he said.
About the gray hairs? I asked, knowing perfectly well it wasn't that. Without thinking then, I grabbed hold of his bare, bony elbows and shouted -- Don't you dare be sorry!
Hey, take it easy, he winced.
I could see that the T-shirt he was wearing was unraveling at the sleeves. There was an ink stain. Was he planning to take it with him? -- I hoped not. At times I wondered if part of what he was seeking was my opposition, that if Joe and I were to challenge his behavior, he'd go right on doing what he was doing -- with one big difference; he'd think, Fuck you and no longer have qualms about leaving.
Years ago, when he quarreled with his sister or balked at doing his homework, I yelled. Like most mothers I believed my children were smart and talented, but I could be fierce -- in their view, monstrous, perhaps -- if I disagreed with their objectives. For example, when my son decided to change his name. On his birth certificate he was William Patrick, and Joe and I had decided to call him Patrick; it suited him perfectly we thought. But then in third grade the kids called him Pat the Bunny or Patty Cakes, and lacking either the cool to ignore them or the brute strength to intimidate, he came home determined to be called something else. I remember putting my hand over my mouth to hide my dismay -- naming a child is one of the first and last privileges a parent has. My husband shrugged his shoulders, already thinking, no doubt, that the matter was out of our hands. He was unperturbed, even though Patrick Donnelly, for whom Pat had been named, was Joe's good friend and mentor.
Would you prefer to be called William? he asked. Billy? Or what?
Our son shook his head. His oldest cousin was William, and one in a family was enough.
This is plain foolishness, I burst out. You're overreacting, Pat. So they tease you a little. You'd better toughen up.
Joe gripped my arm -- Stop it, Barb. You know who you sound like?
My father, obviously, but I didn't give a damn. There's no magic in names, I sneered.
Joe let go of my arm. Maybe for some people there is. What would you like us to call you, son?
Patrick flashed him an adoring look. I'm open to suggestion, he said, mimicking Joe perfectly, which irked me even more. Eight years old, his chin barely a hand's length above the table, but already he had the squint of a lab clinician searching for deadly microbes. Harry sounded too much like Hairy, he said. John brought up all those bathroom associations. It dawned on me finally, with a certain amount of anguish, how much was at stake for him. What had we done or not done to make him feel less than perfect? I remembered how, seconds after he was born, red and squalling and ugly, I joked to my obstetrician -- He's the spitting image of Joe, don't you think? They had given me a shot of nitrous oxide, and probably I was just feeling giddy -- Joe happens to be rather good looking. But how was my baby to understand? Did he think I was disclaiming him and his father, both.
Our daughter, Sara, was the one who suggested that Pat use his initials -- on television there were all those cool, powerful characters called J.R. and so forth. Her brother approved, and for a while the magic seemed to work. But for people like W.P., I guess, there are no lasting solutions. I am reminded of the old song about a bear going over the mountain: What do you think he saw? He saw another mountain.
He has given us a book called "Journey through Nepal," so that we will have some idea what he's up to. He says he'll write often but who knows? He's a man, and no matter how tormented, he'll do what he likes. The photograph on the dust jacket shows a beautiful green valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks. The tallest one is Machhapuchhare.
The other day I asked whether he intended to do any climbing. He looked at me startled. Of course, he said; trekking was part of what one did in Nepal. I fell silent, while images of precipices and falling rock flashed across my mind.
Mom, don't worry -- he read me perfectly -- I promise not to do anything loony.
Later, when he went out, I took off my shoes and sat down, cross-legged, in front of the shrine. Every bone in me ached, but I tried to empty my mind the way you're supposed to. Then I saw him, sitting up there on the highest peak. He was dressed in a white robe, and instead of howling winds that stripped rocks bare, the air was sweet and warm, and hardy roses bloomed in crevices. There were brilliant butterflies and songbirds circling overhead, and all the while, he looked around in delight. This was how I calmed myself.
