A Knock on the Door
Ms. Greatrakes taught us many surprising and useful things in sixth grade and then she told us this: that all the stories we would ever read in our young lives boiled down to One Story. A compact person, trim but sturdy, her lips painted a knock-out orange, Ms. G wore sleeveless dresses that left her strong arms swinging. In New York vowels that jangled oddly in our snuckled ears, she relayed passionately to us an ancient story: about the Sybil who presented nine books to the Roman king Tarquin containing all the knowledge in the world. When he refused to buy the books, she burned three of them; she asked again, wise and patient, but he refused her high price so she burned three more. Finally, exasperated, a little anxious, he bought at the asking price the three remaining books. What had been contained in the six lost books? A heap of knowledge that might have kept Rome from falling, Ms. Greatrakes asserted with an enthusiastic O to her fiery lips. In any case, the Sybil’s message was that each and every book contained all the knowledge of the world, if we only knew to look for it.
Ms. G led us through bumpy passages from David Copperfield--we got tangled up in the vocabulary and fell over one another giggling. She brought order to the class with a sharp clapping of hands. Ms. G’s favorite stories involved lovers who had been separated and were reunited happily, perhaps because she had come from to the Midwest to get married, and it had not ended well, or so it was rumored; the lovers died, like Violetta in La Traviata. There were superheroes such as Gilgamesh, who endured fantastic transformations but could not become immortal. What do all these tales have in common? Ms. G asked us, swinging her arms, then bringing her hands together with a little shake. And dutifully we chirped out responses: love, death, betrayal, calamity!
Calamity? Offered by the boy whose parents worked in our town’s main insurance business.
No! Ms. Greatrakes announced her revelation to the class with a triumphant chop of her arm.
“Boys and girls!” she cawed with a flash of carmine-streaked teeth. “There is the theme of flight.”
Now we were intrigued: flight, from what to where?
We discussed the many ways. Fleeing from a family curse (a favorite of the Greeks), evil, injustice, or toward adventure and self-fulfillment? Wasn’t Odysseus’s delayed voyage a flight from chastisement by the gods? He had let the winds out of the bag! Odysseus knew it was time to return and reclaim his good name, wife, and house. Our teacher with her chewy vowels was a rare Ms. in the public schools, an expert in what is luridly known as romance languages, and the smartest lady I ever knew, beside my mom, who worked at the newspaper. I was bowled over by Ms. Greatrakes’s instruction. I sensed by her gleam of relish that in flight we had arrived at the noblest of the many themes in literature. For even while searching for your lost home, or trying to regain a lost love, or attempting to gain immortality--come on!--flight might bring you into possession of everything you were looking for.
I was eleven when Ms. Greatrakes’s theory blew over me. It seemed to me that at last I had hit upon what all my years on earth had been leading me to--a kind of signal that told me it was time to begin. This, then, was going to be the year that everything happened to me. I knew this for several reasons: my body had begun to act out on its own, initiating Puberty (we’d had Health in fifth grade), and making it harder to be the tomboy I had always been without much effort; my grandparents, after a lifetime of moving from house to house, carrying an entire civilization of furniture on their backs, were giving their things away; my little brother, Tad, short for Thaddeus, named after my absent father, came home from school wringing his hands, anxious about the vanishing of our ecosystem; and my mother, already a person of swiftly changing temperament--as Dickens might say!--had grown cross and fretful, and could not sleep at night. There wasn’t one decision that tripped the events of this year, but rather a collision of events, when each of us, Mom, Tad, my grandparents, moi, recognized that time was running out.
It wasn’t like turning ten, when you hit the decade mark and everyone thinks you should have the birthday party blowout of your life. It was more like when people were eagerly awaiting the passing of a comet--say, Halley’s Comet, making its trajectory over our star-spangled skies every 76 years. (Next sighting: 2062.) The passing of the comet marked an important stage in our mortality. It announced a moment, a milestone, a kind of reckoning, and those of an earlier era knew that when it appeared they had better be ready. Come on, it seemed to declare as it made its brilliant arc over our upturned faces: in three-quarters of a century you humans should have accomplished something! I wasn’t going to let the next comet pass without acting--and you’ll see why I knew there wasn’t a moment to lose.
