Webster's definition of a displaced person is someone driven or expelled from his or her homeland by war or tyranny. What they forgot to include is someone driven or expelled from his or her employer. Webster has been wise enough to update it on their website.
No rumors or telltale signs that something might have toppled over the rooks or the pawns in upper management; the department where I worked for five years was downsized. My position became eliminated. I'd been discharged, dismissed, deselected, a term my co-workers joked about until it finally started happening to them one by one.
Yes, I admitted it -- I'm displaced. While sitting around at home, yes, in fat floppy slippers, staring out the window, looking at my neighbors who get up and go to work everyday, waiting for the phone to ring in the hopes that maybe it'll be a recruiter, I picked up a copy of Flannery O'Connor's Three and began reading.
It was better than reading “Tips and Advice” from Monster dot com or using the search engine on Career Builder. I couldn't look at another online posting in need of a professional with the credentials that I'd acquired from years of experience. If my resume didn't match the traits they were looking for in an ideal candidate, I would often be rejected as overqualified and not be considered.
Naturally out of all the stories in Three, “The Displaced Person,” caught my interest. Mr. Guizac, a Polish immigrant who worked on a farm in the south was “the displaced person.,” The proprietor of the farm, Mrs. McIntyre wanted to fire him. What stopped her from dismissing him was her sense of moral obligation. She stuck to the advice the old priest gave her about being a good Christian and having charity for those in time of need.
I've never read a more fitting description of a displaced person. “He's extra and he's upset the balance around here,” Mrs. McIntyre explained her position the best she could to the priest.
I anticipated a flood of emails to pour in my mailbox, but instead all I received was Spam. I decided to do something about it. I changed my routine. So many companies had already received my resume; I could create a super highway with my own paper trail. I'd been spending too much time alone, staring at the computer screen at home, so I went to seek the advice from a fresh new face.
“Network, network, network,” Mrs. Candy advised, a career coach from the career center at The New School, where I graduated and earned a degree. Her eyes scrutinized the resume I gave her to review behind pink flamingo-colored rimmed glasses. “Employers are more likely to hire people who have some sort of connection with their company even if it's a referral than those who come in off the streets.”
“A friend of mine works at a bookstore,” I said. “When they were looking to hire help, he referred me. I didn't get an interview because I have no experience in retail.”
A clear glass jar of Hershey's Kisses sat in front of her desk. I reached in and grabbed a handful. I hadn't eaten anything for lunch or for breakfast. I removed the silver foil from the small pyramid of milk chocolate and popped it in my mouth, waiting for her reaction.
Mrs. Candy pushed her swivel chair back, away from the large oak desk. Hanging on the wall was a master's degree from Yeshiva University and a bachelor's in science from Fordham. I wondered how this educated woman, wearing a Tiffany-style brooch on the lapel of her summer linen, could possibly give advice to someone like myself who can't even afford the cost of dry cleaning.
Her mid-section heaved like a dumpling filled with cheese before she spoke. “Unemployment is a full-time job. Have you contacted any publishing houses for an informational interview? If you're trying to make a career change and break into an editor's position, you should consider it. It's a great way of getting your foot in the door.”
“I knew someone who had an informational interview at a downtown firm on Wall Street. It didn't help pay the bills,” I said. I'd come to seek advice; but I quickly learned that Mrs. Candy wasn't generous enough to provide any new leads, names of professionals who could possibly open up some doors for me like I'd hoped. “I've taken up enough of your time. I should be going now.”
Mrs. Candy opened the desk drawer. She reached in and pulled out a copy of The Perfect Interview. She pursed her lips, thin as a drizzle of frosting on Angel's Food cake, and threw down the book on a pile of papers that scattered. “If you're not willing to listen to the advice I have to offer, maybe you'll be wise enough to read this.”
It hadn't occurred to me until I rode the subway on my way home that maybe I'd tapped into the last of Mrs. Candy's patience for displaced workers. Maybe I'd shrunk the resources out of the rest of the career coaches' reserves like Mr. Twigs from the New York State Department of Labor whose only advice he could give was to stick it out and hang in there; things have a way of working out for themselves.
Observing people is the normal pastime for any commuter who might not have anything to look at or read. The Boogeyman beggar sang the blues; the subway priest wore shoes with cardboard soles. He told his own organic version of a story in the bible.
Across the aisle, a woman scolded me with a dark glower. She caught me looking at the wandering eye of a man with a wallet fastened to a gold chain around his neck. He listened to Hip Hop on his i-Pod Nano.
I've never had the talent for retaining trivial information like some people are known to do. What surprised me was the words Mrs. Shortley said about Mrs. McIntyre to her husband in the short story I'd just finished reading: “A Displaced Person.” They appeared clear as the subway map across from me.
‘” She says it's ten million more like them, Displaced Persons, she says that their priest can get her all she wants.” '
How many others were out there looking for work like me? The unemployment rate was 5.0 in June, down from 5.1 in May, comparatively low to prior years. Still, I could not help but think that, in reality, I was just another number.
The red light from the answering machine was flashing when I got home. I hit play and listened to the message. “This is Gabriel T. Firefly from Fredonia Publishing. We have received a copy of your resume for the assistant editor's position. I would like for you to come into the office. Please call me at your earliest convenience.”
I yelled “Hooray” in the confines of a small quiet eastside apartment, which broke the morning silence like the flutter of a pigeon's wing. I rang back the number left on the answering machine and spoke to Mr. Firefly's secretary. A breathy woman's voice answered at the other end of the receiver.
I imagined Roger Rabbit's girlfriend Jessica, a cartoon nonetheless a very sexy one, sitting at a desk, behind a flat-screen monitor, tossing her long red hair off her shoulder. “Good afternoon,” she said. “Gabriel T. Firefly's office, how may I help you?”
“Hello,” I said. “I am returning Mr. Firefly's phone call. My name is Allison Young.”
“Yes, Ms. Young,” she spoke like a sales representative for Victoria's Secret. “This is Mr. Firefly's personal assistant, Felicity. Thank you for getting back to us so soon. Are you available to come into the office on Thursday at 10:00 a.m. for an interview?”
“Let me check my schedule,” I replied, embarrassed to find the dates, wide open on the calendar, hanging by a thumb tack on pockmarked corkboard. “Thursday would be fine.”
“Excellent,” she said, her voice deep and raspy. “We're located at 663 Fifth Avenue on the thirty-third floor. Look forward to meeting you.”
No sooner had I gotten off the phone with Gabriel T. Firefly's personal assistant that I began dialing Ernie's number. My friend, who'd referred me for a job at Strand's bookstore, picked up the phone on the second ring. “I got it,” I said. “I got an interview.”
“I knew you would,” he said. “It was only a matter of time before things would start changing for you. See, there was no need for you to freak.”
“Let's get together on Friday night. Hopefully we'll have something to celebrate.”
When I lost my job I lost the privilege to pursue happiness as a free citizen. One of my dreams was to see my friendship with Ernie develop into something deeper and more meaningful. Unemployment could be an excuse. It shouldn't stop me from pursuing my goals; however, I couldn't go anywhere without money. The first things to go, besides health insurance and a 401K, were the things that people with a steady income take most often for granted: shopping, dining out, enjoying the movies, and going on vacation. How easily those privileges can be taken away like they'd been taken from me.
Maybe meeting Mrs. Candy hadn't been a waste of time after all. I pulled out the contents in my backpack and found the book she'd given me, The Perfect Interview.
I read some of the questions most likely to come up during an interview. Where do you see yourself in five years? In all fairness, I'd like to see myself away from the clutches of the cubicle, on an island on a beach, painting the Caribbean sunset on canvas, sipping on a Tropical drink, the shade of the warm pink sun.
The worst sins an interviewee could do, according to the book, was to speak in generalities rather than specifics. Tell me about yourself, one of my favorites. The traditional approach was to tell them about any recent training programs or work history that might pertain to the job.
The hell with dressing up in uncomfortable conservative clothing. Flashing smiles and providing socially acceptable small talk seemed not only forced, but downright fake. The hell with tradition. How about the truth? Not everybody could be a business typhoon or a corporate mongrel even if they wanted to. Some of us, like myself, had been going to work just to receive a paycheck to help support special interests such as carpentry or painting that could blossom into works of art some day. Why can't a job just be a job? When did a job have to become a career?
Tell me about yourself should be answered the way it should be addressed, honestly like a human being who has dreams and aspirations that doesn't involve a mission statement instead of an automaton, a cross between a factory worker and E.T.
I'd been painting ever since I could afford to buy my own watercolor paint set as a kid at Ben Franklin's Arts and Crafts.
Funny how I inherited my talents from the very same woman who discouraged me from going to art school. “Knowing how to draw isn't going to help pay the rent,” Mom said. She stacked the dishes from the sink to the dish rack. “You need skills like accounting or computer training to survive in this world. You're no Van Gogh or Georgia O'Keefe.”
“I know,” I said and grabbed a dinner plate to hand dry. “But I like to paint.”
“I don't want to see my daughter be dependent on a man,” she said. Her back hunched over from years of housework, standing with her face flushed in front of a sink full of dirty dishes and hot water. “You have to learn how to support yourself.”
I couldn't say don't worry about it and just leave it at that. All my girlfriends in high school were getting the same lecture from their parents. It didn't matter what I wanted to be when I grew up. The goal for any modern new millennium woman was to be financially secure and above all things independent, an assumption on my mother's part.
When I did grow up, I sold a few paintings to art galleries in Chelsea, but not enough to earn a living. The thought of prostituting my talents to an advertising agency meant that I was selling myself short. I couldn't make any compromises in my art for a paycheck. Was that too personal? I hoped I didn't divulge too much information about myself.
One that got a lot of applicants into trouble had been the question what is your weakness? I've been known to be moody with the change in wind and the slightest shift in temperature. How could employers expect candidates to answer these questions with all sincerity? They didn't. They were meant to see how well you played the game.
I looked away from the book and saw the face of an angel staring at me. Like a gothic statue seen in a cathedral, it hung on the wall next to my bed. The ceramic cherub resembled the angel stolen from her deceased husband's tombstone, in “The Displaced Person.” Mrs. McIntyre couldn't find a replacement for it. A judge, while he was still alive, saw it at a shop window in the city and, like myself, fell in love with it and had to have it.
Was I being judged, set apart from the masses, no longer an active participant, but forced to sit and watch the game of life from the sidelines, for not having a job? Somewhere along the line, I must've done something wrong to find myself here. I slipped through the cracks in the system and hung dangerously close to being expelled from the working middle class if something didn't give soon. After all, I knew that eventually I would get my turn. Patience wasn't one of my strongest assets.
I opened the heavy door with Fredonia Publishing engraved in Broadway lettering, entered the waiting room, and announced myself. The receptionist said hello. A young woman with faint yellow eyebrows, thin as a plastic straw used to stir a tangerine blue cocktail at happy hour.
I recognized her voice – the voice of a breath-taking damsel in the movies that could persuade her leading man to run off and marry her—when she spoke. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Young,” she said, rearranging the Post-Its on her desk. “I'm Felicity. Please have a seat. Mr. Firefly will be out to see you shortly.”
On the sleeve of my navy blue suit, I wiped the sweat off the palm of my hands. My heart thumped against the cavity of my chest, which echoed in the chamber of my ears. The winged-back chair was comfortable enough. I remembered to keep my posture aligned and my back straight.
“Would you like a cup of coffee or anything to drink?” Felicity asked.
“No thank you,” I replied and flashed a deliberate smile at her. “I'm fine.”
“Mr. Firefly is on a conference call,” she said. “He'll be done in a few minutes.”
Money, Inc., Forbes Magazine, and today's New York Times were the choices of reading material on the coffee table. I felt too giddy to read or concentrate on anything other than not blowing the interview.
An oil painting of a peacock, the size of an oversized landscape, hung on the wall across from where I sat. The curvature of the bird's neck bent backwards like a sunflower reaching for the heat of the day. His raised tail was spread out to display all the small planets like Saturn ringed in green and set against the sun. Like the priest in “The Displaced Person,” I sat transfixed by the beauty I felt toward the splendor in the art.
The odds of encountering a painting of a peacock, while waiting for the man who had a hand at my destiny, were too much of a coincidence. As if the fate of how the interview might go relied on my recollection of what the priest had said to Mrs. McIntyre, I suddenly remembered the word, “Transfiguration.”
Mrs. McIntyre had no idea what he had been talking about. She was too concerned about herself. She repeated her opinion about the displaced person to him. ‘” He didn't have to come in the first place.” '
‘” He came to redeem us,” ' the priest said.
Lost in the privacy of my own thoughts, I got startled by the hand that gestured for a handshake. “Ms. Young, it's a pleasure to meet you,” a middle-aged man said, wearing a white-starched Polo business shirt with gold cufflinks. “I'm Gabriel Firefly.”
Mr. Firefly led the way down a corridor and into a corner office with spectacular views of Central Park. The grass, flanked by mature trees symmetrical as the topiary at a private country club, was divided into the square shape of a golf course. “Please have a seat,” he said. “Let me grab a pen and pad.”
The moment I'd been waiting for, where I could land the job I wanted, was here.
“So, tell me about yourself.”
Jenny MacLaren had been driving nearly twelve hours. She didn't notice the sun fissuring the curved dashboard of her '97 Camry, or the crisp lines of Highway 17 blurring by like white bricks. She didn't notice the crowded trees, razor-edged pines and leaning birches, or the mix of 1950s motels with Indian names across from the more current Scottish ones. Instead, her mind searched through a past, present, and future of uncertainty. She reached around the stick shift into a cellophane bag for a mint-flavored Lifesaver.
Jenny turned thirty, Thursday. And somewhere during her late afternoon comp class as an adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she lost focus on Sherman Alexie's Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
“I wonder. The concept of home—what does it mean, really?” She turned from the door, tapped her right cheek, and leaned against the desk.
“Well, it's a rez, so it's never, like, really home for them. It's the government's home for them,” said Suzanne Paine, Jenny's best student. Suzanne wore loud clanking bracelets and T-shirts scrawled with slogans like “I'll become a Post-Feminist when we live in a Post-Patriarchy.”
“Yes, yes.” Jenny had earned an MFA from Iowa State and followed Clint Davies, her boyfriend, to Minnesota. But two years ago, while he was working on tenure and publishing a first collection of stories with Penguin, Clint found a fellow fiction writer, and Jenny now lived in a small apartment with Mary Martinez and two calico cats. Jenny had published several poems in small magazines, but no book, and she was making about a third of the salary of those on the tenure track. She hadn't been back to Canada in two years, and she felt like she hadn't truly been back in a long time. “That doubleness. To be in one place but to be a part of another.”
