These are the last sections of a novel I wrote in 2010-2011. I plan to donate all proceeds to the Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office. The Virgin Islands is a territory of the United States, purchased in 1917 from Denmark. The United States government was concerned during World War I that the Germans would buy the islands and use them as a submarine base, so we preempted them. I think it is apt that money from this novel, which is rooted in another military installation—the Manhattan Project— go to this organization because they seek to preserve buildings so that people can see and feel the history of this beautiful place. There are other historical preservation organizations that are non-governmental, but the VISHPO takes a more holistic view of what needs to be preserved. I am adding a poll asking how much you would pay for a paperback, physical copy.
P.S. The first four chapters are below this post.
The thirteen months in which Mavis was missing coincided with the biggest drought to the region in recent decades. The first reports struck Doris as absurd, as she had not noticed an appreciable difference in the already scant rainfall, but the evening newscasters continued, as the months stretched on, to harp on the dwindling of the underground aquifers and the falling of the water table due to the erosion of certain top soils and the stripping of natural vegetation by cotton farmers. The rain came down, the newsmen said, but ran fugitive-like toward Mexico in the fashion of raindrops merging and spelunking down a windshield. Gulches and culverts were visible from the house, and when the sun slanted precisely the right way in mid-afternoon, the hills appeared like the stretch-marked bellies of numerous pregnant women in the distance. The slow scorch of a few comparatively dry years had brought the matter to a head, and residents were urged to follow an ever expanding list of rules and regulations regarding water use. Sprinklers were mandatory. Yard hoses could only be turned on after six p.m. Showers were to be kept under ten minutes, and baths were all but forbidden. The public swimming pools were closed for the summer, and people were encouraged not to wash their cars or dogs as frequently as they had been. That fall, the church fair’s organizing committee opted to fill the dunking booth with vats of shaving cream rather than Jell-O, which required more water to prepare, but the rinsing of the booth proved impractical as the shaving cream simply swelled into a river of foam that stretched the length of the parking lot and made tires slip and caused at least two fender-benders for which the church was later found liable in small claims court. Restaurants began serving soft drinks without ice, and once, when a diner ran out of refrigerated Coke cans, Doris and the girls drank theirs warm. The hot fizz ushered in memories of her first encounters with the narcotically syrupy drink when she arrived at Los Alamos from Manchester. The girls winced and coughed and nearly gagged. They complained that it tasted too sweet, but Doris rolled it around on her tongue before swallowing and thought about how her life would have been vastly different had she not met Van. An awareness of a multitude of parallel lives opened up before her and in her like so many upwardly cascading bubbles.
During this time, Doris suffered a drought of her own. Never a coffee-drinker, she acquired a taste for it from support group meetings, where it was served with stale, glazed donuts. She often did not drink water for days and only knew she was dehydrated from the onset of dull headaches in the evenings. She thought the donuts had caused her, during this time, to gain fifteen pounds and only realized when Van dragged her to the doctor for an annual physical that she had undergone menopause.
When she left for Chicago, driving sheets of uneven rain slammed into the hood of the car. The action of the wipers was inadequate, and the hard glare of headlights on the dark road appeared in rapid slices like the pictures of vacations people saved and put into stereoscopic devices. She made her way into town keeping the car in the center of her lane by judging the feel of the road against the tires.
She drove three days, and the rain seemed to follow her to Chicago, where it was frigid and pelted her cheeks like tiny, half-frozen missiles. She picked her way through a neighborhood she found disorienting in its poverty and urban infrastructure. The great steel girders of an elevated train blotted out the minimal, drowned sunlight and made the entire street a sort of tunnel. The barber shops and clothing stores were locking down for the day, and men were drawing down doors of corrugated metal over the glass storefronts and attaching padlocks as if each business were a small cell in a row of lockers. The businesses that remained open, bars and liquor stores and tiny grocery shops, glowed with neon signs that flickered chaotically and the hot pink and red light bounced off the corrugated doors and even the random, rain-slicked piles of plastic trash bags that rattled in the wind. Odd assortments of garbage littered the sidewalk and suggested scenes of human interaction that made Doris shudder. A ripped open diaper lay in proximity to a wig, a discarded high heel, a rusted shotgun shell, a used condom and a pair of twisted wire rim glasses. The doorways of the bars wafted cigarette smoke and gusted loud guffaws and roaring conversation. Occasionally the train thundered overhead and sparks lit up the sides of the railing. Everything shook, and Doris was invaded by memories of childhood bomb scares, when visiting relatives in London. She felt the urge to crouch and remembered the underground passageways of the tube. She wondered how the people she saw walking the street lived in a perpetual state of sensory bombardment and how such horror could have sprung up in the absence of war. The entire street made her feel small and assaulted, like a pinball in a machine, and she quickly turned away from the glowing, grinning faces of the patrons in the bars who seemed to be enjoying the arcade like atmosphere.
She found the address a detective had given her. Mavis had apparently given it to the court when she was arrested for shoplifting baby formula from a supermarket. She had tried to give a false name, but the police found her license in her purse. A probation officer had contacted Doris and Van at home when Mavis had not shown up for a scheduled meeting. The place was a yellow brick rowhome, seemingly uninhabitable and nondescript except for the black soot rimming the windows of the burnt out first floor. Doris had no trouble entering, as the door had also been removed. A single lightbulb hung from a chain on the landing between the first and second floors. Doris was amazed to pass a well-dressed black man and a girl in a hooded sweatshirt, also surprisingly well-kempt. As she walked the stairs, she felt a mounting sense of panic at the thought that Mavis would not be alone, and of whom she might encounter. The sounds of TVs and the clattering of dishes greeted her on the third floor. Everything smelled of hot cooking grease and dust. When she reached 312, the apartment number the officer had given her, she stood outside, paralyzed for a moment by her lack of rehearsal for this moment. She did not know the proper way to enter. Should she kick the door in? Should she knock politely and wait for Mavis to come to the door as if the whole disappearance had been a planned move on Mavis’ part and she were merely dropping in for an impromptu visit? What would she say if someone not Mavis came to the door?
She did not need to do either, as the door to 312 was slightly ajar. Mavis lay on her side, watching a kung fu movie on a bare mattress that, except for the TV and a large space heater, was the room’s only furnishing.
Mavis was so pale and greasy, she looked like a wax replica of herself. She wore jeans and a tank top. She was half-covered by a rough blanket Doris was tempted to call a horse blanket. Her arms and legs were so thin and wiry that when she moved her muscles slid up and down her bones and reminded Doris of the action of levers and pulleys. Her hair appeared putty gray. She looked wild and dead at the same time. Ravaged, Doris later told Van. Was she? Van asked. I said ravaged not ravished!
“Where are your things?” Doris asked.
“Where are your things?” Mavis hissed and crawled over to a corner of the room. “Am I your thing? Did you come here to retrieve me because I am your thing?”
“Come home with me.”
“I am home. This is my home. What! You don’t like it? You don’t think it’s good enough? You think it means something? What you think about my home?”
Mavis stood up on wobbly legs and braced herself against the walls of the room and raged at Doris for the next few minutes. She seemed taller, due to her extreme thinness and to the extreme nature of her emotions.
“You think you can tell me to do anything and I’ll do it. You think that I exist just to please you, to represent you, that I’m just a doll you can make over. Well, I’m not. I am a real person, a live human being, and you can’t just keep me and make me be whatever you want. I am much better than that. I am more than that. Do you understand? Do you?! My infinite inner potential defies you to treat me like a doll you can take home. Tuck me under your arm. So much so you don’t even know. You think this place is a mess. Well, it is. This place is the pits, but I don’t have to stay here. I can go wherever I want. If I want to be in a movie, I could be in a movie tomorrow if I want. If I want money, if I want a job, I’ll just go into a store, go anywhere, and they will give me a job! If I want nice things, I can have them. I don’t have to wait around for you to give me money, and you don’t understand. I’m safe here. People look at me and know not to mess with me. They see me and are like, don’t fucking touch that girl. That girl is too powerful. Leave her alone. Because they know, I make shit happen the way I want it to. You don’t understand. It doesn’t matter what this place looks like, or what I look like. I am, like, a positive-thinking person and that has made me very powerful. You can’t understand that because you are not like me. I come from you, but you are not part of this and you don’t understand. I’ve been practicing positive thinking for so long that I understand things as they really are!”
Several times Doris tried to interrupt this tirade, but each time she did Mavis’ voice grew louder and angrier until she was shouting feverishly. Sweat broke out on her temples. Doris had the sensation of being choked. When Mavis did stop shouting, she was panting rapidly. Doris briefly wanted to flee. A thin, brown spider descended from a crack in the ceiling and hung on a length of gossamer. The spider was so tiny it appeared like a tuft of lint dangling in the air.
“I only came to make sure you were okay,” Doris said.
“I am okay,” Mavis said.
“And to take you home. I am your mother, and I don’t care how powerful you are. You are my child, and you will get your things and come away with me this minute.”
For effect, Doris slammed the door behind her. The spider shimmied up its thread and back into the ceiling, surviving a downpour of plaster dust. Mavis moved slowly to the closet and put on a sweater, a coat, and a fedora. She walked with Doris to the rented car with her hands in her pockets, glancing sideways like a disgraced celebrity dodging an entourage of paparazzi.
Doris drove back to New Mexico on coffee and chainsmoked cigarettes, stopping only for gas, using the restrooms at highway rest stops where she could make Mavis stand outside her stall door so she could see her shoes. She was terrified the girl might bolt, but Mavis treated her capture rather nonchalantly, demanding her favorite items from drive-thru menus, constantly turning the radio station to the contemporary rock channels, falling asleep with her face against the passenger door and drooling over the vinyl. She talked surprisingly little. She mentioned her love of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and said that she knew several “highly successful” people who did nothing but follow musical acts all over the country in Volkswagen vans.
She was asleep as they approached the large brick compound, first a prison, then an asylum, that now served as a home for drug-addled teenagers such as Mavis. The radio lapsed into static, the rehab was so far away from the city limits of Santa Fe. Deep in the desert, the rehab promised little chance of escape. Doris was more anxious than she had been the entire journey when she saw Mavis saunter off in long johns, a hospital gown and blue foam flip-flops. Just before she reached the end of the corridor where the newly admitted patients were separated from their family members, Doris called out, “I am your mother, and I love you.”
Orderlies were yanking Mavis toward double doors lined with black rubber flaps. She turned, a cigarette tucked behind one ear. She looked quizzical, as if she had maybe not heard clearly what Doris had said. Then she hitched up her gown to scratch her thigh and shrugged.
THE STARS AT LAMY
Thank God for vacation bible study.
Doris had learned that as time-consuming as the long drive into and out of town was, it was well worth the trip to have a place to put the girls. A child’s day was not at all equivalent to an adult’s, she had noticed. A child’s day was long, so long that to fill it up required more man hours than Doris and Van had combined. They had never employed sitters but had been known to let the girls linger at day camps, girl scouts, tee-ball practice. Usually the last parent to pick up, Doris often sat in the car tuned to the news radio stations, soaking in the streaming adult voices of newscasters while the girls sauntered up to the car. She’d pretend she had just pulled up. Van often took the girls to work with him and foisted them on Ruby, the church secretary, a sweet, buxom nineteen-year-old whom the girls looked up to and emulated and pestered as they would a much older sister. They asked odd and intimately searching questions of Ruby about being female that they did not of Doris. Questions such as how old do I have to be to wear a bra? And do babies get born from your belly button? And when I am older can I get married in a bathtub like the Baptists use for baptisms? If she were around, Ruby would forward such questions to Doris who could only blush and say thank you. She understood that the girls were directing these questions to Ruby because with her youthful fashions and her breasts that could be said to bulge like ripe tomatoes in July from under cropped ruffly blouses, Ruby represented a more credible authority on all things femalekind.
The girls were still so young and innocent that the full span of a life did not register with them. They were starting to puzzle out the differences between the sexes, but at an impasse to understand puberty. It was obvious that they thought of Doris and Van as permanently old, and they thought of these permanently old people as almost a different life form. When confronted with black and white pictures of their grandparents, the girls had once or twice not recognized them.
More and more they were asking questions about events that preceded them, but it was with astonishment and giggles that they would listen to tales of how Van used to shoot prairie dogs with bee-bee guns and leave them in the mailboxes of the more esteemed scientists at Lamy, the queer, clandestine little camptown he was whisked away to when he was thirteen because his father was an engineer and the military usurped his life so he could help develop a secret weapon. Lamy, they called it, shorthand for Los Alamos, a place of aliases and spies and code words. A gulag, really. An oubliette where, in the middle of nowhere, no one lived and no one worked and no one really talked about what was going on. The girls would sit on their heels before Van and ask him to tell them stories of Lamy. When he was really going, Van could make Lamy sound like the land east of the stars and west of the moon. He turned his fragmented child’s eye view of history inside out until the mud splattered village was a Fraggle Rock of geeks and freaks. Doris had been there, whole swaths of her adolescence took place at Lamy, but in the deft, origami-master-like retellings of her husband, the Lamy of his remembrance was a whole, separate place that like the real Lamy did and did not exist, the slippery limbo between official and unofficial, real and imagined. His grandfather’s tales were never factual but never, somehow, untrue. The children liked this Lamy. Sometimes when they were riding in the car, they would point to pieces of the landscape, especially at night, an odd bale of industrial wire, an abandoned oil rig, and they would declare it a relic of Lamy. They had a running debate about the exact location of Lamy. They were constantly getting Doris and Van to confirm their latest hypothesis about the exact location of Lamy, and Doris frequently wondered if there were not something genetic at play, given that their mother had abandoned them for the pursuit of archaeology and did nothing all day but unearth pottery shards in an effort to locate an ancient city that predated the Aztecs. The children would point to the stars and say, were those at Lamy?
Yes, Van would say, but at Lamy, the stars would hiss.
The stars would hiss? the girls would say.
The stars would hiss, and the moon would howl.
How? The girls would ask.
Thermonuclear physics, Van would say.
You see the stars hiss when they die, like that time we were driving and Papa hit that nail in the road. We think the stars are just lights in the sky like bulbs in the ceiling, but they’re not. They’re sort of…alive, Van paused. Well, at Lamy, there was this very special man, they called him Dr. Oppeinheimer, a scientist with incredible gifts that some thought he had to be a prophet of God to know the things he did, and he figured out how to make a star die right here on earth, but that star was going to kill a lot of people if he did. At night he would stand on a water tank and stare at the sky. He wanted to be closer to the stars. He wanted the stars to tell him what to do. He thought if he stared at them long enough, he would get an answer.
What did the stars say to him? Mona said.
Nothing, Van said. They said nothing because they were stars. But it turned out that was exactly the answer. What he should have done was nothing at all.
Then why did they hiss? Lizzie said.
Van thought a moment.
Because they were dying, he said. You can hear it before you can see it. The light of a dead star still reaches earth for hundreds of years afterward so you can’t tell which ones are dead and which are alive.
That’s annoying, Mona said.
But it’s convenient, Lizzie added.
Yes, the light of a dead star is as good as the light of live star, Van said.
Doris inhaled sharply. She knew the night Van was obliquely referring to. Listening to him resurrect their teenage years at Lamy was like watching someone take up reins buried in fine dust and shake them until remote memories were free of the debris of time. She could see 1945 as if through a clear telescope. Oppenheimer—Oppie—had been quite frail by that time. Over the water tower, standing legs akimbo for balance, he’d been so thin and tall he looked like a man-shaped antenna on top of the giant silver cylinder. Doris and Van would sometimes go to a spot just beyond the water tower where grass grew thicker in the shade the tower created. At night it was cool and damp. A little divet where the land dropped off seemed created just for their two bodies, a lover’s trench. There they would neck and grope ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Before they would be missed. So much of their courtship was hushed and hurried. Like much of life at Lamy, it ran on a tight schedule and was kept a secret. Sometimes they would slip off pieces of clothing. He’d peel up her cotton blouse and she’d shiver as seemingly icy trickles of night dew contacted the skin over her ribs.
“I like this,” she’d murmur, and Van would moan.
One night, all of a sudden, Oppie’s face was before them, vaster than its own edges with the gleam of moonlight. He had jumped off the tower and landed in a squat. He stood up, stretched his hips forward until his body was nearly in the shape of a bow. He looked at them, then at the sky.
“The sins of the fathers,” he had said. Then, “But I will always cherish the time we’ve had together.”
And he walked away.
IRON AND FISH
The lobby of the YWCA was boisterous, loud and almost foggy with the chlorine vapors of the Olympic length swimming pool. Full of mothers with wet wipes poised like butterfly nets running after small children who’d just been fingerprinted. It was a race to catch little fingers before they could land on counter tops and the vinyl wing chairs and tile floors. The lego rubber mats in the foyer were slick with pool humidity. The children had been given lollipops as rewards for compliance and the mothers had to contend with the sticky wands as well as the blackened, icky fingers. A daycamp bunch of little swimmers were standing shivering and dripping with their towels over their shoulders, waiting to be picked up.
Doris wondered if the twins would have identical prints. She asked the lady volunteer from the Los Alamos County Sheriff’s Department. The lady did not know. She smiled at the girls as she rolled their fingers in the ink and planted them on the special cards that would be filed within the sheriff’s department.
“They don’t look the same,” she said. “But I can’t really tell. How can you tell them apart?”
“I don’t know,” Doris said. “You just develop an instinct.”
The lobby was decorated with public service posters warning children against activities that might lead to their abduction. A cartoon bear in a sherriff’s hat appeared at the bottom right corner of each, wagging a cartoon finger. “Never go with strangers in a car,” warned one. “Use the buddy system when going places,” urged another. A mustached man stood at the corner of a playground. Two girls held hands, walking past. The mustached man’s head was turned in the direction of a little girl who stood by herself, looking down at a coiled up jumprope. The style of the cartoons was the same as that used for Schoolhouse Rock, jocular, bell-bottomed people, big heads, slender bodies, like humanoid sunflowers. The playground was populated with an urban multitude of ethnicities that didn’t exist in Los Alamos. All the people were tall and smiling, except for the mustached man, who appeared in every poster, trenchcoated and square-jawed. His eyes were covered up with silver aviator glasses. It was a peculiarly American thing to do, like the Smoky Bear Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires campaign. Dressing up the sinister and disastrous potentialities of life in the technicolor tones of advertising. Even now, were there ad men in a penthouse office space in Manhattan examining color schemes to be used in a public service campaign to run concurrent with the Apocalypse? Which illustrative style would make the Apocalypse most acceptable to the American public? Which font would best convey the magnitude of the event while at the same time not contributing to the general panic and hysteria?
The mesa had once been inhabited by a tribe of native Americans who had come to the arid, open spaces from the Northern plains to escape the tribal warfare of other native populations. It was these peace-loving pueblo-dwelling people who had invented the dream catcher, Mavis explained on a trip home when the girls were almost three years old. She had brought two of the small circular woven mobiles and hung them near the girls’ cribs, one in each of the nursery windows. These crafted nets would catch and fasten bad dreams to themselves and protect the sleeper from ever having them again. Doris remembered where she had seen one before, hanging outside the door of the bomb shelter by the parking lot to the community college in Santa Fe. She had thought it was some sort of folksy take on a butterfly net, like the small Russian hand-made brooms people who were fond of other earthy décor like eucalyptus leaves had taken to hanging diagonally on walls.
“Do children this young have bad dreams?” Doris had said.
“They do dream, so maybe they have nightmares, too,” Mavis said.
In the very soft, tawny light of the nursery’s lamps, they stood over the cribs and watched Lizzie’s and Mona’s eyelids flutter inscrutably.
Doris watched Mavis watching them. She looked as though she had peace. Her long blond hair was straight now, in keeping with fashion. She wore glasses, too, which made her look scholarly. It was hard to imagine it, but Mavis had somehow made the world take her seriously. Her articles were published in thickly bound journals. She attended lectures all over the country and was working on a dissertation that would take her even farther away, to South America. Just for the summer, she said, but Doris knew better. She and her anthropologist friends were a tightly knit group of wanderers. They didn’t believe in anything, but they held opinions about things it would never occur to Doris to hold opinions about. They didn’t cut their hair because they thought it contained “life force.” They ate with chopsticks because metallic objects were bad for this life force. They didn’t eat meat. Many of the men were gay. They didn’t marry. They thought nothing of Mavis’ twins. They thought children were like plants. They sprung up randomly and were part of the natural ecology. They were best left unchecked, unhindered by the corrupt social structures of man. One of them told Doris that he would never get picked for a jury because if asked to judge a person’s guilt or innocence, he would always insist on innocence.
“Even if it’s clear he really did it?” Doris asked the man.
“I don’t believe anyone is responsible for their own actions,” the man said. “If a person commits a crime, it is society’s fault. None of us is at all free. Freedom is a false construct. We are all completely enslaved to the social structures into which we are born. Any outside identity is an illusion and that, too, is forced on us.”
“But what about the people we love?” Doris asked. “Is that not a choice?” “Not really,” the man said. “Most of the time when people talk about love, they are talking about sentiments that they have been socially conditioned to express. Most romantic love doesn’t exist except as a rationalization to dispel taboos around sex. Other kinds of love are pretty much social obligation. People believe they love their families because of how families are defined within the social structures that exist. Most people’s egos aren’t strong enough to forge identities and have feelings that are not informed by these relations to the group. People love because it’s engrained in them to do so.”
Doris thought of the twins, for whom she was making little crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Doris hated peanut butter. She found its consistency revolting and the smell of it made her nauseated. She wanted to change the subject. The man’s talk was making her nervous. She didn’t have the words to dispute what he was saying, and she was irritated with the man, because, in spite of his outlaw appearance, she knew him to be, like Mavis, the perfectly well-cared for son of Protestant American parents.
“Would you like a sandwich?” Mavis asked.
“No, thank you. I try to avoid intaking industrialized food products.”
Mavis put a sandwich wedge on a plate and shoved it across the counter.
“Eat this fucking sandwich, you little prick” she said in her thickest Cockney. She covered her mouth in shock.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“It’s okay” the man said smugly. “But poisoning me won’t make me free. I can’t eat the sandwich. It won’t fix your pain either.”
The rest of the time Mavis and her friends stayed over, a rest stop on their long journey to Mexico, where they would fly out to the Andes, relations between the young folks and the old couple were appropriately cool and cordial. Still, Doris and Van felt like hostages in their home. They pretended to have hobbies such as bowling and shuffleboard, that kept them out of the house for hours. Van stayed late at the office, writing sermons weeks in advance. Doris ran errands she did not need to run. The morning after they left, she felt relieved, but isolated in her house in a way she had never felt before. The house seemed smaller and more fragile, overwhelmed by the land around it. She planned a trip for Van and herself to the ranching heritage site in Lubbock, Texas. There, on a few acres of land, a historical society had built reproductions of houses meant to represent each decade in the settlements of the Western plains. The first was merely a dugout, literally a hole in the ground with rooms in it, with a bare sod floor. Each reproduction was larger and more elaborate than the last. In one a cellar was lined with jarred foodstuffs. Separate structures appeared. A barn, an outdoor summer kitchen. As the structures grew more spacious and elaborate, Doris noticed more space and furnishings were devoted to children. In the first, the dugout, the only reference to a child was an open drawer on a dresser. It was lined with a blanket and covered with a lace cloth. The following house, a little sod cottage, had a small wooden crib. The last reproduction was a stately wooden Victorian three-story house with a piano and lace curtains that trailed the floor like a bride’s train. It represented the homes of prosperous ranch families. It had a nursery with bay windows and little child-size iron beds painted white and decked out with embroidered pillows and quilts the size of beach towels. All the furniture in the room was scaled to the children’s size. Teddy bears sat at a table with a miniature tea set. The Sears Roebuck catalog from 1897 decked out a curvy dark cherry wood coffee table in the front parlor. It was thick as the Bible which was next to it.