I. Our Squeaky Trio
We grew up in a split-level in the flatlands of the Midwest where the ponds froze solid in the winter and in the summer you fried the pads of your feet when you walked on the pavement without shoes. Mostly we were spared the brunt of the summer’s heat because we still had trees in our backyard--trees, unlike the new developments that sprang up overnight, as identical to each other as the plastic-bright turf on their lawns. We watched the construction of these instant homes, Tad and I, and wondered how long they’d last under the brutal Midwestern onslaught of sun and snow. Would they keep their shine, like men in new suits standing without hats? The primeval Buckeyes had been vanquished to make room for these instant homes, and all around a general bleak nakedness reigned, so that in our entire town of Forest Bend you couldn’t find a forest in sight. Our grass was not perfect, no way: when my mother might notice the tops had sprouted, grown somewhere up around your shins, she would sigh and put her book aside. She clipped up her stringy hair and daubed on some lipstick, then lugged out the Sears push mower from the junk in the garage and dragged it across the patch of wild growth. The mower left the grass at ungainly lengths like a bad haircut. She thrust and yanked angrily, as if to exclaim: Behold this unseemly sight! Why should she care about the upkeep of the property like the other conventional families of four on the block? Couldn’t they see there were greater things in this world to concern oneself about than keeping a lawn neat and tidy--things such as life and death? Who would mow her lawn if she didn’t do it?
Not me. I was supposed to be practicing my violin.
Technically, we didn’t have a father (speaking of short haircuts and lawn mowers). He was in the military Reserves, meaning he was older than the usual grunts right out of school. He was a devoted officer, and when they needed him--as they often needed him--he reported for duty. My father had been called to Iraq, where he was employed as an expert in IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, which he could root out like a truffle pig then take apart as easily as a toaster oven. (That’s a mixed metaphor, Ms. G would frown.) The war against the Arabs was not going smoothly. The Arabs did not want us meddling in their country and they employed these home-grown explosives to get us out. What did we think we were doing there--going on a Crusade? But this time my father had vanished. It wasn’t that he was dead: they hadn’t told us that, though every day we expected that dreaded Knock on the Door. He was missing from a garrison he had been sent to secure. He had been abducted, as happened to a lot of soldiers there. The Americans were taken prisoner and probably not treated well. Maybe tortured. These speculations were somehow worse than knowing the truth (the imagination could invent worse scenarios than real life), a little like the way fiction worked. Anyhoo, as Ms. Greatrakes liked to call, clapping her hands: we were used to my father’s being away. We were adaptable children. Hadn’t he left us before, long spells in our childhood, when he was moved among bases from San Diego to Fort Meade? We were used to being three, and here we were again. It had been three years.
A trinity is perfect, a pyramid the ideal shape, said the Egyptians. A triangle contains balance and harmony. But our squeaky trio had its problems. We were a lopsided wheelbarrow. Three simply did not feel complete. The number two created lovers--reunited happily! cried Ms. G, passionately--while four is a family, a kind of biological fulfillment, a balanced vehicle that could really get you somewhere. But three always seemed to leave one less or one more than needed. It was wobbly, and fell over a lot. It simply wasn’t a team.
Before I turned eleven, I saw my mother cry twice. The first time she had only just come from the hospital with Tad: it was winter and I was four years old. She was wandering around the house in her faded flannel pjs (actually my father’s old castoff green-and-black scotch plaid, as she never bought anything of her own), rocking my newborn brother, and sobbing her head off. She was very tired. Daddy had been away a lot and she was never happy about it. When he was around, he didn’t know what to do with a squalling infant. He was like a big bear holding a football and she snatched the baby away protectively. This I vividly and painfully remember. The second time I saw her cry I was seven and we were walking back to the parking lot from the passport service in the city. We had waited in line all morning but the clerk had refused her request, dismissing her with a loud, ugly bark. She had planned to take me to Paris, a city she had dreamed about since she was a college student, but when she dug out my infant passport, with the picture of my tiny scrunched-up face, she found out that it had already expired. Who knew that children’s passports were only valid for five years? She was hoping to make a big escape and it backfired on her. She sat a long while in the car and cried, hiding her head in her hands. “I’m sorry,” she bawled. I watched her, a grown woman, blubbering. I sensed that her choices had finally caught up with her and she was more sorry for herself.
Then I turned eleven and she cried all the time.