“What place?” asked a football player, his face stretched with skepticism. A South Carolina cap that said “Cocks” sat sideways on his head, the bill pointing up. He and Suzanne never got along.
“The place of your ancestors. A native land that no longer exists. A land that—” Jenny looked out the slitted window of the classroom door and felt adrift in charcoal with her Canadian father standing over a grill in Hiawatha Park and Conservation Area. The park curled north past Black Road in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Dad, a cigarette daubing between his lips, turned steaks and told jokes about Mickey Mouse. “So Mickey tells the lawyer, ‘No, I don't want to divorce Minnie because she's silly. I said, I want a divorce, because she was fucking Goofy.'” Jenny was twelve.
It was over 700 miles from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, and she was now within two hours. After Thursday's classes, Jenny felt a tingling rush, an alert confusion to do, act, and not think. She barely packed a bag—a couple of jeans, two flannel shirts, a sweater, tampons, deodorant, and a toothbrush. She didn't even leave a note for her roommate.
She wanted to get back to Canada and, as best as she could articulate it, walk in the Canadian side of her double identity. There were places in Canada that no one had set foot in, deep up north, and, although her explorations weren't as lofty, there were parts of her past she hadn't looked at in a long time. Her Aunt Margaret, who took care of Jenny's father before he died, also lived in the Soo on a horse ranch on the eastern fringes, and maybe Jenny would visit her. Margaret always supported Jenny's writing, but she was disappointed in Jenny for not stopping by after her father's funeral. Clint had something to do with that.
The March break was next week and Jenny wanted to walk in Hiawatha Park and visit the public library Dad took her to on the edge of the Saint Mary River. There, Jenny would crouch by the dormer window on the second floor and stare over the gray blue stillness of the river and re-read, like she did at seven and eight, Farley Mowatt and Anne of Green Gables.
But before she could sit in a library window, Jenny needed to stretch—her shoulders and the back of her neck were stiff, and her eyes felt gritted. She blinked several times and pulled over at an Esso station. Coffee and Tim Horton donuts.
Turning thirty. It was a benchmark, but what had she accomplished, really? Margaret Atwood published a collection of poems well before thirty. And Clint had two books out, and an agent, and he was only twenty-nine. Shit. Jenny wasn't even married. No offers either. Her last date, before Labor Day, was with an older professor who couldn't believe she didn't like T. S. Eliot. He took her to an expensive Italian restaurant, and when she tried to move the conversation away from Eliot and Wallace Stevens and suggest they have fun—Putt-Putt golf or bowling—he replied, “Fun? My Dear, I don't do fun.” Jenny didn't want to be so serious, and now she felt a vague stirring in her, the desire for something old but new. Maybe it was in Canada.
She grabbed her keys and stepped outside.
For March, the air was surprisingly heavy, and snow crunched below her as if she were breaking off pieces of Styrofoam. She zipped her coat and with hands in pockets lightly stepped along the ice-glinted path behind the gas station. Canadian flags flapped with sharp tones, the red catching in the morning mist. Jenny's father died from cancer around the same time Clint left her, and her American mother, a native Kansan, now lived overseas with a third husband. Jenny's parents divorced when she was seven, and she visited Dad during holidays. He told jokes and cooked up marbled steaks instead of turkey on Canadian Thanksgivings in October, and let the teenager smoke or have a beer. Sometimes, thick with drink, he mentioned a woman he was seeing, a Catherine or a Deborah, and the way each woman's skin sang—if he lay his ear close to the silky hairs of their forearms, he heard an enjambed melody, bright lines of trumpets and trombones dancing a zigzag beat. Her father had no trouble talking about sex. When Jenny was four, she asked Dad what was his favorite thing to do. “Make love,” he said. And when she was a teenager, Dad insisted that Jenny was good looking—her combination of red hair and brown eyes was striking and she was curvy enough to get by—but he always reminded her that she wasn't as smart as him. His IQ was around 140. Jenny took after her mother, but that's okay. “Ordinary people do better with their lives,” Dad said.
“I'll have a small box of Timbits. Coconut. Just coconut. And a large coffee.”
The woman nodded, and Jenny paid the amount and sat at a two-person table. Along the counters were older men on stools, discussing politics and looking forward to the spring crops. There weren't any families present—it was a school day—but across from Jenny huddled two girls in dark parkas and bright, long scarves. They shared a butter tart.
Jenny had another donut hole and sipped hot coffee. Outside, the sky was no longer pastel-colored but a thin blue with traces of milky white. She couldn't see any clouds.
The donuts weren't that good. She had better in the States from her local grocery-store deli, but the coffee was great, and Dad took her to Tim Horton's when she was a kid. He was always loud, teasing the women working there—“Don't tell me to have a nice day. Please don't tell me how to live my life. I don't tell you to have a nice day, do I? Don't tell me to have a nice day.” They always thought he was serious and apologized, and then Dad laughed as he sat in a booth with Jenny. She would be embarrassed for the women and herself. “Dad, you're hurting their feelings.” “Come on. It's just a joke. I make people laugh. I'm a comic genius.”
Jenny sat another ten minutes, pulled out a small, spiral notebook from her jacket, and scribbled thoughts, future lines for poems. She jotted sentences on how she hadn't seen a single military vehicle in Canada. They crawl the highways of the US, olive, canvas-covered trucks and mud-splattered Hummers, convoys thudding along in determined lines. Perhaps because Canada's free of policing the world the highways up here are built narrower than those in the States. Anyway, Jenny was thankful for the lack of military surveillance and sparse billboard advertising that didn't dot the landscape like spots of paint flung by Jackson Pollack. She liked that last simile.
“Are you heading to Sault Ste. Marie?”
Jenny looked up and saw the girls with long scarves. Their clothes—blue Columbia jackets with black trim and gray toques and gloves—matched, but they didn't look like sisters. One had a lean face with wispy blond hair and dishwater eyes. The other had a wide-set face and dark hair and muddy eyes. She looked a little bit Indian, or First Nation's Peoples as they up North. “Yes,” Jenny smiled pensively. “Shouldn't you girls be in school?” She shoved her notebook back into her jacket.
“Never mind,” the dark-haired girl said, moving away from the table.
“No, no. Hold on. Sit down, sit down. I'm—have some Timbits. I'm Jenny.”
They sat. The one who looked Indian was Diane Atkinson and the willowy blond, Gretchen Hollier. “We don't have school. It's uh, it's what do you call it—” Gretchen bit her lower lip.
“An in-service day,” said Diane, as she ate Timbits and pushed and picked at the napkin dispenser in front of her.
“Teacher's prepping for parent-conference interviews. You know?” Diane folded a wobbly napkin over once lengthwise, and then pulled the two top edges down toward the center into a pair of triangles. She was making a paper airplane. Jenny smiled. She was a pacifist, but when she was nine and ten, she built model airplanes with her dad. Dad was fascinated with World War One because his grandfather, a Canadian from the Prairies, was a member of the Royal Flying Corps and had shot down 18 planes. He flew with Raymond Collishaw from Vancouver who shot down 60 enemy planes. Young Jenny knew the scores of Canadian airmen as if they were NHL goal-scoring leaders. Bishop: 72 planes. Barker: 50.
“What are you laughing at?” Diane asked, her voice lightly raised.
“I'm not laughing. My dad and I used to build model airplanes. World War One stuff. He knew everything about them. The German Fokker tri-plane was his favorite.” Jenny preferred the British, S. E. 5A with its longer box-like body and a machine gun mounted on the upper wing of the biplane. “You know, before engineers discovered synchronized guns, a French guy placed metal guards on the propellers to deflect the bullets, but some times strays would fly back and damage the motor, and then—”
Diane snapped the plane at Jenny. It landed sharply against her chest. “It's just a plane.”
“Yeah.” Jenny shrugged and pushed the box of donuts toward Diane and Gretchen. “You know, if you folded the wings in one more time it would go further and faster.”
Diane shrugged and ate a Timbit.
“Let me show you.” She opened up the origami, folded the wings over once again, and flicked her wrist. The plane dipped and rose, gliding past an old man in a green parka before landing on top of a trash can. The girls covered their heads on the table and laughed. “That was pretty good, huh?”
They took off their toques, their shoulders still shaking. Gretchen's hair was pencil-line thin, and the back of her head wasn't round, but flat, like a smooth stone.
“Well, I'm just curious. Where are your parents?”
Gretchen lifted in her head. “Is all you have in here coconut-donut holes? What about chocolate or something?”
“I like coconut. I wasn't expecting to have guests.”
Gretchen smiled, and Diane said that coconut was fine, she liked it, and they were wanting to get to the Soo because a modeling agency was looking at new talent and Gretchen wanted to sign on with Kit McWhirter Modeling on Bay Street.
“Do you have a portfolio?”
“A what?” A lip of hair curved behind Gretchen's left ear.
“Portfolio. Photographs of you.”
“Oh, no. I thought I'd get them there.”
“I told you, you needed a portfolio, Gretch.” Diane smacked her in the shoulder.
Jenny reached into the box of Timbits. “Models carry a portfolio. Anyway—” Jenny looked off in the direction of the old-timers laughing over some jokes and at her airplane left unattended on the top of the trash can. “Where are your parents?”
“They don't want Gretch to be a model,” Diane said, her arms folded across her chest. She huffed and blew her thick bangs back from her forehead. “So we're just going. We hitchhiked this far, and we'll hitchhike again.”
“Where you from originally?” Jenny didn't like the idea of them hitchhiking. A couple of times as a teenager she had to do it, and the male drivers always had a cold beer between their legs.
“Down the road. A couple of hours.”
“I see.” Jenny hadn't initially realized that in asking that question she could have invited a complicated answer. When Jenny was a kid visiting and living with her dad, her Canadian friends always asked about her ancestral past. Where you from wasn't just your hometown or Canada—where you're from was your roots. You couldn't just say, “I'm Canadian.” No, you had to mention where your tribe lives, or if you're Scottish, or from Eastern Europe, or Pakistan. Jenny, to her Canadian friends, was always from Scotland and France, with some Swiss-German thrown into the mix somewhere during the 19th Century. To her American friends she was just an American from the Midwest who happened to have a Canadian dad. Maybe times had changed. These kids didn't even think about their roots.
“What about your parents, Diane? Do they know you're going to the Soo?” The girls seemed pleasant enough, but something was off. They wouldn't be allowed to model if their parents didn't sign a release form. Maybe they were runaways. Jenny had some experience with the Children's Aid Society. Her dad, in the last ten years of his life, bought and fixed up old apartments and duplexes, leasing them to low-income families. A few single moms, jumping from job to job, struggled to maintain a home and lost custody of their children. The kids visited, and they had the same sharp attitude of Gretch and Diane, a retreating shrug to their words and a distracted glaze to their eyes as they sought distance from pain. Dad, a frequent character witness, often vouched for the mothers before the CAS and at preliminary court hearings, and some kept their kids. Denys MacLaren never made much money as a landlord, but he carried people through hard times, letting them live for free, holding families together while he went bankrupt. Near the end of his life, harassed by bill collectors, Dad swore off possessions, giving nearly everything away and living in a 8 by 12 foot trailer.
“We live in the same house,” Diane said.
“We. She. Diane, she's adopted,” Gretchen said, her lower lip quivering.
“Oh. I, see.” Jenny pushed off from the table and stood up. She arched an eyebrow at the girls and then collected the airplane. The nose was dented, but she waved the craft in the air, claiming ownership and half apologizing to the farmers. “It flew damn well,” one of the old men said. “You should come out to my farm and fix up my '82 Chevy.” Jenny laughed, thanked him, and he shook her hand. “Before I fix any cars, we'll have to fix the nose and decal this thing,” she directed at the two girls, and the three of them walked away.
They had been driving for twenty-five minutes and the girls were surprised to find out that Jenny was half-American, and they wondered if American boys were different from Canadian boys. Jenny had never dated any Canadian boys so she couldn't say, but her sense was that people in the Midwest were a lot like people in Ontario: reserved, shy, and unassuming. Midwest boys didn't have the swagger that Canadians usually associated with Americans.
“Are they circumcised?” Diane asked.
“What kind of a question is that? Like I'm an expert?”
Diane sat in front, leaning against the locked door, laughing into the scarf knotted around her right wrist. Gretchen sat behind her on the passenger side. “I hear in Canada, it's like 50-50. Circumcised. Not,” Diane said.
“Uh-huh. Well, it's the same in the US.” Jenny shook her head and hoped they wouldn't ask any more questions about the differences between the circumcised and the un. “Look, girls. My love life? You know if love flows like a river, I have the love life of a swamp. Stagnant and full of mosquitoes biting me.” She told them about her breakup with Clint, how it still hurt to find he had been fooling around, and how dating really sucked. She even told them about the “fun” professor. The girls claimed that they were sixteen, but from all of their questions on sex Jenny suspected that they were younger, fourteen or so. Diane confessed that she had been felt up once at a beer-drinking party. “How did you like that?” Jenny asked. Diane didn't know. “Why is it guys just grab your tits without asking? He didn't ask right?” Diane said, not really. They both had been drinking, and she wanted to kiss him and they kissed, but when he put his hand there she didn't want him to, but she also didn't want to stop him. She liked the kissing part. “His hand, though, was cold.” “Yeah, I remember my first time. At a Drive-In in the fall. You girls have probably never been to a Drive-In. Anyway, his hand was cold, too. He even put on the car defroster, but that warmed up nothing. As a matter of fact, I think the window froze over. Damn defroster.” They laughed, and Jenny figured maybe she did get some of her humor from her father.
Gretchen, unlike Diane, hadn't said much about herself. Diane, who Jenny initially thought would be more reserved because of the anger with which she spiked that airplane at her, talked a lot. Her dad was a drunk and he lived in an old school bus at the end of somebody's property in Roseneath, Ontario. He was a squatter and worked odd jobs on farms, but the courts decided he couldn't raise a daughter.
“My Dad, near the end, lived in a trailer. On my aunt's horse ranch in the Soo,” Jenny said.
“Really. Wow. How big was the trailer?”
“Small. Very small.” After Dad's funeral, Jenny had intended to visit the trailer. Aunt Margaret asked her to come and sift through Dad's meager belongings—there were some philosophy books and magazines she might want—but Jenny had been struggling with Clint during the trip. She had found an earring in his travel bag that wasn't hers, and they hadn't made love in a long time, and he just wanted to get back to the States as quick as possible. “This whole family thing is fucking exhausting,” he said. “I'm sorry, but it is. I just want to get home.” Two weeks after returning to Duluth, he moved out. “Eight by Twelve. Smaller than a small bedroom, really. It had a bed, a makeshift card table, a sink and a closet. That was about it. Oh, and a window to look out.” Jenny had been in it maybe twice.