From there, they went to the Texas Tech Museum, which contained massive dioramas with conspicuous lighting jobs depicting the natural history of the area. Mannequins with matted black hair and rather Asian looking eyes made all the more Asian looking by a rim of paint like eyeliner were posed in various scenes of paleolithic human industry: sharpening flint arrows, scraping the skin off a pelt, weaving a fishing net. These were the people of the Lubbock Lake Landmark site. A nameless prehistoric tribe that had settled briefly along a river that had since dried up. Like most paleolithic people, they appeared to have very little culture outside of food hunting and gathering and moved on when the river shriveled to another more fertile stretch of land. It struck Doris how everything about them was just an educated guess. Perhaps they had worn these scraps of skin over their genitals, perhaps not. Perhaps they had had these semi-Cambodian faces, perhaps not. Except for the Levi’s and anglophile complexions, you could have taken a picture of Mavis and her archeological trash-picking peers and conveyed about as much about the passage of time and the dawn of technology.
The museum’s theater played a film with short, grimy footage of buffalo hunters. The jerky, Victorian film showed men in enormous hats crouching in the open, felling the woolly beasts one by one. The black, wooly hulls wobbled to and fro for seconds after the shot, then collapsed in the dust like flipped tires at a monster truck rally. Buffalo were the ideal game, but there was no sport in it, the film explained. The trade in buffalo hides was ignited by the railroads, which made transport to the east easy and, eventually, cheap. The buffalo, being unevolved and lacking in fear instinct, stood still while the men loaded and reloaded their rifles, a feat which had proved so time-consuming in war that many men had lost their lives in Civil War battlefields because they were not skilled enough at reloading and the rifles often jammed in the heat. Not even the loud noises spooked the great, snuffling prehistoric beasts. It was more of a mass execution than a game hunt. The most physically demanding part came after the kill as a hide could weigh up to three hundred pounds. The meat was considered useless and left to rot in fields of skinned carcasses that dotted the landscape like bales of hay in Impressionist paintings of rural Europe. Heat waves were said to sally up from the energy of the decaying bodies. The latter part of the 19th century was a heyday for enterprising men and large, territorial carrion birds.
Why did they not club the dumb, slow animals? Doris wondered. For fear of a stampede? No, a bullet saved a man’s’ arm.
The end of the film showed a male and a female buffalo on a ranch in Lamesa. The two were among the less than 125 Plains buffalo still left in the world. It had been the hope of the Texas Game and Wildlife Commission, whose property they were, that they would mate. Instead it seemed they preferred to stand idle and feed on troughs of mown prairie grass. Mating behavior, the zoologists had concluded, was stimulated by the presence of a herd. The pair were scheduled to be embedded in a head of cattle to provide the necessary stimulus. It was not known if this would work, and at this point it was thought that the female might be too old to be fully fertile.
A close-up of one of the buffalo’s great, impassive face showed flies wandering up and down the bridge of its flat nose. The beast did not blink and had beautiful eyelashes. Thick and tremendously curved and uniformly so, the way that false eyelashes were always darker and curvier than real ones. Someone had taken care to preserve or recreate these lashes on the stuffed buffalo in the great hall of the museum. Doris stared at her reflection in the oblong glass of the dead creature’s fake eyes, obsidian-black and sad. Her own eyelashes had dwindled to small nubs and turned white like metal filings. Her pale face was elongated in the surface and glowed like a mother of pearl pendant. Her silver hair was frizzy and ornery and squirming out from under her bun in the heat. She patted her bulging abdomen under her dress, felt the tight elastic band of her panties.
“I’m going extinct,” she said as she plopped herself down on a nearby bench and began to tear up.
“What?” Van said, and when she did not respond, “What did you say, Mother?”
She thought of the twins, young and double. She wondered which one of them would die first and marveled at how that one would never know what it was to feel alone, really. She looked at Van and prayed selfishly that God would take her first.
Once Doris had demanded to know what Mavis found more interesting and worth her time in the skeletons and pot shards in the peated mountainsides of Chile than in her own living children.
“I see them as equal,” Mavis had replied. “But, when I’m there, there’s a world of dead people beneath me. It calls me to it. It’s like the angel dust. I have to go. There was a world before the one we are a part of. They will live in a world without me. They have to. They don’t need me. The best thing I can do is give them a legacy. I’ll be their link to the dead. That’s all I am capable of. I learned that in Chicago. Nothing modern makes sense to me. You see, it does to you. You have never known any better or different. You are better equipped. You will be a better mother than I could ever be. I would lose them in this big, bad world.”
Doris asked her how she could be better equipped to raise her children in the modern fashion in the modern world when she herself had apparently failed to do that with Mavis herself.
“I don’t know,” Mavis said. “It seems there has been a generation wide failure of values transmission. It was not a failure of your parenting. It was a cultural failure. It’s evolutionary. We are like iron and fish, you and I.”
Jude had a nasal twang trickled down from Montana mountains. He and his brothers had spent time in the hours before dawn snorting beards of breath into the violet haze, near laurel and thistle bushes, drawing beads on wild turkey and bobcat. But now he and his amphetamine-spun broomstick of a wife drove from city to city, never leaving the West, panhandling mostly but occasionally living off the proceeds of temporary electrical installation jobs at factories and plants along the western slope of the Rockies. This work paid well and, without a house or children, afforded her habit quite well. Affording her habit was their shared vocation. They had begun attending hippie rallies and concerts a decade ago as a diversion and easily imbibed and mimicked the political slogans and postures of their peers in age. Now they were following nuclear protests, selling small-time caches of hallucinogens and big-time scores of heroin and amphetamines to a shrinking cast of characters that carried over from the peace-people.
They were both susceptible to a blind but shallow adherence to creeds. They had met in a Seventh Day Adventist commune where the families of indigent farmers put their disfavored sons and daughters to get them off their hands. The girls there were about as fucked up as they could come. Jude had been their four years before Christianne showed up and rechristened him Spice. She had read The Chronicles of Dune by Frank Herbert. She saw his sandy-colored beard and Jesus-long hair and brazenly ran her hand through the locks of hair at his temples and said, “Spice” and had not called him anything else since.
Jude had apprenticed himself to one of the camp’s most vicious elders. A former bootlegger, a felon who’d served sentences for stealing cars, a prison convert who, Jude was sure, was kind to him because his willowy frame, scraggly, efffeminate hair, and long-legged youthfulness appealed to a withered homosexuality in the man. From him, Jude had learned the electrical trade, how to fix cooling systems and how to hot wire a vehicle in under fifteen seconds. He’d learned the value of metals, the wholesale trade in copper, tin and gold and even where to fence truckloads of PVC pipe.
In their spare time, the boys at the camp drank grape-flavored cough syrup and played darts and jerked off in closets where porno magazines were hidden beneath sample squares of carpet.
“Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” was a favorite parable of the minister in charge of the camp. Some of the young people would become lifelong members of the church, giving up any notion of scrapping together a living outside the camp or of returning to their original households. And some of them would be shot like cum onto Caesar. Many went mad and sought refuge in state-run asylums or in prisons if they were not shrewd enough to have themselves deemed insane. Some, like Jude, got married in the church and drifted off with the blessings of the elders.
Sometimes Jude had wondered why so many of the young men stayed as long as they did. He put the question to a group of his peers while they were playing ping-pong in one of the dormitory basements. They had snuck in a small transistor radio and the Beegees song “Staying Alive” was playing at a barely audible level over the clucking of the hollow ball. Why did they stay? He asked. There was so much more freedom outside, and real things were happening in the real world. There was a war and plenty of jobs and schools where you could learn things that were not in the Bible. There was rock’n’roll, which was banned in the camp as it was considered “the devil’s music.” Jude kept a Trivial Pursuit game under his bed. At night, he would slip out a few of the cards and take them in the bathroom and memorize the facts they contained. This game had also been banned by the council of elders for its many references to science and popular culture.
A man a little older than himself snapped up the ball in his hand and said, “There’s three reasons we stay. Weiners” he pointed at the long freezers full of frozen hot dogs that lined the basement walls, “air conditioning and pussy.”
He put the ball in his mouth and spit it across the table, and the game resumed without further discussion.
In the year before he left, the church leaders had turned virulently apocalyptic in their outlook. Prayer meetings began to take on the tenor of strategic planning sessions of a government cabinet. Recruitment was at an all-time high. Whole families started moving in, which meant that greater leeway was given to younger people who had been sufficiently smelted in the fire of Adventist fundamentalism to leave and start families of their own.
There had been a time, shortly after they had married and moved into a rented trailer in Marfa, Texas, when Jude had felt free from the casuistry of his Bible-thumping elders and the dogma and the end of the world paranoia. He worked at a meat packing plant, fixing the HVAC units and refrigeration systems. The work was back-breaking but he did not mind. In his spare time, he loved to watch game shows, the Pyramid, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy. He would thump the coffee table and blurt out the answers. He got really upset when the contestants did not answer fast enough or did not seem to have good strategy. Christianne would egg him on. She waited tables in a family style barbecue restaurant a few blocks from the trailer, the kind of place with plenty of high chairs and where the wait staff would rally around a birthday celebrant and sing a peppy, ho-down version of the birthday song.
“You should be on this show,” she would say, curling up against his shoulder, smoking a Pall Mall, blowing her hot pink nails dry. “You could win us lots of money.”
Jude excelled at Jeopardy. Christianne was a whiz at The Price Is Right. For their anniversary, he bought her a marble spice rack made to look like a replica of the Taj Mahal. It had turrets on top and little elaborately carved doors with brass hooks. She seemed very impressed by how precisely the spice jars fitted into the little circular divets in the rack’s bottom.
She had bought him a guitar, and he threw himself into learning how to play Johnny Cash tunes. He even started wearing all black dress shirts and a huge Stetson hat. Christianne was touched by the fact that he considered his playing very clumsy and wouldn’t play for anyone but her. He didn’t sing, so it became a game between them that he would play and she would try to mimic Johnny Cash by lowering her voice so much that it made her cough. They decided that “Ring of Fire” was “their song.”
A few more good months eked by, then Christianne started storing jars of pills in her spice rack. The pills vanished and returned, vanished and returned. Jude didn’t recognize any of the prescription drug names on the bottles. They had other people’s names on them, too. When he confronted her the first time, he demanded to know why she was taking other people’s “medicines.”
She laughed and tossed her head back and said, “My friend, she was feeling a little depressed, but she got better, and I’ve been feeling a little draggy lately.”
“You have a lot of friends I haven’t met,” he said.
“Don’t judge,” she replied. “It isn’t cool to judge.”
But draggy was not how she was acting. Christianne said she was having a “wild phase.” She’d haul Jude to late-night dance halls and play pool until four a.m. On nights when he didn’t feel like dancing she’d dance with other men. She’d suck down margaritas and blame her lascivious behavior on the drinks. She’d pretend to be a sloppier drunk than she was and she’d gyrate and slither her hips and pelvis against her partners in a way that made Spice want to puke. He was jealous, yes, but equally embarrassed by his wife’s slutty leg-humping. Night after night, he’d stare her down in his funereal Johnny Cash get-up but remain unprovoked. As the night dragged on, she grew edgier, laughed louder and tossed her head back till she threatened to topple in her platforms. She’d cast pouting glances in his direction, disappointed in his lack of demonstrable possessiveness. Once he took her by the arm after he’d seen a man clutching her butt cheek and slung her this way and that till they reached the car. She was wheezing and clawing at him, telling him how “vulgar and brutish and uncool, utterly uncool” his manhandling of her was. She twisted in his grip and it was then that he noticed how thin she’d become. Her upper arm slid around easily in his grip.
“We never got to live, baby,” she whined, slurring her words. “Life is about more than the Word and Jesus and being under a rock until the world explodes.”
She put her face on his shoulder and cried and drooled a little.
“I would never, ever cheat on you,” she said and cupped his crotch in her hand.
And he believed her. He never had the heart to explain how disgusted she made him. He truly felt that accepting her was part and parcel of loving her, maybe even the sum total of loving her. He worried most of all about her weight. Her frame seemed to dwindle by the day. She chewed a lot of gum, ate a lot of hard butterscotch candies, and drank Fresca all day until it was time to hit the bar. Her ribs showed through her skin like tire treads. Her breasts were like poached eggs over her ribcage. He was afraid when they made love he would squash them and they would run like yokes under his chest.
“If you get any thinner,” he told her. “You’ll be able to walk through walls.”
“Neat,” was all she said.
At meals, she chattered incessantly about people on TV and picked at her food. She still loved french fries and mashed potatoes but she said she got full too fast and then eating was like shoveling mud into a bottle top. It made her excessively sleepy. Once she put maple syrup on roasted chicken. Sweets didn’t make her feel sick, she said.
One day, he interrupted her chatter and asked, “Do you think it still could happen?”
“Think what could happen?”
“The Apocalypse, the end of the world,” he said.
Christianne turned very dour. Her face held a look of betrayal, as if by bringing it up, he had negated everything she thought she’d accomplished by marrying him. Even though Jude’s marriage had begun to make him feel like a chaperone at a party he could never leave, to her it was still a life achievement.
“Look,” she said angrily, “I don’t know why you would even talk that way. I mean, now? It was make-believe, Spice. We’re grown-ups now. We’re out of it.”
“But why would anyone want to believe in it?”
“Because, Spice, fear is more powerful than doubt. It makes people do what you say. That man, that man made a lot of girls believe they could get to heaven by sucking his cock, but,” she licked a puff of meringue off her fork, “so far as I know none of them did.”
Jude drew meditatively on a Pall Mall.
“Did you?” he said.
“Get to heaven by sucking his cock?”
She began to carefully consider her next words to him. He watched her neck tense as she forcefully swallowed another bite of pie, too forcefully, he thought, considering its softness. He disliked her silence intensely. She could tell that she’d crossed a line with him. Their courtship had been brief, intense, but in many ways half-baked. He’d known her for two years before they started meeting in secret. Her interest was sudden, unexpected and had a rapturous quality about it he both liked and was made deeply uneasy by. He was afraid he could not live up to her expectations, especially given that he could not draw any clear expectations out of her. He didn’t know what he had done to suddenly earn this intense affection. She always told him when and where to meet her. He’d fake illness and get excused from late-night Bible study. She’d be cleaning the kitchen and linger when taking the trash out. Sometimes all he’d want to do was talk. She would shush him with wide, wet, open-mouthed kisses. His curiosity about her was endless. What he really wanted to know was why she’d chosen him. She made him feel exhilarated but highly suspicious at the same time. She was a mysterious weapon, a boomerang he did not know how to control. He got the sense that if he could not unravel her thinking about him, she might come back on him and slice him open. He was embarrassed by his deep desire to trust her and deflected his curiosity with a lot of questions about more frivolous things, things like did she get good grades in elementary school, did she get along with her seven sisters, what was her favorite Stones song, hymn, ice cream flavor, did she want children some day. He’d put these questions to her while she was hurriedly unzipping his pants. Sometimes she couldn’t answer because she would already have his cock in her mouth.
He couldn’t remember any of her answers now as he sat across from her now, feeling sliced open, contemplating the possibility that she’d been a clandestine handmaiden of Big Brandy, that someone had used her first, then put her on him like an Irish setter after a quail shot down from the sky.
He held the mouth end of his cigarette toward her. She had finished her pie and was anxiously searching her purse for her pack and lighter. His hand shook a little as he held it out to her. The smoke zizagged between them. She hesitated to take it. She was afraid of him.
“Answer me,” he said, his voice surprisingly level.
She took the cigarette and took a long drag. Her expression turned cold and hard, then evaporated. She rolled her eyes and blew forcefully through her mouth, a quick, exasperated sigh. She was not shaking.
“Because I made him think I was pregnant, he let me go. He asked me who I wanted, I said you.”
HIS BROTHERS’ GIRLS
Jude threw his head back onto the booth behind him. Then he lowered his eyes to meet his wife’s and said very deliberately, “Well, you got what you wanted, didn’t you?”
He drove her home in silence and with an exaggerated formality, like a gentleman on a first date. He had flashbacks to the time before he’d left for the commune, when he’d just turned thirteen. He’d be asked from time to time to drive his brother’s drunken girlfriends home from parties. His parents let him drive; it was common for rural children to drive before the legal age, and they often helped out when the adults were indisposed with farm work. His brothers took advantage of his being the youngest to use him as a designated driver, promising it would not be forever, that in a couple of years he would be included in the all-night backwoods, orgy-tastic keggers that took place in abandoned farmhouses. When they got in the car the girls were barely conscious and often had to be carried, one arm slung over the shoulders of his brothers, toes trailing in the dirt, high heels in hand, and dumped in the front seat. Jude knew they’d had way too much to drink and then been fucked rather zealously by his brothers. They looked smeared and tossed, like they’d been in a minor car accident, and rolled down a hill. Their clothes seemed disheveled and never seemed to fit right, after. And on warm autumn nights, they sometimes still had little twigs and dry leaves in their hair. Sometimes they were completely passed out; sometimes they murmured as he drove. Sometimes they were belligerent as they were led to the car. They would try to protest but all their words came out as mewling, growling noises his brothers found very funny.
His brother Eli would pat their breasts as he buckled them into the car, talking to them the whole time as if they were idiot toddlers. You had a little, bitty bit too much excitement, baby. Let Jude drive you home. Nighty-night. It was seldom the same girl twice, but once, for a summer, Eli fancied this girl named Ella Brecht, who had long, bushy black hair, missile-shaped breasts, and legs like stilts. Ella was considered very stuck-up and was rumored to be Jewish. She lived in a big white mansion on the oldest and most ostentatiously tree-lined street in town. She wore short, frilly floral one-piece jumper suits and painted her nails bright red and didn’t shave her armpits. All of this gave her an exotic appeal. Eli was totally rabid about her.
He’d tuck her in the passenger seat, then come around and lean hard into the driver’s side window, the muscles flexing in his forearm, and snarl at his little brother, “Keep your both hands on the steering wheel.”
“Okay, all right.”
“The whole time, Jude, or I’ll fucking shoot you.”
He drove her home in absolute terror and awe, as if he were transporting a grenade. She was never quite as drunk as the other girls. She lazily smoked Virginia Slims and blew long, elegant trails out the window and would speak to him only to give him directions, as if he were a cab driver. He’d had his first wet dreams about Ella. He’d dream her crushing the back of his head to the car window, her large nipples sliding in and out of his mouth while she ground her pelvis over his. He’d wake up to the sound of crickets and feeling sticky and swollen, panting as if he’d spent all night in the bottom of an upside down glass jar.
As he drove Christianne back to the trailer, he was acutely aware of how much it felt like he was with one of his brother’s girls, who were essentially strangers to him. Only, unlike those girls, she no longer held any power over him. He was ginger in opening first the door to the restaurant, then the car door for her. He refused to touch her, speak to her, look at her. He put on the air conditioning for her, which was one of their squabbles, because he hated the artificial spray of cold air and it gave him headaches. He could feel her fear and panic intensifying the more suave and distracted he became. The radio was playing the song “Brandy.” Its cheerful lyrics seemed to mock the moment. They were completely cut adrift from each other, as if the past fourteen months hadn’t happened at all. The trees swayed in a light breeze, and it was unusually calm for a West Texas spring day. The waving of the green tops against the slate blue sky seemed to Spice simultaneously lackadaisical and like a sign of distress, like when people cross and uncross their arms over their hands to signal to someone too far away to hear them that they need help. They seemed like the arms of someone who was drowning but at the same time rather enjoying himself.
That day he packed his old army green duffel bag while she sat on the couch and pretended to watch Dynasty. Maybe she was actually watching Dynasty, he’d later thought. When she watched TV, she could tune everything around her out, the ringing phone, a teakettle boiling, the sound of his voice. When he told her dreams he had had, she asked him what TV show they were most like, a nightmare, was it like The Twilight Zone or a funny dream, was it funny haha like Hee Haw or more “sophisticated” humor like Mash? Most of the time he answered that the dreams were like none of these things because his dreams didn’t have any sense or order to them, they were nonsense, they were not stories, he said. He had read somewhere that people who say they don’t dream simply don’t remember their dreams, that it was impossible not to reach REM state sleep, that people who didn’t had severe disorders and could even become deranged after a long enough time without quality sleep. Sometimes Christianne didn’t sleep for days on end. There was always relief for Spice when the crash came. She would sleep for a day and a night solid. She wouldn’t get out of bed to bathe or eat. She’d eat Twinkies and marshmallows and chocolate, lots of chocolate. Then somehow she would rally and be normal for as long as a week. He’d count the days, between the tides of lunacy and coma, between the animal and the vegetable, between the moody child and the morose crone. She’d pick up jobs and lose them, for lack of showing up on the low days. The litter of paystubs she left on the kitchen table read like a listings section of different eateries in the town’s phonebook. The trailer began to feel very cramped, tinier than ever before. Jude realized that he was just feeling crowded by all these different versions of his wife. These rhythms didn’t seem so hostile and confining once they’d taken to the road and were fully transient beings.
Jude was gone for six months. He filed paperwork with the county clerk’s office for divorce. He was mildly disturbed to find how-to pamphlets on filing for divorce in the foyer of the YMCA. One of them called itself “The Quick and Easy Guide to Marriage Dissolution.” There was even an adult education class on filing for divorce in the course catalog of the Y. When he asked the secretary about whether he could join late, because the session had started two weeks ago, she grinned and clucked and said, “Oh, they’re gonna eat you up, doll.”
He decided to go it on his own.
The night he left was not without incident. He knew she expected, maybe even desired, violence from him. He expected, and very much desired, an apology from her. Or at least an expression of regret that he was leaving. He did fully support her now. But all she did was stare at the TV. He turned the TV off, and she continued to stare at the blank screen. He took his guitar and flung it at the screen. The guitar cracked, the screen was unscratched. The strings vibrated over the hollow, split body. The sound seemed to fill the room, push the walls out. He was out the door before the loud, weird jangle had ceased.
The court papers he filled out had check boxes next to possible reasons for the complainant’s filing suit. Infidelity. False pretenses. He heard the sound of the guitar breaking in his head. He checked the box next to “Union irretrievably broken down.”
PAWN SHOP DIVORCE
He took the papers to the legal clerk’s counter at the courthouse. Several overnight prisoners had been brought in for their arraignments. They were chained together in their street clothes. They were remarkably ordinary and calm as were the two marshals who maintained custody of them. The marshals sat at the end of the chain of prisoners and chit-chatted about the beginning of football season. Only a couple of the prisoners looked like vagrants, overlayered in shabby, grimy clothes, and reeking of booze, urine and smoke, skin like rotten grapefruits, thickened, black nails. There were two women in the chain, one of whom he recognized as an acquaintance of Christianne’s from the dance hall. She was young, burly but not plump, auburn-haired and with a chipped front tooth that together with her deep, masculine voice lent her an air of coarse authority. She had a thyroid condition that meant she couldn’t have kids and gave her a moon face. Her legs were skinny and bowed out under the weight of her chest. Her face was like a wax replica of a jolly Celtic god flattened into a wall hanging and collared by rims of fuzzy fat. She was neither a bully nor a person anyone would want to cross. She was rumored to be a lesbian. Her father had been a leader in a local Hell’s Angels chapter before he shattered and burned his right leg when he skidded off the road and got pinned under the bike. She nursed him for months, mashing pain pills with a mortar and pestle and feeding him the pills in apple sauce and sponge-bathing him. The pain was so great he convulsed and shouted, cursed her for the indignity of it all in half-intelligible moans, grew too weak to swallow. A staph infection tore through the leg and eventually caused the endocarditis which killed him. She owned a pawn shop in which she kept many cats, strays who wandered in feral and whom she broke through repeated kindnesses, regular feeding and medical attention into gruff but loyal pets. She had a few orange tabbies, tom cats who mushroomed into gigantic proportions and whom she jokingly referred to as “store security.” Sphinx-like and unblinking, they did intimidate if only because they were so large and stoic that she would have to poke them with broom handles to move them off an item of interest or a shelf. The woman’s name was Jackie, and her other occupation was as a supplier of pills and pot. She had a reputation for being honest and caring, equitable and tough. She embodied the phrase honor among thieves. She had outlasted several flashy and cutthroat young men who had moved into the market. The pawn shop was like an old-fashioned trading post. People went there when they were down and out. People ran credit, and people deposited along with their cash or barbecue grills, engagement rings, belt buckles and zippo lighters, china and flatware, guns and crystal ashtrays, guitars, TV sets, eight track players, cast iron cauldrons and stamp collections, the old gold and the new plastic electronics, the tangible reef of used goods around which mouths were fed, marriages made and unmade, children raised and relinquished, estates built up and dissolved, they deposited also the stories of these things, and the elegaic algae strings of sentiment were highly guarded and discreetly tended by Jackie.
