I woke in my old bed, in my old room. Little had changed: my books on the shelves, my dolls in their cases, my circus posters on the wall. Even my saltwater aquarium was there, brilliant fish and all. Only the years had disappeared.
The birds outside were calling each other, and their sounds called me as well. I pulled a chair to the window and sat, to look at the familiar riot of green. My mother's white cotton curtains billowed in and out, brushing my knees. In the big oak was a robin's nest, the adults coming and going, feeding their young. The nestlings cried and struggled, their beaks agape, creatures helpless and selfish.
The hedge was dense as ever. The same swing hung from the branch on the big oak. My mother's flower gardens were almost the same, though she had more perennials, and fewer annuals, than I remembered. I heard the customers at the garden center across the street, departing, arriving, slamming car doors and greeting friends. My mother only had to cross the street for her supplies and plants. She had been friends with the owners and staff for decades, since we'd left Costa Rica when Gabriel couldn't walk yet, and walking was still a new ability for me.
My mind settled and my memories unrolled, paper-flat and glass-transparent, one after another, and I sat and visited with each in succession. I remembered growing up in this house, and thought of my house in Berkeley now, and I remembered my family then, and thought with affection of Ansel, my new husband. The past and present succeeded each other, yielding evenly. I felt content, but I know this only in memory. At that moment, I was rapt and forgetful and unaware. How long I sat I can't say. Maybe half an hour. Then Melody came in the room without knocking (she often neglected to), and I was startled when I realized someone was standing next to me.
"I'm going to make breakfast," she said.
I dressed and joined her, sitting at the table and watching her cook. She insisted that I not help: "You're the visitor. Relax."
The vast kitchen was more cluttered than I remembered, but the axe-cut beams, and the pegged floorboards, the same. This grand, eccentric, ancient-and-new house in which I'd been raised, and which I could never outgrow, even had I wanted to, which I did not: I was grateful for its comfort and simplicity. I had come to appreciate its beauty and homeliness only after I no longer lived in it.
I watched Melody cook. She still wore her hair like a big pile of strawberry blond cotton candy; that used to annoy me no end. Radio on, she danced as she cooked, gyrating in every plane. My sister, the definition of "degrees of freedom": roll, pitch, yaw, heave, surge, and sway, every one of those six dimensions. She'd been born dancing, and she'd gotten better with time.
She wore a tube top so low her breasts looked ready to pop out, and cutoff jeans that exposed crescents of her rear end. She was barefoot, and one ankle had a tattoo of a porpoise (that was new: she hadn't had it at Christmas). She'd gained a few pounds, but that lush body was still the kind men admired. I had envied that body, and hated it, as I'd tried to hate so much else about her: the big hairdos, the big earrings, the big flounced skirts; except the color of her hair, she could have been Latina, and that expressiveness irritated me, because I was incapable of it. She sang along with the radio, off-key. Our father had tried to improve her singing, without success. And yet, her voice was sweet and appealing, however erratic.
She was abundant, not efficient; she made too much food, as always. She toasted bread and cooked omelettes and fried potatoes and brewed coffee. She squeezed orange juice. She made French toast. She cut up a melon. No meat, I noticed; she'd never liked it, and avoided it, and had never taken drugs, had never smoked, and rarely drank alcohol. She had always kept her body pure. She wouldn't even take medicine unless forced to.
I asked her to turn off the radio, and she obliged. She usually wanted a CD, or her favorite station, but I preferred silence: her voice was thin and high, and I wanted to hear her clearly.
"This is too much food," I said. "We can't eat it all."
"That's why we have a refrigerator." She set the last platter, the fried potatoes, on the table.
"Where's Zack?" I hadn't seen him yet. I missed him; he had been affectionate with me at Christmas.
"Probably in bed. We were up late, playing games. Now that finals are over our schedule's looser."
"He's getting big."
"Yeah. He thinks he knows everything."
"How do show him he doesn't?"
"I don't. I laugh it off. He'll learn. Sometimes I ask a question, so he'll think about what he said and figure out for himself he was wrong."
She fidgeted while we ate. Probably she wanted the radio on. She'd never liked silence. Quaker Meeting had been torture for her.