“Do you miss him?” Diane asked.
“Yeah I do.” The words tugged sideways, lodging in her collarbones. That trailer was always such a private place. Near the end, whenever Jenny visited Dad, he insisted on public places—the Swiss Chalet, Tim Horton's, or broasted chicken at Muios, a 50s style diner. The trailer was his space. She listened to the thud of the tires, slapping against hard snow. “Do you get to see your dad much, Diane?”
“Christmas, Easter. He was supposed to come out this weekend, but canceled. His bus wasn't working. At least that's what he said.” She shrugged and looked out the window at the bright sky. The clouds were still absent.
“That's too bad.”
Moments later, needing to pee, they stopped for gas at a mom-and-pop station. Jenny handed Diane and Gretchen some Twonies and told them to get candy and drinks. Whatever. Rainblo gum too, if they have it. She couldn't remember if it was only available in the States. “That's all I want. Just Rainblo.” They thanked her, and while she was at the pumps she reached for her cell phone, caught in the warped bottom pages of her notebook. She dialed Mary Martinez.
“Jenny? Jenny? My god where are you?”
“In Canada. Now listen—”
“My, God. I thought, I thought. I called the police, I thought something bad had happened.”
“You did what?”
Mary's voice spackled. You're always so reliable. You never stay out late. You never do anything to anyone. We always have dinner together, and I just knew something bad must have happened. She had filed a missing person's report.
The gas gurgled at the top of the tank with a rush and then shut off. Jenny put the handle back on the pump. “I can't believe you did that. I went a little Drama Queen, okay? I just turned thirty. I just needed to go. I'm fine, I'm fine, damn it. It's March Break.”
“I'm sorry.” Mary sounded like she was about to cry. “Why didn't you tell me?”
“I didn't know until the moment happened. It was right after class, I—Actually it was during class. Fuck. I'm sorry. I'm going home for a few days. In the Soo. I'll be back before the break is done. I have to do this.”
“What about your classes today?”
“That's partly why I'm calling. Can you—they're doing small-group workshops—just supervise them? It's a close analysis of a story in Alexie. I'll make it up to you.”
“Yes.” Mary said she'd check with the English department for times and room numbers, and again she apologized for calling the police.
“Shit, Mary. I'm the one who should be apologizing. I'm sorry about making you worry. But, I just needed to—Hell, there's something else.” Jenny told Mary about the two girls she had picked up, the beer-drinking parties, and how she didn't believe their modeling story. “Look, they're probably runaways from a group home or something.” She implored Mary to check with the Childrens' Aid Society in Canada and see if Diane Atkinson and Gretchen Hollier were missing. “I'll be at the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library on the Saint Mary River in about 75 minutes. I'll leave my cell phone on.”
“Sure. Are you okay?”
“Of course. I saw the letter icon lit up on my phone when I turned it on. That's you, I assume?”
“I called every hour. I'm sorry.”
“I love you, Mary.”
Diane and Gretchen were now standing in front of her. Gretchen's eyes narrowed. “Who you talking to?”
“I'll call the police, and I'll let them know you're okay,” Mary said.
“Call that other number first. You know?”
Mary agreed, and Jenny hung up. “That was my roommate.” Jenny shrugged. The tips of her shoulders were cold. “I took off without telling her where I was going. And she was worried. She called the police. Can you believe that? I just had to get away for a few days. You ever feel that way, sometimes?”
The girls looked at each other and didn't know what to say. “Yeah, maybe,” Diane admitted.
“Check it out.” Jenny handed them the cell phone, showing them Mary's number. “All of those messages are from my roomie.” They looked it over. “Maybe I should have left the phone on, huh?”
“Here's your gum,” Gretchen said.
Once again they had been talking about boys and how damn annoying they can be, always trying to see through your clothes, touch your tits, or dominate conversations. Clint always patted Jenny's butt as if he were doing her a favor. He often ruined a nice, warm hug, with a quick ass pat. Diane wondered if guys really thought about sex every ten seconds.
“So they say. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds. Something like that. My Dad talked about sex all the time, and he used to talk to angels too.” The mixed flavor of the gumballs with the soft centers wore off twenty minutes ago, two minutes after Jenny dropped three pieces in her mouth, but there was a comfort to it all, and the bland taste made her feel fourteen again. But it wasn't Rainblo. The mom-and-pop station only carried “Color Bubbles,” but the attendant told the girls it was the same thing. It was American gum. Hershey's changed the name from Rainblo to Color Bubbles a few months ago. Jenny wasn't sure if that was true, but it could be—it's all part of the US's myth of progress.
“What?” Gretchen's eyebrows arched, and her lips parted wryly.
“The US is all about making changes to appear successful, new, and improved. Does Color Bubbles really sound better than Rainblo?”
The girls said nothing.
“Hell, no,” Jenny said. “It lacks the play on words, the reference to the multicultural color spectrum mixed with the act of popping bubbles. Okay, okay, I can tell I'm freaking you guys out. I'm a poet, all right?”
“You're a poet? Published?” asked Gretchen.
“Yeah. I write on a lot of stuff. Well, not as much lately. Anyway, I wrote one poem on hockey and how Gretzky should never have left Edmonton. Pocklington should have.”
“You like hockey?”
“You mean you don't?” These girls were full of all kinds of surprises. Didn't all Canadians, boys and girls, love hockey? “Gretzky. You know who he is, right?”
“Duh?” Gretchen said with a shrug.
“So, your dad talked to angels?” Diane asked.
“Yeah. It freaked me out. He was a genius, but manic, bi-polar. I don't know.” Jenny popped a modest bubble. “And he drank a lot, about a pint of bourbon, JTS Brown, a day. Shit, I still remember the brand. J—T—S Brown.” She smiled, glancing in their direction, and then back at the road. She recalled for them her Junior High years and how whenever Dad had troubles deciding on what to order from the restaurant menu, or what size tip to leave, he would talk to the two angels over each shoulder, asking for their advice and what they thought about it all. “Well, one of the angels couldn't help. He only spoke French, and Dad never understood a word he said.”
“God, that's embarrassing.” Diane laughed, covering her face with her scarf, her toque shaking.
“Tell me about it,” Jenny said. Diane's laughter hurt Jenny a little.
“There were four angels?”
“Yes. I know that three's the magic number, the trinity and all, but Dad had four, two over each shoulder. Well, he had three for a short time because he said he loaned one of them out to me. To help with homework.”
Diane laughed again. “He didn't give you the French one, did he?”
“No.” Jenny smiled. “No, my dad didn't think I was very smart, so he made sure I got an English-speaking one. Dad didn't think I was dumb, just not a genius.”
“My dad doesn't even care about me. He doesn't even want to see me,” Gretchen suddenly said. Her left ear, pink from the cold, stuck out from under her hat.
“I thought you lived with him.”
“Well, sort of—”
“He's away on business, a lot,” Diane jumped in. “You know?”
“There's always an excuse. Too busy, an important client, a report to write up, but I want to be important, you know?”
“Oh, yeah, I know. I know.” Jenny nodded. Some times she wouldn't hear from Denys for months. Once, he had traveled to Colorado to meet a spiritualist whose books he'd read and thought held eternal answers. “What does your Dad do?”
“Never mind.” Gretchen's head rested against the glass in the back window. The sides of her mouth were down turned and her lips cramped with anger.
Dad really thought that the Colorado woman was channeling God, and so Denys disappeared for four months. Dad's absences mirrored those of the girls' fathers, and Jenny identified with their anger as it floated in the car, and clawed through Jenny's veils of humor and bit into her upper back and chest. Denys McLaren shouldn't have been giving her drinks when Jenny was only twelve. When she was seven Denys shouldn't have arrived at a Daddy/Daughter Girl-Guides banquet drunk, and then carried on and on about what a “nice butt” the troop leader had. And when Jenny was in her twenties, Denys should have invited her back to his trailer and shared real stories about himself, instead of hiding behind sex jokes and the Formica-tabled nostalgia of Muios's. “Shit, Clint was, I don't know, so much like my Dad. Reserved and controlling.”
“Huh?” asked Gretchen.
“He had this way of making me feel small, like my dad did. Dad always said I was ordinary, you know? And Clint always said that my poetry aspired for less than it should. My poems were always about my childhood. They lacked ‘transcendence'. I needed to ‘grow as an artist,' he said. I was stuck in an ‘irretrievable past.' Whatever the fuck that means.” She sighed heavily between her lips. “I'm sorry.” Her right hand shook on top of the steering wheel. “So where's this modeling agency? Bay Street? How do we get there?” Jenny flexed her fingers, trying to shake loose the anger, and then she gripped the top of the wheel with both hands. “We're almost in the Soo.”
Just then, Jenny heard a repeated motif from Beethoven's Fifth. “That's my phone. Where's the damn thing?” It wasn't in her coat.
Diane pulled it out from under her sweatshirt. “Hello. No, this is Diane. Yes. I'm fine. No, modeling. Uh-huh.” She handed it over. “It's Mary.”
Jenny nodded and leaned the phone against her left ear. “You weren't going to walk off with this were you, Diane?”
“No, no. I forgot I had it.”
“So did I.”
Mary spoke quickly. The girls had been missing since late last night from the Thompsons who ran a group home in Wawa. The girls had stolen money from their Foster Mom's dresser drawer, and no one had any idea where they were headed. Runaways, according to a police sergeant whose name Mary couldn't remember, often take off, looking for encounters, “‘sexual experimentation, and if they're not careful, they'll end up, up a stump. That happens a lot to these girls,' the cop said. I guess, ‘up a stump' is street vernacular for pregnant, huh? ‘Up a stump.' Not Oscar Wilde, but pithy.” The Ontario Provincial Police and a social worker from CAS would be waiting for Jenny at the library. And the girls were only fourteen. Jenny threw in some non-sequiturs about the cloudless sky and how sore her butt was from fourteen hours of driving in order to make it all look as if she were having a routine conversation before hanging up.
“Why did she call?” Gretchen asked.
“Nothing, really. You know some people just love to talk and that's Mary.” Jenny half smiled, the right side of her mouth tightening, as her heart thudded in the back of her neck. Her anger still hovered, and she wondered what scene might play out at the library. She hoped it wouldn't be too messy.
“She needs to get a life,” Gretchen said.
“Yeah. You may be right,” Jenny said.
Twenty-five minutes later, as they arrived at the library under the pretenses of finding directions to Kit McWhirter's Modeling Agency on Bay Street, Diane was the first to notice the two police cruisers. She started cursing and hitting Jenny hard in the right arm, as she threw the Camry into neutral and coasted to a stop. Jenny tried to explain herself, how she was really helping them, but Diane kept yelling, “You fucking bitch.” Gretchen was silent in the back, and that made Jenny feel even worse.
The police in dark-fur collared jackets got out of their cars slowly, and Jenny's right ear stung. “Now come on, stop hitting me. That's enough, Diane. Fucking stop. You want to hit something. Hit the dashboard.”
Diane grunted, her mouth full of tears. She sighed heavily, and started hammering along the dash and kicking it with her salt-stained boots.
“Not too hard, though. You don't want to pop the air bag.” Jenny didn't mean for her words to sound like a joke, another one liner, but they did.
Annoyed with herself, Jenny clambered from the car, hands in her pockets, and the police loped closer in slo-motion. Jenny wanted the tempo to pick up. An angular woman in a long white coat with black boots and a red hat followed behind the left shoulder of the closest cop. She was carrying a briefcase.
“Are they okay?” asked the woman.
Jenny nodded and felt sick. She liked the girls, traveling, being a big sister, but she had turned them in, and even though she knew that was the right thing to do that didn't make the nausea go away. Her dad wouldn't have turned them in, would he? He'd probably loan the girls one of his rental properties, and let them sort things out with their parents. He distrusted the government, especially CAS. He once said that anarchy was the highest form of social organization for the enlightened. The woman moved closer to the passenger door of the Camry. Jenny quietly belched against her hand and her chest heaved. It was just like when Clint left. She had acid reflux for three weeks before getting on Prilosec for a fourteen-day cure. She placed her hands on her hips, bent over, and took another deep breath. All she could taste was the burger she ate on her way out of Duluth fourteen hours ago.
“Kit, Kit,” screamed Gretchen before collapsing into the whiteness of the woman's jacket. She, briefcase limp in her left hand, hugged Gretchen awkwardly. Gretchen wanted to go back to the Thompsons, and the woman nodded, said some reassuring words, and acknowledged Jenny with her intense eyes. “I'm Kit McWhirter. Children's Aid Society,” she said.
The next morning, Jenny met with Kit in her office in the Roberta Bondar building located down in Sault Ste. Marie's business section. Kit was writing a follow-up report. Everything in the room was dark: a walnut-grained desk, chocolate brown carpets, and forest green potted trees in two different corners. Kit added to the décor with her black power suit and padded shoulders. She wanted to know what the girls had said. They really didn't say anything about the group home, Jenny told her. They pretended like they weren't from one. “That's normal. A lot of group-home kids want to fit in. They don't want to be stigmatized.” “All they talked about was their fathers and boys, of course.” “Of course. And that's the problem. Boys replace absent fathers and girls rush into sex because of a lack of proper parental love.” Jenny hadn't rushed into sex because of her father. She'd only had three serious relationships and she was now thirty. Three. Perhaps comedy was her protection from Denys's influences. Kit stretched back in her swivel chair. Her brown, helmeted hair was gray along the center part. She said that she couldn't go into a lot of details about the girls' case because of privacy concerns, but chances were that Diane was going to be relocated to another facility. She had gotten into a fist fight at school, broken several windows in the gym, and had been suspended for three days. Just before Diane ran away, Kit, in consultation with the Thompsons, recommended that the girl's visiting privileges be revoked. Angry at not being able to see her father for the weekend, Diane decided to run and talked Gretchen into coming along with her. “For the adventure.” Kit shrugged. Both girls were motivated by pain and anger, and Jenny now wondered if she too, at their age and into her twenties, had suppressed similar feelings. Clint could not have kept her from visiting Dad's trailer if she really wanted to. If Dad couldn't show it to her when he was living, what right had she to see it after he had died? Clint and his dark moods were a convenient excuse. Shit, Clint's bitterness about their failing relationship reflected, maybe, her own bitterness at her father and his damn private trailer. Dad joked a lot, but he wasn't an open person. “I like Diane. I hope she can sort things out,” Jenny mumbled softly. Kit, nodded, glanced at her desk calendar, and held up her thumb and index finger, a half-inch part. “If most girls come along that far in the time we have them, we're happy,” she said. Jenny said nothing. “But it's time for a change. The Thompsons can't handle her anymore.” Jenny wondered about Gretchen's father. “Is it true he doesn't want to see her?” Kit folded her left hand over her right and nodded slightly, and then thanked Jenny for her cooperation and how heads up she'd been. A lot of drivers pick up hitchhikers and don't ask any questions. She was glad that Jenny was “inquisitive.” “That's me, ‘inquisitive,'” Jenny gently scoffed, and then the tremor of nausea returned like a serrated blade scraping inside, against her stomach.