It saddened Jude to see her shackled and cuffed and away from her wares and story garden.
She winked and waved when she saw him.
“Like my new bangles?” she held up her cuffed wrist and broke into a peal of laughter that broke into a smoker’s cough.
She didn’t wait for him to respond. The prisoners at the end of the row were getting up to go into the courtroom when she said, “I have her ring, if you want to come and get it.” He sniffed. “I don’t.”
“Don’t matter,” Jackie said. “She needs you. She’ll get you back.”
“I don’t want it.”
“I’m going to hang onto it,” she said. “It can’t go to anyone but you. It’s got her debt on it, so I’m going to need more than it’s worth.”
“Okay. Whatever. Enjoy your day,” Jude waved sarcastically as she was led through the courtroom door.
When he did go back to the trailer, Christianne was voiceless. Laryngitis had rubbed out her ability to speak above a whisper. Jude could tell from the tearful, tight expression on her face that she was slightly panic-stricken at not being able to speak freely to him. She wrote him messages on leftover restaurant pads, the green and white ones waitresses kept in their aprons.
Jude didn’t know what to say to explain his return, either. Or why he’d withdrawn the suit he had filed. All he knew was that since he’d left and taken a room in a motel just off the interstate, all of life seemed inexplicably silly to him. He’d get up in the morning as dawn was breaking and watch the big boxy silhouettes of eighteen wheelers break up the total flatness of the view. He ironed and dressed while the morning news was on, made coffee in the tiny pot provided. He tried to enjoy his solitude and told himself that really nothing had changed. Everything was the same. He still worked. He still went out for a steak dinner on Fridays. He still went to bars in his dark suits and smoked glumly while other women tried to cajole him into dancing and pretending to be heartbroken. They were like little girls begging for a story, a make-believe tale of hardship, heartache and woe he didn’t feel. That way they could play nurse to his made-up pains. He didn’t feel like being a great, big doll. He didn’t feel like playing. It was getting to be the Christmas season. He remembered the Jesse tree in his childhood church. A tumbleweed festooned with strings of tinsel, paper ornaments and shiny balls. The women in the bars were decorating their faces in frosty shades this year. Their eyelids were metallic coated and their thick mascara and pale, shimmery lipstick reminded him of the Jesse tree, which was, in spite of its tinseled get-up, still a big, dead shrub without roots. He sometimes had the same feeling when he was talking to them about Christianne and about the commune and his family farm in Montana as he did when he was ordering food at a drive-through. It took them a long time to decipher his disinterest just as it took a long time sometimes for the tinny voice on the other side of the box to distinguish between a “number five” and a “jumbo fries.”
During this time, he became acquainted with the complete freedom and anonymity of being a bachelor. More and more, the world was designed for personal convenience. Frozen dinners, stir sticks, styrofoam cups, disposable razors, fast food breakfast sandwiches and centerfold spreads that folded up so a man could carry them in his wallet. Every morning he’d watch the truckers pull in after driving all night, pot-bellied, bleary-eyed and hemorrhoidally bowlegged from sitting so long. He envied their life of rest stops and one-night stay overs in motels where everything was the same. At least, he thought, if everything is the same, there is the pursuit of destination involved in the mean time. He considered getting into the business and talked to a couple of regulars about getting licensed and the initial costs. He learned that these men were not much better off than factory workers. They seemed to enjoy the job a bit more than he enjoyed his work at the meat-packing plant. But it was not much more exciting, they assured him. The whole interstate system looked the same after a while, like all of America was a great, open-air shopping mall. You never had time to be a tourist, they explained, you never got off the same kiddie train of chain restaurants and souped-up convenience stores. The landscapes blended together between hot showers and hot meals. Your cab was your home, and they did, each of them in their shiny elevated cabins of transport, feel like kings, because the money was good, and you could more or less be your own boss.
They had their own slang, derived from the clipped communications of the CB radio. They would talk in this slang in the tiny shared kitchenette at the motel, where they served a daily complimentary breakfast of Tang and stale butter croissants which just seemed to get moister and more uncooked with time because of the plastic wrapping. They kept a CB radio hooked up in the kitchenette so that the truckers could debrief themselves on the road conditions before heading out. The truckers were a forgiving lot. They had amphetamine habits themselves, and even when he told them about the situation with Big Brandy and Christianne, they were nonplussed by her betrayal. It was all a matter of chronology and decisiveness with them.
“So you’re better half is a bean bopper, so what? They just get like that sometimes. Women feel cooped up, too, you know.”
“Listen, you either got to light out and keep the rubber down and the metal up and never look back or you got to go home and play house and forgive and forget, man.”
“Every free ride starts out as a virgin,” one of them reminded him. “It ain’t like she was stepping out on you after you said I do.”
The worst part about being separated from Christianne was that the longer it went on, the more Jude remembered and started to sympathize with Big Brandy’s diatribes against the sinning, atheist wasteland culture of America. The way it corrupted the youth, turned them into unthinking slaves to sex, drugs and useless preoccupations like disco. And he realized that Christianne had been his protection from all that. And the despair he felt at having sympathy for the words of a complete hypocrite and pervert overwhelmed him. He hated Big Brandy, but did not know how to see the world except through his eyes. He hated the easy women and the stupid pointless plots of exploitation films. He loved cheeeseburgers, and he hated cheeseburgers at the same time. He thought there was something wrong with the fact that most of the time people in bars watched TV together and it was not until everyone got sloppy drunk that anyone said anything to anybody. He hated Pat Sajak and Vanna White yet he could not stop watching Wheel of Fortune. He hated Lesley Neilson and Burt Reynolds for no goddamn reason at all. He hated abortions but realized that he was jealous of women who had them. The more time went on the more he was convinced that even if Big Brandy had been screwing the entire female population of the camp that he, Jude, was still probably going, almost certainly going, to hell just for having lived through the 1970s. Hell, this might even be hell, he thought. He felt himself becoming bitter and paranoid. He considered going to church, maybe Church of Christ or maybe even something less hard-core like a Quaker house, but then he considered that would not help his case at all because that would be like lying to God’s face as opposed to just ignoring him or slinking around muttering criticisms behind his back. He realized that he had without meaning to imbued God with all of Big Brandy’s personality traits. The God in his head was modeled after this bombastic, sexist, cunning, charismatic chickenhawk-sorcerer. Before that, the God in his head had been a remake of his father: taciturn, prone to violence, a small man with hunched shoulders and small fists that were likely to fly out of pockets at the least provocation, anger like a snake coiled under a rock. For all that he had grown up in a house where taking the Lord’s name in vain would earn you a beating with a switch and where you had to recite psalms before receiving supper and even though he was subsequently sent to a camp where he could learn even more about how to get right with God, he realized that he knew actually nothing about God. He knew a great deal and was learning more each day by way of observation about God’s enemies:the people of Sodom, the people of Gommorha, Mammon. But he knew about as much about God as he did about speaking Urdu or performing fellatio on another man. Even less, in fact, for everything else he could at least speculate about, but God had been unreservedly silent and mysterious, and unreachable, an itch in the center of his back. He got mad at God, for when he thought about the irksome, shrieking truths behind Big Brandy’s conviction that American culture was from the devil and all was wasteful and wasted, when he thought about Big Brandy taking Christianne under his greasy, white-haired chest, he felt as forsaken and alone as he had ever felt. Even more than when his father told him he was going to a summer camp where they could teach boys like him, boys who were “not worth the time it took to conceive” them to “love and fear the mighty hand of God.” It was his father’s contention that at this camp Jude could learn how not to be worthless. Having been worthless all his life, Jude was apprehensive about giving it up. He didn’t think he had the skill set to be worthwhile and feared that he would not live up to such expectations. Big Brandy had understood this and at first had been like a savior. He was kind and slow to anger. Even his words were slow unless he was preaching. They dripped from his mouth like honey from a honeycomb and had a warmth to them that Jude associated with the tawny color of his hair and his big, red beard. Big Brandy knew that the youth in his camp were love-starved people, and that was his gift. He made you feel special and when he spoke to you, when he took you aside and flung his big, burly arm around your neck like a boa constrictor, you didn’t resist, you listened, because it was probably the first time in your life anyone had spoken to you like you mattered, and if the grip got tighter, you didn’t care because at least it was finally love squeezing the life out of you.
When he was with Christianne, none of this mattered. Everything was outside. Only they were inside. Being with her, even tending to her extreme needs, giving her money to buy the pills, falling behind on the rent and the utilities, coping with her joblessness, the whole Sisyphean burden of it, now seemed like a welcome distraction from the end times prophecies. They hadn’t had enough money, starting out, to go on a real honeymoon, so they kept deferring it to some other time, now as mythical as Valhalla, when they would have saved enough money to go somewhere other newlyweds commonly went. He wanted to go to Niagara Falls. She was keen on Vegas. He convinced her that Niagara Falls was more romantic, and she agreed after he told her there was a casino there. He could enjoy the natural splendor of the giant waterfalls, and she could play slots until her pupils turned into matching cherries. He showed her brochures. He pictured the two of them standing on Luna Island, the ledge of rock between American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, her little wisp of a body wrapped fast to his side as the tremendous force of so many tons of rushing water plunged off the high cliffs and everything below was a roaring lagoon of matter so rapidly swirling as to be impenetrable and white like a pagan afterlife.
“Are you back for good?” she wrote on the waitress pad.
“I would like a pulled pork sandwich with tater tots instead of fries,” he said.
“You, bastard!” she croaked and made as if to punch his arm but climbed all over him instead.
“You grew a beard,” she tried to say. She rubbed her face all over his, feeling the short, bristly new surface with the skin of her cheeks and forehead and shivering with animal pleasure.
After they had made love, quickly and matter-of-factly, like two ants in a hive exchanging information about where they had been, eager to establish normal relations again, she mutely showed him the eviction notices.
“I fell behind,” she mouthed, finally.
“I got your ring back from Jackie,” he said. “I have an idea.”
On the way home from vacation Bible study, the sky was bright and clear like the white of an uncooked egg, but the wind pushed the car from side to side and when they got out the temperature had dropped perceptibly. Then the air became still, Doris noticed when she was picking tomatoes for the hamburgers she was about to make for supper. The clouds would come fast and burst like water balloons against a wall. The air had the familiar smell of a coming storm, a smell like the mouth of a coal mine, like wet rock and hands after a day’s hard work.
The young couple from Kansas came sweaty and heat-stained, soaked t-shirts clinging to bony, pigeon chests, pushing an orange jalopy up the gravel drive. Van was asleep upstairs, dreaming of three aged Japanese women pushing shopping carts full of strawberries through an abandoned oil field. They appeared to have wisps of beard clinging to their chins and limbs, but as Van got closer he could see it was strips of loose skin hanging like cobwebs from their bodies. They were drinking milk out of a carton they passed back and forth among themselves. The strawberries were mushy and left dribbles of red juice down their chins.
They offered him milk and strawberries.
“This is the weirdest dream I have ever had,” he informed them because he was aware, though unable to wake himself, that this was a dream.
“Picnic-o?” they tittered. They seemed highly amused by his sense of mystery. The more agitated he became at being unable to wake himself, the more they giggled.
One of them went to wipe away strawberry juice from her face. A piece of her cheek slid off onto the back of her hand. Van was horrified. She laughed at him.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” she said in a mock Mae West-inspired accent.
“You will die soon,” said another.
The jalopy had overheated and stalled out a few miles up the road. The couple had seen the house and decided to turn back and seek help. The radiator was tricky, the young man said. He thought he could fix it, but it would take hours before it was cool enough to work on. Doris invited them in, asked would they like some supper. The blond girl stood behind the young man. When they entered she continued to weave behind him like the drawn up tail of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. When the screen door slapped shut, her shoulders jerked. She seemed jumpy and unusually nervous. The swamp coolers in the window had been on full blast for a while, and the living room was dark and damp. She did not remove her oversized sunglasses. Wind chimes floated a queerly melodic descant. A dove hooted its mournful afternoon hoo-hoo.
“It feels super cool in here,” the man remarked.
Jude had the kind of face that Doris could not trust in a man. Too gaunt, too androgynous, too prim in its way. As a general rule, she did not trust men that skinny. It meant a wild existence to her. Such a man was probably not married and probably worked a menial job, if he worked at all. It meant transience and unfixed ideas. Pole cats and foxes were that skinny. Scavenging creatures. People that skinny would only want to get something out of you. And it seemed to Doris that every gangly, long-haired white man under the age of thirty these days had the same face, a lean, nondescript version of the face of Jesus in traditional paintings. Only with none of the white-eyed crucifixion anguish, nor the upturned contemplative gaze, nor the tranquil but searing compassion of the dead-on Christ stare, as in the ones the Catholics put on candles, where Jesus’ heart was outside his chest and pulsing with red light. No, there was nothing beatific about the beady eyes of the young men walking around with Jesus’ face. Their glances when they poured her coffee or pumped her gas or bagged her groceries were so short as to be somehow economical of the self. Their smiles were trained and equally short and never quite their real smiles, but were boastful and sly and so common, so alike, they were like a shower of nickels the girls threw in the wishing fountain at the mall. Jude, when he smiled at her and asked to use the telephone, made her feel spritzed with bus-boy cheapness, made her feel like she were at the bottom of a wishing fountain, catching trinkets materialized from people’s ill luck and wishes for better.
The couple explained they had been on their way back to Kansas for a rally against the licensing of a nuclear power plant when the car stalled out. They just wanted to use the phone and to find out the nearest auto repair shop. They would like to stay for dinner, as it would take hours for the car to cool down enough to investigate the problem.
“Are you students?” Doris asked.
“No, no. I guess, if you count the school of hard knocks,” the young man said and grinned.
“What got you interested in that?” Doris asked, referring to the nuclear power protests.
“I guess we just feel strongly that people shouldn’t have to live next to these big reactors that the people operating don’t know enough about to guarantee it’s safe. I mean, I wouldn’t want to live next door to one and wonder what kind of effect the fallout might have on my drinking water or my body. We won’t know how many people could be saved from the cancer and the poisonous effects of radiation that might not be contained. We think the air and the water and the soil ought to be kept free from contamination. At least until they know more about that. At least until they can promise it’s safe. I mean what if in the future all these babies are born without eyes or hands and it’s only till later that they tell us it’s because of the invisible nuclear waves?” the woman said.
Van came into the living room carrying a tray of raw hamburger patties and holding a pair of tongs.
“How does everyone take their meat?”
“I’ll take mine rare,” the young woman said.
“Mine, too,” the man said.
“Done,” Doris said.
“We met at Los Alamos when they were making the bomb,” Doris said after Van had gone to put the burgers on the grill. “Our fathers were engineers there. My family had to move there from England when I was twelve because my father was one of the world’s leading experts on high-explosive castings. His father was a theoretical physicist whose work was on little particles called neutrinos.”
“Whoa,” the woman said. She drew her knees up to her chest. “You mean, you guys lived there?”
“We had to,” Doris said. “And no one was allowed to know where we were. My mother and my sister and I were permitted to go home for visits but we couldn’t tell anybody where we’d been living. That was mostly allowed to us because we were British, and we really didn’t know anything about my father’s technical work. One time we were arrested by MPs coming off the train at Santa Fe.”
“They arrested you?”
“Well, not really. They just wanted to escort us back to Los Alamos, but they wouldn’t let us go to our house until we told them everywhere we’d been and everyone we’d spoken to when we were in England. It felt like we were being arrested, but we were really just detained.”
The young woman was rapt. “So did you see it when it went off? When they tested it?”
“You mean Trinity,” Doris said. “That was what they called it the first time. Yes, I was in a farmhouse about forty miles from here. I don’t remember much about it except how bright it was. I had whooping cough. It was very early in the morning, and I had been trying to sleep. We didn’t know when it was going to go off, so I had fallen asleep. In fact, I don’t think we were told they were going to test it. I can’t remember. But my father was somewhere else, somewhere closer where the scientists could observe it and take measurements. But I remember everyone being very on edge that night before we went to bed. We had dinner with the family whose house it was. It was very awkward and confusing. I don’t know how they had explained what we were doing there. We were just to stay there that night, but it was clear we weren’t going back to our house at Lamy. The light came in but it wasn’t like ordinary light, not like the sun, more like what you would imagine the inside of the sun to look like, and it happened so fast. I tried to cover up my sister’s face when it came. I was afraid we would be blind.”
“What did it look like?” the woman asked.
“It just was so bright I can’t describe it,” Doris said. “And it moved like, well, like a bomb. Horizontally. But everything all around, even inside the room was so bright that I thought, I literally thought, that the light would make things come apart, would make solid things vaporize. It was so fast. But it was so intense that as fast as it was it seemed to last for a very long time. When something is that big or that powerful it’s like time doesn’t apply to it. I felt like something had cut through everything, not me or the house I was in or even the earth, but the whole universe, and that everything would melt, but it wasn’t hot, it was just that bright.”
“Oh my God,” Christianne said to Jude. “She survived the atom bomb.”
“No, we were so far from it. They knew we’d be safe,” Doris said.
“But you still survived it. You’re a survivor of the first atom bomb.”
“But it wasn’t the atom bomb. It was just a test. To see if it would work.”
“Well, but no, it was the atom bomb,” Christianne said. “You saw it. You were there.”
“I’m a witness then. You mean I’m a witness,” Doris said. “I was never in any danger.”
“But how did they know? How did they know you weren’t in danger?”
“Well,” Doris said. “They were very intelligent to make the bomb and from doing that, they had ways of calculating, of figuring out.”
The couple were silent. Doris leaned forward and brushed her knees with her hands as if wiping off crumbs.
“Would you all like some tea?”
Doris made them a platter of little gherkin pickles, Triscuits and jalapeno cheese. She poured glasses of sun tea and sweetened it with liquid Sweet & Low. It was time for Wheel of Fortune. She and Van watched it every night. The twins had made a ritual of playing with their Lite Brights when the show was on. They would pretend to be contestants and had an elaborate system of inserting certain pegs of certain colors at certain times in response to the show. They heard the show’s opening theme music and came downstairs. When they reached the base of the staircase, they stopped and stared at the couple on the couch. Doris and Van rarely had visitors. The couple waited for Doris to introduce them.
“These are my granddaughters, Mona and Lizzie.”
Mona and Lizzie nodded at the couple. They regarded the visitors with a sort of territorial silence, their faces blank but watchful as they moved to their usual spot in the center of the room and set up their Lite Brights. Doris had seen them grow instinctively shy around new people before. It was really natural for children that age to treat strangers as moveable parts in the little stageplay of their lives. Introducing them to someone new was like giving them a new thing to play with. Until they were instructed otherwise, they didn’t socialize with adults, and they would quietly take in a lot of information about these new people in an effort to integrate them into their small but entirely full shared world. Doris thought they were even more guarded and self-regarding than other children their age because they were twins. They had been born into a separate world populated by two. Their first language had literally been one of their own making. They’d abandoned it for English a few months after they were supposed to have been speaking, according to the Dr. Spock books, but a child psychologist had explained that they were not delayed in their language acquisition abilities. If anything they were ahead compared to other, “single birth” children. It had just taken some time for them to displace their first, private language.
Before she’d abandoned them for her own academic pursuits, Mavis had taken her daughters to a linguistics lab at the University of Northern New Mexico so that the PhDs there could record the twins talking to each other and analyze it. It would shed light on language formation and the neurocircuitry of the developing brain, Mavis said. She was very eager to offer her infant daughters as subjects in the interest of advancing such knowledge. After all, it was harmless observation, not active experimentation, she said.
Doris wondered, though, if Mavis had not somehow sabotaged the twins’ inner security as she spent a great deal of her time in the house with them recording and observing them from behind doors, listening in the hallway to their secret, polyphonous sounds, taking notes. A silent, person-shaped scrawl in the margins of their emerging, hyperbolically libidinal world, she deliberately withheld herself from the twins for fear of inserting herself as an “intervening variable.” Doris wasn’t sure the twins actually had a “language.” She thought the twins sounded like they were just really excited about all the sounds they had figured out their vocal chords could make. And it was pretty obvious that in the high-pitched squeals and the ecstatic jazz-like riffs of syllables, that the toddlers were just experimenting with modulating what was otherwise an imitation of actual speech. “All babies do that,” she told Mavis. “They babble before they talk.”
“But it’s not babble, Mom. They have signifiers and particles and all the basic qualifying parts of a language.”
The older the twins got, the more clear it was that Mavis was right. They got better at enunciating and regularizing the words they had formed between them. They rattled off whole sentences of the incomprehensible, sing-song speech. It was eery once it was recognizable, and they became more adamant in the use of their private language when their grandparents started trying to train them in the use of English. The twins would be shown an object and asked to repeat its name.
“Clock,” Doris would say. Then slower, “Cuh-l-ock.”
“Ohck iss bis en uh? Uuhlang ton.”
“It’s like they are speaking in tongues,” Doris told Van.
He looked at her skeptically.
“I can’t be raising evangelicals. We have to correct this,” he said.
The correction came when Doris caught Mavis on all fours outside the door with a tape recorder, pushing it stealthily into the room. She gestured to Doris not to let the twins see them. It might distract them.
“This is a really long one,” Mavis said. “They asked me to get the long ones on tape. It gives them more data to work with.”
Doris held herself back. The conversation in the room was getting louder and more boisterous. The pair were taking turns yelling and then would erupt into peals of manic laughter. Then they grew more solemn and warbling like two lovers hiding from a secret police force. Then they stopped talking for a while, and Doris moved to go in the room, but Mavis grabbed her jeans leg and pulled her back. The twins resumed their coded babble. Doris peered through the door into the playpen. Mona started crying, and Mavis pulled Doris’ pant leg harder. Only Lizzie was speaking. She had also squirmed out off her dirty diaper and was slapping shit onto her sister’s face.
Doris kicked Mavis out of the way, a bit harder than she had intended, and snatched Lizzie out of the pen. She looked at Mavis, who was still in the doorway, smarting from the kick but watching like one of the lab-coated psychologists. She continued to watch as Doris changed Lizzie and wiped the shit off Mona and reclothed them, then stripped the soiled sheet from the bottom of the play pen.
When they finally did start speaking English, their first words were “juice,” “door,” “shut” and “light.” They acquired “mother” about a month later, but it was always a confused, misdirected murmur. Mostly it was as an expression of affinity for objects and people alike. They might look at their blanket on the couch and call it “mama.” They might look at the dog and call her “mama.” They called Doris both “Gamma” and “Oris.” They called Van “Papa.”
If they had not been twins, if they had not formed their own language, she wondered, would Mavis ‘ maternal instinct have caused her to act more naturally, more lovingly, toward just the one child?
Mavis disputed the idea of the maternal instinct. She told her mother it was nothing more than a social construct. Women were not animals, she said. They didn’t automatically feel the impulse to care for babies or the helpless the way that rhesus monkeys automatically went after bananas and coconuts as food. Such a complicated matter as maternal instinct in humans was more the product of social conditioning. A deeply psychological phenomenon, not an instinct. Doris wondered how a person who lactated could claim to feel nothing like the intense and almost feral protective urge toward the babies that was threatening to envelop her all over again. The babies, when they were brought home, were jaundiced and frail, underweight. They were both bald and had exquisitely tiny twigs for arms and legs that sprouted with a human delicacy from the curled, red flesh-bulbs of their bodies. Bean shoots of pliant bones and tendriled toes and fingers that begged to be hooked under a finger and that gingerly, as gingerly as a leech sucking a wound, latched on. They produced nausea and wonder in her. When they cried, little tremors ran through them, and their limbs shook like uvulas at the back of a screaming throat. They constantly erupted into needful, bleating tantrums that altered the metabolisms and sleep patterns of the household. It took all three of the adults to care for the two of them. They worked and slept in shifts. They bought Mavis a breast pump so she could sleep more. The electric contraption fitted awkwardly to her small breasts, and the suction cups pinched and left red rings on them. They bought her a manual one that looked like it might be more comfortable, but, after a few minutes of using it, Mavis shook her stiff hand and said, “How exactly is this labor-saving? Please just bring me a kid to suck on my breast.” They carried the babies around in laundry baskets and had to sun them for a certain amount of minutes a day so that their livers could fully develop and the jaundice would go away. The premies in the hospital had to stay in glass boxes under ultraviolet lights, but the doctors had said the twins were not so underdeveloped that they had to stay. The sun would work just as well as the light boxes for getting rid of jaundice if they put the babies out every day and turned them for even exposure and, of course, didn’t allow them to get burned, they said.