* * *
My daughter has offered to give W.P. a farewell party the night before he leaves. Sara is at a new stage of life -- married a year and in a brand new apartment that her grandfather and uncle and aunt haven't seen yet. Jonathan and she have done all the work themselves -- sanded and stained the floors, and painted the walls and woodwork a glossy white. Not a drip anywhere. It's my notion that Sara would like to show off a little.
Ten place settings at two tables nosed up against each other. The centerpiece is a diorama of heaped rocks with wisps of cotton clinging to their crests. The scene is clearly Nepal. At the foot of the rocks a city has been constructed out of play dough -- houses with peaked roofs, pagoda temples, cars, and tiny bearded men in robes, shawled women, carrying huge bundles on their heads, a buffalo or two.
"When did you have time to do all this?" I ask. Sara puts in a full day as a social worker at a shelter for battered women.
"He did most of it." She points a lacquered pink nail at Jonathan.
"But the idea was yours," Jonathan says quickly. I like the way they toss credits back and forth, unwilling to steal each other's light.
But then Sara pulls me aside, worried because the tables are different heights. "Doesn't it look odd? If it was your party I know you would have leveled them off somehow..."
"How?" I ask. "How would I have done that?" There is an edge to my voice. I've always been so proud of my sensible Sara, that she doesn't deal in trivialities, that she assumes responsibilities with ease. She was a luscious, frilly, graceful little girl, who brought home paintings of birds and flowers from school and paid no attention when I praised her. Art mattered less than people, people-problems -- she's like Joe in that way, and like him, she has a tough streak. I am never quite prepared for these cracks of self-doubt.
"You would have figured something out, Mother. Propped the legs of the shorter one, or pared down the other."
"Don't be a lunatic," I snap, although it isn't hard to imagine myself crawling beneath the smaller table to place squares of cardboard under the legs. Am I supposed to be proud of my talent for senseless details and quick solutions? It occurs to me that something more is at play. Sara used to complain to me that I wasn't a fun kind of mother. I always looked bored when we played monopoly, distracted when they turned on something like "The Brady Bunch." My rating shot up, though, in times of stress. You're terrific, she said, when we get into trouble, Mom. Maybe that's why W.P. spends so much time moping around.
I'm not sure what my reply was back then. Most likely something caustic, like -- Sugarplum, I can't wait till it's your turn; we'll see how well you make out. Actually, when I look back I see the three of us, bundled up and red-cheeked, racing around an outdoor rink, or passing popcorn back and forth in the movies, baking cookies together. Why, I ask myself, are the pictures in my mind so different from Sara's?
It's a Rashomon world, Joe always says, but how should that comfort someone who already knows how unreliable memory is, and who worries that her children may come to harm if she lets them slip from her thoughts.
Turning away abruptly, Sara smacks her brother's arm. "I wanted everything to be perfect for you."
"Yeah, but you forgot to put in a stupa, numbskull?" He cuffs her back, and then the two of them start to laugh. He has a real talent for lightening things up, this so-called miserable son of mine.
"What's a stupa?" I ask.
"You haven't read the book I gave you, Mom?"
I shake my head. I have no intentions of looking at the book until after he leaves, which is ordinarily when I'd stop worrying, stop thinking about him. I'm counting on the book to slow down the process.
Stupa, W.P. informs me, means mound in Sanskrit. It's a monument that contains relics; in its purest form the plan consists of a circle within a square. "It represents parts of the Buddhist universe?"
"Whoo! Whoo! Listen to the professor," mocks Sara. She and her brother shake with laughter again, until Sara presses her hand to her belly button. "Stop it! You-know-who is seasick." My daughter, who is three months pregnant, hardly shows. Sometimes I kid her about how she'd better start learning to be a fun kind of mother.
At dinner, one by one, we get up to toast W.P. Mostly the speeches are lighthearted, consciously unsentimental; we applaud and cheer one another on. My sister-in-law, Kirsten, gets to her feet now, pounding the table for silence. When she has had a little too much to drink, Kirsten becomes loud and central.