In sixth grade at Forest Bend Middle School, we were encouraged to express ourselves. Ms. Greatrakes swung her buff arms and urged us to choose a mode of expression. Short story, memoir, essay--boys and girls! she cried grandly. Ms. G was impressed by my vocabulary. “Intractable,” she cried, while reading one of my stories, “a tremendous word!” She was very convincing in her sturdy, odd-voweled fashion, and we tried to please her, though Jason Donas and I, who were neighbors, often exchanged looks and rolled our eyeballs. Jason preferred historical narrative--the facts, ma’am--like the stuff in The History of Aviation because he thought writing should be true. Otherwise, how did you know where you were? He was going through what the school counselor called a tough patch with his mom getting remarried and all. I preferred the memoir--somewhere between truth and fiction. Memoir is supposed to be based on your life. However, I tended to invent wildly to make mine more interesting, because who would want to read about a middle-schooler without a father in Forest Bend, Ohio? But some people’s lives were more interesting than others and they didn’t have to invent anything, viz. my grandpa in Albuquerque, a self-made person who had led a very glamorous life.
A mode of expression can be other things, too, like playing music or making quilts, Ms. G added, with a pucker of her fiery lips. She glared down at the kids in the class who didn’t write so well. “Art,” she exhorted in her weirdly glaring vowels (“Oht”), “takes infinite forms.” Jason and I considered these possibilities while walking side by side on the tidy sidewalks home.
We detoured to Forest Bend Elementary School and picked up Tad and Jason’s little brother, Dino, who were both the same ages like Jason and me. They had moved into the house next door to us two summers before--two children just our ages. Kind of like the fulfillment of a wish. They were even nice, unlike some of the bruisers in our neighborhood, as my mother called the family of cheese-hounds who were always running in front of moving cars. Even Jason and Dino’s mother was lovely and warm, a Greek American who was a good friend to Mom and urged her to go out with her from time to time and not to be such a fuddy-duddy. They moved in a year after our dad had vanished. Maybe my dad had sent us a celestial gift of this family to keep us from getting too lonely without him--sometimes this occurred to me when I was missing my father an awful lot. But while Jason and I got along fine, Dino and Tad often fought, even coming to fisticuffs, and had to be separated. The two little ones waited for us at the front of the school, dwarfed by their oversized backpacks. Tad spotted me and handed off his violin--our scourge. He was clearly agitated.
“Every day two percent of the Amazon rainforest disappears,” he announced, refusing to look at me.
“Really? That’s a lot,” I remarked, keeping an eye on the reckless traffic.
Tad was my little brother and my ally, named for our father whom he resembled handsomely--“La testa,” declared the Italian barber, while trimming Tad’s curly locks, “the head! Just like the papa!” Tad tended to be a little over-imaginative at moments and I felt I had to be his protector--handler, more like it. That spring in third grade he was studying the rain forest and constantly asking anxious questions:
“What will happen when the gasoline runs out in the world?” he asked.
“I suppose we’ll have to go back to horse and buggy,” I suggested.
“What if all the trees start dying?”
“We’ll plant new ones,” was my lame response.
“What if it gets colder and there’s nothing to burn to keep us warm?”
“We’ll use solar energy--from the sun. Everybody does in the world already.”
“But what if the sun is blocked out--by a meteorite, like what happened during the dinosaur era and they became extinct? Will we become extinct?”
“No,” I told him firmly. “I’ll keep you warm.”
“No, you won’t. You’re my sister.”
“Sisters and brothers can’t marry. Mommy says so.”
“We don’t have to marry. We can still live together.”
He narrowed his amber green eyes, looking skeptical.
“Nah, you won’t,” he replied. “You’ll leave, too.”
“Never,” I said, and pressed his solid, bowed little frame into my side.
He knew Mommy will never leave him. He was the only one she allowed in her bed in the morning. I’d gotten too big, and she said I moved too much. “Tad!” She called. “Tad!” She rapped on the wall they shared between their rooms. She had heard him rustling around in my room where had he wandered first thing on Saturday morning, waking me up to film with his camcorder what he titled his “Tad’s Saturday Morning Chaos” videos. This involved filming me while sleeping, and I got really angry at him. “Come in here,” my mom called, just as I was about to yell at him, and he slinked away to her gloomy chamber. He crawled right under the covers, and they cooed like pigeons. He comforted her, rescued her from spiders, rode bikes with her when she needed a partner--she’d stopped asking me because I tended to ride ahead impatiently and she claimed I didn’t obey traffic rules. She played catch with him (I watched from the window, and boy, what a pathetic throw-and-catch they made): neither of them could catch, and she tossed underhand because of the throbbing shoulder she woke up with every morning from sleeping on one side, watchfully looking toward the door. I felt sorry for them, thinking of my dad and how we had played ball every morning before school, with lacrosse sticks or a mitt, or we just kicked around the soccer ball really hard, working up a sweat in the twenty minutes before he had to commute into Cincinnati. My dad relished our time together before school, and I missed it, too, before Tad was even big enough to join us. Just my dad and me: he taught me everything I knew about throwing a ball.