Jenny didn't spend any time at the library that afternoon. It was too close to the Bondar building. Instead of finding old copies of People of the Deer and rereading chunks of Anne of Green Gables in the old second-floor dormer window, Jenny called up Aunt Margaret. Jenny wondered if she could come out and look at the trailer. Was it even still there? Yes, still standing, but one of the two tires was flat, and the trailer lists to the left, but come on out, Aunt Margaret encouraged. The items were still inside. Some were picked over by Denys's siblings, but most everything was intact. There were even a couple of model airplanes hanging from the ceiling on thin wires.
The ranch was in the east end, off of a gravel road with a brown fence running along the side. The trees were thinner than along the highway and the snow even dirtier. Aunt Margaret met Jenny as soon as she got out of the car. She was a strong-looking woman in her early sixties, wearing a green jacket and a toque pushed back on her head. Her hands were clamped to her hips and wiry curls of gray snuck out from under her hat. Triangles of mud spotted her boots. “I just got done cleaning out the horse stalls, so I stink a little.” She held out a hand, but Jenny hugged her anyway, stink and all. “It's great to see you,” Jenny said. “You, too,” Margaret said.
“God, it's been too long.” Jenny pressed her tongue against the inside of her upper lip, but she couldn't stop the tears. She was never a farm girl. She liked cities and libraries, and going to hockey games. She didn't care for horses, or the country, but there was something about being here on this ground, at this time, that felt right, and she let herself feel and flow with it.
Margaret hugged Jenny more deeply and rubbed her shoulders. “Have you eaten?”
“Come on, I'll take you to Denys's trailer, and I'll get you some tea.”
“That sounds great.”
They walked along a driveway mixed with gravel, sand, and snow. “You can stay out here for a few days, if you want.” Margaret tapped Jenny gently on the hip. “Don't pay for a motel. Stay with us.”
“I think I will.”
They reached the far end of the long ranch-style house and Jenny saw a saddle hitched to a fence post and then a cobblestone path and the yellow trailer by a small copse of birch trees. The left tire was, indeed, flat. “There it is. It's unlocked. I'll bring you the tea.”
“Thanks.” Jenny heard the quiet trudge of Margaret's fading footsteps, and then she dipped her head and entered the trailer. The brittle screen door tapped against the jam. Jenny moved slowly inside, darting around three airplanes arcing from fishing lines wrapped around plant hooks fixed to the ceiling. She recognized the Nieuport 17, the plane Billy Bishop flew, and the Fokker DR-1 triplane of Richtofen. She couldn't make out the third plane, a British two-seater with a rear gunner. She blew some dust off the bodies of all three and watched them vibrate in the air.
It was then that she felt the faint smell of Carmex. Dad always carried a small yellow black container in a breast pocket for cold sores. Jenny breathed in the smell and reached for the interior light. It still worked. In the window was a tan-and-white dream catcher, and the table was covered with an embroidered cloth with Native American markings. Jenny crossed to the closet area and touched Dad's seven or eight flannel shirts, and down below were three pairs of running shoes. The brand names were etched out with white paint. Dad didn't believe in advertising for Nike or anybody. He always cut the red tags off his Levis.
Jenny sat in the lone chair in the room—it was green-cushioned. Below the sink, and across from the bed, were two wooden milk crates of books: Nietzsche, Sartre, Paul De Man, and novels by Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro, and J. D. Salinger. Dad once said that Salinger only had an IQ of about 100, and that's why Catcher in the Rye was such a hit. Salinger knew how to talk to America's everyman. He was an ordinary genius.
In a second crate were fifteen to twenty small literary magazines, every publication that Jenny had had up to the time of her father's death. She always sent him a copy of her published poetry, but she had no idea that he had taken such care of them.
She opened up Tri-Quarterly, Fall 1999, and turned to the poem, “Smashing Backyard Pumpkins at Midnight.” Dad had written commentary in the margins. She was sure it was his hand-writing. She recognized the compulsively neat small, tight lines, with all of the “i's” capitalized. “Nice,” he wrote above the fourth line. “Great image,” he scrawled next to the second stanza, and then an end note on what the poem meant for him. “Reminds me of growing up on the lake and firing Uncle Howard's .22 at pop bottles. Shrill exhilarating sound of breaking glass. All anarchic energy and destructive fun, like smashing Halloween pumpkins at midnight. Brava!”
In a copy of South Dakota Review, Spring 2000, Dad had attached a Post-it note next to Jenny's poem, “Building Model Airplanes with Dad, 1985.” : “You've really captured the moment, Honey Bug. Toothpicks. No glue stains, and hours of intimate focus between daughter and dad. I love the objective correlative: the airplane as the instrument of contact; the glue that bonds the differing parts of the plane equals the glue that bonds the father and daughter as they build a future through building models. This poems soars over the horizons of memory!” Honey Bug. He called her that all through grade school. Jenny had forgotten. Honey Bug. Why hadn't dad ever told her these nice things about her work? Why didn't he mail the Post-it?
“Hey, how are you?” Margaret, carrying a black mug of tea, leaned into the angled trailer. Steam curled from the mug's lip.
“Great. Great. I think I might stay for awhile.”
“Fabulous. If you get to feeling a little dizzy in here because of the tilt, let me know. We've got cinder blocks, and we can prop it up.”
“No, no. I like it like this. It feels right. I think Dad would approve.”
Margaret laughed. “He never cared about making money, that man.”
“No, no, he didn't, but he sure helped a lot of people that needed places to live.”
Aunt Margaret agreed, and Jenny sipped tea. It burned her lips, but the orange-flavoring tasted great. “They don't know how to brew tea in the States.”
“It's the English factor,” Margaret said.
Jenny smiled over her mug. “But we're Scottish. We don't like the English.”
“Well, you know what I meant.”
“Yeah.” She sipped again, the planes shaking slightly over her head. “I never realized that Dad wrote comments on my poems. The praise, he, I don't know—”
“He loved you.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Aunt Margaret kissed Jenny on the top of the forehead, and then moved out of the trailer. Jenny reached deep into her coat pocket for her small, spiral notebook and started writing new poems about loss, sadness, and love for one's fathers.
“The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper”
- Eden Phillpol
I am not a hippy. Seriously, I'm not alright?
I lead group hikes at Sabino Canyon, a popular tourist destination on the northern mountain edge of Tucson, Arizona. After finishing grad school three years ago, I landed the Sabino job, my dream job, but a strange frustration settled in. I am a student of science, have a Masters in wildlife management, but after years of dating hippy women I found myself thinking in terms of Shakras and sun signs, interpreting basic cause and effect through the prism of Karma and divine intervention. I'd even begun saying things like “bad energy” and “whatever happens happens” on my canyon tours. The time had come to step outside myself for some perspective, regain my rationality.
Still, despite the need to take myself seriously, it's painful seeing the world as completely explainable scientifically. For instance, I like to think that people are more than pheromones and simian survival instincts, but a biologist friend at work told me that when a woman observes a man doing something he is skilled at, be it teaching English, building bookshelves or playing guitar, chances increase that she will fall for him. The mechanism supposedly is biological - seeing a potential mate displaying a talent proves his viability as a stable father for her children - a notion that paints us as so painfully mechanical it makes me question everything I learned in grad school. Yet initially I believed it.
Erica and I officially became a couple the week she visited me at work. It was not like Erica to go hiking. She detested the dust and cactus, didn't own a pair of hiking boots, and after that visit - eight months ago - she never visited Sabino again. Even more startling than seeing her negotiate the rocky trail was learning that she had never been camping. “Never once?” I said. “Not even as a kid?” She had passed her twenty-seven years without setting foot in a single tent. That's why I was so impressed when she finally agreed to take the trip.
With all the cement holding and reflecting summer heat, Tucson burned like a Harley Davidson's manifold - one-hundred and eight degrees by eleven a.m. Outside town, heat sent waves shimmering like inverted curtains from the blacktop and made every dip in the highway look from a distance like a mirrored pool.
When I met Erica at the co-op, she was wearing a black cotton skirt, collared white button-up top and Italian leather heals - classy, like one of those ladies who sells perfume in a department store. But I figured, even dressed like that, if she was buying organic she couldn't be a total stiff. “I'm trying to eat better,” she'd said, “not change the world.” So I asked her out.
Even though I'm not vegan, the leather shoes kind of bothered me; there are enough synthetic materials in the world to make killing animals for clothes unnecessary. But I avoided that potential debate because at the time we met, I had grown frustrated with dating. Disillusioned. During grad school, all the sexy scientist women bowled me over with their brilliance and energy, but few found the outdoors as compelling a subject as they did the lab. Even fewer delved into the speculative landscapes of existential or western philosophy - morality, meaning, natural order, things like that. These women were number-crunchers and pipette-squirters, future lab technicians. I never dated within the biology department. Yet for all the women that I met outside of school with a love of the outdoors, maybe four out of five were hippies, and of them I seemed to fall for the most woo-woo. I may shop the co-op and wear hiking boots both in and out of the city, but I am not, I don't think, what you'd call a hippy. I cannot last a day without showering, I don't have a dog or a pair of sandals and cannot name a single Grateful Dead song - well, except for that one they had a video for on MTV, but it's not like I know the lyrics. All that stuff bugs me, as do the stereotypical hodgepodge New Age belief systems hippies build out of Buddhism, Taoism and Indian spirituality.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like I'm not open to different lifestyles or ways of understanding. I've read Black Elk Speaks, eaten my share of mushrooms, and still dabble in Sartre and Kierkegaard's existential philosophies, but my livelihood is ecology and biology - hard science, things that are testable, things you can trust.
My friends all gave me such crap about my girlfriends - “Do you two have armpit hair growing contests?” they'd say, or “What restaurants let you in without shoes?” Smartasses. But what frustrated me most was me: I think my barriers have been worn down, that after all those years dating hippy women my identity got lost in the mix. Erica's normalcy was refreshing.
Smart. Stable. Energetic. Erica was a catch. So I chose us a campsite just as striking, one of my favorites: the Pinaleños.
The Pinaleño Mountains are a ten thousand foot tall island of forest rising from the Arizona desert. Set in the state's distant southeastern corner far from the Interstate, the Pinaleños' lofty wooded center is accessible only through a series of dizzying turns which filter out all but the most dedicated visitors. No one ends up there by accident.
We turned east from the San Simon Valley floor and left the scorching scrubland behind like an empty coffee cup. A narrow two-lane road climbed the bajada and snaked its way along the bluffs above chiseled granite flanks. Endless switchbacks, carved into the steep slopes like a five thousand foot game trail, carried us over skeleton rivulets, cactus-choked chutes, and into a woodland of leather-leaved oaks.
The air became cool and light as we entered the pines. Two hours of accumulated sweat dried, leaving our skin silky soft. When I unrolled the windows to let mentholated notes of evergreen sap drift through the cab, Erica placed her hand on my knee. “You can go faster if you want,” she said as the truck crept around another sharp curve. “Don't drive like an old lady on my account.” I didn't want to scare her, which was dumb because, in the city, she drove fast, weaved between traffic, and anyone who cut her off suffered her horn and a string of profanities.
Erica was a third grade teacher. We met for lunch at her school once or twice a week and sat with her kids in chairs too small for our big adult butts. She even had me present a simple ecology lesson once, which, with hunks of granite and bat skulls borrowed from my work, the kids loved. Erica was impressed, but I wanted to show her more, more of me, more of the mystical power of the mountains. And despite frequent comments that she felt the same way, actually getting her to agree to a weekend of camping was like trying to get a Mormon to drink coffee.
“We'll start small,” I told her. “One night, somewhere soft and green.” But one night was as intimidating as ten to her. Snakes, bears, centipedes, everything scared her. Telling her how seeing a sunrise through the top of a tent would change her life didn't help, so I promised that if she got too uncomfortable we would leave. I even made reservations at La Moreno, her favorite restaurant and a place whose food was regarded by many as some of Tucson's finest, for our return. I'd never had to beg so hard to get a woman to come to the mountains. It was precisely that greenness, that primitive fear of the big bad cosmos, that made her alluring.
Nearly all my girlfriends and I had camped at least once in the Pinaleños, and each one of them loved it. Granted most of them looked like they'd been living in the mountains for months, eating bark and making clothes out of spruce boughs, but still. I never begged. I tried to see Erica's fearful inexperience as a beautiful distinction, a complimentary force, rather than a division between us. Wildlife seemed her main concern, which made sense since she had never actually seen any. It wasn't like I didn't have my own set of fears: airplanes, office jobs, dying alone, and she knew that. I tried to encourage rather than disparage, but it was hard. I kept thinking about my exes. There was something about those hippy women that stole my heart: how comfortable with their bodies they were, unphased by spiders or dirt, and willing t o take long rambling hikes through dark forests while discussing the meaning of life, the universe and the world. Unfortunately, the women I fell hardest for also had some of the most ridiculous habits: hanging dream-catchers over their futons, complaining that geology didn't focus more on the different stones' “meaning,” purifying everything with sage. Dressed in hemp, wool and pungent essential oils, they often left me wondering if they were from the same country I was. I mean, what do you say to a person who tells you they've had a “mystical” experience?
The first hippy I ever dated I met on a rafting trip three years ago, right when I started at Sabino. Her name was Cayenne. She was a potter who mixed Zuni and Celtic motifs and, despite her art degree, really fancied herself a thinker. She employed both Quantum physics and Buddhism to explain destiny and reincarnation, but her philosophy only seemed like an attempt to justify a life working jobs as random as university mail room sorter and local election ballot counter. “Things always happen for a reason,” she liked to say, which I took to mean “please excuse my lack of direction, the cosmos does.”
After Cayenne and I broke up, a coworker introduced me to his cousin Delilah. Slow moving and soft in voice, she was heavy into astrology and claimed that the stars had brought us together, that our sun, moon & whatever signs were perfectly aligned, which at first I found endearing. But her astrological determinism made her so clingy that she scared me single. Insisting on sharing cars, sharing clothes, pooling money, things got weird. Whenever we stood together, for a photo, in line at the co-op, anywhere, she said we looked like two stems of the same ginseng root. I broke up with her after eight months. Astrological predictions have seemed laughable ever since.