"W.P!" She shouts, although he is right at her elbow. "I think what you are doing is so wonderful! It reminds me of when I came to the States. I must get away, I think, to find a new life. It is natural to be so excited... afraid too, yes? But do not worry about coming back, for that is not the point. I never went home again to live, and I have never regretted my choice...."
She looks around at the rest of us with glowing eyes. I glare at her. When Jerry first brought Kirsten to meet us she was a skinny and unprepossessing young woman from Moravia, who spoke only Czech and German. I wish to hell she had never learned English.
"Fly away, fly away! W.P.," she shrieks. "Don't ever look back."
My brother pats my shoulder nervously. "Take it easy, Barb. She's had about six glasses of champagne."
I don't care if she's had a hundred. Look back at what? At Joe and me who tried our best to give our children everything they wanted or needed, and sometimes succeeded, damn it? I know how disappointed she and Jerry were at not having kids of their own, but that's no reason to begrudge me mine.
I unclench my fingers and take a deep breath before I dare to look across the table at W.P. When something strikes either one of us as weird, we grin at each other -- we always do. He had on a striped button down shirt, cut a little large, so that it gives an illusion of breadth. He looks great! I stand up to tell him so. And I tell him, just in case he has any doubts, how much we care about him and want him back. Who knows if I'll get another chance to say it before he goes.
* * *
The place we keep our car doesn't open until 6:30 but we have to head out to the airport much earlier. Joe, who has patients scheduled at eight, would have put W.P. in a cab and waved goodbye, but I thought the occasion warranted more. After we got home from the party last night, I moved our car to a 24 hour garage.
Joe is edgy because we're getting a late start.
"We'll make it, Dad. And anyway think how happy Mom will be if we don't." W.P. laughs -- I guess I must look startled.
We've only gone a few blocks before I hear him swear, "Christ, we have to go back! I forgot my ticket."
Joe keeps checking the dashboard clock, while we wait downstairs. "Not an auspicious beginning, Barb."
"Don't tell him that," I implore.
"Have I said a word?" He turns on the overhead light and cleans the inside of the windshield. He hasn't shaved, the dark bristles along his jaw stand up stoically. It reminds me of the first time W.P. stayed out all night. Like almost everything else he did back then, he was ahead of our expectations. Joe and I were asleep when the doorbell rang. I got up first and went to answer. Four of W.P.'s classmates stood in the vestibule sheep-faced. Slung over the shoulders of one of them was a familiar shape in familiar clothes. From his position I determined that our son was out cold. My husband didn't say much on that occasion either. Joe doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. His family was poor. He was the oldest child, expected to take charge after his father died.
"Hey, Dad, take it easy," W.P. calls as we head out again, racing through dark side streets. There is an early morning chill, but under my clothes I am dripping like the icy inner walls of a cave. I open the window, thinking how W.P. has been wanting to take this trip for years but something always got in the way. He'd run out of money, find a new girlfriend, decide to help a friend shoot a film, break up with his girl, quit his job, and then feel too despondent to go anywhere.
"Dad, slow down. You just went through a red light?"
"Maybe you'd like to drive," snaps Joe.
I punch his arm. "Don't be a jerk." Even with the window open, I continue to sweat as if I'd run a couple of miles. The three of us are chariot horses pulling in different directions.
"Come on, you two, lighten up," W.P. says.
I turn and wink at him. "You know what I forgot? Toilet paper. I meant to stick a couple of rolls in your backpack."
He gives a mock groan. "It's okay, Mom. Nature provides -- rocks, sticks, leaves, all that stuff."
I listen in vain for the question marks, but it's all bravado now. Is this reassuring?
The sky is beginning to brighten. An enormous crane looms in the distance; when we get closer I see the claw-like contraption dangling from one end of it. It reminds me of a hangman's noose. Or a meat hook, the kind the Nazis used to hang bodies from. Yes, yes, there are a thousand fates worse than not having something soft to wipe your bottom with. I panic. Wild, implausible thoughts fill my mind. Nepal and neighboring India. Border wars. Religious persecution. I remember the scenes in "Jewel in the Crown." Massacres on trains. He could get caught in crossfire or blown to bits by a time bomb in a cafe. I clutch my armrest, denting the leather. I have to stop this. W.P. isn't going to be fighting in any wars. There's only his own internal battle. And maybe now he'll find peace.