Doris had forgotten how much work it had been, caring for an infant. Van suddenly seemed much older to her. She was sure he was thinking the same thing about her. They crawled into bed too exhausted to read or talk, too limp to hold each other, and many times they fell deeply asleep face up. “I’m so tired I feel like I’ve survived a plane crash,” Van said one night, but he said it to himself, Doris was already asleep.
After the poo-flinging incident, Doris asserted herself more as an “intervening variable” in the twins’ lives. She denied Mavis the use of the car, which ruled out their being taken to the lab and used as subjects. She had tried to remain passive as long as she could stand it.
“I may not know much about sociology,” she told Mavis. “But I do know that infants shouldn’t be allowed to have shit smeared on their faces.”
Mavis had lost all the baby weight she took on and then some. The months Doris spent instructing her in the ways of infant care, the technical details such as how to suction dried snot from tiny nostrils gently and how to make sure that reheated milk was just the right temperature by checking it against your wrist, had rendered her daughter haggard again. She was not an eager student and had never been one to follow precise instructions. Doris kept waiting for the post-partum funk to lift and for Mavis to start taking an interest and pride in her new work, but the look on her face during these months was often the same look she had when as a child she’d exploded a cake in the oven or overflowed the bathtub and Doris had made her clean up the mess. Listless and overwhelmed, Mavis at first bore it silently when Doris snapped at her to use “common sense” and burp the colicy one, readjust a bottle nipple when one of them sucked so hard it collapsed. Mothering was harder with four hands than two, Doris decided, and she would often lose patience and take over for Mavis even when she felt like insisting that passing on these skills was her moral duty. Mavis eventually flared up in the face of all the overbearing tutorials. The two women would have screaming matches, usually when Van was out of the house, and he would return to find them both ignoring the girls, sitting across from each other in the living room, arms crossed, tearing up and snorting at each other like trapped minks.
“She is never going to take responsibility for her own actions,” Doris would blurt out as soon as Van stepped in the door.
“Daddy, daddy,” Mavis would sob, “I can’t do anything right. She doesn’t let me take responsibility.”
“I feel like Solomon here,” he said. “And I’m tired of my house being turned into a hormonal hell hole.”
“I’m going to kill her,” Doris told Van in bed.
“Van are you listening to me?”
Van was lying on his side reading a National Geographic article.
Then again she said, “Are you listening to me? I am going to kill our only daughter.”
“She’s not our only daughter any more, Doris,” he said while turning the page. “And killing her won’t help anything. And no, I’m not listening.”
Doris turned her face into her own pillow and sobbed, voicelessly, without adequate breath. He felt like Solomon! There’s no way he can understand. I’m the one who has to bear it all. I’m the one holding the sword. Can’t be a good mother to my daughter without taking a mother away from two little girls. Can’t be a good mother, can’t be a good wife, without choosing. Now.
She’d never imagined this dilemma, how things would get to a point where being good was not an option, was beside the point, because in their small A-frame house there was just that much work to do. No one was completely happy, but no one was yelling anymore, except a pair of teething mouths, and Van could write sermons at home again. By the time the girls were walking, Doris had simultaneously taken on almost all the care of them and was encouraging Mavis more than ever in her research. She’d bring Mavis dinner in her room and massage her hunched, frail shoulders and bathe and rock the girls to sleep while Mavis labored over her thesis until 3 a.m.
“I’m sorry I made such a mess,” Mavis said quietly one night as Doris was taking away her empty plate. Then she quoted Doris’ frequent admonishment from her childhood.“I know, I know, sorry doesn’t cut it, but I am.”
“Don’t ever call them that again,” she said with a quietness that underscored her intensity of feeling.
When Mavis left for her PhD program at Northwestern University, there was no formal discussion in the house. Doris remembered that night as the moment when she had really taken custody of the girls, psychologically and for all time. After that, further discussion was unnecessary.
THE HANDMAIDEN TWO
Van came into the living room and announced that the burgers were done. His hand was wrapped in a wet dishrag.
“I burned myself,” he explained. “It’s just a small burn. It will be all right.”
“Let me see,” Doris said and unwrapped the rag. The heel of his right hand was blistered and swelling.
“Van, you’ve got to run this under cold water.” She drug him to the kitchen sink and Jude and Christianne followed her and peered over her in polite alarm.
“That looks really bad, sir,” Jude said. “Maybe put some butter on it.”
“No, it’ll trap the heat. If you have any miso paste, that will help bring the blister down,” Christianne said.
Jude shot her a wary look.
“Miso paste? What is that?” Doris said.
“The Japanese use it to make soup,” Christianne said. “I guess you don’t have any.”
“No, I’m afraid we don’t keep that around,” Doris said. The young woman was already getting on her nerves. The Japanese use it to make soup. A fine idea.
Van shook his hand loose and wiped it against his pants leg. “It’s fine, Doris,” he said. “Let’s just sit down and eat.”
Doris arranged a buffet of plates, silverware, buns, burgers and condiments. She let the couple serve themselves.
Mona called from the living room, “Why are we eating in there? We’re not going to watch the show?”
“Because we have guests,” she said, training a smile on Christianne. When she felt annoyed by someone, she made an extra, feminine effort to be sweet to that person.
The dining room table was piled with unopened mail, newspapers, catalogs, dirty glasses, sunglasses, keys and cast off items of clothing. Doris quickly sorted the junk and set them in heaps along the sides of the room. It was a little embarrassing, how often they ate in front of the television. Whole rooms in the house had become cluttered and untrafficked. She fussed and clucked and apologized for the untidiness, but she did relish playing hostess. It made you see your house and your belongings through someone else’s eyes. It inspired you to be more neat, and it made you see how much space was in the house, outside of the little rat’s nests everyone made for themselves out of habit. It was good to have two young people to dinner, even if they reminded her of Mavis’ insufferable grad school friends. It was good for the house to have two new people in it, the way it was good to occasionally open all the windows and air it out in the winter. The wood floors and paneling would breathe in the young couple, and then they would go away, and she would have to make a thorough cleansing of the room tomorrow. Then, the next time someone’s car broke down on the side of the road unexpectedly, the plastic ivy centerpiece wouldn’t be dull with dust and the credenza wouldn’t be hung with wire hangers and unironed dress shirts and the table would be empty and ready and spread with light reflecting pristinely from its varnish. Yes, it would be a project for tomorrow, for if this particular event should repeat itself in the future, she would not have experienced such chagrin for nothing. This was how Doris thought, a plodding optimism, framing everything cyclically and in terms of an underlying universal order, the self as the center of it, and, above all, redemption in matters great and small.
Van ate with his left hand, his right one turned up on a bundle of ice cubes in a washcloth, limp but arthritically coiled like a dead lobster. He was right handed, so eating with his left was awkward when he finished his burger and got to the sides. He dribbled baked beans down his shirt front, and more of the cole slaw ended up being scattered and smeared around his plate than in his mouth. Sometimes Doris would reach over to assist him, and he would swat her hand away, which was also awkward because she was to his right, and he would have to cross his left hand over his body and his plate to do so.
“Really, it’s all right. Shhhhhht. Leave it alone,” he flung up his hand at her.
Doris smiled at the couple, an excuse making smile such as a mother might supply when her child was being particularly obstreperous, and gave a little shrug. Then a few minutes later, she tried again to rearrange the cole slaw into a mound.
“I do not need you to help me eat!” he banged the table with his left fist. The girls gasped. Papa was mad. Papa was seldom mad, but when he was, they acted like an earthquake was happening. They stopped chewing and fidgeting and stared at him. Half eaten food lined their slack-jawed mouths.
Van resumed eating. The ice was melting through the dishrag and collecting around it in a puddle. The girls unfroze themselves and buried their attention in their plates. They had their own sides of peas and macaroni. They ate in tiny bites and twirled their spoons upright on the plate.
“So how did you two meet?”
“At a rally like the one we’re going to,”Christianne said.
Jude had heard Christianne lie to strangers before. She dealt them alternate histories of herself and their upbringing and their marriage with the facility and speed of a Vegas-trained poker dealer. She borrowed political stances on Vietnam, the women’s liberation movement, nuclear proliferation, nuclear energy, civil rights, welfare and unions from the people they encountered at the rallies and concerts where they peddled speed and heroin. It had been acid and pot for a while, and they still held on to small caches, but the waters of the illicit trade had darkened a bit, and now it seemed everyone was more interested in having the hard stuff with which to make the hard decisions, Jude supposed. They’d never lied to make themselves sound smarter or more educated than they were. It had never been incumbent upon them to fit in, but rather to blend in. So they had extracted enough slogans and sayings from the huddled, chanting keepers of the new faith to get by with most bystanders and, most importantly, with the police. They’d never lied in Marfa, where people didn’t question your unquestioning. Death and taxes were certain, so was God, and stone-washed jeans was the thing to question.
It wasn’t until they took to the road that they’d been pierced by an awareness of the war. Some people would talk to you about it if you did not fit into the scene in a tone of voice that made you feel as if they were ripping your clothes off with their words. It was then that they’d realized how many people had died. “What are you gonna do, man? Make a sit com out of it?” he’d heard a vet, a man who looked not more than four years older than himself, scream when a line of police with their dogs had pushed a group of protesters at the Missouri state fair up against a wire fence in order to frisk them. “What are you gonna do?” the man raged. “Make a sit com out of this!” Then he’d pulled down his pants and mooned the state troopers. When they went to cuff him, he spun around and peed a circle around himself. The crowd behind the line of police started swarming the fence and crawling over it into the fairgrounds. The sun had just set, and more police arrived with sirens and bullhorns. Everything was doused in revolving streams of blue and red light. The fair had lit up, and you could hear the people’s screams as they were whipped and tossed by the rides. You’d hear them in clear blasts over the orders to disperse, then you’d hear them ripped away by the tilting, turning machinery, like a flag of sound waving and collapsing around your ears. The ferris wheel fanned its long white and yellow spokes of light in the distance. Near the fence, a ride with two giant cages decorated to look like rockets pinwheeled people up and through the air and around again. If you turned your head away from the fair, you could only make out the smeared, blurred forms of faceless people being led away and stuffed into the cars and paddy wagons in flashes, in between the strobing lights of the sheriff’s cars. In the pandemonium, Jude and Christianne held hands and swung them between them and traded squeezes like sixth-grade sweethearts.
Big Brandy had, among other things, managed to protect the eligible men in his flock from the draft. He resented the government trying to take them away, for they were soldiers already, he told them, only the war they were fighting was a much more important war. It was no police action. It was an all-out, zero-sum, total war for the souls of Christ’s followers on earth. Even though this war had not happened yet, all the events in it had been recorded with great accuracy. The real war would take place in Israel, when the Jews restored the temple. They even knew the exact location of the hill top where the final armies would assemble. Big Brandy showed them postcards from Israel. Har Megiddo looked like any other dusty, West Texas arroyo hill top. There were no special landmarks or features to signify it as the dead center of the world. Jude had thought he saw at the edge of the postcard a smear of plastic that could have been a port-a-potty. There were rocks in Israel identified as the place where God sat when he was creating the world. They were covered over with monuments and swarming with pilgrims, but you could still get to them, Big Brandy said. What did they look like? someone asked. They just looked like rocks, Big Brandy said.
But that was the thing about the Rapture. It would start out so ordinary. It might happen on any given day. It might happen on a Sunday. It might happen on a Thursday. People would not wake up and feel it to be a special day. They would make pancakes and eggs and enjoy them, not knowing they would be melted by God’s wrath by lunch time. The real war was not with communists and heathens in the Gulf of Tonkan or the Mekong Delta. The real war would make Vietnam look like a game of Marco Polo by comparison. As vivid and searing as the footage of napalm engulfing acres of dense, ancient, black-green foliage and of teenagers dismembered by VC land mines, boys performing mouth to mouth in the dirt, soldiers paring away at the throats of the wounded to open up their tracheas to air again, all this horror Big Brandy referred to as “that minor skirmish in the jungle, humanity scratching at its own armpit.” God would not have to use napalm or the hydrogen bomb. God did not need such crude instruments to rapture his people. He could evaporate and evacuate souls without the use of modern technology. It was regrettable from Big Brandy’s perspective that the police action was not being fought in Israel against the Muslims and the unconverted Jews. Fundamentally, it was a problem of mistaken longitude, not mistaken politics.
So he’d had them all classified as conscientious objectors on religious grounds and held off the draft board through court actions for years. They could not fight, he told them, because their religion prohibited them from using such violent means. That a panel of American judges had bought this argument from Big Brandy was something that Jude had never forgiven. All he taught them was to fight, imaginary battles with imaginary foes, they had been spared this play fight so that they could do nothing but fight. Jews, Muslims, communists, lesbians, themselves. They were taught that as cunning and deceptive as red communist spies had been with the American people the devil had an equally active and threatening fifth column. They had mostly been concerned about the repentance of sin, the suffering of Jesus Christ, the purity of their souls, the serious quest for salvation, the narrowness of it all, the ways the devil could enter your mind and draw your thoughts away from God and you wouldn’t even know it, how you could be walking around all your life with a log in your eye, not seeing, not knowing, until you accepted that you were corrupt, that the devil was in you like rabies was in animals a long time before they keeled over and died. It was really, really important to get clean from all that. Big Brandy had spared them from a small war so that they could win a much bigger war. Privately, among themselves, they had envied the young men who’d been drafted. At least then you could fight your way out. At least then you could find an enemy outside yourself and maybe an end point.
When he’d first gone to peace rallies and met some of the former anti-war protesters, he and Christianne had fumbled for the vehemence to express the outrage and anti-establishment torque of their new peers. They’d lied to protect themselves from these hipper, angrier people. They’d never thought anyone could relate to them as exiles from all that fundamentalism. It was embarrassing to let people know you’d spent so much of your time among the bible-thumping, patriarchal oppressors. You didn’t want people to assume you still had some of that in you. They’d gotten clean from all that, and now it was just the two of them who would know. But you never could get clean from it, he’d discovered during his separation from Christianne. At best you could just prolong your escape. The more he listened to people his age talk about Vietnam, the more he heard the same notes of despair and disillusionment. They couldn’t get clean from it. The people he sold to over and over again, they couldn’t get clean, either. This circus life of going from place to place targeting bigger and bigger evils had used to demand condolences from Jude and Christianne. But now it was seeming to demand something else: belief, conversion. As he listened to Christianne prattle on about the hazards of nuclear energy and the anti-democratic process used by the big corporations to ram through land deals and licenses without the public’s petitioning being heard by the state authorities, he wondered if she weren’t once again becoming somebody else’s handmaiden.
So Christianne’s lies were becoming a problem for Jude. It had been a while, for instance, since they’d shared a meal with two people as old and ordinary as the couple whose house it was. Jude had felt relief to be among normal people. He realized that it had been a long time since they had interacted socially with someone not in need of a narcotic and not connected to a “scene.” Since they’d had a family style dinner at a dining room table in an actual dining room. Doris and Van seemed to him refreshing in that they had no immediate political views or causes they could press onto their listeners. Doris had only mentioned Los Alamos because Christianne had mentioned the bomb. They were Christians, evidently, from the crosses on the wall and the books along the shelves. The grace they said was simple and formulaic as a picture frame, God is great, God is good, let us thank him for this food. Amen. Van had not blurted prophecy during it or tried to highjack the homegrown significance of a hamburger dinner by relating it to the Last Supper. These were those stuffy, queer high church types who had been around a lot when he was a kid and whom he’d viewed as a parallel but alien culture. They were not true believers. They were engaged in Christian ritual, but they were mostly a social club, he’d been told. They were sort of like extras in the grand stageplay of Christianity, was the prevailing sentiment among the Adventists and the Church of Christers and even the Mormons. They didn’t have an arc or a story they were following, they just had this obsession with rituals and props. Christ had died, Christ had risen, and Christ would come again, they said this in their prayers back to back to back like that, but they didn’t really believe in or care about the last part, so they were like the wooden Dutch farmer and his wife in cuckoo clocks, always having the same rote response to God as if the tinkering gears of their ritual contained God, made God tick for them, Big Brandy had said.
Growing up, Jude had envied the Episcopalian people of the cuckoo clocks. He had often wished he’d been born to cuckoo clock parents. They seemed so unblemished by passion and conflict. They also had more money, dressed well and took better care of their lawns. They had bigger lawns, too. Later they would be first in town to have sprinkler systems. Their houses were set back farther from the road, and they had fewer children. Life was more manageable and manicured for them. That particular evening, he wanted to enjoy being inside this particular cuckoo clock and part of him was wondering what it would have been like to have been the son of Doris and Van when Christianne said that to Doris.
Even their bickering was comically normal, until Van banged the table, Jude thought, and hoped he wouldn’t do that again. The more they argued with each other, Jude thought Doris and Van were acting like two of these people who had just been out in the sun too long and were cranky and needed to go inside but instead kept applying more and more layers of sunscreen. Their loneliness was not with each other; it was geographical. Their loneliness was with the rest of the world and with time. They needed to go inside, further inside, Jude decided, then wondered where that might be given they were in the center of their own home. They talked about the news in that gentile manner that people adopt when they are unarguably in decline, physically and mentally, as if the news were a thing just invented and with which they were not very impressed. As if they might not renew their subscription to the rest of the world, but they weren’t sure yet. They were not burn outs or raging pedantics. They were scorched only by the rays of the TV. They probably weren’t used to interruptions and didn’t know how to entertain the young strangers. But they had essentially nothing to impart to the young couple. They were anthems of blandness, as far as Jude was concerned, and there was great safety and sweetness in that. And somehow, with her lies, Christianne was insulting them and their hospitality and messing with the antenna, fuzzying up the reception as the couple and the kids played out a real-life sit com, a re-run from his stolen youth.
“We met when I bought a poster from him, and he didn’t have the one I wanted. I wanted this one of The Doors, a limited edition, and he didn’t have it. I saw him again in Nevada before some of the hydrogen bombs were tested, and he had gone all the way to California and back and gotten that poster in an underground bookstore and remembered how badly I wanted it. So he’d been keeping it in his van for, like, two years, and he finally saw me again, just by chance,” Christianne said.
“How do you mean an underground bookstore?” Van asked.
“Well, you know, the underground, you know what I mean by that,” Christianne said.
“No, I am afraid I don’t quite,” Van said.
It was the kind of thing that Christianne would ordinarily ignore. Everyone waited for the moment to pass, but it did not. It stuck there, like a pill that did not go down all the way when swallowed. The wind roared outside, and they heard particles of sand blow against the glass. Van folded his hands preacher-like over his plate, careful to keep the burned heel separate, and peered at Christianne.
“Well, was it under ground, this bookstore? Did you have to walk down steps to get to it? It was not an ordinary store front book store accessible from the street level or what?” Van said irritably.
Jude flinched inwardly. He knew Christianne didn’t understand she was being baited and made fun of.
“Oh, no,” she said, condescending and amused. She had mistaken his tone for earnest inquiry and was eager to instruct him. She spoke slowly and pertly like a teacher of young children. “What I meant was, it was a bookstore that sold underground literature for the movement.”
“A communist bookstore?”
“Well, if you want to call it that,” she sniffed.
“I am not wanting to call it anything. I was just asking for clarification on that point. I was asking what you would call it, actually.”
“Does that offend you?”
“Not at all.”
“It’s okay if it does,” she chimed.
“Why would it be okay? Why would it be okay to offend me in my home at my own dinner table?”
“Van,” Doris interjected.
“Well, I want to know why.”
“She was just telling a story,” Jude said. “About how we met.”
“And you were so smitten with her that you remembered her all that time?” Doris said to Jude, to steer the conversation.
“Mmm-hmm,” Jude said.
“That’s so nice,” Doris said. “How long have you been married?”
“Eight years,” Jude said.
“No, we’ve never tried,” Christianne snapped. Being chastised by Van had infuriated her, once she’d figured it out. She hated men his age telling her what to do, what to think, but more than that she hated to be scorned by men his age. She was quick to turn on them, for in her opinion their feeble authoritarian attempts to make a child out of her were always a self-serving sublimation of their desire to fuck her and their resentment that they could not. She was exactly attractive enough that no more nuanced an understanding of men was called for. Lust happened without her initiating it. Jude was used to it. Just watching men watch his wife was like watching a popsicle melt on the sidewalk on a hot day. You did not blame the sun, and you did not blame the popsicle, and you did not blame the stick, either, for not hanging on to the run away mess of the melting popsicle.
Doris laughed nervously. Van glared at them.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“But, I mean, it’s not that we haven’t tried. Maybe we’re not doing it right,” Christianne said.
The girls giggled. Then they suppressed themselves. They understood only that some nervous tension had arisen around a taboo subject. They kept glancing back and forth between Van and Christianne. They had been entranced by her all evening. She was a different animal altogether. Wilder than Ruby. Untouchable. Bigger and more dangerous than a baby jackrabbit. Doris observed them observing Christianne and wondered if they would have the same sense of alienation and awe if Mavis were sitting next to them.
“Are you a model?” Lizzie asked.
Then they broke into a fit of giggles before Christianne could answer.
Christianne melted into false modesty. “No. You’re awfully sweet to ask me that, though.”
“I know I’ve seen you before. Are you on TV?” Mona asked.
“No,” Christianne said.
“You do look lovely enough,” Doris said. “You could be an actress. Have you ever thought about doing anything like that?”
“Gosh, I’m flattered. No, I’ve never tried to do anything like that. I won the best birthday singer award at this restaurant I worked at. The public had to vote on it. We had a special song and a dance that went along with it,” she said and then proceeded to do the Lone Star Diner’s ho-down birthday pep rally cheer to Mona. She actually got up and entered from the kitchen, holding an imaginary tray, setting it down and bursting into the loud rendition. The dance involved hopping like a rabbit, and the song nonsensically spliced lyrics from seven other songs, including “Yankee Doodle Dandee”, “Auld Lang Syne” and “Little Bunny Foo-Foo.” The girls were bouncing up and down in their seats with delight.
“It’s my birthday, too. We are twins. We have the same birthday. You have to do it again,” Lizzie pointed out.
“No, she doesn’t. You don’t,” Doris said. “It was just a demonstration, Lizzie. It’s not your actual birthday.”
“That is not fair. Not fair, not fair, not fair,” she chanted, each not fair louder than the last. Mona joined her.
“Stop it, she was just showing you,” Doris said. The girls kept up their chanting, taking forks and pounding them rhythmically against the table. Christianne was thrilled with the ruckus she had caused. She covered her mouth with her hand and widened her eyes at Jude. He admonished her with his own. To her, this was one of the moments in the sit com where the laugh track was deployed. To him, it was just another night ruined, and she was now seducing children with her antics.
“That’s enough!” Van said and banged his left fist on the table, so hard the silverware clanged.
Everyone was silent. The Papa had erupted again. He rained down more silence on them. Jude and Christianne stiffened. The girls pretended to be stunned again, then in deference to the silence, went totally limp and started to slide out of their chairs.
“I’m melting, err, urrr,”Lizzie whispered.
“Me, too, I’m dead. I have no bones. My bones are rubber,” Mona replied in a whisper.
She was lolling her head from side to side. Her feet had reached the floor, and her body was half slung over the seat of her chair. They were looking to see if the adults were going to move to stop them or if their show were amusing them or how far they could take the stunt until being told to stop.
She slid off into the floor and the weight of her body pushed the chair back into the china cabinet. The corner of the chair back hit the glass and rattled it but did not break it.
“All right,” Van started to say.
“Don’t hit the table!” Lizzie blurted out. “Don’t. You’ll hurt your other hand, stupid!’
Doris hauled Mona up off the floor by one arm. Mona was still pretending to be dead. She’d go limp and let Doris stretch her arm up out of its socket. She’d stand up and then go limp again.
“That was uncallled for and rude. Apologize to your Papa,” she told Lizzie.
Lizzie went to Van and holding her hands together and turning from side to side gave him a pouty, contrite look.