But my last girlfriend, Sue, my one true love, she broke my heart. Short and petite, with these bright wolfen blue eyes and blonde shoulder-length hair, Sue was the sweetest person I've ever met. She sowed clothes from left over fabric to distribute to the homeless, took in every feral cat she encountered - a total of thirteen when we lost touch - and believed even rocks and waterfalls had personalities. Unfortunately, she also believed that love with life precluded love with one person. The pain of losing Sue made me seriously consider celibacy. Then I met Erica. Sweet, normal Erica.
“Alright,” Erica finally said one night during a TV truck commercial, “let's go camping.” - but she never seemed comfortable with the idea. She agreed, it seemed, to placate me, hoping that maybe, through some neurological glitch from my teenage years of pot-smoking, I might forget. Which I didn't. She quizzed me about showering, about scorpions, about forest fires, flat tires, cougars and grizzly bears, which haven't lived in Arizona since 1935. “And what if our car gets stolen,” she said, “and we get stranded?” I explained how I had never had an emergency scenario in all my years of hiking. “The only danger you'll be in,” I told her, “is the danger of having fun.”
After thirty winding minutes the grade finally leveled and the road straightened out. We coasted through a sunny forest of pines and bracken fern along the mountain's southwestern edge. Between gaps in the trees shown miles of open desert, an infinity of brown and army green stretching from beneath the precipitous road and blending with blue horizon.
It would have baffled me how anyone our age could be so scared of camping had I not met Erica's parents. They moved the family west from Philadelphia when Erica was sixteen and raised her and her younger sister, now a CPA, on hamburgers, football and sitcoms. Family vacations centered around cities like Toronto and Chicago, places where architecture and museums provided the main attractions, yet when Erica's parents learned of my job, they chattered about how much they loved the outdoors. “We've been on cruises to Hawaii, Alaska and the Caribbean,” her dad said one night over dinner. “Wondrous places, beautiful.” Erica's mom tucked her newly dyed hair behind her ears. “And before the girls were born we drove the Highway to the Sun in Glacier National Park.”
Deeper inside the Pinaleños, I turned onto an old, dirt, Forest Service road along which I'd camped numerous summer nights. Deep ruts rattled the truck and spit columns of dust up the side panels, sending Erica clinging to my arm as if the truck might flip over the next exposed root. “This is a good spot for us,” I said, parking in a spacious old-growth forest on a small meadow's edge.
Suspiciously, Erica peered through the pines and fir. “How do you know?”
“Because I've camped nearby before and know a good one when I see it.” With a kiss, I led her to a small clearing between the tapered trunks of four fat firs and ran my hand across the earth. “Here's how you tell: level ground, soft soil, no roots, rocks or burrows.” I pointed up. “And enough space between trees to see the stars.”
I had done this dance countless times. Though they held benign desk jobs, my parents had taken me outdoors a lot as a kid: catch and release fishing on the Apache Reservation, rafting the Colorado River, picnicking and day-hiking in the desert. Turning what was childhood fun into a paying job was, for me, as natural as Sue turning table cloths into clothes. And even though I lived paycheck to paycheck, a day never passed that I didn't look forward to going to work. There is something deeply satisfying about showing sheltered city people mother nature. And I love how, working in the wilderness, I never lose touch with the basic fact that life is a mystery and we are specks of sentient dust standing in awe, scrambling for understanding. The physicists know as little as the New Agers, really.
I dumped the tent on the duff. The tree trunks were as big around as the front columns of Tucson High. Unlike most Arizona forests, the Pinaleños had escaped large scale commercial logging, so the range contains one of the largest continuous chunks of old-growth forest left in the Southwest.
“Those low branches are as big as the ornamentals in my neighborhood,” Erica said, pointing into the canopy. She couldn't believe trees that big grew anywhere outside of Yosemite National Park, let alone in Arizona. My folks marveled the same way when they met her.
During her first visit to my parents' house, my dad, hands wet from washing dishes, cornered me in the kitchen, gripped my forearm and said, “Jason, we love her. She's so -normal.” My friends weren't so judicious. “Either you're going to become a suit and tie guy,” they said, “or she's going to leave you for one. And we can't see you swinging that way anytime soon.” I tried not to let the peanut gallery sour my excitement - “You guys are never happy,” I told my friends - but it didn't take an astrological chart to tell that Erica and I were as different as Mercury and Pluto.
Erica watched a favorite TV show every night of the week, liked reading true crime novels and found expensive dinners more romantic than picnics. I like waking early, with the sun, like honing my plant identification skills at the Botanical Garden, and love reading Taoism and Kierkegaard and ethnobotanical texts. But we tried to adapt. On weekends we did things that both of us could enjoy: shopping on Saturday, visiting the Botanical Garden Sunday. We began a tradition of seeing a new movie every Friday night - foreign films mostly, ones I would never have selected on my own but which, in the end, turned out to be pretty good. I even bought some new clothes - collared shirts, khaki pants, cologne (the real stuff, not essential oils) - something I hadn't done in almost three years. There was little choice - adapt or die, as my favorite evolutionary genetics professor used to say.
With time, I learned to enjoy her formulaic sitcoms, shared with her the strange joy of sleeping in on the weekends, and she learned to name a few of the native cacti in the garden. I even started wearing my new pants for Saturday shopping. Still, deep down, I missed my weekend camping trips, the thrill of seeing new parts of Arizona every week. I could only suppress my need for adventure for so long without feeling resentful, and I knew that eventually the novelty of my adventurous and impractical nature would ware off on her - especially in a world of more attractive and practical men. Everything has a shelf life. I really hoped that by showing her the peaceful act of hiking and camping she would enjoy it, even fall in love with it, the way I had, and then we would fall in love with each other. A desperate hope, I know, but crazier things have happened.
Erica emerged from the truck in her camping clothes: Adidas sweatpants, jogging shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt from The Gap. She pulled her chestnut hair into a ponytail and cinched the hood around her head. “Look at you,” she said, pointing to my high-tech gear. “Green, brown, blue. You look like a shrub.”
“Oh yeah.” Boxers and socks that wicked sweat, highly breathable shirt and durable Ripstop nylon shorts - I studied myself as if I hadn't noticed. “You're right.” Though back then I would never admit it, Sue had once said that green and blue were “healing colors,” and I was testing that out.
“So,” Erica said with a quiver in her voice, “there are bears around here, right?”
“Yeah, but they won't bother us.”
She scanned the open stands of trees and layers of flat fallen needles. “Can't they just walk up and, you know, get us?” I wrapped my dirty hands around her waist and gave my docent's lecture about how wild black bears are more afraid of us than we are of them. Burrowing her hands into my back pockets, she pressed her cheek to mine. “How about rattlesnakes?”
“Nope, too cold.” The warmth of her waist against me made my legs weaker than a three-day cross-country hike.
“Alright,” she said and kissed me the way a person kisses roulette dice before the toss, “if you say so. Now where do we pee when it's time?”
“Anywhere. Pick a spot. Just bring a flashlight when you go.” I kissed her neck. “And tell me so I can watch.”
“I'd rather you just come with me.”
We set two folding chairs in an opening behind the truck and dragged over a large stump to use as a footrest and table. She set her beer on the truck hood so bugs wouldn't crawl in, then slipped a pack of disinfectant wipes into her pocket. While piling stones around the hole I'd dug for our fire, I turned around to find Erica leaning against the bumper staring at me, arms crossed, wearing a devilish grin. “What are you doing?”
” Nothing,” she said. “Just watching.” Her lashes fluttered in a playful Betty Page way. “It's amazing how you know how to do all this stuff.” She kissed her palm and blew a kiss. “I love it.”
As the meadow dimmed from lime green to shades of fermented peach and amber, we wandered the forest collecting downed wood. “The trick,” I told her, “is finding well-seasoned logs and dry branches. Nothing too green will burn.” We made three large wood piles in the darkening forest, each sorted according to size.
“Now don't worry about grabbing any insects because there aren't any dangerous ones up here.” I held up my hand. “Only cute ones like this.” A tiny black jumping spider with an abdomen as red as Erica's lipstick perched on the tip of my thumb. Pressing her eye to my outstretched hand while keeping hold of a log, Erica leaned in for a closer look. If I had a romantic litmus test, for that alone she would have passed it.
The fresh air became moist and cool as the forest's depth flattened into an ashen black and swallowed all shapes but the truck and closest trees.
Watching me build the fire fascinated her more than me building the pit. Her eyes narrowed as I arranged the wood into a cone: little pieces and twigs in the middle, large branches on the outside, dried needles and some pages torn from one of her fashion magazines stuffed inside for kindling. “You get to light it.”
The corn and vegetarian chili cooked quickly in the coals. With her trim ass pressed against my lap and my arms tight around her, we threw up our legs together on the stump. Comfortably settled in the fire's warm corona, woodsmoke enveloped us as convection smeared it across the campsite, spinning it in braids up through the canopy. “I love the smell of burning wood,” I said, fanning air into my face. “I wish I could bottle it and take it home.”
Erica inhaled deeply. Despite my earlier concerns of the contrary, she was not a complainer: she never complained that she missed her favorite shows or that the smoke was choking her or the tent was too small. She hadn't even used those disinfectant wipes. “I have to admit,” she said, sliding her hand along my thigh, “I'm glad I decided to come.”
A flat yellow moon passed overhead, trees began to creek and soft chirps began percolating through the darkness. A burst of feathers to our left, a rustle of leaves to our right, and as night progressed, the shell of Erica's confidence began to break.
As a teacher, the success of Erica's job stemmed from a strong power structure. Coworkers called her “The Ball Buster” for her ability to control even the rowdiest students. Yet by eight o'clock she looked like a grasshopper mouse hiding from hawks: huddled against me, arms clutching her chest, shrouded by darkness. Photos I'd taken camping with Sue and Cayenne flashed through my mind. Those women were all smiles in darkness. I started feeling guilty for dragging Erica outdoors.
It was not just the forest that frightened her; she got jumpy in the city too. If she heard someone walking behind us on the street at night, she always stopped to let them pass; news stories of gun-toting students or robberies at ATMs entranced her, but only morbidly; and sometimes when a severe monsoon pounded Tucson with lightning and rain, she asked me to sleep over. One night we sat in her apartment playing Jenga in candlelight for four hours until the power came back on.
Erica tilted her head and aimed a bone China ear at the forest behind us. Seconds passed. She held her breath. Then something crunched. “Hear that?” I turned around to listen but heard only the crackling of tiny twigs, a slight sifting of duff. “I think there's a bear.”
“That isn't a bear, sweet thing, sounds like a squirrel.”
“Are you sure?” She pulled her legs closer, scanned the darkness not just behind but all around us and strained to find comfort in my confident air. “Sounds kind of big.”
I massaged her shoulders, gave her a kiss. “I've seen lots of bears, heard lots of bears, and that is not a bear.” I didn't mention that one of the reasons I brought us to that meadow was to see a bear.
The Pinaleños have the densest population of black bears per square mile than anywhere in the country, and I figured that the opportunity to watch a bear from a safe distance would show her that the outdoors may be dangerous, but they are nothing to fear.
When Erica's gaze finally returned to the fire, I tucked her unfurling ponytail into her sweater and pressed my nose to her head. “I promise that's either a squirrel or a bird or skunk.” She sighed, but it sounded more like a smothered scream than relief. “Don't worry. Nothing is going to get you, you have my word.”
We sat for a while in silence looking at the stars. Sparks spit into the air and landed on the ground. Dry wood heaved and popped. She kept shifting in her seat, folding and unfolding her arms around her knees, and keeping one ear to camp's dark perimeter. “Want to play some Yahtzee?” she said and pulled a box from her backpack.
I pointed to the stars between trees. “Let's just enjoy this. We can play that any time.” Then a smirk distorted my face. “Are you…” I poked her in the ribs. “Scared? You want something to take your mind off the noises huh?” Erica shivered while trying to shake her head no. Unlike the women John Wayne saved from Apache attacks, Erica didn't look so cute under duress. Her vulnerability wasn't sexy, but then again I'd always found the Diane Fossey type far sexier than the King Kong distressed damsel. “You've seen too many movies,” I said. “You're safer out here than in the city.”
Espousing my philosophy at that moment was more difficult than it had ever been before.
See, I believe that the best way to get comfortable with the idea of mortality is to put yourself in physical danger - years spent in the wilderness taught me that. The outdoors also pushes the mind into a more contemplative state than it usually ventures at home in the city. Existential and philosophical topics like “How did this all get here?” “How did nature become so magnificently complex free of human help?” and “Are we just like birds and mushrooms? Alive only to recreate?” confront us on every step of the trail. This is the other reason I wanted Erica to camp: to the open mind, wilderness is as good a teacher as any professor because it, full of bears and storms and tangled poisonous spines, forces those who delve into it to not only to deal with danger, but to confront mortality and hopefully accept our precarious foothold in a world filled with the chaotic and uncontrollable. But the job of toughening Erica up was a guilt-ridden chore.
As more and more things went bump in the night, I found myself trying to take her mind off her surroundings, to comfort her. So I changed the subject. “How's that little trouble making student of yours, Jim?”
“Mmm.” Erica unfolded her legs and sat straight in her chair. “Last week he asked if he could fill his shoes with sand if he promised to pour it back in the box.” She forced a tiny giggle. “And when I said yes, he said ‘for an old lady Mrs. V, you're pretty fun.'” She scooped a handful of duff and threw it into the fire. “But next week? He'll be back to being a terror.”
“I don't know how you do it,” I said. “Teaching those kids. They're a handful.”
“Me?” Erica said. “I know you were made for this stuff, but.” Her eyes shot around the site like a startled moth. “Adults are much harder to deal with than kids.”
“Sometimes I guess. A lot of them think they already know everything. Others don't see the things you're pointing to along the trail, really obvious things like huge trees. They aren't the best listeners.” She undid her hair and let it tumble down her shoulders. “They can be interesting though. People from all over the world visit Sabino you know - from Japan, Norway, Brazil - and some of the things that come out of their mouths? Kinda forces you to be diplomatic.”
I dragged my hand across the soil and tossed a handful of needles into the darkness. “Like this one older guy, maybe sixty, with a deep Texas drawl, asked how I knew that this certain freshwater jellyfish had evolved in this really narrow ecological niche.
When I told him about natural selection and Darwinian evolution he just shook his head and said, ‘That's one interpretation. I have another.'”
My arms wrapped tighter around Erica's shoulder, and for the first time that night we laughed in sync. “I told the group that, although the geologic record didn't preserve any record of God's fingerprints, that was one explanation, which everybody laughed at.”