This is what I remember: my mother driving a car. Sunglasses in place, lipstick smoothed for maximum aerodynamics, seat erect in case of the necessity for self-ejection. She liked to be moving and left on her own--two things that were potentially deadly and that made her very happy. She was a good driver, actually, speedy and always on the lookout for trouble, as they say a driver is supposed to be, or a defensive driver is supposed to be, which she was not. She was not defensive, she was aggressive. My mother was always up for a good contest. She managed to avoid trouble by outsmarting the reckless drivers, who zoomed in and out of traffic wildly, cutting other cars off by a hair’s length. But my mother was sneaky. She hung back until she found her opportunity, then scooted forward when the others had lost interest in our beat-up sky-blue hatchback with the “I’m Proud of My Cub Scout” sticker on the bumper. She quickly locked out the crazy drivers, left them in the dust behind her. They didn’t know what hit them. She declared they were a menace to the road! Once they realized they’d been tricked, they honked; they banged their fist against the sides of their doors. One driver even balled something up and tossed it angrily at our windshield. But my mother pulled a triumphant lipsticked grin. She was a good driver, I’ll give her that.
But what was deadly, I already saw it, was the way she engaged us in the back--craned her neck 180 degrees to argue and then she took her eyes off the road! She stopped watching the road to scream at us for arguing or she rooted for a shoe to throw at us in the back and by the time she turned back to the wheel we were headed for the railing. We were headed fast for the cement wall or the car coming at us in the next lane and we were done for--Tad and I had seen the end loom a dozen times in the car with my mother. But the funny thing was--and this can’t be normal, come on!--the really curious thing was that we didn’t flinch. Not a bit! None of us blinked, not even Tad, when he was very small. We didn’t bat an eye because my mother didn’t lose control, not ever. She yanked at the steering wheel and for a minute we shimmied on two tires and everything jerked to one side, spilling our drinks, cards, pencils. Then, miraculously, we were cruising again like nothing happened. She peeked at us in the rearview mirror. She delighted in our blanched faces. She let out a low, moaning crescendo, “Ooh!” for dramatic effect, and then laughed merrily at our nerves. But we didn’t have nerves--are you kidding? The children of my mother?
She was twirling her hair, thinking about being late to wherever we were going, to tae kwon do class or across the country to visit my grandparents in Albuquerque. She was worried about how this all would go. I didn’t know what she was thinking about. There were moments when she caught my eye in the rearview mirror and we both stared at the other hard. To see who blinked first. I suspected by her look that she wasn’t thinking of my father. I didn’t love my mother at these moments. I sat in the back, right behind her, with Tad next to me, always over her right shoulder. Tad had to be within the angle of her neck-craning because she was constantly turning around to see what he was up to. Was he touching the door? She had a hysterical fear of doors flying open while she drove and people falling out of the speeding car. She swiveled her neck and shouted at us in the back, “Are you touching the door?” Taking her eyes off the road for what must be a record time. “No touching the door!” she hollered over the car’s whistling, which is what it did when it reached high speed. It made a noise like the harmonic on the violin, exactly so. She shrieked over the whistling. Tad jumped from what he’d been doing--digging in the seats to find a pencil in order to finish the two pages of his spelling homework--he protested and started crying on account of her sharp tone. I saw her shoulders in front of me slump. She was exhausting herself with worry, and she was sorry she snapped--she said so--but it was too late: Tad was in tears. She apologized in a voice she used with Carlo the cat when he stepped on his tail. She swiveled her neck 180 degrees to soothe Tad, who was the baby and her favorite, let’s face it. She even reached back to hold his hand, twisting herself absurdly--again she took her eyes off the road!