"Where's mother?" I asked.
"At school. She still sends her students those personal letters they're supposed to open when they start high school. She remembers all her kids. Some of them come and visit. They even come after they finish college." She opened the refrigerator, took out a pitcher, and said, "Iced tea." She filled two glasses and handed me one. "I waited to tell you in person. I'm engaged," she said. "Remember Tim? Buzz's boy?"
"Christmas." She pointed to her ankle. "We got matching tattoos, instead of rings. He wanted something permanent, so I said okay."
It was odd, her getting a tattoo; she had always liked them on other people, not herself.
"Mom wants us to live here. She says we'll save money. Really, you know? She'll miss Zack."
"Yeah. I didn't think of that, but yeah. We've gotten close."
I wondered how to ask my next question, but she replied before I could ask.
"Tim's going to adopt Zack. He likes him. We'll probably have another kid when I finish school. I can't believe it. It's like, my dream is finally coming true. It was great living in the City, great having Cy and all those guys admiring me, great having the freedom, but you know, I always thought it was temporary. It wasn't what I really wanted. But I couldn't figure out a way to get what I wanted, a husband, kids, a house. It was so simple, but I could never find my way to it. Then Tim heard I was back, and he called me up. He'll never change, he's so sweet. He's always been in love with me. I couldn't believe my luck. I'm going to marry my high-school sweetheart." She laughed. "I don't care if it's corny. He's perfect for me."
"Where are you going to live?"
"He has a little house in old Eudora." She chattered on: they'd sell the place and buy something bigger after she finished her degree. Then they'd probably have the child, and she'd wait a few more years and get a job.
Zack came in the room and embraced his mother. They held each other without speaking for what seemed like minutes, until he kissed her on the lips and ran back upstairs.
"He still nurses," she remarked, when he'd gone. "I hope he wants to keep doing it for a while."
"For God's sake!" I was shocked. He was two years old. "He's too big for that."
"Why? It keeps him close to me. It feels good. I won't put chemicals in my body, and Tim doesn't like condoms. Nursing is birth control, for when Tim has an accident and doesn't pull out in time."
"Clover." She reached across and gripped my wrist. I tried to pull it from her grip, but she wouldn't let go. "Bodies aren't nasty."
I wrenched my wrist away.
She raised her drink. "Here's to bodies. We'd be dead without them."
I couldn't not drink; carrying on would have been petty. I'd always been good at pettiness, but it was a habit I was trying to break. I lifted the glass, held it toward her for a moment, and took a sip.
"Have you heard from Samuel?" she asked.
"Not since he moved."
"I could never figure out what you saw in him. Selfish jerk."
"You only met him a few times."
"The first time was enough. The way his eyes ate my tits, it was like his head was a pane of glass and I could read his mind. Did he tell you I stopped by before I left?"
"No. He said you never came."
"I knew he'd lie. He made a pass at me."
"Sometimes I wonder why he married me. He didn't love me, he wanted me because I was so smart, and he thought he could control me. I loved him, though. Oh, yes. I loved him to the point of pain. It's strange. There's no knowing why you love somebody. You do or you don't. I did, so he had me fooled. I had me fooled."
"Been there myself. Hearts are things that usually put themselves back together."
She'd stopped talking for a moment. Here was my opening. "Why won't you tell me about your life out there?"
She was silent.
"Are you HIV-positive?"
"No," she said, with a falling inflection, the scornful opposite of a question. "How dare you?"
I ignored the question. "Were you worried?"
She didn't answer.
I went to the counter and got two coasters and a dish towel. I wiped the rings off the table and put the coasters under our glasses. "Did you know, I lived your life vicariously. I always wanted the adventures I thought you were having. Were they that bad? Did someone use you?" Hurt you? Damage you?
"What difference does it make? That was then. This is now. I'm in school, I have a perfect child, I'm getting married." She leaned toward me. "I have a plan: school, husband, children. School's hard for me, I can't get the hang of it. But I'm going to do it. Thank God for mom. Thank God for dad's money. I'm lucky. Some of my friends didn't have anyone to go back to. Some of them died." She gnawed a thumbnail.