“I apologize,” she said magnanimously and with slow, ceremonious enunciation and kissed him on his cheek.
Van exhaled through his nose and threw his wadded up napkin down on his plate.
“You are forgiven, sweet girl,” he said. “You girls are just a little too excited. Maybe it’s time for a bath?”
He looked at Doris.
“No, no, not yet,” they said. “We haven’t had dessert.”
The wind had turned violent outside. Howling gusts rattled the windows, and the blasts of dirt grew more frequent and heavy. As if someone were tossing not handfuls but shovels full of light sand at the house. Doris went to get ice cream and beer from the kitchen. Jude and Christianne sat with Van in awkward silence.
Jude murmured something to Christianne so that Van could hear about the burgers being really good.
Looking at Van’s V.F.W. embroidered ball cap, he said, “Are you a veteran, sir?”
“Korea, ’51 and ’53.”
“Jesus,” Jude said quietly.
“You have no idea,” Van said and smacked his lips. He turned in his chair and looked at the window.
The screen door was slamming into the back porch. The wind was almost constant now, and the unsealed parts of the house wheezed like a broken harmonica, the high and plaintive pitch of a Great Plains tornado gathering strength. The brush and tree limbs were hauled sideways like hair yanked from the scalp of the ground. Doris called from the kitchen that it might be a good idea to get the candles and the weather radio out.
“We had to eat burrowing owls,” Van said.
Jude and Christianne said nothing, not being entirely sure what he meant.
“In the winter in ’53. It was 20 below. The food convoy got stuck in the mountains. We ate them straight from the ground, they’d freeze in your hand, and you could pry the feathers off and eat the insides,” Van said.
“Jesus Christ,” Jude said, leaning back.
Everyone merely blinked at him.
Jude felt singled out by this pointed remembrance of the old man, as if Van knew he’d never fought in Vietnam and were calling him out. He felt small and chastised. The youngest of four boys, he was twelve years younger than the first son, and their father was already old when he’d started having sons. Jude had always felt like the unwanted one, the runt. His father smelled like an old cabinet, of pipe smoke, leather and a queasy sort of mentholated ointment. Sometimes he squinted at Jude as if he couldn’t quite remember who he was. “I have no use for you,” he’d say out loud. He’d assign all his older brothers chores around the farm, and when he got to Jude, he often sent him back inside, to help his mother. Jude felt swallowed whole, a Jonah in the belly of a whale, fiddling ineffectually with a pack of wet matches. His mother doted on him, and tried to smother him with extra affection to compensate. Jude only hated her for it. He squirmed out of her embraces and took to hitting her in the ribs by the time he was four. Jude had grown up to be the tallest, a sprawling, reddish blond daddy long legs, but it didn’t matter because he never went home except to be a pall bearer at his mother’s funeral service. His brothers had to strain to keep the coffin at the same height when they bore it to the altar, and it dug into the meager meat of Jude’s shoulder.
Jude and Van intensified the silence. Neither moved to intervene, as if it were a test of masculine endurance. Jude had the Jonah with wet matches feeling. He blinked and coughed and looked down. He lost the contest of the moment.
The girls had grown solemn and hushed. God is great, God is good.
Finally, Christianne said, “I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you, dear,” Van said.
“What is a burrowing owl?” Lizzie asked.
Van acted as if she hadn’t spoken.
“It’s an owl that lives in a hole in the ground,” Christianne said in a whisper. Lizzie beamed at her.
“What does it taste like?” Lizzie asked her.
Doris brought ice cream and Coors on a tray wrapped in their own warmly informal foam cozies.
“Should we have dessert in the living room?” she said.
Jude and Christianne thanked her for the meal.
“You didn’t eat much,” she said as she took Christianne’s plate. “That’s how you stay so slight, I suppose.”
Christianne reflexively lifted her hand with its fluted, bony wrist to her clavicle. It perched there like a sparrow on a telephone wire, a drooping, live and commonplace thing.
In the living room, they watched an episode of Perry Mason and discussed the weather. The girls distracted Christianne with an elaborate presentation about their Lite Brights and the artistic potential of the Lite Bright medium. Jude, Doris and Van talked about the possibility of the storm postponing any work on the jalopy. Doris and Van offered to let Jude and his wife stay over night as driving into town was also out of the question. It was a ghastly proposal, one that no one involved really wanted to assent to, but which was an inevitable good gesture on Doris and Van’s part. Jude tried to be noble and said that they could call a cab to get a ride into town and come back for the jalopy tomorrow, with a tow truck, if necessary. Doris and Van wouldn’t hear of it.
“No one would come get you if they issue a tornado warning anyway,” Doris said. “It wouldn’t be safe. It’s no trouble. We’ve got a spare room. It used to be our daughter’s.”
“Do you think there’s going to be a tornado?” Christianne asked.
“If there is, they will warn us,” Van said, gesturing to the TV screen.
“Well, not necessarily,” Doris said.
“It will probably be just a big dust storm,” Van said. “They’ll come on here in a minute and tell us.”
“I think we should get the emergency kit and the weather radio and the girls’ sleeping bags and keep them down here,” Doris said.
“Don’t do that. You’ll just get everyone excited. You’ll get them excited and then they’ll never go to bed,” Van said, talking over the girls’ heads.
“I think it’s a good idea, just in case,” Doris said.
“Doris, there’s been no warning. It’s just a high wind. Why don’t you not fuss for just a little while?”
“There’s not always a warning.”
Christianne turned sharply to Jude. “If we are going to stay here tonight, I think we should get some things from the car.”
She said this with great urgency in her voice.
A loud crash drowned out the voices of the TV. The metal picnic chairs had rammed into the large table outside and blew across the yard. The table itself overturned but was held in place by a metal chain with a padlock on it. The table rolled violently on its edge and produced a shwooshing metal clang like a gong from one of the chairs striking it. Then this sound was drowned out by the rushing tear of the wind. Van sat up so suddenly in his chair he spilled beer on his lap.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Doris said. “You just sit tight. I’m going to get the candles and the radio.”
“Gamma, Martha’s outside!” Lizzie gasped.
Christianne sat at the edge of the couch cushion and gave Jude a panicked look. She grabbed his knee and pulled her purse to her. She took out her keys and bolted out the front door. Doris ran to the front door and was calling after her when Mona and Lizzie ran into the kitchen. Doris spun around.
“Do not go out there!” she screamed at the girls. “I will call her.”
Doris turned to Jude, who was already pursuing Christianne out the door. They almost bumped into each other as she headed back toward the kitchen to make sure the twins did not leave the house. The twins were at the back door, their noses flattened and pressing out the wire screen, calling the dog’s name into the billowing, concussive storm cloud air. The last crust of sunset glowed in red and purple and flame blue like blown coal and was sunk so low on the horizon that it was like a slip of light issuing from a closed door. The silhouettes of low hills that rimmed the mesa were solid and black before it like tramps grown mythically giant and crouched around a dying campfire. She ordered the girls to go back into the living room and help their grandfather get the supplies together. They did as they were told. They had every trust that she would locate Martha with the shrill beacon of her voice and rescue the frail, old, scrawny pointer from the chaos of swirling dirt and deepening gloom.
Doris did try. Holding on to one of the porch beams with both hands, she leaned out and cast her voice against the charging wind. The futility of it enhanced her resolve to call and call the dog’s name even as over the little light left in the sky a heavy conic ceiling of cloud bulged and sagged toward the horizon like a fallen organ. She blasted Martha’s name in the high whoop of a pig herder, and each time it seemed the wind picked up the cry and slammed it down like a flimsy kite nosediving to the ground. The dog was nowhere about. The cone-shaped cloud tightened its center and dribbled a more defined black fang toward the earth. This took minutes, and Doris stopped calling Martha and watched as it drew itself down from the sky with the startling precision and force of a natural disaster that is only coherent from a distance. Elegant as a black smear of paint descending from a Japanese calligrapher’s brush, the inverse of Trinity, slow, black on black, the fang throbbed and fattened and took on finger-like proportions. Hovering, quickening with the energy of its own formation, it pricked the space below it, and its end bounced and wobbled like a weevil dancing backward out of a chrysallis. From so far away, it looked almost gentle.
She went back inside. The girls had secured Blacky from upstairs and were hurriedly gathering up Lite Bright paraphernalia. Ushering little colored pegs into plastic bags, they would not be without entertainment during the storm. Jude and Christianne were weaving and lurching with the weight of three large duffel bags across the lawn, planting with each step their long legs and bony hips like hiking poles. Christianne’s hair blew horizontally in blond strips across her face and she swayed so much from the weight of her bag that she reminded Doris of Jane Fonda disembarking from a helicopter in one of her much publicized, traitorous excursions to Vietnam. She smiled triumphantly and swung her meager weight into each loping stride as if she really were some sort of girl guerilla slung with ammunition.
Remarkably, during this time, the television and lights had remained on. An episode of Bonanza blurred contentedly on the screen. Doris and Van rushed around, securing locks on windows and making sure the back door was shut tight, but they wasted no time extinguishing lights and appliances. Doris even piled some extra food, Cheezits and popcorn and a jar of hamburger pickles, on top of the laundry basket in which Van had quickly assembled the candles, blanket, radio and first aid kit.
“Get some wine glasses,” Christianne urged, and Doris not having time to question the oddness of the girl’s request, actually grabbed two water goblets from the cabinet and crossed the stems so that she could wrap a knuckle over and carry them one-handed.
“Where’s Martha?” Lizzie asked.
“She’ll be fine. She’s probably under the porch. There’s no more time. We have to get in the shelter,” Doris said.
The house looked eery all lit up from the outside, with all of them evacuated. They trampled the yellow boxes of light the windows left on the ground. They were so bright and so precisely mirrored the shapes of the windows of the abandoned house that Doris was reminded of the traced outlines of evacuated corpses at a TV drama crime scene. The poor house would just stand there, emitting the rays of normalcy, she felt, right up until the moment it was smashed to bits by the black, hurling fist of the tornado. In the morning, she imagined, they’d be picking through splinter like debris in search of what—Blacky? —like detectives sifting garbage in search of a cigarrette butt, a hair from a killer’s head.
The underground bomb shelter camouflaged itself as an ordinary cellar. Its submarine-like slanted steel doors were covered over with ordinary wooden doors painted white and shedding strips of old paint like dessicated tree bark. Several husks of dried paint shimmied off the doors as they were pried apart and were lifted and swirled like war propaganda leaflets into the wind. The doors beneath had a steering wheel like handle that was actually a combination lock. Van threw his head back when it was uncovered. Doris shuddered at the prospect of Van’s having forgotten the combination turns to open it. She did not know them herself. The twins were clinging to each of her pants legs, digging panicked fingers into the insides of her thighs in a way that would have ordinarily tickled her, but the impulse was overridden by her own mounting panic.
She couldn’t tell whether Van was having trouble getting the handle to cooperate or if he had forgotten the numbers. He was furrowing his brow so deeply that the errant silver hairs of his eyebrows jutted off his face and obscured his eyes. He blew air out one side of his mouth through gnashed teeth. This action was so exaggerated that it appeared to Doris that the wind might lash its ghostly finger to his lip and, like a gangster in a movie, yank his mouth back to his ear. Horrible cartoonish thoughts of violence visited on them by the looming black spinning finger of God descended to the prairie rushed to fill the void in her mind between the unassailable reality upon them and what she knew of such things only from the aftermath shown in television footage. Briefly it occurred to her that had she been an actual survivor of the real atom bomb, the way that Christianne’s naïve misconstruing of her witnessing Trinity had it, nothing that was going on would bother her. But then again, nothing would bother her if she were dead or, if not dead, half-incinerated, or unalterably disfigured, a lashed blob of melted flesh stringy with its own smoldering decay. Or even if nothing had prepared her for the sight. In hindsight, it was hard to tell where exactly she had derived her preparedness for the vision. But she was thoroughly cloaked in it by the time the test happened. It was like a lead vest over her mind that had grown so slowly from the passage of the three years before it that she had not felt its gathering weight. Perhaps from years of familial imprisonment at Los Alamos where the grim purpose of building an atomic weapon had soldered itself to every tangible evidence of life, the way it went unspoken and so inserted itself like a barbed wire fence across dinner conversations, the tangy-with-preservative taste of canned food, the lukewarm baths she had to take after her sister, rinsing herself in the gray, filmy detritus of another human being, the soakhole, cankerous feeling of stepping in mud, the way it seemed to lengthen her treks to the schoolhouse and infirmary where she picked up feminine hygeine packets for herself and her mother and sister, the cistern taste of drinking water, the way the hum of military vehicles competed with the shrill sonar-like renderings of predator hawks piercing through the deep bowl of canyon on those huge, unfathomably huge, desert nights. All of that, the bivouaced life of her canny adolescence had prepared her for the bomb in such a way that the final explosion, the culmination of the task that would mark the end of her adolescence and the beginning of her adulthood, had seemed inevitable and full of untold grace. The searing, billowing red tower of flame had been a graduation of sorts, and Doris had never thought of it as a disaster. This, the prospect of annihilation by a whirling vertical tunnel of loose dirt, an accident of air currents and conflicting pressure fronts, this was a disaster, and confronted with it, she felt as helpless and quaking as any similarly frail collection of DNA and neurotransmitters. It was as though Trinity had blinked her forward into adulthood. She refused to believe that something as trifling and random by comparison as a tornado could blink her out of it. The regret of not training her husband out of his senility constricted her insides, rose to her throat and kicked there like a horse bursting a barn door. She put the basket of supplies and the water goblets down and gripped the children’s hair in loving, desperate handfuls, eager to feel the warm silky fibers of the two most precious beings in the world to her. She was nearing hysteria and would have dropped to the ground and miraculously pawed a dug out and sucked the children into it with her had Van not finished his fumbling and harumphed in triumph. Redemption. Finally. He would last another year at least. The handle sprung free of his grip and spun around and around. Then it appeared to pop up like a child proof cap, and the heavy doors unsealed from each other with a loud, sickening gush of air, as if the earthen chamber were the sinus cavity of the house and Van had just performed a chiropractic adjustment on it.
Jude had been watching Van’s struggle with the door, half arm wrestling with the handle, half the mental heavy lifting of recalling the right combination of turns and half turns. Beneath the thin synthetic of his cheap, striped polo shirt, Van’s belly shook with the bare, mechanical labor of it. As he planted one foot against the lower threshold of the outer door and used his body weight as leverage to lift the heavy doors, it shook in that vulgar way that adipose tissue behaved once it had taken on excessive proportions, seemingly detached of its source. Some men were fat all the way through, as if their fatness were a physical expression of greatness, they were solid and formidable, and some elderly men had this slippery layer of cringe-inducing feminine flab to contend with. Jude wondered if in his labors Van had even felt the flab quaking or if his sensations were confined still to the solid parts of his trunk and limbs. He looked at the approaching tornado, increasingly large and increasingly near, and looked back at Van’s belly fat. Funny how such moments forced one’s focus onto minor visual details, how in the moments leading up to the door’s release as the old man’s efforts seemed increasingly effortful and success seemed increasingly dubious, all he could see or think about was this inch deep layer of quivering gut on a man he barely knew.
Doris and the twins and Jude and Christianne plunged underground in a scuffle of feet and the clatter of a rough corralling of plastic objects. Van was the last in. The way he held back and put the women and children and guests first, the conventional patriarch’s sacrifice, struck Jude as completely natural to the man, and he envied Van his home and his central command of life for the status being ordinary afforded him. The laundry basket and the Lite Brights struck the corners of the entrance as they went in. Fine, clandestine cobwebs splayed their irritating, tickling gossamers across their faces. In the dark, they heard the clink of the wine glasses and the sputtering of the girls’ lips as they frantically reacted to the cobwebs. Jude lit a cigarette lighter he had been keeping in his pocket. Van pulled the doors closed with ropes tied to the undersides for this purpose. The tiny flame buckled and finally blew out with the downward whoosh of air and the rustling of disturbed particles of dirt hitting the floor and the edges of the walls audibly described the size and scattered uncleanliness of the shelter. The second door came closed with a dramatic thud, sealing out the sustained shriek of the wind so suddenly that their ears had to readjust to the new level of reduced sound. They could hear each other breathing and the scraping of their shoes against the ground, the flick of Jude’s first futile attempts to relight the lighter and the jingling of pocket change and other murmurings of their disheveled, hasty retreat. It was one of those moments of darkness so total it induced a sense of primitive chaos, temporarily lifted the limits of civilized behavior and the mere sense of being trapped underground with a small band of other people who might resort to groping genitals and thunking skulls with hard objects invaded each of them and was itself a sort of bodily violation. Each felt the wick of their own humanity drawn tight and low over them.
In the dark, one of the girls said, “My ears are ringing” and the spell was broken.
Jude eventually relit the lighter and completed the restoration of what at that moment served for civilized life.
Doris began scratching around in the box, unpacking the candles and searching for a matchbox she couldn’t exactly recall having put in the box in her haste.
“I’m looking for matches,” she said. “To light these candles.”
She continued to search for the matches with such an air of industry and propriety that Jude moved closer and bent over her with the cigarette lighter to provide her more light. It occurred to neither of them to use the lighter to light the candles.
“I found some,” one of the girls said and held up what appeared to be a matchbook with a bright yellow cover with a Jolly Roger black skull and cross bones. It was actually a sheaf of acid papers that had tumbled out of Christianne’s duffel bag.
“Those are not matches,” Christianne shrieked.
“What are they? Little papers?” the girl said.
Several of these acid packets had fallen out of the bag and littered the floor of the shelter. Christianne crouched and scrambled to retrieve them.
“Yea, they’re just little notepads,” she said.
Van picked a packet up and held it up.
He eyed Christianne suspiciously but said nothing. Then he passed the packet to Doris.
“What on earth?” she said. “People write on these? They are so tiny.”
“We sell them at the rallies,” Christianne said disingenuously, as if this alone sufficed to squelch the suspicion their discovery had aroused.
“Well, they don’t look very useful to me,” Doris said and handed hers to Christianne.
Van leaned back on his heels and said, “I don’t think that’s what they are at all.”
Jude lit the candles and then Doris found the flashlight and turned it on and the room swelled with light and the space between them shrank. They could see each other’s faces more clearly and everyone felt a little uncomfortable about this.
Van went over to Christianne’s duffel bag. The mouth of it was open and he revealed that at least the top of it was full of the little packets. The bottom was weighted down with other, bulkier objects.
He shook his head. “Doris, these are L-S-D,” he pronounced, and picking up another packet like Sherlock Holmes flourishing the centerpiece of his elaborate deductive theory of a crime, he turned to Jude and Christianne and said, “Aren’t they?”
“No, no, they’re just souvenirs, sir,” Christianne said.
Jude stood in front of Van. He slowly took two steps toward him so that he was confrontationally close.
“I don’t know what to make of this,” Doris said.
“I’ll bet, Doris,” Van said fixing his gaze on Jude’s eyes, “I’ll bet that whole bag is full of drugs.”
The two men breathed hard into each other’s faces.
“Yea,” Jude said, his voice low, his best clipped Clint Eastwood, “it is. It is full of drugs. And that packet you’re holding, it’s enough to get you to kingdom come for months on end.”
He placed his hand over Van’s and attempted to draw the packet out of his grip. Van reacted as if the man had moved to punch him and yanked his fist back. Jude’s fingers snapped over empty air and he quickly grabbed Van’s wrist in order to block him from landing a blow. The two men struggled with each other, neither launching a punch but each twisting and turning and circling with locked arms as if the other might. One of them kicked over the flashlight, and it rolled around on its edge, casting its beam in a crazy circular strobing motion. The men’s hurling, shadowed forms blitzed the room, and the women crept to the walls and crouched down, Doris with one arm around Lizzie, Christianne circling Mona with hers.
“Don’t. Stop,” they both murmured frantically, not wishing to escalate the situation by shouting. “Spice. Van. Spice. Van.” But it was insignificant and smothered by the snorting and panting and staggering of the young man and the old man.
Van flung his arms wide in a circle and shook Jude off. The movement threw him off balance, though, and he staggered back into the wall beside a set of bunk beds.
“Oh, my God, Van,” Doris said. She had recovered enough to speak louder but there was still a warble in her voice when she said, “Get a grip on yourself.”
She stood up and brushed her hands nervously on the crotch of her elasticized jeans. “And you,” she said, pointing a scolding finger at Jude, “And you,” she said, training the finger on a still crouching Christianne. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I would like to remind you all that there is a tornado outside about to blow our house to bits!”
Mona whimpered and Christianne drew her in closer. Lizzie moved over to join the huddle.
Immanent property loss solemnized everyone sufficiently to yoke them into a silence that it became Doris’ duty to revoke. The problem was that once she’d induced it she did not know how to release them from it without compromising the level of authority and control she’d gained through her outburst. She often had this problem when disciplining the children. She’d read somewhere when the twins were no longer toddlers that discipline was pointless unless it was consistently applied. She’d taken the advice literally and thought that if she did not replicate the same punishment for repeated offenses that somehow the system of discipline would break down and total chaos would ensue. But she couldn’t rely on her memory to supply the details such as the duration of a time-out, which infractions warranted spanking and so on, so she’d started keeping a diary for this purpose. Dated and with columns full of entries such as “M. hit L. in the mouth and called her a ‘Frankenstein monkey’, fifteen minutes in corner followed by coerced apology” and “L. did not want to go to school, so she hid all her shoes and her sister’s shoes in the oven, spanking and no radio in car on way to school.” She’d abandoned the diary after a few months because it quickly filled a one inch spiral notebook and seemed only to be adding to her bewilderment and feelings of inadequacy. Further, it depressed her to read its warden-like descriptions of the children’s behavior. With Mavis, there was no such record, she’d thought, but then again Mavis was not a stunning example of parental achievement. With Mavis, the records keeping had come later in life and been performed by actual probation officers. Doris vacillated between thinking the children were constitutionally wild, like ingrown hairs, and fully believing in the infinite malleability that new parenting magazines seemed to promote. When all other methods failed her, she found herself resorting to age-old methods her mother and sisters and aunts had employed, that is, crying and screaming hysterically until stunned silence set in. At sixty-two years old, she was amazed she still had hormones left to supply her tantrums. She secretly resented the implication in this new-fangled literature that these tantrums somehow represented a breakdown in household discipline, for it had been her experience that they, however driven by exhaustion and frustration, were the penultimate weapon in her parental arsenal, outright abuse being the ultimate and so unusable weapon, and so it seemed to her the tantrums were, in practical terms, the highest level of discipline available to her. But, the grating, psychobabble-laced advice columns pointed out, they were not effective in reducing the overall incidence rate of unwanted behavior and often cost her her equanimity and so were a failure. Still, she wondered where were these perfectly conditioned and well-behaved children, these models of calm and empathy and precocious communications skills that mimicked all too closely the political consciousness of this new breed of adults for whom containment and control were not enough, for whom nothing less than total peace and familial symbiosis was ideal? Was Mavis right? Would the children be better off under this new anarchic and yet somehow totalitarian behavioral model? No, she could not think it for very long without feeling totally demoralized and fatigued.
After a tantrum, the magazines had said, it helped to take deep breaths and imagine yourself connected through the soles of your feet to the earth, great source of maternal strength, and to close your eyes and really feel what was bothering you. Once you had located the true source of your discomfort—they did not use the term rage—you could open your eyes and clearly and slowly express this to your family members, who would listen, understand and alter their behavior accordingly. Doris closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her feet. She felt concrete and Keds. She smelled dust and a chemical alloy of old motor oil and citronella. She felt annoyingly unenlightened and had an acute urge to spray a rag with Pledge and go around the room martyring herself. She hoped the tornado would at least do her the favor of shredding her stack of recently accumulated Parents magazines.
She tried again, dutifully tried, to summon the power of connectedness with the earth, and, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply, she intoned, “I feel…I feel…My feet are killing me!”
She sniffled and sobbed into her hands. She cupped her hands around her sobbing face like a person catching her own vomit. She sobbed and sobbed and stopped sobbing long enough to catch her breath and ask, several times, “Do you understand?”
Each time she said, “Do you understand?” her voice became quieter and less interrogative until it was just a low whinny and she was repeating rapidly over and over, “Do you understand, do you understand” almost in a wet whisper.