Look at all that traffic coming our way," Joe growls. "Exactly what I was afraid of." I gaze at the procession of headlights creeping toward us and it doesn't bode well; Joe will probably be late for his first appointment. But that's not all that's bothering him. When we got home from Sara's last night, we discovered W.P. hadn't even begun to pack.
He refused any help from us -- The list of what I need's all in my head. It won't take long.
His light was still on when I got up to go to the bathroom at four.
Joe, who never lets anything go till the last minute, must be wondering how this "cool kid" of ours is going to make it from A to B to C. Tonight W.P. will be sitting up in the Bangkok airport where, if he doesn't stay alert, he'll be robbed of money and passport by those who prey on naive, careless travelers.
"Relax. There's nothing you can do." I tell Joe what he always tells me. God knows, why I'm the calm one all of a sudden.
As soon as we get to the terminal, the men leap out and carry the duffels inside. I stay in the car and persuade a traffic cop that Joe will be back in a second.
Then it's my turn. "Make it fast," Joe said.
It's a madhouse inside the terminal. I wander around, afraid I won't find W.P. Finally I spot him, squatting over his luggage. He's dreaming and doesn't notice me, even though I'm close enough to read the initials on his tags.
Go ahead and stare, I tell myself. It's your last chance. Just then he looks up. "Hey, Mom!" In approximately seven hours he'll be in San Francisco, the first leg of his trip. "I have a couple of hours to kill in the airport, thought maybe I'd call Jessica."
Jessica is a divorced, younger friend of mine, with long Egyptian eyes, whom he's always had a crush on. "Uh oh," I say. "She called last week and mentioned that she was going out of town -- sent you her love. Did I forget to tell you?"
"You forgot, all right. Hey Mom, that's bad." He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a little white box. "Here, I almost forgot to give you this."
My fingers tremble. Inside the box on a bed of cotton is a silver pendant. "Oh, honey!" He's the romantic in the family. He likes to give me presents, jewelry especially. I hold the pendent up and examine the intricate filigree. It has a turquoise stone in the center, a human-like shape. Man or woman? I can't tell. One of those androgynous gods, perhaps.
"Do you like it?"
"Like it? Sweetheart, I love it! I'll always be thinking of you when I wear it. Not," I add, "that I need any reminders."
"Na. With you, it's out of sight out of mind."
My heart slips sideways as I reach for him.
"Mom, I'll be all right," he says.
I have never in my life embraced anyone so thin. I put my arms around his backpack too; he feels more substantial that way. We're so alike, the same fears and hopes. "Tighter," he says.
00 : 00 : 00 : 00
MIDAFTERNOON IN A MOVIE THEATER in the Mall of America. Glary lights before the show make everything seem stark and unfinished to Kate Frazey, a bony aerobics instructor relieving herself of her shocking-pink ski jacket, bunching it on the folded-up seat beside her, and sitting in row three, seat nine, seeing herself as she does so as if from a crane shot among these other filmgoers filtering in and settling down around her. Kate, blond hair so dark it is almost the color of high-fiber breakfast cereal, is Franz Kafka’s great-great granddaughter, although she carries no awareness of this within her. She doesn’t know her great-great grandfather once had an affair with another bony woman, Grete Bloch, friend of Felice Bauer, to whom Kafka was briefly engaged. Kate doesn’t know Grete had a son about whom Kafka never learned, nor that his son was supposed to have died while a child, but was adopted by a Jewish businessman and his wife, and brought to New York in the thirties. Whenever Kate dreams, it is about the plots of Kafka’s work, which she has never read because she believes there are already too many stories in the world. Kate dreams that two strangers in top hats and frock coats are always knocking at her door, wanting in. That she is a ninety-pound weight-loss artist dissolving in a cage full of hay in the town square in Prague. That she is a muscular hare darting through a wet field at night and that, no matter how fast she runs, no matter which direction she chooses, the beautiful hounds sleeping within the castle miles away will awaken the next day and chase her down. This is why Kate doesn’t sleep unless she has to. This is why she hasn’t slept for two nights, why she leans forward now, elbows on knees, concentrating very hard on keeping her glistery brown eyes wide open.