I took a long sip of beer. “The thing is, when you think about it, neither of us really know: science overestimates its ability to explain the world, and religion barely explains anything. It just says, ‘have faith,' which seems pretty weak.”
Erica shifted in her seat and her foot, crossed now over her soft, tan knee, bounced in a nervous twitch.
“Neither side can tell the whole story, you know, the big questions, like why evolution or the earth or anything exists. Meaning. Reasons. No one knows.”
Erica turned to investigate what she didn't know was just a baying squirrel. “That's true.”
We sat in the glow of the fire, silent, for a moment, with our arms around each other. “Do things like that ever make you nervous?”
“What,” she said, “like God and all that?” She shrugged. “Not really. I try not to worry about things that have no answers. Like why my little sister makes more money than me.” We laughed. “Or why I was born to teach rather than born rich and famous.”
“Well, that's probably a good thing. But you don't ever worry even a little that, you know, about what we're all doing here? Or that there may be nothing out there in the universe but emptiness?”
Erica shrugged and her gaze arched up. “I don't know.” She took a sip of beer and stared at the bottle, picking at the label. “I guess I believe in what I can see.”
With Erica I half expected such a practical-minded answer. She was a practical woman with a mind for mortgages and 401-Ks, the type who pitied people who played the lottery yet she tried to eat all organic. But still, I wanted her to feel the magic around us. To be in awe. How could she or anybody not look at that dark forest capped by an infinity of stars and feel anything but overwhelmed by wonder? Be clawing for understanding? So I pushed. Maybe too hard. “Doesn't it make you sad to think that God could just be a figment of our imagination? That -”
“I'd rather not talk about it, Jason.” She rolled like a river stone in my arms. “No offense. That stuff just makes me sad, you know?” The chairs creaked as I leaned over and pressed my face to her hair. “Let's enjoy the fire.”
- - -
Erica's composure returned the next morning with the sun. She seemed more comfortable in daylight; at least, she possessed a strength deeper than coffee or my fried eggs could have provided.
“You look beautiful,” I told her. She had on jogging shoes, a long-sleeved shirt and green cotton shorts rather than sweats.
“Thanks.” She shook some pine needles from her hair. “I sure don't feel beautiful.”
On the trail, squirrels chattered from high branches, squadrons of yellow-eyed juncos swept like pollen through the trees. It was hard to believe this bright, peaceful forest had seemed so sinister the previous night.
Sue once told me that, according to Apache spirituality, certain animals were good or bad omens, which was why it was a relief to see a large hawk swoop high overhead.
“See that?” I pointed to the dark form as it glided between trees and alighted on a branch. “Northern Goshawk. Same way owls are seen as harbingers of death, Apaches view eagles as sacred messengers between mankind and the spirit world. Good energy.” Erica strained to see what among the tangle of moss and shivering boughs I was pointing at. “Third tree from the left, forty feet up.” When she finally spotted the bird, we both stared in silence. But when I studied it more closely, it looked more like an owl.
Through a rolling open forest of ferns, I showed her a coyote track, wild strawberry plants, and how to tell a random pile of cones from a squirrel midden. As I cut a new trail, I named trees, forbs, shrubs: New Mexico locust, quaking aspen, Gambel oak.
Erica seemed genuinely excited, liberated from concern, as if the previous night had never occurred. It was refreshing to impress someone who meant something to me, someone besides school groups and tourists.
Erica had never eaten a wild raspberry, so I brought her to my favorite patch, a briar spread between stout firs in the filtered light of a north-facing slope, the same berry bushes Sue and I had picked the previous year. Erica and I filled two Tupperware bowls with the tiny, seedy berries and ate until our breath spelled like jelly and each kiss stained the other's cheek.
I held a single berry up to the sunlight. “These have so much more flavor than store bought ones.” My hand came down fast, leaving a long red streak across Erica's chin. “But that's probably because of the bug crap.”
She squished a berry between her fingers just to watch the red drip - “Bug and bird.” - then smeared it on my nose. “I'm surprised how much fun I'm having. It's completely different than I expected.”
“Let me show you something amazing.” I led her up a five hundred foot slope toward one of my favorite patches of streamside old-growth. Across earth padded by fallen aspen leaves, earth speckled green with velvety forbs and tufts of moss, we arrived at a trickling stream in view of the shimmering silver telescopes on Mount Graham. There, tucked in a tight fold between ridges, blanketed by perpetual shade, grew a stand of Englemann spruce.
The placid gurgle of moving water drew us deeper into the grove. Swollen with runoff, bearded with mosses and lichen, the fat silver spruce rose a hundred feet from a bed of currant and cones. Treetop timbers creaked a hundred feet above us.
Erica twirled among the spruce. “This place is like a painting.” She dragged her hands across the huge boles, wrapped her arms around one, and threw back her head to gaze into the crowns. “It's so wet and green. I didn't know Arizona could look like this.” She dipped her hand into the water - “There's actually water in this stream.” - and glanced at her shoes as if considering discarding them.
A breeze seeped past with the touch of an apparition, turning the sweat on my skin chilly, and spreading the medicinal bite of spruce. The ground was so soft I couldn't even hear myself step; I had to look down to see if my feet were moving. From upstream Erica called out. “Look at this log.” Her hand rested on an enormous downed fir like a rider posing for a photo with her mount. “It's huge.”
Gray rotting heartwood shown where the trunk had split on impact. Little channels chewed by beetles decorated the cambium, and the roots, fanning out in a snarl of clutched soil, hung above the hole their breadth had created. “In the California redwoods,” I told her, “walking on downed logs is the best way to hike because it lets you bypass all the tangled undergrowth.”
Erica smooth brows arched. “Let's try it.” She was really loosening up.
Using slippery furrows for footholds, Erica climbed the trunk first and, of all things, helped me up. Atop plates of slewing bark and wood that smeared like butter underfoot, we walked the log. Four feet above ground, our perch provided a squirrel's eye view of all the troublesome terrain we had just conquered. We stepped around tiny branches, pushed aside intervening maple boughs and took a seat where we could see camp and my truck far below. But before we even had a chance to kiss, Erica screamed.
“Ouch!” She leapt to her feet stomping like a mental patient crushing wine grapes and almost fell off the log. “Something bit me.” She slapped at her knees and face and waist and hair as if covered in cobwebs. “Ow ow ow.”
I jumped up to brace her. “Let me look.”
She twisted to view the wound but couldn't see the spot where she was rubbing. “It burns,” she said rubbing the site. “Tell me that wasn't a spider.”
When I kneeled to further inspect her thigh, I ran my hand across the bark, and found between two furrows, dragging itself through its last desperate breaths, a plump, sluggish yellowjacket. When Erica saw the culprit she stomped it with her shoe. And before I could ask if she was allergic, as if to tell me that it had all been fun while it lasted, she sighed, clutched the bite, and the whites of her eyes stained a dark teary red.
My truck slid through the soft dirt between trees and swerved onto the road. Past the two empty chairs, past the tiny tent that not three hours before we'd made love in, we raced to the hospital.
Thirty miles of slow, winding, mountain road stretched between us and the town of Safford. Erica curled in a ball on the seat, her knees wedged against the dash, her calves to her chest. When she lowered her head onto my lap, I peeled strands of hair from the gathering sweat on her forehead, stroked her clammy face, massaged her shoulder, but below the cuff of her shorts I could see the sting swelling into welts.
“You said there was nothing dangerous up there,” she muttered in a low register. “I mean, where did it come from? Did you see a nest? What did I do? I didn't see a nest. Did I disturb them?” When she looked up, her eyes had turned as red as a skinned deer.
“No,” I said, “you didn't do anything wrong.”
I watched as her whole body turned blotchy red and white, like a person from darkest, dampest Canada caught without a sweater in a snow storm. Terrifying scenarios flooded my mind: Erica's throat closing so tight she couldn't breath; Erica's tongue swelling; her insides dissolving. Christ. “How you doing down there sweet thing?” I'd heard that some highly allergic people died because their tracheas shut, that one sting is all it took. “Feeling feverish or faint?” I felt so guilty for dragging her out there and trying to change her. Her first camping trip and I was killing her. Poor sweet Erica. And she had been such a sport.
How long does it take for a trachea to constrict? I held one hand in front of her mouth to check for breath and covertly listened to her respiration's depth. The drape of her shirt made it impossible to measure her diaphragm's rise and fall, and I didn't want to ask. It would only scare her.
Halfway down the mountain Erica kicked off her shoes. “My feet,” she said in a dull, breathless voice, “they feel numb.”
The tires squealed along the canyon rim. “Numb?”
“Pins-and-needles.” She scratched with the intensity of a flea-bitten dog.
“Ok.” I dragged my nails across the clammy bottoms. “Can you feel that?”
“Yeah, but it's all just tingles.”
The truck swerved around a series of tight curves as I lifted her shirt: her entire back, from shoulders to waistline, was covered with fiery necrotic blotches, packed as tight as stars in the Milky Way. Some welts had swelled into bloated cones, others sunk into divots, little irritated chinks like acne scars or tiny knife wounds.
“What is it?” She reached a hand around to feel.
“Nothing,” I said calmly, mixing in a hint of laughter as if the prospect of a problem was inconceivable. “Just making sure your belt was through all the loops.” The steering wheel shook so hard around the last switchback that it threatened to leap from my hands. “Don't want them falling down.”
We walked into the Safford ER arm in arm like two wounded soldiers. Apparently Benadryl is all it takes to treat a bee allergy, but Erica wasn't cured so easily. On the drive back to Tucson Erica spoke only to say that she would never hike again. “This was a mistake.” Maybe people can be allergic to other people. Maybe allergies affect the brain. Or maybe there was more than venom in that sting.
After Safford, four weeks of movies and TV and shopping scraped painfully by. No amount of nice dinners could bring Erica back to the mountains or to me, and I didn't even try.
Before the brake-up, I'd devised a therapeutic regimen for Erica - an incremental, AA type, ten-steps-to-getting-back-outdoors kind of program where she would take small guided hikes at Sabino and work her confidence back up for the big stuff. But it wasn't even worth proposing. She didn't want to return. She'd learned all she needed from her first trip.
Clearly Erica needs a normal boyfriend. And me? Well.
I know Delilah and all her astrologer friends would say that the bee was a sign, a way for the planets to reveal romantic incompatibility - Erica was in her Mercury rising after all. I once would have hated that I even knew what a rising Mercury was, but now, two months after the breakup, I can believe that explanation. See, the bee didn't sit beneath Erica to teach us some hokey lesson, that's not how it works; Erica was drawn to that spot, to the bee, for a reason, the way protons and neutrons are drawn together in an atom. Biology labels such cross-disciplinary connections ridiculous, but there's no shame in saying this: this stuff makes sense. One day physics will catch up with metaphysics and biology will understand what the Druids and Aztecs always knew. Cayenne once told me that the Pinaleños were sacred Apache land and that, after the telescopes were built on sacred Mount Graham, the whole range became cursed. And whether my friends and coworkers want to roll their eyes at me and argue that meaning is not a facet of the cosmos but the residue of human perception, I know now that some things happen for a reason. They really do.
Delilah came into work recently. I couldn't tell if my eyes had gotten better or my wits had grown sharper, but she looked beautiful. Standing there shoeless on the smooth boulders of Sabino Creek, dressed in a loose cotton dress, picking willow sprigs. That was two weeks ago. We've been dating ever since.
Fine. I'm a hippy. So what.
Casual Mysteries, Everyday Betrayals
“You're just like my son Ben,” Diane Reed cooed to the middle-aged man wheeling her down the hallway from the admission office to her new room at the Wynette Nursing Home in Potawatomi Rapids, where for eighty-five years she'd lived in the three-story house on Maple Street, first as the youngest child of Eugene and Wanda Crane, and then as the wife of Paul Reed, and for the last twenty years since her husband's death, alone. “Not Richard! Richie was just so…Richie was too…” The words eluded her as they had for sometime now.
“Impatient,” Ben supplied, pushing his mother's wheelchair. “Couldn't be bothered.” He knew his mother no longer recognized him, her brain erased by Alzheimer's, but he was comforted by her retention of some impression of her twin sons, the echo of some faint memory still caught in the gray matter like a still-living insect struggling in a spider's web.
“Where's Paul?” she murmured as they entered the unfamiliar room, clearly their destination, and stopped. “Paul?” she called to her dead husband, her voice cracking with an incipient anxiety brought on by the strange room.
Ben Reed walked down Main Street. The summer sun had settled somewhere behind the old stone three-story buildings, and the town had moved into its evening rhythm. Ben was going to get something to eat. He went past the furniture store his father had run when he and his brother were growing up. During the worst of the unrest in the 1960's, he remembered, somebody had tossed a brick through the plate glass display window, a random act of vandalism inspired by the race riots in nearby Detroit. Paul Reed had bought a shotgun and stood guard in front of the store at night until the cold autumn weather came.
One of the rumors around Potawatomi Rapids had been that Richard had broken the window, but if he had, he'd never told his brother. Ben never believed the rumor, though the open hostility between Paul Reed and his son fed such stories. Richard would have told him, or he'd have let it slip. How could he not? They were twins; they didn't have secrets from one another. Richard had been the first to know when he and his girlfriend Barbara had sex the first time.
Ben could still see his brother staggering drunk on their seventeenth birthday, taunting their father. “I hate you. I wish you were dead, you Chamber of Commerce motherfucker.” He could also still see Paul Reed decking his son with a teeth-crushing blow to the cheek, still hear the sickening sound of pummeled flesh.
After Paul Reed had sold the business to Howard Berlin, it had declined like the rest of the businesses on Main Street as the shopping centers sprang up on the edge of town with their supermarkets, laundromats and discount department stores, and today the sprawling building with all that floor space where living room couches, kitchen, bedroom and dining room sets had been so grandly displayed, was a youth recreation center run by the town, basketball hoops at either end of the show room.
Ben entered the gloom of Vaccaro's, the old bar-restaurant at the corner of Huron, and took a booth by himself. When the waitress appeared and took his order, he looked around at the other customers. He didn't recognize anybody. A gray-haired woman with heavy sagging breasts in a bright orange tanktop bearing the message “Precious Cargo” sat at an adjacent booth with three others Ben took to be her daughter and grandchildren. The daughter wore a blue tanktop and had the same profile as the older woman – stubby nose with flared nostrils, receding chin, prominent jaws. The children were restless, poking at each other and playing with the salt and pepper shakers. Voices came from other booths, but the partitions were too high to see anybody. A man in his thirties with a tie on got up to go to the restroom. Probably a downtown businessman, Ben figured. Talk about Chamber of Commerce – it was written all over him.