We were driving up Rt. 49 to Master Rummel’s tae kwon do studio, or driving to violin class, group class, private lessons, orchestra. We were driving to the Executive Diner in Downie Lake--always on a mission driving somewhere, the three of us. This is what we did together, compressed tightly into my mother’s beat-up sky-blue hatchback that was an embarrassment on the road because it wasn’t new, or silver, the color of money, as my friends’ cars were. We were headed for some activity in bitter cold or pounding rain that would improve our minds and bodies: she signed us up for gymnastics, pottery, soccer, basketball, swimming. We were going to be brilliant children, not because of privilege, mind you, which was cheap and unspeakable (she referred in distaste to the upbringing of her brother Darnell’s boys, though we loved our uncle desperately, even if he was a lawyer who defended questionable clients, she spat), but because of natural abilities. These we had in abundance. We were driving hell-bent because my mother had demons always pursuing her. This is what Grandpa told me and I could rely on what he said. Moreover, my mother wanted my father to be proud of us, when he came home. And he was going to come home because she said when, not if. I had to love her for that.
In the end she settled on violin. This would be my mode of expression. Violin required natural ability and discipline. (Also, the school was close by.) It was decreed somewhere that I would be a violinist. On the tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. Ask my mother. I had talent, that’s the thing. I had an ear, this was also decreed early on. I had an ear because I was my mother’s daughter and she had an ear, too--that’s why we were a team. She had never pursued this particular talent, however, as she had to admit in that not completely forthright way that adults have in expressing their regret about their lives. Who was taking her to music classes when she was a kid? she asked bitterly. Her own father had always been working--or playing golf! She banged a hard surface with the flat of her hand to make her point. So I had to become a violinist because that’s what she would have been, if she had only been introduced to the instrument. Strange for a person who had never learned to read music. “When my ship comes in,” she would say, caressing my hair in an affectionate moment usually reserved for Tad. She pressed me to her thin chest. She smelled of cleaning solutions. “But you!” she cried. “Do you know what you have?” I didn’t really know and I simply looked at her, dreading what came next. Moses and the Ten Commandments. “You have talent,” she said, gazing into my eyes. “Talent is not given to everyone.” She had that bearing-down look that worried me. She was serious and her face looked like it was about to crumple. Sure enough, she’d start to tear up. I didn’t know what to think. Who would have? It didn’t seem fair. I still liked to play babies with Tad, but I also liked to sit in restaurants with my mom while she drank wine and talked to me about how it all would be. I wasn’t offered a choice in this talent contest. But it was complicated--you’ll see.
II. A Very Kind Mailman
I’m an Aquarius, like Tad and my grandpa--the two the most headstrong people in the world. Except for my mother, a Scorpio, the deadly sign. A Scorpio was a force of nature, said Will, who came into our lives during this year. Will was the mail carrier, a bandy-legged, rumpy bald man who trudged to our doorstep every day at 3:30, just as I came home from school. Will had a long, mournful face and the darkest, saddest eyes I’d ever seen. He was Indian. And a Capricorn, which is an amiable sign and as far from Scorpio as you can get. Sometimes I sat on the stoop of our low-rising split-level just to waylay him because I felt so lonely. Will was sage, in his way, and he seemed to know before I said a word how I was feeling that day. “Why so down in the mouth?” he cried, taking one look at me. “When are you going to play for me?” He knew from my mother that I played violin, a rare, impossible instrument, it seemed to him, and he was eager to hear this marvel. He usually appeared with a ring of dark beard around his chin, his brow smooth and unlined, and he had very dark eyes, maybe black. He was sweating from the weight of his load strapped across his back. His two-wheel hauler waited at the curb like a baby stroller. The parcels of mail neatly bundled up in rubber bands: he knew just how to organize his heavy daily haul and he’d get very snippy at the central mail people when they messed up the addresses on his route. The dark ring of beard gave a clue to his own mood; I knew that less of a beard meant he would be more chatty than usual, with more time to sit and talk, while his dark pirate look revealed he was irritated by ill-sorted mail with wrong addresses.
“Nothing,” I said, despondently.
“Oh nothing? You think I believe that? What happened?” he insisted in his sing-song fashion. He was very knowledgeable about our neighborhood because everyone told him their problems and secrets. “The kids are mean to you? Oh these middle-school kids can be vicious--I’ve heard about the things they do to each other.”
“We had a bomb scare,” I told him.
“Now that’s a terrible waste.”
“It happens toward the end of the school year. The seniors go crazy. They throw their tennis shoes over the phone wires in front of the school--have you seen those shoes hanging?”