00 : 00 : 05 : 03
BYRON METNICK, the scrawny usher scanning the audience from his post at the rear exit, doesn’t like movies. He considers them serious wastes of time. They make him think too much, for one thing. Plus he read somewhere the majority of steady film patrons are between the ages of seventeen and twenty-nine with bachelor’s degrees either in sight or in hand, and Byron despises every one of them. Last April, two months before graduation, he dropped out of Kennedy High, having learned exactly zip there except maybe how to type. Byron is totally down with his job here, though, because once a flick starts he gets to duck into the last row and catch a quick nap. After work, his friends and him cruise over to the park and smoke weed on the swings or in their cars and chill. Byron can’t get baked at home because he still lives with his rents and his rents possess a veritable shitstorm of rules. Fridays and Saturdays, Byron sleeps late and returns to the mall in the afternoon. He gets high in his fourth-hand Dodge Colt in one of the parking structures, buys a Coke and jumbo fries at Malaysian Madness in the food court, and people-watches. After a while, everyone at the mall starts looking stunned like they’ve seen too much. If he waits long enough, one of his friends eventually drifts by with news about where the best party will be that night. Byron then cruises over and smokes weed and chills until he finds himself nodding off in front of Road Runner cartoons in the basement. Meanwhile, Byron just likes looking. He finds the kids riding the Mighty Ax at the very point their sense of enjoyment wanes (eighty feet in the air, upside-down, teetering at the cusp of a plummet) particularly fucking hilarious. The way their eyes go all big. The way their jaws brace for impact.
00 : 00 : 06 : 23
LYDIA LARRABEE CARRIES a furry insect at the end of her name because that’s how she remembers it and Lydia is this many old and her eyes are shut because there are boys and girls all over the world who see only with their fingers but Lydia went peepee and stepping out of the stall couldn’t find her mommy in the crowded restroom and stepping out of the crowded restroom couldn’t find her daddy in the crowded lobby and now she thinks maybe she turned right thinking right was left but they went to Camp Snoopy this morning and splashed down the Log Chute into a cement mountain filled with puppets and in Cereal Adventure her favorite breakfast foods Cocoa Puffs Lucky Charms Trix came to life and Lydia petted a real live stingray in the petting pool at Underwater Adventure and this place smells like grownups’ bottoms but if you squint just right it only looks like your eyes are closed but really you can see and her daddy told her there were thirty thousand plants and four hundred trees in Camp Snoopy and the world’s biggest working LEGO clock in the Imagination Center was so pretty Lydia wanted to buy it and there was a red LEGO dinosaur with a gray belly and brown back and green blinking eyes and a baby LEGO dinosaur at its feet so cute she wanted to buy that too and this theater smells very small like grammy’s apartment on winter mornings when the radiator is running and this wall feels very gray like a rug and Lydia stands by it wishing she was blind and her hair long like a princess’s and full like golden smoke.