At the bar, hunched over as if in prayer, a man nursed a draft beer, holding onto it much as the children in the booth held the salt and pepper shakers. He looked up from under the brim of a Tigers baseball cap at the television on the shelf. He seemed vaguely familiar to Ben.
Except for visits during vacations as a college undergraduate, Ben had not been back to Potawatomi Rapids since he left home for college. His parents had always come to California to visit, partly because they wanted to get away but also for years because of Billy, their severely handicapped grandchild. The doctors advised against taking Billy to Potawatomi Rapids; the trip was simply too long, the surroundings unfamiliar. By the time Billy was three Paul Reed had died anyway. The funeral had been in Springfield, Illinois, where Paul's family was from. There was a family plot there, and even though she'd lived her whole life in Potawatomi Rapids, Diane would be buried there one day, too.
“Another one, Nick?” the barmaid called to the man hunched over at the bar.
Nick Adams! The name popped into Ben's head, full-blown as Athena springing from Zeus'. Just like the Hemingway character. Inspired by his find, Ben lurched out of his booth and over to the bar.
“Hey, Nick. How's it going?”
Nick looked him over skeptically. He'd evidently had several brews already. Lumpen proletariat, Ben thought. Probably worked at some manual labor job. He'd been one of those C- and D-students in the back of the class. Ben was a computer consultant in Sacramento.
“Reed, right?” Nick said at last. “Which one are you? Richard, or the other one?”
Relieved, Nick stuck out his mitt for a comrade-style handshake. “How you doin'? You were all right, man. I didn't like your brother, but you were all right. You used to give me smokes in the school bathroom.”
“Let me get this one,” Ben said as the waitress brought over the fresh glass. “Put it on my bill,” he told her.
“So what you been up to?” Nick drained half his glass, belched.
“Not much.” Ben summarized his brother's life: “Went to college in Florida for a year, got involved as a crew member on one of those Caribbean cruise lines for a while, wound up in Mexico. Cozumel. Worked the tourists. I've been in Texas ever since then, twenty, twenty-five years, Houston, Dallas, San Antone, doing this and that.”
“Mexico. No shit. I went down there once to score some dope. Didn't work out.”
Ben didn't say anything. Shrugged. Nick shrugged back.
“You didn't keep up with the music?” Richard had been the singer in a local band called “The Fellas.” They'd played at private parties and school dances. Richard's nickname was “The Blade,” because he looked so knife-thin behind the microphone. A number of people had referred to Ben as “Little Blade,” a way of identifying him as Richard's brother.
“Nah. I gave that shit up when I left Potawatomi Rapids.” In truth, Richard had tried to pursue a career as an entertainer on the cruise ship, but he was not encouraged to continue; in truth he didn't really sing, just bellowed.
“You used to get a lot of ass at parties.”
“That's true.” Ben remembered his brother's groupies as a vague group of plain, mousy hillbilly girls and chubby Mexicans with bad teeth.
Nick smiled at some memory. “Hey, you remember the time we fucked your brother's girlfriend? What was her name?”
Ben suddenly felt a cold spark in his gut. Blow on it and it might flame out into anger. “You mean Barbara? Barbara Owens?”
“Yeah, that's her. I wonder whatever became of her.”
“I don't know. Ben broke up with her right before he went out to college in California.”
“He ever find out we – ?” Nick seemed to sense something of Ben's agitation and aimed for his own form of discretion.
“I don't think so. He never mentioned it.”
“And you sure as hell never told him!” Nick laughed and playfully shoved Ben's shoulder.
“Well, she wanted it. She should of told him. I would of.” He shook his head, remembering. “She did both of us that night.”
“Was she drunk? I can't remember.” Ben tried to keep his voice casual.
“A little high. We smoked a couple joints.”
“That's right. Now I remember.”
“Sloppy seconds! Only time in my life I had to take sloppy seconds.”
The waitress came over to Ben with a plate on a tray. “Your sandwich is ready.”
Ben was no longer hungry. He was about to say he'd take his food at the bar with Nick, but Nick spoke first.
“Good to see you again, man. Thanks for the brew.” He swallowed the rest of his glass and stood up to leave.
Ben lay in the vast queen-size bed at the Potawatomi Rapids Ramada Inn, listening to the late night trucks whiz by on the interstate on their way to Cleveland or Detroit or Chicago. He thought about his mother. She'd have to move out to Sacramento eventually, he realized. In her condition it wasn't a stretch to imagine the staff at Wynette's taking advantage of her or losing patience – pilfering jewelry and money, neglecting to feed her. Better find someplace near home. It wasn't Potawatomi Rapids she had clung to so fiercely so much as it was that house, but now she'd moved out of the house, if only across town to Wynette's, and the house was under contract to a buyer.
Ben and his wife Betsy had put in seventeen years caring for Billy, born with cerebral palsy. He'd died one spring evening five years before after a mild fever. Wheelchair-bound from birth, unable to speak, spastic as a broken puppet on strings, Billy had been the central fact of their lives for close to two decades, from his daily care to dealing with state agencies, insurance companies, doctors. Making arrangements for his mother would seem all too familiar.
Richard would never have been able to deal with her, he thought, not without some bitterness. The last he'd been in touch with Richard he was living in Laredo, offering himself as a guide to American tourists going to Mexico.
Lying in the enormous bed, Ben felt an urge to call Richard now, ask him about Barbara Owens. How had it come about that he and Nick Adams had had sex with her? Why had Richard never told him? If he'd kept that secret, perhaps he'd kept secret throwing a brick through their father's store window the summer of sixty-seven.
Sloppy seconds! Only time in my life I had to take sloppy seconds! So Richard had to be the one who seduced her. She wanted it. How did it happen? Where did it happen? Ben was consumed with a desire to know. Maybe he could call Nick Adams, invite him out for a beer. But he looked over at the alarm clock's digital glow and saw it was 2:30.
What would Betsy be doing now, he wondered, already knowing the answer. Back home it was 11:30. The only question was if it was two or three bottles of wine she'd drunk, if it was white, a Riesling, say, or red, a Merlot. She'd been tipsy already when he called at 8:00. That's how she'd coped with Billy's death. It was why she hadn't come out to Michigan with him.
Ben tried to remember what it had been like to be Barbara Owens's boyfriend. How long had they been together? Six months? Eight months? They'd gotten together sometime after Homecoming senior year.
All those years taking care of Billy had blocked his memory of Barbara, of Potawatomi Rapids. They'd been awkward together at first, he remembered, polite – afraid to fart – and then eventually they'd had sex, though it hadn't really been successful, he realized. No stars or bells, no explosions; he remembered the vague disappointment – the relief – of his orgasms, even when she took him in her mouth, and Barbara never came herself. How did they break up? She was going to college in Ann Arbor, he to Stanford. They must have known they would drift apart, but how did they actually break up? He tried to remember.
Ben tried to fit himself back into that time, to will himself into the Potawatomi Rapids of 1970, but he drew a blank. He brought Barbara's image to mind as she'd been at seventeen, a busty blond girl with a chipped front tooth, too brainy to be very popular, and the clothes she'd worn hadn't been trendy enough, too old-fashioned. Long calico dresses in an era of miniskirts. She'd been a little overweight, too, but oh, he remembered her naked in the car, her big breasts, her gumdrop nipples. His breath quickened even now, thirty-five years later, picturing her sprawled across the backseat, eyes closed, moaning.
Ben tried to remember a break-up scene, at least a goodbye, but he drew a blank. Barbara's family had gone to Charlevoix in August, on Lake Michigan. Had they last seen each other in July, then, or was it September? He couldn't recall. Had they written to each other? He had no memory of an exchange. Maybe it would all come back to him when he had Alzheimer's, like his mother, he thought ruefully, the details coming back with a clarity sharp and unreal as a dream.
Now he mourned the loss of the betrayal he'd never known occurred. His twin brother Richard intimate with his girlfriend. Casual treachery, Ben had no doubt. Richard was never malicious, just self-centered, always assuming he was entitled to whatever Ben had. Barbara would have been just another groupie like Maria Guzman or Debbie Sloan, albeit one who could spell her name. But why had she fucked him? Why had she fucked Nick Adams?
“You hooking the gut with Jake Barnes tonight?” he asked Richard one midsummer evening after they'd graduated. Hooking the gut! It was what teenagers did in Potawatomi Rapids in the 1960's, hook the gut. It meant driving down Main Street and through Huron Park, past the lake and back up Erie Street to the Dairy Queen, where you either stopped to socialize or just went on, an endless circuit.
Richard's eyes narrowed. “You think you're better than Nick, don't you? You and your stuck-up girlfriend.” Richard was always accusing Ben of “thinking he was better” than their classmates.
“What, because I called him Jake Barnes? Barbara's not stuck up, either. She's just not an empty-headed cheerleader like Becky Van Dyke or those girls you go out with, Juanita Yberra or Debbie Sloan.”
“See? You think you're better than everybody else. Juanita's not good enough for you, is she? Or Debbie.”
“We don't have anything in common,” Ben conceded.
“And your girlfriend, too. She acts like she thinks her shit don't stink.”
“That's not true.”
“I bet it does stink.” Richard leered at his brother. “I bet it stinks.”
What was Richard really talking about?
So where had the gang bang taken place? In Huron Park? By Cass Lake, the pathetic little pond in Huron Park they called a “lake” ?
If only he could talk to one of them about it, Richard, Nick, even Barbara. Get the details. But he'd never know. He could never ask.
As the sky began to pink over the interstate outside his window, Ben fell into a fitful sleep. His future no longer the puzzle it once seemed, it was his past that stretched before him now, as a source of dread and discovery.
For more than a year my ex-wife suffered from chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradicalneuropathy, a related form of Guillain-Barre syndrome. The left side of her body often felt completely numb. She experienced paresthesia in her fingers and toes. The illness was wicked: symptoms struck at random; other mysterious ailments appeared. But worst of all she couldn't walk for several months and when finally she did, it was with a cane. At 40, she felt her body had slipped into fast-forward; she was overcome with the sensations of depression and the conviction that she was suddenly elderly. Occasionally, she became delusional. Once, late at night, she insisted there was a rattlesnake coiled in the toilet, which actually happened years ago to her mother, then a psychology professor in Albuquerque. Another time she went temporarily blind. Sometimes, she woke up in terror, looking out between her fingers, her eyes wild, her mouth open as though she were screaming, but she made no sound.
“What is it?” she would whisper.
“Tell me,” I would say.
Then she would look at me, or through me. “Tell you what.” Her voice was toneless and detached, yet her blue eyes seemed chillingly present.
One night, she dreamt she was stranded on an ice flow. A person waved to her from a passing ocean liner. It was herself as a child. In another dream she'd become like an “insecticide” , which caused all the flowers and trees around her to shrivel up. She often dreamt she was a rabbit or a deer on the run. “Run-run-run-run-run,” she would whisper in a monk's growly mantra. She was always prey. But her most common nightmare was that I had deserted her.
Her treatments included a blood plasma exchange. She also took anti-depressants and a few experimental drugs. She began seeing a psychiatrist and withdrew from friends.
Her illness arrived at a difficult time. I had just lost my job at a graphics design firm where I had worked for many years. My wife's income was not enough to support us and for about a year we lost even that. She was a research scientist at a small private university. The bills, and, most of all the uncertainty, caused huge rows. “I don't know why it is,” she would say, “but you have no idea in the world how to care for someone who's sick.”
At the same time, after almost a decade, neighborhood gangs returned to the district where we lived. Our neighbors began to leave. The landlord, a corporate attorney in Seattle, refused to lower rents, which were declining all over the city, even in far better neighborhoods. But when she couldn't find anyone willing to pay the old dotcom-boom prices, she found that the city would pay higher than the market value to landlords who accepted those eligible for Section 8 housing. One of these Section-8 tenants moved into the apartment next to ours with her 6-year-old son.
Her name was Cecilia. She looked to be in her early 40s although later I began to think she was older. She spoke with an east coast accent. She was tall and wore her hair short. She had a bohemian quality, and sometimes she would appear in the garden in a cotton summer dress, bare feet and a bandana. “A sharecropper's daughter,” said my wife wistfully, as though she was like that herself. Cecilia's kitchen window was often filled with flowers, as well as blues and Jazz, always languorous music that seeped into the backyard and through the walls of our apartment at all hours.
When Cecilia arrived, she told me she was going to City College to get an associate degree and that she was working a series of part-time jobs. She was friendly but not talkative and had a melancholy persona that deflected conversation. And what was there to say. She had enough to worry about and so I never asked about Andre, her son, or his father. She talked to my wife a few times, but no subject ever expanded beyond the moment. In that sense she was only partly visible, we knew her in the beginning only indirectly, through her music mostly.
From the start Andre acted strangely. The first time I met him he jumped in my arms. “Hug me,” he demanded. I did, but reluctantly. He did the same thing to my wife; once he ran up to her and knocked her down. There was something simultaneously endearing and off-putting about his affection. But most of all I didn't like his presumption, running into the house the way he did, plopping down on the sofa. “I love you,” he would say, “we're a family.” Eventually, I understood that this was his way of imploring us, or anyone, to say these things back to him. It should have been that simple, I wanted it to be that simple, and with some other child it might have been. But I couldn't take my cue. Had he been a white child, I wouldn't have thought twice about turning away, even scolding him, but I felt the good liberal's guilt and obligation. That I couldn't deal with him honestly — and knowing very well the reason, racism by any other name — these moments became another source of resentment.
After a few months, in fact just after my wife went into the hospital for her blood exchange, odd things happened. Once, I opened the front door and Andre stood on the landing looking up at me. In his pajamas. It was the middle of the afternoon. He demanded milk. I took him to the kitchen, poured him a glass and asked about his mom. He said she was asleep. He wanted to stay. I put him down on a sofa. After an hour I knocked on Cecelia's door. The door opened very slowly. She hung back in the shadows. Her words were slurred. I suspected she'd been drinking, but then I thought perhaps she was on prescription medications. She told me once she took painkillers for a leg injury. “Give her benefit of the doubt,” my wife said. “You're always suspicious.”
Several days later Andre knocked on the door again. He was crying. It was in the late afternoon, in early December. He said his mother had been gone all day. “All day?” I said. Immediately, he was defensive. “It's okay. She didn't do nothin' bad.”