Exhausted, she looked up from her imprecations to a throng of people, their eyes wide and enamel-white, their faces turned a drained pale shade like the low flourescent wattage of a fly trap, staring back at her like a porcelain collection of barn owls. Christianne was shivering even though the air in the shelter was not cold. Van fumbled with a stick of Wrigley’s chewing gum, surreptitiously, as if he did not want the foil wrapper to catch the light and give his mundane action away. Doris reeled, as if her blood sugar had suddenly dropped. She felt dizzy. It was not a physical sensation but a mental one brought on by her precipitous plunge into a state of mind her words could not draw her out of. All the faces around her appeared equally strange to her, as if she had no relationship to anyone in the room. She felt that she really were surrounded by a pack of hunkered down birds, unified but restive in their underground hideout, liable to molt out of their human shapes at any moment and reveal their grotesque, fowl inner layers. She felt as if she might fall down from the sudden blow of not being able to communicate effectively, as if she had entered a vacuum where the meaning of words was drawn off and where speech imploded in the backdraft of this mental horror.
She moved over to the bottom bunk bed, sat down, and wailed some more.
Lizzie came and placed her hand on her shoulder. She did not look up and see Lizzie’s face next to her shoulder, but she knew it was Lizzie.
“Gamma, you cry too much. And over the littlest things. If you keep doing it, pretty soon no one will believe you.”
Doris pulsed with the equally incontinent, hot-with-relief laughter that follows climactic crying jags and pulled the girl into the center of her chest. The horrible, speechless feeling had evaporated as soon as she had identified the hand on her shoulder as Lizzie’s, and it was sweet to hear her unmistakable voice repeating back to her the very words she had used a few years ago when the girls had outgrown their toddler clothes but not the tantrums characteristic of the age.
Doris peeled off layers of her teary-eyed laughter. She blinked and smiled and shrugged. “You’re right,” she said, taking the girls hands in her own and swinging them out and in. “Why can’t we just be friends?”
Lizzie giggled, for this was another phrase Doris had used to soothe tantrums but which had become an inside joke in the household, for, in its obvious ineffectualness, it had ended up being a form of mockery against tantrums.
There was nothing left to do now but make merry and keep house.
She dragged herself like a wet rag over the few feet between the bunk bed and the crate full of supplies. She righted the flashlight and set about organizing the few things they had into groups. Food, blankets, wine glasses, napkins, weather radio and, yes, at the bottom of the crate, matches. She crouched with her back to everyone and hummed to herself and began to radiate cheerfulness because the coup de grace of any well-delivered hysterical tantrum was to act like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. To put on a normal face and defy everyone to call her bluff when their eardrums still stung a little bit with the sounds of the tantrum and their brains had shifted a little bit from the low, soothing frequencies of their egoistic demands to the intolerably high distress-inducing frequencies her guilt trip emitted. She hadn’t needed to accuse them once more of being selfish and uncaring because her emotional distress had done it for her, like sirens only dogs could hear.
“Are you going to unpack your bag or am I going to have to do it for you?” Van asked Jude and Christianne, primarily Christianne. He was rocking back and forth on his feet again and jingling the change in his pockets. He reminded Doris of an old-fashioned beat cop from the crime dramas of the fifties, how they used to walk the sidewalk whistling and twirling a night stick on a chain. His manner was calm, condescendingly so. He might have been talking to the children, but he was not. He was even looking at his own shadow on the wall as he said this.
“You have no right!” Christianne leaped up but made no movement away from the wall. The bag was in a corner of the room equidistant from both herself and Van. She sort of curled herself into the wall as if she were recovering from a slap or attempting to dodge a water hose.
“Excuse me?” Van said, removing his hands from his pockets and spreading them, palms up, waist level, presenting to the room like Jesus beckoning his flock to the five thousand loaves and fishes. Here we are, he seemed to communicate, saving your lives and having fed you a good dinner and you would deny me, in these exigent circumstances, a little bitty citizen’s arrest?
It looked like another physical confrontation even more awkward than the first might break out because it would be even more critical to both parties not to be seen to be engaging in a physical confrontation, she being she and he being old enough to collect a pension and totally above violence, especially violence against women, when both couples erupted into spats of bickering that briefly made them act as if they were the only two people in the room.
No one touches the stash but us, Spice. The rule…no…one…touches…the…stash…! But this is their house, and there’s a tornado…
What are you doing? Trying to fight a man who is half your age?
And you are going to let that old cocksucker talk to me like that?
You’re being disrespectful…You are totally trashed…Did you do a line in the car?
I’m not trashed! I am out of here…We can’t let these people go poking through our things, I don’t care about the dinner.
I am not going to be intimidated by street people. They brought a bag of drugs with them down here. Right here, a bag of contraband, with the kids.
And you’re totally not sticking up for me. Some husband. This is so not like you.
I want them gone as soon as it’s safe to open that door.
Excuse me, did you not see what just happened? You are so narcissistic when you’re high.
Well, they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the storm.
And now they’re stuck, and you don’t even seem bothered by it.
Well, of course, I’m bothered by it, but not enough to go fisticuffs like a damn looney.
I suppose you would have just looked the other way like you did all those years with…
That is not fair! How dare you? How dare you? It’s all my fault. It’s always all my fault. And where were you? I can’t believe you!
See no evil, hear no evil…
You’re such a limp dick…I’m hitting the highway when we get to Tulsa. I’m starting over.
Go ahead. I’m not your husband anyway, I’m just your shill.
As a matter of fact, I want to leave right now. I can’t stand these people.
I had nothing to do with her addiction.
What am I supposed to do, fight a tornado, Christianne? You are so damn dumb sometimes.
Did you hear me? I had nothing to do with Mavis’ troubles? I was a loving mother.
Thus parallel episodes of intracouple honesty blotted out and broke down intercouple feuding so effectively that when they became silent again no one attacked anyone else on the basis of the new information. Everyone had heard everything everyone else had said, but out of mutual respect for the private and all-consuming nature of bickering everyone ignored all the nasty things everyone else had said about them.
The children were projectile spitting Cheezits against the wall. If a Cheezit fell below a certain height which one of them had marked by dragging a wet finger across the dust, the losing twin had to eat one of the soggy projectiles in the other twin’s pile of spit out Cheezits.
At the mention of Mavis, however, they turned their attention to their grandparents.
“Gamma, did Mavis die?” Lizzie asked.
“No, baby, she did not. You know that, too. Why would you say that?”
“Gamma, where’s Martha?”
“I think she’s hiding from the tornado. I think she’s probably pretty safe.”
“Are you sure?”
“If Mavis were here, she would have found Martha,” Mona said, her chin resting on her fists, her voice full of indictment.
“Seriously, she won’t come back because of the way you talk about her.”
“Mona, you ought not to speak of things you don’t understand.”
“I thought it was because we touched the rabbit,” Lizzie said.
“No, dummy. It’s because she took too much drugs,” Mona said.
Christianne giggled. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” Van said. “Yes, it’s true. She was a fine young woman before she got mixed up with your kind. And it severely interfered with her schooling. It took years to get her back on track. And I’m glad you find it so amusing.”
Christianne stopped giggling and appeared genuinely moved to sympathy, in spite of the insult.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I really am,” she said. “That’s one thing I could never do, abandon my kids.”
She was staring at the back of her nails when she said this. The comment was so laced with a false piety and utter disregard for irony or proportion that no one dared to contradict her. Sometimes people at parties became so high that they started to have detached conversations with people who were not present, and everyone else ignored this behavior and gave them a wide berth in their ravings out of fear that interrupting might send the hallucinating person into a rage that would be dangerous for lamp shades and mirrored coffee tables. Jude shook his head in disgust but privately decided to leave her. Christianne was a witch, he decided. She’d put a spell on him and everyone around her. But somehow seeing her through the eyes of the old couple had broken the spell, and he’d only had to do it out of necessity. If the jalopy had not overheated and if the tornado hadn’t forced them into awkward confinement underground, it might have been years before he’d had to do this. And it was something he did reflexively, to protect her. He was an angry, cynical and morally elastic person, but watching her preen herself in this situation, vaulting glibly over the obvious emotional sinkhole of this absent daughter, the way she went for the sentimental jugular like a drunk delivering a punch to what was obviously the windpipe in the anatomy of this marriage of strangers, he realized that he’d mistaken her for another angry, cynical, damaged individual. He’d been projecting, he decided. Christianne wasn’t a smoldering pit of rage forever on the verge of an alienation so potent it threatened to consume the individual who contained it. She was the hollow patch of flammable gas around which everyone else ignited. But she was never in danger of self-immolation. Her callousness was perfect and slick and retardant, like the frosted pink polish of her nails.
“Let’s play jacks,” Christianne said to the girls. She was sitting cross-legged by the crate. She pulled out the bag of jacks and bouncing balls and dumped them on the cement floor.
The girls delighted at the suggestion and sat one at each of her knees. She leaned back on her hands and inhaled in such a way that her tiny, bra-less breasts blistered up from under her t-shirt and her eyes traced the ceiling.
“There’s some really yummy Madeira wine in my bag,” she said, tilting her head to Doris. “If you want any.”
“In that bag…over there?” Doris pointed to the duffel timidly.
“Yea, go ahead. I don’t mind,” Christianne said.
Doris opened the mouth of the bag wide and stuck her whole arm down into it. She fumbled around for the wine-bottle shape while twisting her neck so that her face was turned pronouncedly away, as if by visual, but not tactile, contact with the illicit contents she might be contaminated. Christianne watched her with a look that was both bored and alert at the same time, like a bobcat staking out a prairie dog hole. She tossed her army jacket over to the bag.
“There’s cigs in my pocket.”
“Thank you, but I don’t smoke. I haven’t had a cigarette in nine years.”
Christianne grinned. “Well, you’re under a lot of stress.”
Jude watched the old woman’s ear prick up at the acknowledgment. He watched her reel and wrestle with the weight of her own rationalization and compulsion, and finally he watched her go down like a heavy weight fighter in the fifteenth round, beaten but defeated not by the blows of the opponent but by the exhaustion of dancing around on his own toes. Ballerinas and statues of communist dictators fell this way, with monumental grace and agonizing finality.
Van began to cough before she exhaled her first drag.
“I’m tired. I deserve this.”
“Never mind me,” he said. “I just live here.”
“Have some wine,” Doris said, then to Christianne. “I mean, if it’s okay.”
“Of course,” Christianne said. “We should all just be friends, right? Just for tonight. And I’m sorry. You are awfully kind people, and my husband and I never meant to upset you.”
Van and Doris drank the wine out of the glasses nervously. Van watched Doris sip hers, sniffed his suspiciously but then in response to her rolled eyes began to work on his. For each small, wincing sip an outsized gulp. Doris had the real tears of hurt in her eyes. The kind she attempted to pinch back. The more she pinched the more her lip quivered and the more she turned away from Van. He was aware that he had crossed a line by blaming her for Mavis’ problems, that he had breached territory that a married man should never open up, undone years of assurances to the contrary. That he had not even meant what he said was beside the point. In the early years of their marriage, he’d reacted to conflict the way he had dealt with emotionalism for most of his life. Whenever it entered the scenery, he turned to a place in his head and looked out the window, at a different scenery. The window was always there, it was formed by the question did God exist?Argumentation interested him greatly but conflict seemed to him a thing that animals, women and children engaged in because they couldn’t argue well. It was not a moral deficiency so much as a constitutional weakness. Others could not see the great, vast landscape of theology, how it dwarfed human endeavor and the puny, almost fungal cataracts called feelings that sprung up all over the insides of households. He tried to turn away from his guilt at having blamed Doris for Mavis’ drug addiction. Instinctively he looked for the window, but the window in his mind had been erased by the vision of the toilet paper cormorant in the afternoon sun, by the blindingly bright blankness of atheism. He saw the concrete walls, the same color of slate gray as the floor and the sealed metal door at the top right corner, and he saw the bunk beds and the stack of Reader’s Digests and the sand castle buckets and the badmitton rackets and the tangled black twine of the volleyball net and the other jumbled miscellany they’d stored in the shelter, and he wondered if he had stopped believing in God earlier in his life if he would have made the same purchases of things. He saw a room stuffed with junk, anonymous junk, anybody’s junk, so much junk it could not fit in either the house or the garage, for all the other anonymous junk he and his wife had collected. He saw a room with no windows. He saw no honey pots or sarcophagi. He saw no heiroglyphed jars full of scrolled wisdom or airtight containers for the soul. The purpose of the room was to shield a human being from the effects of an atomic blast, but a man his age could kill himself trying to get Christmas lights up on his own porch. He felt humiliated, stuffy and burdened. He felt ashamed.
He looked at Jude, who was lying on his side and playing jacks one-handed. He wanted to start over. He hated Jude, but he wanted to crawl inside the man. The skin of Jude’s forehead was stretched tight and smooth and had the slightly oily sheen and paleness of good china, but the leather helmet configuration of his cranial bones jutted with an elegant sternness that reminded Van of the space between the antlers of a young stag. He wanted to apologize to Christianne on behalf of Jude but could not bring himself to look Doris in the eye. Instead he stared at the light reflecting off Jude’s forehead and thought about what he would say, as Jude, to Christianne.
Delegate, delegate, a good leader learns to delegate, stray advice from his high school civics teacher entered his head.
The sounds from above the little chamber formed a grisly ceiling of high-pitched whine and percussive drafts, as if they were inside a harmonica dropping through the air and bouncing off random ledges and awnings as it went. The air would grow calm, the high wheezing would stop, then it would crescendo suddenly, building up to higher and higher octaves of meterological distress and crashing into silence. It sounded like the bigger gusts were chasing hordes of smaller gusts into the sides of the house and lynching them. Van turned on the weather radio, flitted through static until a local frequency picked up. Three beeps and a warning that three tornadoes had dropped on the mesa, two had dissipated, but a third was heading southeast, residents urged to seek shelter in all of Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties. Then three beeps, then the message repeated.
Doris’ mouth was dry from the cigarette and the wine. She wasn’t crying any more. She was focusing on the house. She was worried that it would bury them in the shelter. She was worried the tornado would destroy downtown and there would be no hospital or police to help them. She visually located the first aid kit and extra gallons of water they had put up on the wooden shelves. Rehearsing the worst case scenarios in her head, what to do if the door was opened and falling debris cracked Van’s skull open, how many days six people could survive on three gallons of water. It was making her calmer. In her head, she heard and sang a phrase from a hymn, Man cannot live by bre-ad a-a-lone, but by ev’ry wo-o-rd that de-scends from the mo-outh o-of God…
Van cleared his throat. “We should pray,” he said.
He stood in the center of the room and held out his hands for them to join him. They formed a circle and held hands. Van said the Lord’s Prayer. It was a dry, tired, short oration.
“You’re a priest, aren’t you?” Jude asked.
Van scratched his cheek.
“What gave it away?”
“Well, your books and, umm, the way when you prayed you didn’t ask God to save us just now.”
“Deliver us from evil doesn’t count?”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
“I do. We’re not like those people who believe that God grants special favors to their own tomato plants. But trust me, we do a lot of petitioning. We just don’t admit it. In our own way, we’re as greedy and pathetic as the evangelicals.”
Jude looked at Christianne. Behind the vacant glaze of her high, her eyes were darting, leery and sad. She seemed so small sitting cross-legged on the floor, the cigarette smoke had risen over her, and the light was particularly dim under the slanted metal door. She looked so young yet the barely perceptible crow’s feet around her eyes whispered that she was not anymore. She was like a fresh water pearl inside the shell they shared, her skin, her hair, even her expression, random bits of luster set against a calcified gloom. She was like a tear God himself had shed that had frozen on its way to earth. He was once again moved to deep sympathy, kinship and love at the way she fostered oblivious beauty when overwhelmed by what deserved to be called a life of total disappointment. How she practiced it, studied it—playing slots, entering sweepstakes, she favored games of chance over those of dexterity and strategy—had almost mastered it. Even in her bitchiness, she wasn’t a complainer. She felt uncomfortable outside the radiating flatness of the plains. The Rockies induced in her a teeth-gritting claustrophobia. She said she couldn’t understand how the mountains towered over people and blotted out the sky. The light leaked out too soon, she said, and going through the scaly, narrow passes that constituted the highway in parts of Colorado was like being a worm inside a catacomb. She was a person who needed to always see what was coming, she said. She needed to know her options. Time was too vast, the afterlife was just a question in man’s mind. The drugs were her way of controlling for the unknown, even if they made her suffer terribly. I can take a beating better than you and ninety-nine percent of people, she had told him almost immediately after he met her, and, though it was tragic and bizarre and would have sounded, out of her twelve-year-old mouth, like an adolescent bid for attention had she not seemed so full of an ancient spite and world-weariness that no one ultimately gave her the attention she was seeking, no one asked her why or disputed her. The girls were tapping her knees, trying to get her attention.
“Miss, your turn.”
“No, I don’t think you are,” Jude said to Van.
Van seemed absorbed in thoughts that from his face were tiresome, not at all novel, but all-consuming. He looked like a person in the dry heave, pressure-filled stage of taking a long-overdue dump.
“You seem like very good people to me,” Jude said.
Van looked too tired but inwardly engaged to be withering in response.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “Sometimes I think we could have done more.”
“More than what?” Jude said nervously.
“Why is it that someone like yourself, you seem like a perfectly bright man—I can tell by looking at you—chooses to do what you do? Why do so many people your age choose to live like scum?”
Van’s voice was not angry. His tone was that of a baffled, defeated old man. He might have been asking a nurse why he could not simply take his things and go home.
“We worked so hard. So hard,” Van said. “I doubt if it is even possible for someone of your generation to work as hard as we did. My family before my father was sharecroppers in Tennessee since the 1850s. They didn’t have a car. They weren’t allowed to ride the horse except to church. We lived with my grandparents while my father finished school. We ate ketchup with corn fritters for dinner. We didn’t even have pork in the winter. We fought the Nazis. We fought the Japanese, the Chinese. I lost two brothers and three cousins. We dug trenches here, in America, the road you came in on. We did not know what boredom was, that was like a disease we had never heard of. We did not have choices about things. When our father said we were leaving, to go live in the desert, do you know we did not even know why? We did everything because we didn’t want to be crushed and because we did not want you, our children, to be crushed.”
“You did a good job,” Jude said. “But it sounds like you want credit for everything, and it sounds like maybe you think we should have just done everything you did all over again which isn’t really progress when you think about it.”
“Progress? You think that your life choices have something to do with progress? Just tell me why all of a sudden work is bad and drugs, drugs are okay? Is it because of Vietnam? Is it because we gave you peasants in pointy straw hats to fight? Is it because you never had to face the absolute machinery of evil? Is it a case of dislike for rules, the rebellion of a delivered people, like the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai?”
Van stared at Jude. Beads of sweat along his upper lip. He wiped them off with his sleeve and continued to plead for answers to his questions.
“Please, please, please, just tell me. I’m not condemning you or your wife. I’m a lot older than you, and I really just want to know why.”
Jude put a hand to his forehead and thoughtfully, patiently ran his hand through his long hair. As he spoke, his voice grew more strained, though, and forceful.
“I really can’t answer your question. My wife and I, we may not be good people like you, but we really, really just want to be happy, and I guess I can’t understand why for people who claim to love us so much, people like yourself, who did all of these things to make the world a better place, can’t understand or even tolerate it when we try. Seriously, you saved the world so that you could be mad that other people have the boldness to enjoy it.”
“There’s a lot about saving the world you don’t know.”
“There’s a lot about happiness that you don’t know.”
“There’s more to life.”
“Nu-huh,” Christianne interjected, holding a handful of jacks.
“You don’t know the rest. You say that, but you don’t have any more of a clue. You don’t even think God is real.”
“You didn’t even ask him to save us. The tornado could destroy your house and this whole shelter could cave in on us but you don’t even bother to ask, and it’s not because you have more dignity, it’s because you don’t believe.”
“I think this is going nowhere, and we ought to drop it like we agreed,” Doris said.
“You’re a smart boy,” Van said. “Too smart to be selling drugs for a living.”
“You’re right,” Jude said. “I’m a smart boy. I could be building a bomb or flying a plane loaded with liquid fire or using my wits to not get my ass blown up in a mine field.
“The war is over…”
“I’ve spent most of my life pretending to be dumb, and I resent it. The world eats smart boys and feeds their bones to old, dried-up, weak men with no balls and good-sounding names.”
“Please don’t pretend that your life has any more meaning than my own.”
“I don’t think you get what I’m saying, sir. It doesn’t, and I’m the one who knows it.”
“All right, you win. Deal drugs. Live happily ever after.”
Somehow, against the backdrop of the tornado’s howl, the sound of Martha scratching her nails against the door and even her plaintive, frantic hound’s whine filtered in. The girls leaped up, and Christianne moved from her place below the pull-down ladder. Doris climbed the ladder and unlatched the door.
“Doris, Doris, don’t…” Van began.
“Hold the ladder while I push,” Doris ordered, and he did.
Doris struggled to force open one of the doors. The tremendous force of the streaming wind seemed too much for her to overcome until she managed in one great push to get its edge past forty-five degrees and the lip of the door caught the wind from underneath and it sprung open and slammed against the side of the shelter with a violent thud. The blackness outside was actually a roaring wall of red dirt and debris, and it had an opaqueness to it that made its beholders instinctively flinch and turn away. They threw up their arms over their eyes. The dirt was traveling so fast it hit them and stung them instantly, seeming not to come from the door but just to erupt without trajectory in the small room. They coughed and staggered around. Doris kept her balance on the ladder. The pointer had flattened herself at the mouth of the entrance, and, unable to open her eyes, was squealing and yelping like an animal being ripped apart by coyotes. The dog was unable to do anything but twist lower and resist Doris’ grabbing her by the collar. Caught between the lacerating wind and the drop down into the shelter, she grew disoriented and tried to bite Doris’ wrist. Doris reached one arm around her haunches and turned her so that she dropped backwards into the shelter and for a moment was suspended by her collar. Jude and Christianne caught each end of her, and she kicked and panicked at being held on her back and flipped herself over and landed hard, in a clumsy splay of all four legs, on the concrete floor.
All four adults had recovered their eyesight sufficiently to sputter a relieved and victorious laughter at the dog’s clumsy landing. The girls clapped and gasped and ran to hug her neck and bestow on her all the Christmas morning-like affection they had stored up for the prodigal dog. They kissed her, then immediately regretted it.
“Poo! She’s really dirty!”
Doris and the others were pulling the rope to the door. They had more force between them than was required to pull it shut, and when they did they staggered back on each other cartoonishly. They wiped their hands and tried to shake the dirt from their clothes. The air was still swarming with fine dust and made them cough. They laughed in between coughs.
“We did it,” Jude said.
“If we get through this,” Van said, squatting with his hands on his knees and wheezing, “I am going to withdraw my request for them to remove that windmill. That thing’s a lightning rod. In fact, I am going into town Monday and withdraw that request.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Doris said.
The windmill was inoperative, but had been there since before the house was built. Its aluminum pinwheel had towered over the house, and its spindly shadows had crept around the scorched lawn like a giant cicada walking. The humble industrial structure belonged to the town and was preserved for what seemed like enigmatic, bureaucratic purposes. Van had begged the town to come and remove it. He didn’t like the way it made the house appear chastised somehow and remote, and he thought the house might have more dignity if it stood alone. But, at a wide enough radius, it didn’t stand alone, it was the sole habitable structure among the dozens of small oil rigs that had once mechanically risen and fallen as solidly, constantly as the gears of a clock exposed. But it was not a clock, for as the years wore on more of the tall, black proboscis-like cabled heads were stilled, and it was not a clock after all, but an hourglass someone had not bothered to turn and they were left there, grotesque in their stillness, like antique sewing machines, like surgical staples someone had thrust into the earth and abandoned. How weird the house must appear from above, Van thought, the chapel-white, pointed box amid the fixed, roosting raptors of the old, decaying rigs. Where the people were. The only place for miles around the people came and went from.