She said, "I don't know. Some of it was, some of it wasn't, but it's all tangled up, and I can't separate the parts." After a long moment she told me, for the first time:
She'd thought she had enough money to live on while she looked for a job, but she wasn't yet eighteen, and she hadn't graduated from high school, and those were always the first two things employers asked about. She couldn't even pick grapes and strawberries, because the farmers said Anglos couldn't handle the work. "More like, Mexicans are cheaper and they don't dare complain."
The money dribbled away and she was on the street, with nothing but the contents of her backpack. "Finally I had to pawn the watch Tim gave me. That was the last... that felt like the end, you know? When I knew I was nobody, when I had nothing left. But I got so hungry I had to spend anything I could panhandle for food. By the time I had enough money to get the watch back, the ticket had expired. Somebody'd bought it. I never saw it again." She sipped her drink. "I slept in alleys, under bridges, in abandoned buildings. I ate out of dumpsters. Living on the street is hard. If you haven't done it, you can't imagine. Like, some men attacked my friend when she was sleeping. They hit her with pipes. She could never talk right after that. She slurred her words, and her face was lopsided."
"Did you have to sell yourself?"
"No. I thought about it, but it was San Francisco. AIDS. I couldn't take the chance."
She let herself be picked up. She let them take her home. "It was a way to get a meal and a shower. Then I'd leave. If I thought he was safe, sometimes I'd try to explain. Maybe he'd let me stay and sleep on the couch. It never worked. They aren't very understanding about that. They thought I was leading them on. Which, I guess, I was." She used Pilar's hunting knife to threaten the aggressive ones. "One of them must have been a martial artist. I never saw anyone move so fast. He took the knife and broke my wrist. Then he raped me. By then I was so far gone it just seemed like -- what could I expect? I mean... " Her voice quavered and her chin trembled, but she wasn't crying. "Sure it hurt, but my friends had all been raped at least once. One of them five or six times. It was just another bottom, you know? I thought I hit bottom with the watch, then with the dumpster diving, but that was nothing. The rape, that was the worst." She had to wear a cast on the broken wrist. "I'd hit them with it to keep them in line. They just wanted something from me, so it was okay to get whatever I could out of them. I kept the cast on so long I started getting a skin infection. It was useful, but I finally had to have it taken off."
Then she met Cy. She was sitting on a bench, killing time. He said he'd seen her around. Was she hungry? Did she need a place to stay?
"His condo was incredible. Russian Hill, views of both bridges, big kitchen, two bedrooms. He let me have the spare one."
"He liked young girls, he liked blonds, he liked big tits." She waved a hand down the front of her body. "Not just him, either. I lived off this equipment for years."
Cy said she could live there, if she would cook and clean.
"He was strange," she mused. "He liked 'em young. I was older than most of his girlfriends. He married some of them while they were in high school."
He fell in love with her, and she wasn't one to sleep alone. He'd saved her: given her a place, and money, and good advice, and sympathy. She shared his bed, and she shared her body with him.
"He was gentle. But he was kind of -- passive, you know? He made me call the shots, even initiate the sex. That's not my thing," she said. "I mean, it's a waste of energy. It should be mutual. After a while, I felt, I dunno. Kept? Trapped. Like a pet ocelot. He liked to take me out to dinner and watch the men look at me. He really loved me, but he was so shallow, he loved me as much because I was good arm candy as anything else. He never asked me how I felt about things, or thought about things, he didn't want to see down into me. I guess I was getting depressed. I wasn't doing anything, no job or anything, and sometimes I'd look in the mirror, at my eyes, and get kind of lost, like I was falling into nothing. I'd think, 'This isn't me, it's only a reflection. I'm not real now.' I'd wonder when my life was going to start, how I was going to get away. It was like being back in Lawrence again. I didn't have any control over my life. I just wanted to be with someone, make a life with him, and Cy wasn't the one. He was just a meal ticket. It was depressing because the days felt really long, and here I was with this middle-aged guy, and everything was empty, you know? Nothing was happening. I used to think, 'Is this it? Is this why I ran away?' It was like a big science experiment, someone in the sky was sucking everything out of me and my life to see how much vacuum they could make. I couldn't go on like that. I had to get out, take care of myself, be my own girl.