He had. He sat with me. His hero was Mohandas Gandhi and he quoted him often. Gandhi had pushed the British out of India so that the Indians could govern their country on their own, and he hadn’t used force or violence. Though Will moved briskly and with purpose when plodding from house to house, he always stopped to talk to me. Will was an only child to immigrant parents. He grew up on the other side of the county with his single mother, as his father had died. They used to run a small kiosk off of River Road--a newspaper and tobacco shop in the Old World fashion. He had not enjoyed a happy childhood, I gathered. His parents were traditional Hindus and Will had been married in a traditional fashion, meaning that his marriage had been arranged by the families when he was much younger and he barely knew the girl. And it had been a disaster. His wife was gone--I didn’t want to ask. Will drove a battered old Ford (even more unsightly than our own baby blue hatchback) and lived somewhere north of us. I imagined he lived alone. Besides Jason Donas, I wondered if he were my only friend.
“You had to wait outside boiling in the sun?” he asked, lowering his voice.
“Yeah, but it was okay. We had fifth period. French,” I said.
“You’re learning French? I bet your mother speaks French.”
“She does. She wanted to take me to Paris.”
“She will, she will.”
“Mere in French is mother.”
“Also sea,” said Will, thoughtfully.
“You know French?” I cried.
He winked. Replied enigmatically, “Cousin, I’ve lived a little.”
Then he was on his way. He seemed so knowledgeable for a mailman. Okay, that’s not a fair statement, and I never spoke to a mailman before except to say Thank you and Here, I’ll take it. Why would I assume that mail carriers can’t be smart or learned? Will quoted Gandhi, who defended the poor people in his country and even the Untouchables: “No man loses his freedom except through his own weakness.” Will read books, and maybe even he was as smart as my dad, in his way. Will would hand me mail addressed to my father and give a discreet smile of understanding. I kept my father’s mail in a little tin kindling box by the door. On his rounds with his stubbled chin and bald head, Will wore a matching official jacket and pants and sometimes a cap. When my father hadn’t been headed to work in the city--wearing his thick glasses, a navy-blue jacket and trousers that were both dark material but didn’t quite match--he donned a proper Reserves uniform that wasn’t unlike what Will wore. I sometimes marveled at the similarity. When I spoke to Will I missed my dad more.
Call me alarmist but things were getting worse around here.
Mom worked in an office every day, a weekly newspaper in Middleton where she had to read over all the type before it went to press Tuesday night. Her job was to correct the writers’ grammar mistakes, and sometimes she told me about them and we shared rare moments of temple-jabbing glee. The travel writers made the worst howlers, she said, and the knitting column gave her spasms in the brain, while the news writers were the most gracious. At least they could spell Ticonderoga or Islamabad or some such. My mother was good at her job but she started losing faith in the news, scoffing and throwing papers up in the air when she had to bring the work home. “This is baloney!” she’d cry, and then the work didn’t get done. She was growing tired of having to give the official explanation for her husband’s disappearance--MIA means Missing in Action--and she groused about the stock solicitous responses she received by well-wishers: “I’m so sorry,” people would say helplessly, stunned when they heard, staring at her: “What can we do?” She bit her lip and swallowed an angry reply.
By spring it had begun getting harder and harder to get her going. She used to like to go to the candidates’ debates in our town: there were always trustees she was supporting, and fliers to disseminate from house to house, and once she even held a reception for one of the mayoral candidates in our house (he lost). Sometimes she enlisted me in her efforts, which was fine. I didn’t mind walking from door to door with her and hearing gossip about the neighbors. But she had grown lethargic like our aging cat who preferred to sleep all day; Carlo ate too much and sometimes he even forgot he had already eaten and threw up and started again--not normal behavior for an animal, come on! My mom would only get out of bed once I brought her a cup of coffee: she had painstakingly instructed me how to dash a half-cup of ground coffee into the French pression maker, add boiling water, then use the plunger to push the grinds down, allowing the liquid to rise. You had to be careful not to push it down too quickly or too hard or else the hot water would spurt in your face. This was the only way to make coffee in our house, and she was very particular, having learned the right way, she claimed, from her Swiss roommate at Oberlin back in the olden days.
She seemed glad enough to see me when I entered her dark, shuttered room in the morning, where she’d be lying on her back staring at the ceiling like a cadaver. All she needed was a lily in her clutched hands. I’d carefully place her coffee cup and saucer on the bedside table without a spill. She made a place for me by the bed, patting the space, and I’d sit down for a moment, though her gaze, when she turned to me, was so raw and sad that I couldn’t stay. Plus I had to get Tad ready. He was grumpy and slow to dress and eat, and if I pushed him too fast he’d start to howl and soon he’d be lying in Mom’s bed with her, refusing to budge. The two of them, unbelievable. So then she had to get up, and we managed to get out of the house before we were all late for the bell.