The storm lasted another two hours, and the house held its own. They sat, and the adults drank the rest of the wine and played jacks while the children curled up on the bunk beds and slept. The dog slept beneath them and growled at anyone who came near them. The storm had activated a savage, almost haughty, protective air in her she’d never displayed before. The air in the shelter grew stifling warm and arm-pit like, but they had cigarettes. Even Van smoked, and they did not notice or care about the air quality. Around 1 a.m., the weather radio reported the tornados had dissipated after destroying four houses and a post office in the southeast corner of town. A downed power line on the route leading to town from the mesa was causing power crews considerable trouble, and was still live, and that section of road was closed. There was rain, a steady, rolling barrage against the door that slowly dwindled to a light patter.
The girls woke up and demanded popsicles, which Doris promised they would get before bed, after they had re-entered the house. Normally, she would not give them sugar so late, but there was something about disaster that burned up all a person’s reserves. They had drooled in their sleep, and they could not stop rubbing their eyes. Their teeth chattered even though it was not cold. Jude had taken out a harmonica and was blowing lightly a twangy, sad five-note melody through it.
“I think we can go back up now,” Doris said.
“Are you going to have us arrested?” Jude asked.
“We’ll give you money” Christianne said, in a dejected, wine-lispy whine. “We’ll go to the bank. We have about nine thousand. We can give you money to fix your house if it’s damaged.”
“She’s telling the truth. We’ve been saving up, thought we’d get a house again. Start over. Who knows, have kids even,” Jude said.
“No,” Van said. “We can’t take your money.”
Christianne was kneeling on the floor, and at Van’s pronouncement, she began to sob, putting her hands up over her face and rocking back and forth over her knees. Her forehead almost hit the floor a couple of times, and she seemed to implore the ceiling at points, like a woman in the throes of a holy vision or an epilectic seizure.
“Christianne, what is it you want to do? When you leave?” Doris asked.
“I don’t know. The thing is, that’s just what we say, to each other. We really have the money saved up, but we don’t know what for. All this time, all this money saved up, and just to do what? What we’ve already done? But you can’t go on forever. The road is endless, but we are not. I’m tired of lying. I’m so tired of lying. Jude, honey, I’m so sorry.”
Doris draped the young woman in a blanket.
“You don’t have to lie any more. You can change your life. You can be a good mother. I know you can,” she said.
Christianne bolted upright, flinging off the blanket, then she shook her head slowly and hissed through gritted teeth, “No, not about the drugs, about the house and kids. I’m tired of lying about the house and kids.”
She collapsed into herself and cried some more.
“I wish, I wish,” she said. “I could remember being a child, but I can’t.”
Van, Doris and the children climbed the ladder. As Jude moved to go, she clutched the hem of his jeans. He lifted up his foot. The sole of his cowboy boot over her half-turned face. She flattened her palm against the floor, stretched herself on the dusted cement and cried loudly with her whole body, in sinuous, wracked waves. He stooped and dragged her up by her armpits. She was limp in a familiar way that he envied. But Big Brandy was all gone from her. His name was an abstraction now. He felt her damp hand on his breastbone. He put his hand over it and pressed it harder to him. He fully owned this now; he alone was responsible. He cocked his head and kissed the cleaner part of her forehead. Her nose was tipped with dirt. He started to say something, I think you have been a child for as long as I have known you…but closed his mouth around the words. He held her and masterfully rubbed his hand up and down her back until she was quiet.
GILA MONSTER TWO
The air above was still and damp and had a steamy, released texture like skin to which someone had held a wet compress until it had gone cold. They inhaled fully and stretched their legs. The little, soggy spur-like clumps of grass showed like goosebumps over the scoured ground. The lights along the road had gone out, and there was no fuzzy lip of town lights on the horizon to separate the blackness of the canyon from the drawn, starry helmet of the sky. Everything was crisper in shape and quiet like it had never been before. The wind dragged itself silently over the lawn, like a silk scarf over a sleeping face, and was felt, a cool creep on arms and shoulders and cheeks, like someone not quite living, lost and sneaking a touch, looking for directions, and not heard. The house, miraculously, had not lost power. The rectangles of light from its windows seemed elongated in the surrounding dark and made the house look beaming but hollow from side to side, a land-locked lighthouse.
There were already crickets, then, the metallic screeching of the windmill that had never screeched, as if the storm had oiled its frozen jaw with its force.
Van let everyone enter the house, then he went around the porch and peered around. He had a peripheral sense of being watched. Under the windmill, he saw them, three black buzzards, woman-shaped. They were wearing army fatigues and helmets and had rifles slung across their torsos. Their long black hair creeping and flattened over their shoulders like seaweed over rocks. He let out a frightened moan. They laughed at him. The one on the right leaned in and whispered to the one in the middle. The one in the middle beckoned him with her finger. Van backed into the porch and shook his head. This is the worst side effect ever. He was already imagining himself barking at the doctor. Then the middle one opened her mouth and a torrent of white light, the light of Trinity, jetted out and overwhelmed his vision. He put his hand on the timber behind him. He crouched and covered his face. The light disappeared, and he opened his eyes and looked over his shoulder at the windmill. The women were gone, but smoke was emanating from where they were standing in three separate smudges, as if they had combusted. He walked over to the windmill, but by the time he got there, the smoke was gone, and the ground looked undisturbed, the stalks of yellow grass waving and intact.
He’d seen it before, same as Doris, and clearly he was hallucinating, but to see the light of Trinity silently compacted into the woman’s mouth, to see her eyeballs voided by its white energy, was truly more horrible than the test of explosive power he had witnessed when he was sixteen. Gruesome white light. More gruesome than the corpses lodged in the mud in Korea, the unready dead, medics taking a lunch break, ambushed from a high point. The man with a K-ration half-chewed in his gaping mouth, a lit cigarette nearby. More gruesome than the smell of the human feces used to fertilize the rice fields, how in the midst of postcard splendor, snowcapped, pristine mountains dotted with yellow flowers in the spring, the whole country was imperceptibly pocked with basins of shit. How very cruel of his mind to have contaminated itself with this white light so long after the exposure, to have concentrated the landscape of hell into a mouth-shaped hole. As if the bomb itself were not potent enough. He ran up the steps and into the house. He would ignore this with all his might. He would treat these hideous women with the invincible idiot composure of a non-sentient being, if that were at all possible.
The living room buzzed with the loud steady drone of the emergency broadcast system. The TV was overtaken by black and magenta and white static bands of light. This time it was not a test, apparently. Van clucked at the screen, at the irony of its belated malfunction. Doris was going around hurriedly switching off lights and appliances that had gone on during what must have been a surge following a power outage. Everything was on, the ceiling fans and the lamps and the radio alarm clock. The other digital clocks blinked the numerals for midnight at what seemed a rapid, panicked clip. They sensed they had triggered a sophisticated barrage of defense mechanisms which were otherwise banal and benevolent electronics. The house was on high alert, and it had greeted them as if they were intruders.
“Why the hell now?” Van said.
Doris switched the dial off, and the noise stopped. The screen imploded into a navel of fuzzy light. Van flinched momentarily. No more white light. But the screen had dimmed to a blank gray by the time he opened his eyes. He would go to bed. Suddenly, he was tired and had a headache. He would kill the headache with sleep. Sleep, not pills, the natural mental surfactant of the self-reliant man.
The twins were listlessly dragging popsicles over their tongues, eyes drooping and heads lolling. Doris withdrew the popsicles, and she and Van slung the children over their shoulders and carted them upstairs to bed. Jude and Christianne sat on the couch, awaiting instructions. Christianne drummed her fingers on the coffee table. Doris came halfway down the stairs and gestured for them to follow her. She led them to Mavis’ room, which had that spare room eccentricity to its furnishings. A distinctly modern, oversized lamp with three green hollow glass bulbs for a base overpowered a lace covered, child size vanity. The mirror on the vanity was so short that an adult would have to stoop to see herself in it. The curtains were likewise white lace, translucent adolescent decor. A vintage movie poster for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, hung on the wall and its camp, B-movie graphics, the bronze, swimsuited flanks of Allison Hayes seemed to leap off the wall. My Little Ponys, their neon tails shaggy with rough love, lay on their sides on stacks of anthropology textbooks. A signed volleyball and trophies with blue state championship ribbons littered the floor, framed pictures of Mavis and Van with fishing poles and the poured silver bodies of dead trout, an easel hung with sketches of what appeared to be highly stylized, avant garde raincoats, crutches. A model city of abandoned hobbies and extracurricular pursuits.
The bedspread was a sunny yellow satin. The bed was narrow and propped up a line of embroidered pillows too small to be anything but ornamental. That long, slender, not quite twin size peculiar to dorm rooms. A virgin-sized bed, innocent as little girls’ underpants, decked out and fussed over like a Victorian coffin. It made even the clean ashtray on the bedside table look obscene next to it.
“We’ll talk more in the morning,” Doris leaned in the doorway and yawned. Christianne lay back on the bed, her legs spread wide over the edge and waved at Doris good night.
“Thanks for everything,” Jude said.
He’d drug the duffel bag up with them. It slouched against the stool to the vanity. It blended into the room’s mismatched bricolage of adult and child belongings. Christianne slipped her jeans off and slid into the bed. He did the same, and wedged himself up against her and slung his leg over her hip, distributing his weight in just such a way that he wasn’t distressing her joints at all. She was so small it was easy to wrap his whole body around hers, tight, like a plea. Compact wife. Convenient, fold up size wife. Rib of my rib.
“I’m ladeling you,” he murmured.
“Get it,? Not spooning, bigger, ladeling,” he said and squeezed her sacrum and hips closer into him with his thigh.
Sleepily, she giggled and turned over underneath his chest, her hand sliding down, her pelvis lifting. “That’s funny. You’re funny. Fuck me.”
“You know, I forgot all about that thing in the shower this morning,” Doris said as she tossed decorative pillows from her side of the bed and fluffed her sleeping pillows.
Van was reading a thesaurus, as was his custom before bed. He’d read reference books before bed since he was a boy. First, the dictionary, then encyclopedias, then, once he had become a priest and been tasked with writing the long, learned sermons that were the centerpiece of the Episcopalian service, the thesaurus. It comforted him, the catalog of synonyms. The way it flattened and bundled the English language. It was like a medicine cabinet for words. It made everything seem a series of easily swallowed parts. With this neat little dispensary, you could swap a potent, connotation-laden four syllable word—regurgitate—for a non-threatening generic two syllable word—upchuck—without having to think too much. He’d been prone too much to lyricism and flights of academic exposition, his mentor at seminary had told him. Fine for school, but not for pastoral practice. You mean, dumb it down? Van had offered resistance. Make it pal-uht-ub-ul, the veteran priest had said. He’d recommended the thesaurus as an antidote.
Van folded the paperback over his chest and sighed, “What thing?”
“The gila monster,” Doris said, sliding into the bed. “How long do you think it had been in here? It gives me the heebee geebees to think about it.”
“I don’t know.”
“How much do you think they’ll charge us?”
“I have no idea.”
In the lamplight, Doris looked both rosy and haggard. Her skin was a smooth, placid tone, but the bags under her eyes and the sagging skin under her chin seemed more pronounced. She’d taken down her bun, and her hair was curled into a single gray wand that ended at her navel. He loved that he was the only person ever to see this unfettered lock of his wife’s hair. She always wore it up. She had refused to chop it into a teased helmet of ridiculously sprayed curlicues, like so many women her age. He fingered the lock, this girly, gray link, a sort of umbilical chord that tethered them to more amorous times.
She was watching him play with her hair and stroking his forehead when she sat up, alarmed, “Do you hear that?”
Van listened, exasperated. He was not going to get up, not even for an earthquake. He heard nothing, then he heard the breathy, high-pitched clamorings of a muffled female and the bed springs creaking rapidly as a rabbit thumping across the prairie. Come-cries multiplying and scattering like freshly hatched spiders into the timbers of the walls and the air ducts.
“What…?” Doris, whose hearing was not as sharp as his these days, still had not identified the noise. She started to get up to investigate, but he pulled her back into the bed.
“Relax, it’s just the two of them,” Van said, and when she still looked puzzled, he pulled her ear to his mouth and whispered, “Making love. Having sex. Fuck-ing.”
She squirmed and giggled, in part a reflex, his mouth was tickling her ear.
“I hope the girls don’t hear,” she said.
He rolled over on top of her and kissed her forcefully.
“What are you doing?”
“Providing them with cover,” he said and slid his face down to where, between flapping sacks of jellied thighs, there was another most precious, windowless place, dark, muscular like a second heart, slick-walled, irresistible to man.
When Van woke up a couple of hours later, he was laying on his back, glazed with sweat and conjugal fluids, gripped with panic and fury. The ceiling fan was turning slowly, the black blades circling in the dark room as silently as sharks in a tank. The fan must have come on during the power surge. They would have never run it with the air conditioning on. Bastard witches are watching me. Somewhere, in the seams of the dark, they were crouched together like maggots. He could feel their eyes on him again. He stroked his chest. His belly was bloated and tight. He could feel the familiar dried scum of his own semen meshed with the hairs on his abdomen. It comforted him, and made him more furious and revolted that they would be watching him now, as he slept, with his wife, in their marital bed. Private scum on his privately loved belly. His boxers were twisted around his wiry trunks of legs. The muscles of his calves and thighs were sharply raised and knotted like the bumps on oak trees, from carrying around the extra weight of his torso and gut. He stilled his hand, and prepared himself to move. He felt an evil, pressing sensation on his chest. Approximately the weight of a cat. And he smelled a weird, assy, feline smell. He slapped the air over his chest. There was no cat. The cats slept outside. It was one of their tricks. He remembered the old wives’ tales he heard as a child about cats and cribs, how the beasts smothered infants in the night. He’d heard two versions. In one, the cats smothered the babies out of jealousy and a feral instinct to slaughter young beings. In the other, cats inadvertently sucked the life out of babies because they had the irresistible smell of milk on their breaths. It was terrible to think that for every perverse superstition there must have been an act, or acts, sometime, somewhere, so tragic and awful that they inspired these twisted, cautionary mouth to mouth measures. In this way, ordinary people retained the horror and heartache of generations of illiterate, primitive peoples. He thought of the warning labels now appearing on the packaging of dolls and toys. The urgent age recommendations. The laminated posters in diners showing step by step illustrations of the Heimlick maneuver. The surgeon general’s warning on packs of cigarettes. Lung cancer and choking, were they worthy of wive’s tales? No. There were no more old wives to tell tales to vulnerable children and new mothers. The would-be old wives were preoccupied with dying their hair and douching. Nothing pre-printed could be as effective, yet it was always the nature of death to skirt the warnings, and somehow this was acceptable to mankind now. Statistics and warning labels were making death more invisible even as they tried to call attention to common dangers. Crazy world. Boring world. World without end, unless…
He lurched up from the bed like a Gulliver unpinning himself from Lilliputian lunacy. His right arm and side had lost circulation, and he felt the pin prick gush of returning blood like the snapping wires of little, mischievous men. He dumped his legs over the side of the bed and stood on them and surveyed the room. Doris was sleeping peacefully. He stealthily crept, as much as his towering sausage of a body would let him, to the window. He peered out the side of the window, trying not to shift the curtains too much. He saw the lawn, vacant, vast, the lurid, expansive light of the streetlight at the far end calling attention to its emptiness. It was like passing a highway rest stop at three in the morning. They want me to think they are not watching. They set it up this way. Well, I’m not fooled.
He would take a shower. It would show them he was not having it. He would rinse himself off and go back to bed. He was unaffected by these games of harassment. Dawn would blot them out. The reality of the sun would sear them, and they would sizzle away like the roasted feathers of the Korean burrowing owls. He turned on the bathroom light, shut the door. He opened the beveled plastic door to the shower and looked at the blank plastic and tile interior. The man-made stall was sterile now that Doris had thoroughly wiped it down with Mr. Clean after they took away the monster. The disinfectant residue mingled with the rising steam of the shower, and this also comforted him. Old age was hell, but you had your whole life to prepare you for it. It was a constant combatting of mundane, trifling bullshit you thought, from the folly of youth, you would somehow get off the hook for. But you didn’t, you developed a tolerance for it. Some of his friends had taken to wearing leisure suits. He thought they looked like clowns, but they said they were easier to get on and off, less buttons, no belts. Arthritis forces you to pick your battles, one of them had said. He hoped that Doris would not die cleaning, then chided himself for the thought, because he’d pictured it happening in his absence.
No sooner had he turned the shower off when he felt their presence skimming along his naked body like static electricity. Impossible, must be a side effect, has to be a side effect. The feeling was intense enough, however, to cause him to slip a hand out of the shower stall and grab a towel and dry himself from behind the beveled glass. He waited until the steam had dissipated a bit to peer out the door. There were no Japanese witches in the bathroom with him. He shook his wet head, tried to clear the steam out. The steam was bothering him more than it should. He stared at the bathroom door and was terrified, as if behind it were not the bedroom he shared with Doris and the rest of the house he owned, but an unknown. That fear had been in him when he saw the flash that went out from Trinity. The flash had lasted only a second but the concern that the horizon had melted and the world with it under the mortifying glance of what seemed a white knife that God alone could wield had lasted the rest of his life somehow. Buried under the years of childrearing, grandchildren, preaching and tax returns and moving the sprinkler around the yard after sunset, the mental wort had blossomed. It seemed to live right behind his eyes and to be connected to a nerve like a shock wire to his heart. Why in this most ordinary moment, when he felt weary beyond even his seemingly limitless old-man capacity for weariness, did it come back full bore? He raised a hand to the tile wall and panted. He noticed he was wheezing. He noticed that in spite of his fear he was tired. This was another blessing of old age, the ability to feel intensely uncomfortable emotions without experiencing the heightened energy they used to carry. Checking that the towel was tight around his waist, he bent over to pick up his jeans from where he’d left them on the floor. The belt rattled, the buckle hung like a cut out bull’s tongue, and from one of the pockets the little sheaf of acid papers hit the floor.
The Warfarin was for high blood pressure. The Dyazide was for the swelling that the high blood pressure medication caused. The Meclozine was for the nausea that the dyazide caused. Drugs for tremors. Drugs for headaches. Drugs for sweat. Drugs for night sweats. The Warfarin might save his life, but it might also make him go blind. He’d been contacted about signing on to a class action law suit. “This is the house that Jack built,” he said, looking at the green and burnt orange rows of pill bottles. He had no pill for hallucinations. He didn’t even know which of the pills he had been taking was causing them. Little prick doctor. He’d christened the boy, held his quivering infant ass over the font and said, what again? He thumbed through the tissue papers. In the body, sometimes, like eliminates like, he thought. He truly believed, as he tore off a sheet and placed it on his tongue and let it dissolve against the roof of his mouth, that the acid wouldn’t have any effect on him, except to blot out the Japanese women and their spying eyes. Acid was for pussies, faggot artist types looking to justify their quack visions of how things should be. He’d never trusted it for a real drug. He thought it was sort of an urban legend. In the steamy envelope of his own bathroom, he felt invincible. He was sure it would be really mild in him because he was a goddamned vet and, even at sixty four, still a Gibraltar of mental acuity. If he weren’t, he would never have realized he was hallucinating the women. He would be curled up in an armchair, rocking with his knees up as far as his pot belly would let them, crying and clutching a rifle like a maniacal Martin Sheen. He’d have the children and Doris all worked up. He’d be freaking out the way women freaked out over mice. He’d have concussed himself trying to get them out of his head. Acid could do nothing to him, he reckoned, but it would sedate all activities responsible for those terrible, giggly, evil hags. He toweled off a space on the mirror, looked intently into his red-veined, bloodhound baggy eyes, threw cold water on his face, which quieted the sting of the blister on his hand momentarily, and took two more aspirin with a full glass of water. The blister would heal. Everything would heal. He’d sleep again. He thought about what he would make for breakfast, bacon, eggs with cheddar jack and salsa. Yea.
He’d thought about checking on the girls, just in case. He’d just crack the door to their bedroom and peep his head in. But he dismissed the idea. The girls were probably sound asleep. He’d only risk disturbing them. He’d taken the acid. He’d solved all he could solve at least until dawn came, so he stuck with his original plan and went back to bed and to sleep.
When Doris woke up she had a jagged tear of heartburn burrowing in her chest. When Van woke up, he was speechless. But he could whistle and grin, which he did all morning long. Had to be the acid, he thought, and was happy that the plan had worked, for the only women lurking about were a grumpy Doris and a bedheaded Christianne. At first, no one noticed that he couldn’t speak, but everyone noticed that he was in an exceptionally good mood. Doris attributed it to the sex. She wished that she too could have felt so revived, but the sleep lost to that and to the tornado had left her fuzzy headed and fluttery. She was sore in the hips, too. And the heartburn must have given her nightmares because she had dreamed that Christianne was pregnant, grotesquely, about-to-burst pregnant, and she was wheeling the young woman around a hospital ward trying to get the attention of the medical staff to help her. The woman’s stomach was bare, poking through layers of backward hospital gowns. She was getting more and more frantic with labor pains, and Doris was calling out to nurses and doctors who lined the hallways with charts and surgical scrubs and masks on some of their faces, but the more she tried the more they merely stared at her, impassive eyes above the masks, as if they could not understand what she was saying. Christianne would strain to lift herself up out of the pain using the sides of the wheelchair, and her stomach must have been five times the size it was supposed to be. Doris saw the flesh of her abdomen pounded and stretched from the inside. Hands appeared, faces, fleeting fetus-shaped bulges circulating the enormous tight globe of Christianne’s stomach. The storming of the womb barricade grew more rapid and tangled. The shapes changed, and it was not only babies visible but the forms of animals—rats, squirrels, a possum, a tiny hooved fawn—competing, clamoring over and around each other like drowning beings in a bag to find the single airway, a passage out. Christianne was screaming, panting, grabbing hold of anything she could including Doris’ arm. Her hair was soaked with sweat and her nails drew blood as she cried, “Get them out!” This climax woke Doris up, and that’s when she felt the deep internal rub of the heartburn backed up like undischarged vomit behind her left ribs and chest and throat.
When she saw Christianne in the hall, the shy, smirking slip of a girl from last night appeared deflated and lackluster and slightly damp around the edges. She had her sunglasses on, and her hair was ratted lightly on top. From behind the large black ovals, she spoke timidly, but her voice was deeper and raspy. She was like a wraith, a young-old person. She was asking in an embarrassed tone about tampons. Did Doris have any “still”? She’d left them in the car last night, and now she was in a bit of pinch.
Doris at first did not understand the problem. She was still reeling from the use of the word “still” when Christianne led her to the spare bedroom window, that opened up to the back of the house. The wadded up wreckage of the orange jalopy was upended and lodged in the dirt not far from the back porch. The doors were ripped off, and the hood was crinkled clear up to the dash. The windshield was a shattered sheet of blue green glass that hung on loosely by a strip of padding along the driver’s side while the rest fell within the car’s interior. The car was now only vaguely car-shaped. It more resembled the twisted, pitiful, sprawled remains of a 1977 Chevette that had been cast down from heaven in a cataclysmic firestorm. This was what happened to Chevettes that sided with Lucifer.
“Oh, dear,” Doris muttered. “No, I’m afraid I don’t have any.”
Christianne peered through the curtains.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? The tornado put it up and over the house,” she said.
“It is amazing, utterly devastating,” Doris said. “We were spared.”
Christianne wriggled a little, stuffed her hands in her jeans pockets.
“Listen, umm, I’m using toilet paper now, and it burns. I’m gonna have to go down there and dig them out. They were in the glovebox.”
“You know, I could run into town,” Doris said.
“But that would be silly. We should get going now anyway. We can skip breakfast. Could you take us?”
“Doubtful, but I’ll try,” Doris said. “Van has a meeting with the women from the altar guild today. At noon. He was planning on taking you two and dropping you off before then, I’m sure. Then I’ll have to stay to watch the girls. I’ll see what I can do. I have some old washrags we can tear up. It’s not safe to go poking through that. It could collapse on you.”