"I got a fake driver's license so people would think I was eighteen. They don't really care, they know the i.d.'s fake, but they have to cover their asses with the cops. As long as you can show them an i.d., they'll hire you. So I started dancing at a peep show. I moved out of Cy's place in the middle of the day, while he was at work, I didn't tell him where. I had a roommate. We had a little apartment, and I had a few nice clothes, and enough to eat, and I didn't have to depend on Cy, or anyone else. Money was tight, but a friend gave me an old motor scooter and another friend fixed it up and I used to ride it out to the beach when I didn't want to take the bus. I was happy. I had everything I needed."
Then, when she sent the money order to pay back what she'd stolen from the fire safe, our mother read the postmark; it was San Francisco. She paid a private investigator to post flyers all over town.
"I was walking down Columbus and I saw one on a telephone pole. You know how sometimes you don't recognize something for a minute? It was a sheet of paper with a picture, and big letters 'Have you seen this girl?' I thought 'She's pretty', and I was sorry for her parents. Then I saw it was me. There was a reward, and our phone number," she said. "I was eighteen by then. There wasn't anything she could do. I just wanted to have my own life. I had to meet her, I didn't want her finding out what I was doing, it would hurt her too much. I had to convince her I was all right, everything was normal. What she thinks is normal, anyway. She's so naive." She smiled. "That was my masterpiece, talking her into thinking I was okay, talking her into leaving me alone. Dad was kind of resigned from the start. He's -- was -- such a realist. He knew he couldn't do anything."
After a year she quit dancing at the peep show. "A lot of them are lesbians. This one girl had a crush on me. She was pretty aggressive. I told her to fuck off and that made her mad. She stole from my locker. Threw away my time card. Stuff like that. I stuck it out for a while. Then it didn't seem worth the trouble, so I quit. That was a mistake. I was really popular. I could do the splits, and bend over backwards to the floor, and I was always making up something new. I was just good, you know? I enjoyed it. The guys liked me. I had a fan club, sort of. It was fun, I didn't care what they did with themselves while I danced. It was flattering. After I quit I had to work other places, as a regular dancer. At the Lusty Lady I was behind glass. I liked that. At the other clubs, I had to give lap dances. I hated that. The money was lousy at the Lusty Lady, but I didn't need much, and the working conditions were better. Regular dancing's better money, but it's like a sweatshop, they take a cut of the money you make, and they fine you if you don't make the minimum. There's a lot of pressure. The conditions suck. Plus it's just hard work, it wears you down. It's weird and fucked up and it gets into your head.
"Then Cy showed up. I don't remember which place it was, most of those titty bars look and smell the same. I didn't see him at first, I was working my way around. He saw me do a couple of lap dances, I guess. He looked really hurt. I had a little box, like a piggy bank I carried, so guys could tuck bills in it. He gave me a hundred. He wrote on it, 'Call me'. I don't know." She sighed. "I guess it was weakness. I mean, I didn't right away, but he kept coming back, and I felt sorry for him, and I didn't want to tell Stick -- the bouncer -- to throw him out. Anyway, I ended up back together with him. I'm not really sure how it happened. He had this way of talking people into things. I think that was his real business skill. He could talk anybody into anything. So we got back together, but it felt different. Kind of creepy. I mean, I hadn't planned to go back because of things he did with other girls, things I found out after I left him the first time. Things -- they weren't bad, exactly, just kind of weird and disgusting, to me, anyway. But he was pathetic, it was like when I came back he was a lost puppy he was so glad to be with me. I was using him. I hate using people. Every time I do it, I feel dirty for a long long time." She stared at the wall and sipped her drink. "He helped me, though. Helped me get my GED and some job training, and he found me an office job. I'm a really good typist, did you know that? Good at word processing. Saved up some money. Changed my name and hair color. Moved out again. Changed to a different job in a different cube farm, so Cy couldn't find me. Sex work was a dead end. So I stayed with the forty-hour gigs. The routine. I got involved with a guy, his name was Terry, we found a place and moved in together. He was sweet. He was always bringing me little surprises. He was the one I really really loved, not Cy," she said. "We went to a party one night, all his baseball friends -- he used to play minor-league ball, he was still buddies with all those guys -- and one of them recognized me. He said I could go out to his car and give him head, or he'd tell my boyfriend what I used to do. I laughed, I didn't believe him. He told Terry everything. Worse than everything. He made up lies. Said I'd entertained all the guys at a bachelor party, two or three at a time. And Terry thought it was true! So he left. It really really hurt, because I loved him so much, you know? How could he believe that about me? I cried every day for a month. I mean, love is selfish, isn't it? It only wants its own happiness. We want to keep the person next to us, like we're a kid, and they're a Christmas present. Anyway, he moved out and I had to deal with it. I had the rent to pay and I couldn't find a roommate, so I did some stripping at night, to make ends meet. Finally the lease ran out and I moved into a shitty little place. The rents are ridiculous. But times were fat, before the jobs dried up. There were jobs everywhere. Salaries were going up. I was saving money. Then you said dad died."