It worried me how sad she was, and that she wasn’t moving fast like she used to, as a Scorpio, driving her car. Where had her demonic driving energy gone? She sat for long periods of time with a book that fell open on her lap. She forgot to turn the pages: if she was pretending to be reading she wasn’t trying very hard. The sad truth was that I worried more about her than she did about me. I don’t know how she knew I’d make it to school every day, and not try to sneak out of the house wearing something I knew she didn’t approve of--we used to have terrible fights about slouchy hip-hop jeans that showed my undies or sport shorts made of synthetic shiny material and emblazoned with team colors like the maroon-and-gold Buckeye Blazers. She hated those rubber shorts, my tomboy apparel, while I loved them! She figured I had stopped wanting to go out in those and she was right. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t be more daring like the other girls in my class, who showed off their new blossoming chests with little lacy Ts and wife beaters? My mother didn’t even see me, and so it kind of didn’t count how I looked.
Entrenched in her sorrowful thoughts, lying, watchful, on her good side, listening to the house’s noises, the cat’s creeping around to check the status of the food bowl every hour, the gnawing of the termites, the strange nocturnal-animal sounds, the whispering of the trees in the back--harkening for any change or movement, my mother lay still as a statue. And in the morning she was stiff and exhausted and too absorbed in her own thoughts to worry about me. What had all that tense wakefulness brought her in the morning? No change--just the fierce unforgiving sunlight that she blocked out by thick, drawn curtains. She called Tad, rapping softly on the wall: “Come, sweetie, come here!” He dropped what he was doing and reclined in his clean school clothes next to her, the two of them clutching each other like the world was about to end, anxious and fearful that the trees were dying. I was too big to snuggle next to her, too big by then, and anyway I couldn’t sit still and I didn’t want to.
My mother was sneaky: she could walk around the house in the softest way and I never knew where she was or what she was up to. In contrast, I sounded like a crash of rhinos, and she never failed to remind me of it. She said I should learn how to walk on the tips of my toes, like a cat. She had taken many ballet classes as a girl--Grace! Poise!--and she had tried to enlist me as well but I could not get past the idiotic first position. I couldn’t bother with the pink tutus! At night I heard my mother pacing from one room to the next, talking lowly on the phone. By her tone I knew she wasn’t talking to Grandpa. She had been speaking with Grandpa more frequently because of various tests Grandma had had to undergo--tests for checking cancer, such as MRIs and ultrasounds. She’d had tests for memory, too, as she had grown forgetful (maybe because of having to keep track of all the tests) and my grandpa had begun to worry about her. My mother would shout on the phone: why make his wife endure these humiliating tests? Mom usually ended up yelling at Grandpa, who had strong opinions about everything, being an Aquarius. He railed about politics, about her not bringing us to see them, about her lowly job, or rather her lowly salary. He couldn’t understand why his brilliant daughter wasn’t chief editor by now. What had happened to her ambition? What good was all that expensive education doing? She did not appreciate his meddling, and she told him so. They argued. They hung up on each other.
No, she couldn’t be speaking to Grandpa. By her softer tone I figured she was probably talking to Uncle Darnell, who lived in Texas. They were close, the two siblings, though they lived so far apart and she didn’t entirely approve of his life. He lived on a vast ranch with vineyards and Arabian horses and successive wives, one more glamorous than the next, though my mother never warmed to those ladies. What was wrong with Cheyenne, I wanted to know, and wasn’t Luella nice? “Ha!” my mother scoffed ungenerously. “Not young enough, apparently!” My mom never said anything good about our dear Uncle Darnell’s wives, as if it pained her that someone so nice as he was could be so shallow.
It was something about the way she spoke in hushed tones when she was on the phone and pacing restlessly that alerted me. It was pretty late, considering she went to bed when we did. Moreover, she had started dropping things. She used to throw stuff out the bathroom window, back in my childhood, when Daddy was still here and she was angry all the time, maybe because Daddy was absent a lot. She would fly into fits of rage, then just as quickly they subsided. We gathered the pieces of luggage in the shrubbery the next morning. We shrugged apologetically to the neighbors. Now it was dropping things, as if she wasn’t all entirely there. Absent. I listened and watched her. She was the one who taught me how to watch secretly, like a detective, or a good writer. A good writer doesn’t let anything get by her, she’d say, poking me in the ribs to get my attention when we were hunched over an English paper I had to write on To Kill a Mockingbird. (“Flight from bigotry.”) A good writer is sneaky. I learned from her. I read her diary--okay, I picked it up and tried to decipher her handwriting but I couldn’t figure out a word! She should take a handwriting class: the grown woman wrote in chicken scratchings.