00 : 00 : 07 : 22
JEFF KOTCHEFF is engaged in an act of loathing. He pictures his seat, situated in the precise center of the theater, a foxhole, and the colorful boxes of candy, plastic container of chips and cheesy dip, cardboard carton stuffed with hotdog, jumbo-sized tub of buttered popcorn, and super-size Coke surrounding it sandbags. He has raised his armrests to accommodate his existence because when he concludes one meal his first thought is what he will have for a snack before the next. Jeff lives alone in a farmhouse on two-point-five acres of hilly land an hour and a half northwest of the city because he enjoys occupying space. That’s what the universe is for, in Jeff’s opinion: filling. He fists a wad of soppy popcorn into his mouth, takes a considerable slurp of pop, pushes his aviator glasses up on his nose, and glowers at the back of the head of the jewboy who just sat down in front of him. Jesus H. Christ. Six-fifty for a matinee and they remind Jeff of those extreme what do you call it bioforms he saw on the Discovery Channel last week that live in thermal vents at the bottom of the what do you call it Mariana Trench. This is why guns are so wonderful, but not as wonderful as small personal incendiary devices. Live and let live, believes Jeff, so long as you leave my view corridor the fuck alone. When Jeff chomps down on his hotdog, relish and mustard ooze out the butt-end and glop onto his flannel shirtfront. Jeff is acutely indifferent. He is looking forward to a good love story with maybe Sarah Michelle Gellar or Gwyneth Paltrow in it. He could really use a first-rate romantic weeper right about now. Jeff Kotcheff wants to feel his heart tear. Jeff Kotcheff wants to cry his goddamn eyes out.
00 : 03 : 25 : 09
PIERRE, THE MAN IN THE BLACK mackintosh sitting directly behind Chantrelle, row three, seat six, caught immortality from a mosquito in the Szeged train station one humid summer evening in 1942. There is one insect in the world that carries the virus and, unlike others of its species, it is iridescent, immortal itself, and blinks into existence on Mondays and Wednesdays. The rest of the week it resides in a parallel universe where it dies every sixteen hours. Pierre was on a mission for the French Resistance to eliminate a high-ranking German officer passing through Hungary when the mosquito bit him. Pierre can no longer recall his own last name because it has been so long since he used it. Back in Paris, his job was to wait on a street corner at night until another man in a black mackintosh identical to his own approached him and whispered a coded message as he strolled past. Pierre then walked to another street corner several blocks away where another man in a black mackintosh was waiting for him, and Pierre, strolling past, would reiterate verbatim what he had heard. Sometimes the messages were vitally important. Sometimes they were gibberish. Pierre never knew which were which. Feet aching like a pair of upset hearts, he sometimes waited rainy hours for his contact to appear. Pierre believes people are expecting him somewhere in the mall this very minute. He believes he should be somewhere he isn’t, although he doesn’t know where that place is. He knows he has nothing to tell the people waiting for him. No one has approached Pierre with a message, coded or otherwise, in more than sixty years. Every morning he wakes feeling anxious he has nothing to tell anyone anywhere on this loose planet.
00 : 03 : 57 : 19
ELMORE NORMAN TAKES ANOTHER SIP of Mountain Dew and is transported to a faraway desert land. A crusader on horseback, he slays a dragon the dimensions of a school bus. The dragon is covered with shimmering scales, each comprised of a three-dimensional photograph of a possible future. In a cave guarded by genie, Elmore comes across an exact tiny silver replica of his own house among piles of gold. In the replica, tiny versions of Harriett and him watch a tiny big-screen television set. They are sitting side by side on a tiny couch, sharing a tiny bowl of ice cream. They look overweight and they look bored. After solving a complicated riddle posed by the genie, Elmore marries a firm-breasted Nubian slave and fathers eight children by her. He grows old. Two of his children are killed in an earthquake, one by pestilence, one by war. His Nubian wife leaves him for another woman. His friends in Minneapolis forget him and move on with their lives. Elmore loses his possessions when he bets the sun will rise the next day, but it doesn’t. Beaten down, his health declines, his organs give out, disease makes a meal of his body. Lying alone on his deathbed in a dark tent stinking of rotten canvas, Elmore’s vision dims. Somehow he always thought the end would be a lot worse than this. It is bad, certainly, but somehow he always thought it would be a lot worse. Closing his eyes for the last time, aware that every man begins his life as many men but dies as only one, he swallows, and is back in his seat in the multiplex, sipping his Mountain Dew. It strikes Elmore Norman that million-to-one odds happen nearly nine times a day in Manhattan.
00 : 00 : 10 : 01
FOUR ROWS BEHIND AND THREE TO ELMORE’S LEFT, Celan Solen tries to figure out why reality feels so inadequate simply because you can’t look at it through a frame like you can a movie.