"You would never give me your number," I said. "I didn't know how to help you. There was a big thump after you screamed. I yelled in the phone. Finally I had to hang up and ask Pac Bell to trace the call, but they couldn't."
"I fainted. When I woke up, the phone was beeping at me." She walked to Cy's apartment. "He wasn't there, but I still had a key. I let myself in and watched the bay." She stayed with him. "I always made him use a condom before then. I was just too upset. It was like, when I could tell he wanted sex, I'd be like, 'Go ahead', and I'd lie there feeling numb, wanting to cry. I couldn't take care of myself, it was like I was a machine. I felt like, if I'd been here, at home, dad would still be alive. I would have saved him somehow. Something would have been different. I mean, I didn't even get to go to the funeral. I felt like I'd betrayed him, he'd brought me up, and I wasn't even around for his funeral. I felt like I'd failed him, failed the family again."
After a while her brain switched back on and she made Cy use condoms again. "Too late," she said. "I missed my period. I bought one of those home pregnancy kits. It came up positive. I went to a clinic. Same thing. The nurse said 'Congratulations'. Ha!"
"Why didn't you get an abortion?"
"I tried. I couldn't. I kept thinking it was a living thing. I made appointments, but I never went. I couldn't go through with it, I kept putting it off. Finally I knew I couldn't do it."
She was like mother after all. I knew I wouldn't have hesitated. "So then you came home?"
"Yeah. I left Cy a note. Said I was leaving and he shouldn't try to find me. I never told him where I was from. I don't know, I just always had this feeling, you know? That I shouldn't tell him anything personal -- Lawrence, whatever. So I didn't, thank God."
"He's Zack's father?"
"Shouldn't you let him know?"
"Who? Cy, or Zack?" She flapped a hand. "I'm not going to tell either one. Cy is too weird. I don't want him near Zack."
"But he's the father. He might help with child support."
"Didn't you hear what I said? His head's on crooked. The only thing he knows how to do is make money. Everything else goes wrong or breaks. He's not normal. He never will be. You know what it's like, having a weird parent. Cy makes your father look like a Boy Scout. Zack wouldn't even have to know about it, it's just sort of in the air, you pick it up, you know? I want a normal Midwestern kid, not a freak."
"Well, he seems to be turning out fine."
"He's the greatest kid I've ever seen. So full of love."
"I wish... " I didn't know how to say it.
"I know you love him." She leaned toward me. "He knows it, too. He felt it, at Christmas."
"Then why is he avoiding me?"
"You only got here yesterday. Remember opening the presents at Christmas? How he was sitting in the armchair with you? He's a little boy, that's all. He doesn't remember anything before last month. The world's still brand new to him. He's forgotten, that's all. He'll warm up in a couple of days."
"How is he with Tim?"
"He worships him. He follows him around and watches everything he does. He asks Tim about whatever he's doing -- Zack's way ahead of his age in what he can say, have you noticed? It's weird I had such a smart kid. So he follows Tim around and talks to him. Tim's like his little god. It's kind of sweet. They really hit it off."
Zack walked through the kitchen, and gave his mother a hug before he went out the back door.
"I'm supposed to start driving an ice-cream truck tomorrow," she said. "Thank God. Something easy. Kids to joke around with. I don't have to take any more math and English and history and psychology. School's hard, it's so much work."