Then I broke into her email and read her messages--once I did. I know it’s wrong, an invasion of her privacy and so forth, she told me sternly when she found out. Locked me in my room to transcribe whole pages of sheet music for the afternoon. Grounded me. But I had to do it, even if I knew it was wrong--sometimes you do have to make that choice in this crummy life, as James Cagney might snarl. (My mom and I used to watch all the old movies on afternoon TV.) I had to know what was what with her, and it was easy to do because she kept the same password since before I was born. She wrote it down on her desk blotting because she couldn’t remember it, and her computer was an ancient dinosaur that took about an hour to read photographs. So one afternoon when she wasn’t home from work yet I put in her password she had scribbled everywhere, Summer, pretty dumb and kind of sad. A longing for more glorious times, poor Mom. And the thing started grinding and making absurd gearing-up noises. I thought for a minute I had broken the computer--then suddenly I was in! I had to know what she was up to and I found out pretty fast.
My mother was plotting a flight.
“Coming soon,” she wrote to a certain BlueStone. “I have the capers and the rivets. We don’t need gas. A few things here still to tie up. Very soon--ready.” And, incredibly, one cryptic response from BlueStone: “Am counting the strands.”
And nothing more.
Now, this was truly troubling stuff, not leastways because I had no idea what she meant by capers and rivets--I know capers are those gross little hard pickled things you sometimes put in pasta sauce or on pizza (Tad, bizarrely, ate them like candy), and rivets are used to weld metal sheets together, such as the rivets used on the Titanic that were found to be faulty, thus leading to the drowning death of a thousand-plus people. But counting strands? I instantly thought of pearls: strands of pearls in a necklace, I don’t know why. My mother didn’t have pearls--not the kind of precious, old-fashioned jewelry she would keep, preferring as she did beads and stones and ethnic stuff, which she bought occasionally (had my daddy bought her jewelry?) but never actually wore, maybe because she never went anywhere. But strands were also small particles and grains, such as sand on a beach--a strand is also a seashore, such as strolling along the strand, the English might say--the entire ocean floor was made up of grains of sand. You couldn’t count the sand in the sea, could you? What you could do is unravel strands of fabric, from knitted sweaters and maybe rugs. People who made them probably counted the strands. But strands were also what human hair was made up of, though counting strands of hair seemed creepy, unless you didn’t have anything else to do.
Anyway you looked at it, it was curious stuff, indicating, as Charles Dickens might say, an untoward intimacy between these two--my mother must have been having an affair and was planning to flee with BlueStone, whoever the heck that was. And where exactly did she think she was going without gasoline--to the moon? What did she still need to tie up? Maybe those things she needed to tie up were us, Tad and me. She would tie us up and send us down the Nile, without a dad and now without a mother. Thanks, Mom!
The next day the message was deleted and I was thrown in the dungeon for the afternoon to transcribe J.S. Bach’s “Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude.” I demanded to know whom she had been writing. She told me to occupy myself with my own onions--a French expression that means mind your own beeswax. Too late, I was on to her.
Now I knew because Will had told me that the worst thing a mother can do is disappear. I think the strict rules and regulations of the very traditional Indian family prompted the flight of his own wife once upon a time, but I can’t be sure and I won’t ask him. But I knew Tad would be the one who suffered most from my mother’s disappearing trick. He was younger, still needing her to wipe his shitty bottom, unable to sleep at night without her singing to him--okay, I used to be the same way but you’ve got to buck up by the time you’re eleven. He was upset whenever she left to go anywhere by herself. Was she coming back? the poor kid asked, without fail, standing heartbroken at the front window of our split-level, staring at the trees just bursting with green until she returned. She had been going out more often of late. I would have minded (not like poor Tad) and been irritated by her absences if she didn’t return always with grocery bags full of treats. Bags bearing the name of an unfamiliar store--this was supposed to throw us off the scent? Parcels full of new kinds of cereals, rices, nuts, and yogurt. Okay, so she was bribing us. She took out the items one by one and beamed at me hopefully. I scowled, moved away to my lair down the hall. Tad latched himself on to her and wouldn’t let go. The two of them, sunk in a chair, face to face, limbs intertwined absurdly. Two cooing doves.
No, the name of the store was not BlueStone.