A few hours later Cecilia arrived at our door. “I had a very bad day,” she said definitively. “What happened?” I asked, but there was no conversation to be had. She walked in head down, woke up Andre and took him away. An hour later she knocked on the door, looking troubled. “Could I borrow $20?” she asked, and curtsied with her eyes. “To buy milk and vegetables.” Such a beguiling way of asking, an irresistible servility. “You know I wouldn't ask,” she added, moving close in. She wore something, not perfume, more primal, a musky pheromonal potion, with the sweet smell of common cleanser. “I hate to ask you.” She smiled. I happened to have just the amount. Her hand gobbled it up without looking and the money crackled in her palm as she massaged it. “You're a really good person,” she said and now she was close enough that I could catch her breath. “I know your life is difficult.” She knew my wife was ill, but I also wondered if she was listening through the walls. “Please consider me a friend,” she said and disappeared.
After the incident with Andre, my wife and I talked about what to do. Should we go to the landlord? Should we call Section-8? We decided to do nothing. A few days later, police knocked at the door. Andre had been left home again. This time, all day. A neighbor heard him crying. The police had come to take him away. Did we know anything about his mother? The officer wanted to know. I didn't even know Cecilia's last name.
When my wife heard the news she wanted to confront Cecilia. “I don't care if she is black and poor? What was she thinking?” That marked the beginning of days on end during which my wife drowned in anger and grief. And from the deep came a whole new depression linked to the children we'd never had, to abortions with various lovers including me, to the prospect of a barren life, to a feeling of inconsolable, inexplicable failure.
I told her again and again it was just the byproduct of this bizarre illness and these meds. I didn't tell her that her anger and depression were contagious. In the meantime, I tried every distraction. One day I brought her a new translation of Goethe's poetry, including “The Metamorphosis of Plants” , one of her favorites. No sooner had I started reading to her then she turned away. “We're not unfolding into anything.”
As her depression deepened, she became obsessed with leaving the city. “We've got to get to the country. It's evil here.” She also became obsessed with Cecilia and gradually saw her as the embodiment of Nature gone awry. “Have you heard her today?” she would ask me.
In our kitchen, the wall separating the two apartments had very little insulation. We could hear everything, a glass breaking, a cabinet door slammed, something said to Andre. One night a few months after she arrived we heard her making love in her living room, which was next to the kitchen. It was an unsettling sound. She went on for a long time, and just when she seemed finished, she started again.
One Friday night our friend Idriss came over with her children and during dinner we cold hear Cecilia. “C'mon,” she was saying, “Fill me with your cock, baby. Just the way I like it. That's it, higher....” And then she screamed in what seemed like both pleasure and pain. This went on and on. Idriss, a single woman, was going through a difficult divorce after her husband had run off with a long time friend of hers. The sound of Cecilia in heat struck such a nerve that Idriss suddenly dropped her fork, grabbed her children and ran out of the apartment. My wife went to Cecelia's door and rang and rang but there was no answer.
Her love making was always urgent, as though to say, ‘this is my one real pleasure, my one escape, and nothing will deny me.' But after a while, her urgency began to connote something else. My wife said once that it was though she were saying to us, ‘I know you can hear me and that it makes you anxious and uneasy is part of my pleasure.' That began to ring true and after these events, I always felt on edge and sexually aroused. It became like a madness. Once, late at night, I heard her going on and on from our bedroom and I could not block her out. Finally, I went into the kitchen and literally put my ear to the wall. I listened for more than an hour and then almost every night I began listening. “It's like pornography,” my wife said once. “Watch it, you'll become addicted. But in fact that was already true.
Occasionally, through the sheers in the front room, I saw Cecelia coming and going. One morning, walking back from the store I saw her asleep in her car. Her running lights were on and I thought of waking her, but I didn't. In a way I was intimidated by her.
After a few days, she began getting visitors, scruffy men who looked like the day laborers that stand along Caesar Chavez Boulevard every morning. Most of these visitors were Latino, some were black. One night around 4 a.m., I looked out and there were a group of five of them milling in front of the gate and a woman as well.
These visitors became a problem because they would ring our doorbell, which they mistook for Cecilia's. Every night the buzzing — during the “hour of the wolf” as my wife called it, after her favorite Ingmar Bergman film — and if the buzzer didn't sound in our apartment we could hear it in hers. Often, it would last for several minutes. Each time I would go out on the landing and confront these people. Sometimes, they would turn and leave. Other times they would linger in the darkness by the gate or across the street.
We called the police, but they did nothing. Every night more people came to push the buzzer. Night after night. We thought about taking photographs, but instead we put up a sign warning people not to ring the wrong bell. My wife assumed this was about drugs and stuck a note to gate saying, “No drug dealing here. The police are watching.”
We talked to a tenant's rights activist we know. He warned us that it was very difficult to get rid of a Section-8 tenant and that it was up to the landlord anyway. He added that if we reported Cecilia, she might lose her benefits, which would only make her more desperate. What should we do? I asked.
“Well, you could sit down and talk to her,” he said quite seriously. But my wife wasn't ready for that. And still, the visitors kept coming. Then one man seemed to move in with her. He was a Latino, wiry and quick, and he had a quick temper. They argued often. Once, he was the one ringing the buzzer at the gate. “She's not here,” I yelled down to him.
He was in a fury. “She owes me a thousand dollars. You tell her I'm going to get it.”
A day later there was a commotion on the landing. I went out and he was there. “Sorry,” he said to me. “She's crazy, that one.” He wound circles beside his head.
Cecilia appeared. She was in her bathrobe and wore a bandana. She touched my arm in a familiar way. “Please call the police,” she said in a very calm voice.
“Really? I replied.
“I'm asking you. Please do it.”
I called. The police arrived. By then the man had gone off. Cecilia pointed to a hole in the front window through which the man had thrown a small metal table.
After that things quieted down. We didn't' see Cecilia for several weeks. “You don't think she died, do you?” my wife asked. A few days later we noticed that the rear window in Cecilia's apartment was broken. One of our garden chairs stood slightly tilted below the window. It looked as if there'd been a break-in. We called the landlord's local attorney who suggested we call the police. We did. Two officers arrived; we told them a part of the story. They rang the doorbell, knocked on the door, and shouted through the windows, front and back. There was no reply.
Finally, they forced open the door. One officer drew his gun and went down the hall, looking into each room. The apartments in that building were designed like parlor cars, with a series of small rooms off a 45-foot hall. At the end of the hall the door to the living room was closed. The officer opened the door gingerly and there sat a man watching television. The man was the Latino I'd seen weeks earlier. “I live here,” he told the policeman. He claimed he hadn't heard the doorbell and flashed a smile with few teeth. He looked at me, standing at the other end of the hall. “I hope your wife is well,” he shouted. “I know you people.” And he added to the cop, “They're always complaining.” Then he drew circles next to his head.
A few nights later, I caught the scent of a cigarette in the garden. I went out and there was Cecilia sitting under the avocado tree. “Good evening, David,” she said, putting some word-English on my name, some syllabic condescension. I sat down next to her. She wore shorts and a t-shirt, and no bra; her nipples were noticeable in moonlight.
“I understand you think I'm dealing drugs,” she began.
“Who told you that?”
“The police didn't say that. That's bullshit.”
“Someone did. Anyway, I know you do.”
“How naive do you think we are?”
“I don't think you're naïve, you've just got it wrong. It's not what you think.”
“Then what is it?”
“I can't tell you.” She said between drags. “Because it's also illegal and I don't think it would change anything.”
“Whatever it is, we don't want these people coming around.”
“I can tell you this, this activity is illegal, but I don't do it here.”
The year turned to October. The rainy season arrived without rain. The landlord asked that we stop watering the garden. The one consolation of living in that building and on that street was this garden. Letting it go was particularly painful because before she became ill, my wife created one of the most beautiful urban gardens you'll ever see. When we arrived there was only an avocado tree and a rose bush. She added exotic bushes, including several species of jasmine and bamboo. She ran a purple hibiscus up the back stairs. She took an old deep bottom bathtub and made a miniature pond filled with various kinds of water lilies and a carp. She hung flower baskets here and there, as well as Tibetan prayer flags. She constructed a raised vegetable patch and spent hours trimming a small olive tree she'd found half dead. She took various artifacts she'd found, made clever little sculptures and hung them on the storage shed, a long narrow structure that was falling down. But by Thanksgiving that beloved garden had become like an abandoned stage set. One day she had a yard sale and sold everything. “Now, I know what the dust bowl must have been like,” she said afterward, looking out on the ruin and she added, “Don't you see this as a sign?”
I saw it as a sign of the bad luck we'd come to. She saw it as a sign to flee. Months passed; the winter, such as it was, passed. And then one day in April it was summer again. There was even a heat wave and as it wore on my wife's health improved. She stopped using the cane and seemed more energetic. She began inviting people over again. She also threw a large party on our anniversary. And then on one of those mid afternoons when the windows were all open and there wasn't a sound in the street except the bells of the ice cream man coming down the street with his cart, that I looked over my shoulder and she was walking through the apartment with only a chemise. “What's this?” I asked. “Mysteries of the deep,” she replied. She began slowly undoing each button and then turned away.
But it had been a long time and this was not easy. I was wary of her conviction, as well as her motivation. And so we circled each other in that bed, in that small box of a room — she waiting for me to reveal some familiar part of myself; me waiting for some sign that she was really surrendering. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, we gave up disbelief, but it was all brief and more promising than satisfying.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door. Then the awful buzzer. We weren't anticipating anyone. The knocking continued. It's a mistake, I said. But my wife became anxious. I got up and looked out the peephole. It was Cecilia. When I opened the door, she stepped toward me. “Is your wife here?” she asked, looking over my shoulder.
“Yes,” I replied. She took on a plaintive expression.
“Would you help me?” she said, with sad, imploring eyes.
“What is it?” I thought perhaps an addict had passed out in her flat.
“I'm trying to hang a picture,” she said. “Could you help me?”
Odd, I thought, but reflexively I shut the door to our apartment and went into hers. She closed the door and stood behind me. In one of the bedrooms, there was a pup tent, all set up. Toys were strewn about.
Where is it?” I asked.
She motioned toward the back of the apartment. “In here?” I asked when we reached the living room.
She stopped. “I heard you were moving,” she said, bending her head a little to one side, mouth open, as though an opportunity hinged on the answer. “Not true?”
““Where did you hear that?” I wondered if she'd heard our discussions through the wall. “It's not true.”
“Well, that's good because you're nice people.” She stepped a little closer. “Do you remember that day I told you that I was involved in illegal things... Well, what I was referring to is….” She paused, and again her head tilted to one side and slightly back, such surrender and seduction in the angle. Her smile turned serious. “…is that I'm a prostitute. That's what I didn't tell you…”
“Fine,” I replied curtly. It occurred to me there was no picture to hang.
“So you see why I couldn't tell you.”
“I just want you to know. Because I know you don't want to have any drugs here and I don't either….”
“It's less the drugs or the sex than the people who come with it,” I said, and now I noticed that she had a can of whip cream in one hand and a bottle of massage oil in the other. She put them both down on a table, turned to me and took off her t-shirt, quickly and effortlessly, like liquid, I remember thinking.
“You're an attractive man,” she said and then she took my hand and covered her breast. When my hand didn't relax she moved it so that her nipple was in the very center of my palm and began rubbing herself. Then she grabbed my other hand with a robotic grip and pulled it between her legs. “I'm not a bad person.” she said. Her eyes were slightly glassy. “I just want you to know that.” She began to smile. “Now, wouldn't you like something? “
Beyond having just come from one bed and now invited to another, with a woman I didn't trust, there were odd put offs. For one, the light was a half tone. There was something eerie about it. The window was also wide open. I could hear someone in the next yard. The room itself was bare, save for a black leather sofa, the kind you might find in the office on a used car lot. A broken toy airplane had crashed in a corner. An acrid scent of Clorox came from the kitchen. All the while Cecilia never stopped moving my hand. And then she reached down between my legs and began to stroke.
“What's this?” she said as I began to respond. Then she moved still closer and rubbed her forehead on my neck, the way a true lover would.
“I can't,” I said.
“What's this?” she kept repeating.
“Why not.” And she drew back looking at my mouth. “Well, what about a blow job then?”
The word was strangely jolting, and just then the phone rang in my apartment. My wife picked up right away. I could hear her voice so clearly. The walls, with layer after layer of whitewash were even thinner than I had imagined. Cecilia must have heard everything. My wife's voice seemed to drop. She must be whispering, I thought. I wondered if she had a lover.
I pulled away. Cecilia kept my hand between her legs in an iron grip. “I know who you are,” she insisted. She looked at me, going back from one eye to the other, catching all my discrepancies, all my ambiguities. “I know who you are. I listen to you sometimes.” And with that she allowed my hand to escape and I went off down the hallway. Her voice came after me: “If you change your mind, you know where I am.”
A moment later I found my wife making the bed. “She wanted you to hang a picture. I heard that much.”
I relayed a harmless sounding version of what had happened. “I will kill her,” my wife said in a theatrical tone. “Limb by limb. But didn't I tell you?”
“Who was that on the phone?” I asked.
“Just a moment ago, just before I came in.”
“Nobody,” she said and just then I heard a commotion out in the street. I went to the front room and looked out the window. A man standing by the entrance to the building was arguing with another man standing by a double-parked car. The one man had evidently dropped off the other. The man at the entrance rang a bell. It was Cecilia's. After a moment the buzzer sounded and he opened the gate. As he came up the stairs I looked out the peephole and caught a distorted image of a black man with gold chains, dark glasses, and a cloak of some kind.
“Is it the pimp?” my wife asked. “Must be. He's her new lover. But don't you find it interesting that he's arriving just as you would be getting to the end of your blowjob. Perhaps, you were bait for something….”
“I should confront them,” I said.
My wife threw herself against the front door. “Are you crazy?”
I don't remember seeing much of Cecilia after that. A woman arrived from social services one day. She was dressed in a white suit. I thought she might have been a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness. She wanted some information about Cecilia. We offered a brief version, with some trepidation, fearing the man we thought must be her pimp. My wife said nothing.
The next day, my wife suffered a relapse. She saw a woman walking down the street. The woman may have been decompensating: she was talking to herself and occasionally she stopped and screamed at the top of her lungs. My wife was overwhelmed by the sight and the woman's lost expression. “That's me,” she said. The next day she began new medications. But nothing helped. She began to draw away again and this time there was no coming back. We went down a long dark alley of estrangements that lead, during the next year and a half, to separation and divorce.
“If we had just done what I said and moved out of the city,” my wife kept saying at the end. “None of this would have happened…. If I just hadn't gotten sick.”
Meanwhile, Cecelia fell into the background. We rarely saw her. Or heard her. When we did see her in the backyard, taking out the trash, she acted as though nothing had happened. My wife never confronted her, even when Cecilia came to the door once and asked to see her.
“I would like to speak to your wife,” Cecelia said.
“She can't see you right now.” I replied.
“I want to speak to your wife.”
“It's between two women.”
I shook my head and closed the door.