"Maybe you should live here after you get married. Three adults -- "
"No. I'm ready for my real life. If I make noise arguing, or fucking, I don't want mom hearing it. I like to make noise. I can't watch myself all the time."
I should have been asking her advice about men. She might have stopped me from marrying Samuel. She might even be able to provide some ideas on how to liven up life with my humdrum second husband.
"I want to be a grownup," she said. "I want a normal life, like mom."
"No, not mom. I'm not her. I just mean ordinary. I'm through with the weird stuff. I want a house, a husband, kids. Especially kids. I wish you'd have one. The experience. You have to do it. It changes everything. Everything. You'll see. You'll understand what it's like. We'd have that... " She shrugged, and looked down at the table.
I couldn't rememember the last time I'd seen her look embarrassed. Then I was embarrassed, because I knew what she'd started to say: We'd have that in common. We could share it, talk about it. I felt like I'd fallen down on the soccer field and she'd unintentionally kicked me in the head, running after the ball. I'd always wanted to be her, to be uninhibited, to enjoy life without hesitation, to have the boyfriends, never to hold back, to have sex without fear. I'd always wanted everything she had, all the things I lacked. And now I wanted a child, to love it and to have its love, the way Zack loved her. But I couldn't. It wouldn't be fair to the child, having a mother who worked all the time, a mother who neglected him. I wasn't sure I'd be able to sustain love, anyway. What if I saw the thing come out of me, slimy and helpless, and simply didn't want it? I couldn't take the chance; I'm too self-centered. "Children get in the way," I said. "I need big blocks of time, without distractions."
"But -- "
"Math takes long, hard thinking. There are a lot of false starts, a lot of fuzziness. Days, weeks, months, hammering away at a problem, thinking about it all the time. Poor Ansel. Ask him what it's like when I stop talking and listening and wander around with my head in a Hilbert space. Then finally I break through, and there's such clarity and ease, why can't my mind work like that all the time? The absolute. No words. No images. Diamond clear and perfect and irrefutable."
"It sounds like the way dad felt about music."
"Probably," I said, relieved to have thrown her off the subject of children. "Besides, it's a great living. I have a lot of freedom, and the consulting work pays more than -- when businesses started calling and I wanted to make them go away and I made up a ridiculous amount of money and they said okay, without even thinking it over, it was crazy. I got into number theory at the right time. All those Silicon Valley firms paying me for help with cryptography."
"Good for you." She squeezed my hand.
She wasn't envious. She never had been. She enjoyed my good fortune as if it had been her own. "I'd like to help you," I said.
"With what? I have everything I need."
Her decrepit Volkswagen bug was parked outside, visible through the kitchen window. I pointed at it. "Let me buy you a new car."
"I like my car. I understand it."
The pathetic fallacy, I thought, automatically. "I want to. I can spare it. I have more money than I know what to do with."
"At least think about it."
"No, but it's nice of you to offer." She hesitated. "You're changing. You're not my bitch sister anymore -- oh. Sorry."
I nodded. She was right. I'd often wondered how my family had managed to put up with me, how they'd managed to love me in spite of myself.
"Talking to you was always like talking to someone foreign," she said. "It was like you thought everything was a secret handshake, and no one had taught you it."
"I was looking for deeper meanings. Stupid of me. You were never that way. I was always so envious of the way you connected with people. I wanted to be you."
She flashed that brilliant smile. "Really? I used to sneak in your room and look at your calligraphy. I couldn't do that. I was so impressed. I couldn't imagine it. I wanted my writing to be neat and tidy, like yours. Readable. Instead of an illegible mess."
"I wanted to learn to dance. You were so expressive. So free."
"I envied how you stayed out of trouble. You could break any rule, and get away with it. You always got off scot free. I always got caught."
"Mother just didn't tell you when she punished me," I said. Then, "You were never in as much trouble as you thought. She knew you weren't bad."
"I wish I'd known. Always in trouble. Remember the handcar?"