When they went downstairs, Van had already fried bacon and was working on omelettes. Jude was offering to help, but Van waved him away and thrust a hot mug of coffee into his hand with a grunt. His movements seemed very fast, and his face was contorted in undue concentration, as if every little task—chopping, pouring oil into a pan, washing vegetables—was a glorious and engrossing performance. Doris noted that he was whistling and grunting, and grinning. The way he chopped, his intent handling of the vegetables—he was stroking the slick halves of green peppers like a mother running her hand over the bare butt of her baby—was eloquent and fierce. He was happy, but at the same time he was touching and looking at things in ravenous, rapturous gulps, like a starved dog gone face down in a bowl of chow. He bent down and cocked his head so that it was along the rim of the bowl as he cracked eggs and painstakingly fished out the flecks of shell. He giggled at the oozing of seeds from the cut open pockets of cherry tomatoes. He seemed lighter and more spry to Doris. He smacked her butt as she replaced the coffee pot. She ejected the sip she had just taken all over her chin.
“Are you mad, old man?” she shrieked in vivid Cockney tones.
Van shrugged and pecked her lips so forcefully she yanked her head back. Her upper lip smarted from this blow of a kiss. She wiped it with the sleeve of her summer robe.
Jude kept his head bowed over his coffee mug at the breakfast table. He slipped himself fried bacon strips and tried to ignore the signs of derangement right in front of him. The cozy, little cuckoo clock had gotten shaken up in the night. Some hard blows had landed here, and the springs were not wheeling into each other quite right. He felt a lump of responsibility sink from his throat to his gut and open up like an internal sore. No, no, this was not his fault.
Van whirled around the kitchen, plating omelettes with grand flourishes. He did mean to speak again. He would get around to it, sometime. In the meantime, when he would mean to speak, there was a tight wall like a plastic bag, but thicker, like warped dimensions in science fiction movies, that seemed to slip itself over his brain and mouth whenever he tried. It was pleasant and somehow warm, this blur where words used to be. The words he did not need anymore. He’d been relieved in a way that he’d never been relieved before. It felt like a solution, his speechlessness. It felt like he could breath freer, with fuller lungs. He ached to keep it up. He would never know peace like this again.
Doris was passing around powdered donuts, to cover her bewilderment at his hyperactive state. He ate one, bit by bit, in tiny, lusty increments. The tang of sugar, he’d never noticed it, how sugar had this burny, almost irritating undertaste to it. You had to eat sugary things really slowly, once you knew it was there. His eyes watered it was so potent. He watched, amazed, at how everyone else was eating theirs regularly. Christianne appeared in the kitchen doorway, twisting her lower body back into the hallway and whispering to Doris.
Christianne and Jude traded anxious, conspiratorial glances.
The children rattled through, on all fours, in just their panties, their noses tucked into their armpits and raising one arm occasionally up like a trunk and cawing a feeble imitation of a disgruntled elephant’s blast. Van turned tight circles around himself and began to imitate them.
“What the fuck?” Doris said.
The children stopped in their tracks and fixed open-mouthed stares at her over their shoulders. Then they got up and ran out of the room, covering their fannies with their hands.
“Van, Van, honey, what pills did you take this morning?” she said, gripping his face with flat, firm palms.
“Psst, Doris,” Christianne was frantically signaling from the doorway.
Van was making kissing noises at Doris, his face smushed between her increasingly close hands. Christianne kept trying to get Doris’ attention. Doris kept hammering Van with questions about his medications.
“Van, answer me. I’m going to call someone. I’m going to call Dr. Horton.”
“Please come upstairs with me now,” Christianne said.
Doris looked at her deranged husband, then at Christianne and remembered her dream last night. The heartburn stoked itself, like a searing rose blooming all at once. Out of the frying pan…
In the bathroom, Christianne said, “I think I know what’s wrong with your husband. I found this in the trash. There’s a sheet missing. He must have taken it last night after you guys went to bed. If it’s his first time, it could be why he can’t speak.”
Doris sat down on the toilet, placed her hands on her knees, arms stiff and long. She shook her head.
“I don’t know why he’d do that,” she said. “Are you sure?”
“Has he ever acted like that?”
“Like a child? No,” Doris said. “But he sees things. He doesn’t tell me. He forgets things, really basic things.”
“Well, I think he’s just tripping.”
“How long will it last?”
“Umm, probably three days.”
“Three days! He has to preach tomorrow. I’m going to call the doctor just in case. Maybe I should call an ambulance. He has high blood pressure, and he’s taking all these medications. There could be a drug interaction.”
“Obviously, if he doesn’t come down in three days, you are going to have to do that, but if you do that now you are going to have to tell them and, if you do that…”
“You’re worried about getting caught again,” Doris said.
The dog nosed open the door to reveal Jude standing outside, looking contrite and worried and doglike himself.
“That man is tripping like a jet plane,” he said morosely.
“We know,” Christianne said.
The girls edged their way in. They had put on sundresses and jellies.
“Gamma, can we go with Papa into town and get chocolate footballs?”
“Please! You said! You said! You said!”
“There’s way too many people in this bathroom. Get out!” Doris snapped at them, and they fled.
The dog followed them.
Jude and Christianne apologized over and over again to Doris, who could not believe or accept that there was no way to stop an acid trip. There must be something else he can take, she kept insisting, to counter it. What if he didn’t come out of it? she wanted to know. She’d heard stories, read articles. Myths, myths, myths, mostly myths, they said.
In the close quarters, Doris could smell her own body odor, which was, on this particular morning, unusually vaginal in origin. Her mind was divided between trying to manage the new situation and trying to manage to shift the conversation gracefully to the other room without wafting over the young couple. They did not want Van to overhear them. There was a sense among them that the safest thing would be if they would all play along and not confront him with his having taken the acid.
It was important to make him feel safe, Christianne said, and happy.
Suddenly, she did not want the young couple to go. Everything in her life she’d ever managed that was difficult, including Mavis’ disappearance and recovery, including raising the twins, she’d done with a sane husband. Even if this were to last for just a few days, she felt it were a prelude to some greater loneliness. She wanted someone else adult around. She badly missed Mavis. She missed her daughter so much she could have strangled her had she walked through the door at that moment. She missed her own mother, her aunts and sisters. Selma. Her “Da.” She missed the dead and the living. She missed the missing. She looked at Jude, eyes misty with appeal.
Jude looked at Christianne, who seemed to be silently advocating for Doris.
“If we stay till this is through, we’ll miss the Kansas rally and the Bob Seger show,” he said. “Places to go, people to see…”
He stressed this last part as if it were code between them.
They heard a car start and the slamming of a car door. Christianne was closest to the window.
“Shit! He’s got the stash!”
She and Jude bolted out of the bathroom. Doris saw Van and the girls approaching the truck. The girls were skipping.
On the stairs, Doris’ hip went funny. A deep flexor tear that rendered her right leg as useless and wily as a pogo stick when it came to placing weight on it. She propelled herself hookwise to the door where she saw that Van had put the girls in the back seat of the cab of the pickup truck and that he had granted the front seats to Jude and Christianne. The green duffel bag he had tossed in the bed. He affected a two point turn and peeled up the gravel drive so fast she could hear the individual shocks squeal and retch, and the loud rattle of pebbles striking the undercarriage echoed against the siding of the house.
Doris grabbed her keys and jerked her way barefoot to the Buick, which did not start when the key broke off in the ignition.
“Damn it!” She pounded the steering wheel, her hand slipped up and past it and into the hard plastic cover of the speedometer. Her knuckles smarted so badly she put her fist up to her mouth.
She moved slower back to the house, every other step a delicate deliberation of where and how much weight to place on that right side. An uneven gait like a gavel swinging up and around.
She opened the kitchen junk drawer, where she’d stowed a cigarette the night before. She took it out, lit it, smoked half of it and gently bumped off the cherry on the edge of the sink, and dialed the operator.
“Sheriff’s department, emergency line… Hello, my husband and my granddaughters have been kidnapped. There were two drifters, a young man and a woman, who stayed with us last night in the tornado. They all took off in our pickup truck. My husband was driving, but it was against his will. I think they drugged him. 122 Winding Road Lane. Just off Main Hill Road. They are headed North on Main Hill. I have the plate numbers.”
FOR EVERY DOOR
Doris reckoned she had about twenty five minutes before the sheriff’s deputies arrived. She went upstairs and drew herself a bubble bath. Alone, without an audience save the dog, she did not cry. There was no point in being distraught, she told herself. They would pull the truck over, and, without any other information except what she’d given them, and if Van still could not speak, the law would sort everything out. The girls would be safe, and the couple, well, maybe they would be let off with a warning. Maybe this would be a wake up call for them.
No, she knew better. She knew the weight of the bag in the truck. Oh, well. Surely she had not set in motion anything that wouldn’t have happened anyway. She heard the words Jude had spoken to Christianne last night, What am I supposed to do, fight a tornado?
It was Jude for whom she felt the most guilt. He was probably even now trying to turn the truck around. Trying to get control from Van. Trying to talk reason to the demented, insatiable windbag. A happy ogre, he’d appeared. A fourth child. She thought of how her Uncle Saul was spoken of, in tight-lipped, salacious neighborhood gossip. A mental defective, they’d called him. She shuddered. Jude would bring him back, sane and restored, and the girls. She’d been wrong about Jude, about his face. The leanness was not the product of a cutthroat or feral personality, but was the sheering back force of walking into the heavy wind the world had put in front of him. In the dark of the bomb shelter, his tan had given him a gray hue, like the pall of permanent grief, and somehow she’d known his mother had died. In her benumbed state, she placed it all on him, not the sheriffs, to bring her family back safe. Surely, the young man would not run away with the truck, her husband and the girls. He’d at least let them out, leave them somewhere they could phone home. He’d been genuinely perplexed and uneasy when his wife had insulted Van, and he’d meant it when he said he was thankful for the food and shelter.
But he’d abandoned her. Places to go, people to see. They were mercenaries, he and Christianne. They listened to no one, like Mavis and her friends. They had no allegiances, not even to people who issued directly from their own bodies. She thought about the children, in the truck, with Van driving and hallucinating, and she couldn’t breathe.
The water rose to her collarbone. One nipple bobbed up and out of the white foam. It seemed to her the image of her despair, just the one nipple. She was alone, and she might remain so.
She emerged from the tub remarkably steady and calm. Her hip had rejointed itself. She dressed in a gray and black herringbone suit she normally wore to church in the fall. She smeared foundation on her face, and drove brushfuls of orangish blush high up her cheek bones. She parsed her time with the precise application of eye shadow, lipstick, mascara. She lined her eyes boldly, top and bottom. She checked her teeth for smudges, plucked under her eyebrows. She felt as if she were moving in slow motion, like a crash test dummy in those videos on the importance of wearing a seat belt, shiny bald head vaulting toward the crash wall, stuffed body suspended in air like a human-shaped question mark. Perhaps if she gave God this formality, on a Saturday, he would let her stop the film, edit the frames, or at least give her an answer she could live with: two little girls, safe and entire, if nothing, if no one, else.
Her face impeccably drawn, she could not stand the quiet in the house. The second hands of clocks did not suffice to anaesthetize the beastly silence, so she went downstairs and forced herself to sit on the couch and watch TV. She took the unsmoked half of the cigarette with her. On PBS, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were outlining their strategies for the war on drugs. She dropped the cigarette as she was trying to light it, and when she reached down to pick it up, her hand encountered the sharp, brillowy spoke of a dream catcher mobile, long lost relic of the twins’ babyhood, sticking up between two couch cushions. She held it up in front of her, lit the cigarette and blew the fumy drag through it. The smoke wove itself through the holes and into brilliantly sunlashed plumes like the necks of ghostly white waterfowl. Behind the honeycomb web of white twine, the face of Nancy Reagan was saying, “Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious. They work every day to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives just as they’ve done by developing this new drug, crack. For every door that we close, they open a new door…to death.”
A knock came. Outside, six men and three police cars. They wrote everything she told them in pencil on little notepads and spoke her descriptions into the radios on their belts. Doris could not decipher what came back to them through the bursts of static.
“Do you have any idea where they might be headed?” the patrolman asked.
“Kansas? Texas? She said something about Seger. Do you know where that is?” Doris sputtered listlessly.
The patrolman paced the narrow foyer between the kitchen stairs and the back door. Every minute or so he’d lift his radio to his lips, a wad of overpacked chew sliding fat like a caterpillar under the stubbled skin above his chin. He was spitting orders to set up a roadblock on I-40 into the microphone. Over the scuffle of static, heated, curt refusals were coming back from dispatchers, who were clearly harried from trying to deal with tornado damage in three counties, a bank robbery and a child abduction APB at the same time.
“For-the-third-time! All-available-units-at-that-20-were-routed-to-Sandoval-for-disaster-assist. STAND BY. Over.”
“Fuck,” the patrolman said, spraying flecks of brown tobacco juice. He dropped the radio to his side, his skinny, wiry-haired arm limp with defeat.
“Sorry for my language, m’aam. I’m sorry…”
Doris cut him off by stepping hostilely close to his face.
“Fuck is right!” she shouted and sank in tears against the wall.
In a few hours time, members of the church would show up, some of them with platters of food, offering to clean the kitchen and stroking Doris on the sides of her arms. She wondered how they had had time to prepare casseroles and why, given that no one had died. The dog had gobbled the remains of breakfast and was walking around bow-backed. Doris put her outside where she vomited a mostly undigested mound of cooked eggs. The house filled up, but all she heard were murmurings of a crowd. Her attention was fastened to the radios of the two patrolmen who had stayed at the house.
Van had driven north and turned west. They’d been driving for about three hours. Interstate 40 was lonesome and bare, clean cut and straight like the mercury path of a thermometer, scarcely any settlement to bead the long stretch of road between the eastern edge of New Mexico and Amarillo. The day was polished blue, the sky as clear as poured Windex. He still had not spoken a word. Jude, who was seated beside him, read the flexing of his jaw for any signs that his trip was turning bad. His grip on the steering wheel was tight, and his arms were locked. The product of muscle tension, Jude thought, which could be a problem when he eventually decided to stop or pull over.
Christianne had stopped squirming once they got to the Panhandle. Her head cradled by her seat belt, she appeared drowsy and nonchalant. The girls were sleeping, folded over each other, in the back seat.
When they’d gotten in the car, Christianne had said, “Can you take us to Tulsa?” and Van had nodded and grunted.
Of course, neither Christianne nor Jude considered it a good idea, but given that Van was headlong into an acid trip of indefinite length, they had modified their original plan of not upsetting the old man and figured they’d get as far as they could with him, before slipping away at a gas station, preferably in a larger, more populous town. Worse case scenario, Van would fight them over the stash, and they would leave it with him and hightail it back to Marfa, work something out with Jackie. Under a thin flannel, Jude wore a cash belt, $1500 neatly laid out in its compartments. Christianne, who carted her clutch bag with her from room to room everywhere they went, had a few personal effects tucked in its shiny chain metal pouch: Kleenex, chapstick, pills, a thimbleful of cocaine, a hand mirror and a ladies’ sized .22 caliber Beretta. They were good to go.
They were crossing the Llano Estacado, Spanish for “yellow table.” Burnt, wheat yellow land flat as the surface of a drum. Here and there, they passed a farmer’s market stand, children selling lemonade, a liquor store. Everyone peddling along the side of the road was Hispanic. Van had turned the radio to a Spanish speaking channel, and they had heard only Mariachi band music since Los Alamos. They traveled through a trailer park that was also an Indian reservation. They saw the silver beetles of the Texas Rangers parked in basins and under underpasses with radar guns mounted in the dash. They’d beaten the APB into the state. They were not speeding. They were not followed.
The girls woke up and started whining that they had to go to the bathroom. Christianne joined them.
Jude put his hand gently on Van’s wrist.
“Hey, man. We should stop somewhere. They all have to go to the bathroom.”
It was a few more miles before they came to an isolated Texaco filling station. Way out in the field beyond it, a scantily dressed, oiled couple were windsailing, the tall, lightweight sheets of their vessels cuffed with the strong gusts of wind. They would scoot about a dozen yards or so at a fairly slow pace, then the wind would die down and the sails would deflate and they would topple elegantly. They would right the sails and wait for another gust, and it would move them a few more dozen yards out.
Van got out and went into the store. He took the keys with him. Christianne took the girls to the bathrooms on the side of the building. Jude stayed in the cab of the truck. Christianne and the girls came back. They talked very quietly about whether or not the place was too isolated to make a break for it and decided that it was.
Inside the store, sombreros and postcards hung on spin around racks, and there was an entire section of the magazine rack devoted to maps. Dusty Mexican shawls lined the walls with yellowed handwritten price cards safety pinned to them. There were two Mestizo looking boys, one about fourteen, the other only six or so, cruising the magazine rack. The younger one had a broad, flat face that made him look stupefied. He was probably mildly retarded. The store owner, a fat, red headed Irish man with club hands and a vericose webbed nose sprouted with gray hairs, was perusing a newspaper behind the counter. He occasionally peered up warily at the boys.
Van looked at the boys. The younger one had taken a pack of chewing gum, opened it and was squatted on the floor over a magazine. He was placing a stick of gum between every few pages of the magazine. The older boy was at the refrigerator. He was wearing a rather large nylon wind breaker. Van was sure he had slipped a bottle of soda into the waist band of his pants.
Van looked at the store owner, who seemed aware of but not terribly annoyed to see these things going on. Van stalked his way back to the older boy before he’d had a chance to turn around, and flung him and pinned his back to the cooler door. Van wadded up the collar of his t-shirt and held him by it. The boy put his empty hands up by his ears and started shouting at his younger brother in Spanish. The little boy scooped up the magazine and ran with it out of the store. The store owner was yelling at Van, “Hey, hey, what are you doing? They come in here all the time. I know what they are up to. It’s okay. I’ve got it under control. Let go of him.”
The clatter of the door chime bells was all Van heard. He didn’t hear the store clerk pick up the phone and dial the police. He looked out the front of the store and saw through the tinted glass the little boy heading off past the gas pumps into the bright, calm desert space where the couple were sailing. Van let the older boy go and took off after the little one.
When he got outside, he saw along the edge of the property a crowd of people gathered into a cone shape. They were people he knew, congregants from his church, his retiree friends and their families, men he’d served with, many acquaintances from Los Alamos, some from as far back as Lamy. Some he knew had died. They were dressed as for a fourth of July parade. They had sparklers and little American flags on sticks, and they held their small children up on their shoulders. They were clapping and cheering for him. The Japanese women were there, in their drab military outfits, ravaged but equally festive faces. Some of the people pointed at the boy as he ran up the cone, through an aisle they had made with their bodies. Van was touched at the turn out, all these many supporters and he was only bringing a shoplifter to justice, a greasy-haired, little Mestizo weirdo, probably a confused, fatherless boy who just needed to have his actions explained to him in terms he could grasp. But it was tremendous, all the support. He stopped to greet them as he would after a service when the congregation filed out, exchanging pleasantries on their way to the fellowship hall for coffee and donuts.
He had no idea how long he’d been basking there when the ranger who had received the store clerk’s call and recognized the plate numbers of Van’s truck from the late-breaking APB roared up and tore through his revery with a sharp blast of the siren and a megaphone. Somehow, in the transmittal of the APB, the dispatchers had confused the information to more reflect the truth , so that Van had been reported as the abductor of the children and the young couple as possible hostages.
He leapt out of the car, circled around the hood, tapped on the front cab window and shouted to Jude and Christianne: “Are you all right?”
Jude nodded, and Christianne flashed him a horrified face. The girls clambered to the window in the back cab and, not knowing what to do, smiled and waved at him.
With one hand on his gun holster, the ranger ordered Van to freeze and put his hands on his head.
Van raised his arms in the air, but turned his back to the ranger. In the distance, the little Mestizo boy was still running away, jettisoning dust from his panicked footfalls and seeming to skip nimbly over the prairie boulders like a rapid brown locust.
Van wondered why the boy had so intimidated the ranger. He felt the surge of something in him, battle adrenaline. He turned to the ranger.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I got this.”
Then Van took off after the boy. He ran and ran and felt the booming, throbbing fist of his heart pounding his rib cage like a speed bag, and he heard eventually only the whoosh of his frantic, hot blood blowing a course through his inner ear. He could not see the boy now except as a black dot in the distance. He thought he saw the sun glint off the black, slick dome of his hair. Suddenly, he felt dizzy and for a moment slowed to a jog. He had forgotten what he was doing, but he didn’t stop, for he did not want to let the crowd down. He turned and looked behind him, and saw no one at the pumps but the three Japanese women waving. The ranger was in his car again, blaring orders for him to stop and drop to his knees.
Van gasped. He had gone so far out. Although he could see the pumps and the taupe brick structure of the filling station, he thought maybe they were too far away for him to find his way back. The sailing skiffs were to his left, swallowing wind and exhaling it, scooting and falling, again and again. The tide, he thought, had carried him out, and he would be stranded here. A sound like a gong or maybe a low-flying plane stopped him in his tracks, and he put his hand over his brow, the better to see the sky.
He saw the sky unzip, the blue sheered away like the edges of burnt paper. There was another, second sky where Trinity was, had always been, it was just he’d never seen it before. How it had never left the desert, but was roiling in the beyond, constantly, a Niagara Falls of flame and gusting, churning smoke. It was God talking helplessly, not making much sense. It had been there the whole time. The test had not lasted minutes, but virtually his whole life. And the lives of all the children, after. It was going to swallow them, like the mass of Jupiter eating its own moons. He’d understood, all the winos and leatherclad hippies and madmen, they’d been the only ones to see it, and no one had listened. The Japanese women were trying to warn him, but he’d stupidly mistrusted them. It would fall to him to negotiate with it, to stop the thunderous issuance that was wreaking vengeance on the people, the scattered denominations, the crazy, divorced families, the teenagers shooting up and the motorcycle gangs and the Mexicans and the illegals scampering up from the border like kitchen cockroaches seeking the seals of doors and cabinets. Oh, it had all been because they’d ignored the pile of babbling wrath in the sky behind the sky! And now it demanded an answer. Of him. He shoved his blistered hand up and screamed inside his head, “No, wait! I’m coming! I can speak. We can work this out.” Jude and Christianne and the girls saw from the cab of the truck the old man hailing something high above, and they saw how it was that he was looking up at—they could not see what—when he tripped on a rock. Van never saw the rock, but he heard the sharp, gunny crack of his boot on the face of it.
Then the ground cracked his cheek, the orbital bone surrounding his right eye, and dislocated his jaw on that side. He was aware that he’d fallen, that he was bleeding, that he’d never get up again. His sightline was now that of a snake, except his brain maintained the orientation of one who had walked upright and kept signaling to his body to get up, to right itself. But the brain was alone in that; the signals went no further. Like a squirrel barricaded in a hollow tree trunk, the brain clambered, but the limbs did not move. Even his face was abandoning the brain to its lone creaturedom. Grains of sand blew sideways into it, into his open mouth and unflinching eyes. There was sensation but no pain. Then there was knowledge somehow but no sensation. It was not entirely unpeaceful, but it was a strange feeling indeed not to be able to shudder at his predicament. This must be what it feels like to be a house, he thought. In the early spring, when the fields were still stripped of cotton crops and there was nothing to hold the dirt down, when it was too hot to leave the windows shut but not hot enough to turn on the air conditioning, when Doris would vacuum for days on end.
Inches in front of him, a bee was hovering wildly. The bee will enter my mouth and go down the moist cave of my throat. His lonely mind was suddenly greatly agitated. Then he noticed that the bee had no interest in his presence and that it was buzzing in tight circles around this one spot directly in front of his nose where there was another, dead bee, blanched and sun-dried. It appeared that the live bee was digging a hole under the dead bee and trying to cover its remains.
Why would a bee bury a bee? He didn’t know, but it was clear from the bee’s movements that this was a burial. It would back up to the ashen husk of the dead bee and furiously scrub the ground with its hind legs, then it would scrape together as much of the earth’s crust as its insect legs could gather and drop the dry renderings on its fallen comrade from the air. Then the wind would shift it all off the body or the bee’s own movements would trigger a tiny avalanche that unsettled the burial mound, and the bee would start all over. How he inexplicably loved the bee for doing this. So much that it was worth the fall and the surrender to paralysis. There was no fret or struggle, just a keen sense of privilege to see the small surge of mystery in the dust. You never know when you are going to learn something new, he chuckled inside the carapace of his useless head and body. As he died, Van was hoping that the bee would eventually get the job done, that it would accumulate enough dirt over the dead bee that the wind—merciless, West wind—would not uncover it, for, if even for a minute or so, at last, he would have liked to have witnessed something more than the vain ceremony of unchecked instinct.