This was the big secret story no one would talk about, not mother, not Gabriel, not Melody. Even our father, the man whom nothing could faze, wouldn't discuss it, probably to avoid any further mortification to mother. The handcar incident was a huge sore spot with her, a big embarrassment, the skeleton in the closet that was strictly to be ignored. I'd never figured this out, since she was so open about everything else. I was the only one who didn't know the full story, so I said: "No one ever told me what happened. I don't know much."
"You know that little shed that used to be next to the tracks, just past the Larson's house? The shed with the little, what do you call it?"
"Yeah. Tracks running into it. There was a handcar in there. I saw it through one of the windows. So one night after one of the parties, when I was all wound up and excited, I broke in and stole it. Gabe told me not to. He said, 'What if a train comes?' and I said, 'They're only during the day.' Which was only usually true. I'd forgotten. It took a minute or two to pump the damn thing so it got out the door and onto the track. It was hard to get it rolling. I had to use my back more than my arms. The car swerved where the rails joined the railroad track and I was on the rails, on the line. Gabe was running to catch up with me. He didn't think I'd actually do it, I guess. He was going home, then he looked and saw me and came running back.
"I tried to go as fast as I could. I didn't want him on, because I knew he'd fight me, he'd try to pump opposite from me to slow me down, and he was stronger than I was, so I tried to get away, to go faster. He ran, he managed to jump on, he landed on his feet and teetered and almost fell backwards. I reached to push him off and the handle came up and hit me in the stomach and I almost flew over upside down into him. I lost my wind for a moment. When I got myself up again I saw that he'd jumped off. He must have been about to fall off, so he jumped instead, because he could control the jump, but not the fall. He was running, trying to catch up again. I didn't have much momentum yet, but he couldn't get on. He could put a hand on the platform, but it was moving fast enough he couldn't pull himself on. Finally he stopped and watched. I waved goodbye. He didn't wave. He turned away, for home.
"I couldn't get going as fast as I wanted. It felt like a bicycle ride -- wind fluttering in my ears, but not as fast as a motorcycle or a convertible. But it was great to be doing it myself, making it go." She leaned back in her chair, eyes closed. "It was wonderful. Magical... About a mile past Haskell I started getting tired. I had my back to the direction I was going, so I didn't see the cop. I heard a siren. I pumped harder, thinking that maybe I could get away if I could go faster. But he had his car parked across the track. He started the engine, but it was too late. I couldn't stop, and he couldn't get started in time. So the handcar hit him. I did a back flip, onto the top of his car, twisting, and landing on my side. I hit my hand on the light bar. It hurt insanely. I found out at the hospital that I had three broken ribs. My little finger was fractured, too. I slid across the car's roof and fell onto the track. That hurt just as bad."
"You'll always have that scar on your knee."
"Yes. When I was a dancer, I always had to put makeup over it, the men didn't like to see it. It doesn't bother me, I'm used to it. But I ruined my favorite skirt. I still miss that skirt.
"The deputy got a broken left arm. From the impact. Crumpled both driver's-side doors. The post between them, too. I was lying next to his car and heard him call on his radio for help. He scooted across the seat and opened the door and stepped out, right on my shoulder. I think he did it on purpose.
"Then nothing happened for a while. The deputy sat me in the back of the car and pulled forward off the track. We just sat there. It seemed like half an hour. The tow truck came and pulled the handcar off the track, and then put it on the flatbed and took it away. Meantime, other cruisers kept driving up and the guys in them were talking to my cop and giving him a hard time about a girl breaking his arm. Then the train came through, and the ambulance had to wait on the other side of the track. The ambulance was the last thing to arrive. Wouldn't you know?
"They sewed up my knee at the hospital and they took me to the police station. By then it was 3:30 in the morning. The deputy couldn't come. He was still getting fixed up. They didn't have any statement from him, only from the guy who owned the handcar. Mom was almost hysterical, and dad was more worried about her than me. He barely seemed to notice that I was hurt.
"Mom made me write a five thousand word essay about why what I'd done was wrong. I hate writing. It's so slow. Sitting at the kitchen table every evening, mom and dad working on me in shifts, making suggestions and corrections. Why didn't they just do it, and read it to me?
"I was grounded for three months. The longest three months of my life. Mom made me pay back the owner of the handcar for the damage, and the cost of hauling it back to him. It took me a year to pay that off. I didn't have any spending money, and she made me do extra chores all the time to earn the money. Don't laugh."
"I can't help it. It's so funny. So Melody."
"Story of my life. The family fuckup."
"No. The family pet," I said. "Everyone gave you so much love."
"It didn't feel like it. I was ashamed of myself. Flunking ninth grade. This family is such a bunch of brainiacs, even Gabe, and all I could do was physical stuff."
"No one cared. I would have traded with you -- I was jealous about your boyfriends. You always had so many."
"Too many," she said. "Too many. Dad used to say, 'Casual sex is like fast food. No nourishment'."
"I envied the way he let you sit on his lap."
"I noticed. Did you ever get over your crush?"
"Come on. You're not fooling me. Admit it."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I protested. "Don't be grotesque."
She lowered her head and looked at me from under her eyebrows. "Come on," she said. "You know I know. Why pretend?"
I didn't answer.
"Well, did you get over it, or not?"
"How did you know?"
"How? It was pretty hard to miss. I mean, it was so obvious. You always looked mad when I sat on his lap. When I kissed him. And you'd listen at their door when they were having sex."
How had she figured that one out?
"And the way you watched him when you thought nobody was looking," she went on, "It was like you were watching a boy you were in love with."
"Oh God. Did mom know?"
"No. I think she didn't want to."
"Do you think he knew?"
"No telling. You know what he was like. He didn't like to stir up trouble. If he was onto it, he wasn't going to bust you."
"God. I thought it was my secret. I didn't even admit it to myself until I had a dream one night."
She made a shushing noise and squeezed my hand again. "It's okay. He wasn't your real father. He had that animal magnetism, you know? Women were always checking him out. They all did. Not just you." She must have misread my face, because next she said, "I didn't feel that way. I just loved him. That's all. He was my father. The man who could save me from anything."
"He was that," I said. "He was good at that."
Her tea was gone. She shook a few cubes of ice from her glass into her mouth.
"Why don't you and Zack come for a visit at the end of the summer break? I'm always coming back here. It's your turn. We can take him around and show him all the fun things."
"Finally. I've been hoping you'd ask." Her speech was blurred by the ice in her mouth. "I miss the City. I loved that place."
"We'll get some pictures, the three of us together. You know the ones you're always sending me, of you and Zack? I put them all over one wall of my office. They cheer me up, the way you two smile. If I'm feeling sad, I look at the pictures."
"Yes. Zack always looks so eager, like the most fantastic surprise is happening right then, something astonishing and wonderful, and you always have that smile."
"I never thought they were anything special."
I have no idea what prompted me, but I said, "Do you remember your pet robin?"
"I was thinking about that this morning! The one I raised. He fell out of the nest, poor little guy. I woke up every night all night long to feed him with an eyedropper. Remember, Mom made earthworm puree in the blender? You were grossed out. But you were the one who named him. Errol, for Errol Flynn. Then when he got bigger we used to buy mealworms for him at the pet store. He liked to ride on the handlebars of my bike. I think he liked the speed, the air, because he never learned to fly very well. I loved that bird."
"Pilar's cat ate it."
"I couldn't tell you. I knew how much you loved it. I was sitting on the porch and it was on the grass, and the cat, you know how they stalk things, the cat crept up and pounced and ran off with the bird in its mouth and I realized what was going on. It was like I'd been in a trance, watching. That bird was so trusting... I could have scared the cat off, but I didn't have the presence of mind. Then everybody turned out to look for it, and I was too ashamed to say what happened. The whole family, looking for hours. Even me, pretending to help."
"It's okay. It was a long time ago. If you'd told me, I probably would have poisoned her cat, and we would never have been friends. Anyway, you know what? Call it even. All those things of yours I ruined. I tore one of your circus posters. I got a stain on your favorite sweater."
"I thought so! I thought it was you."
She glanced at the clock. "Damn. I'm late. I'm supposed to be at Tim's. Lost track of time. Watch Zack for me? We can talk this evening."
She kissed me, and scurried off for her keys and license. She always put the license and some money in her pocket, and nothing more: a handful of crumpled bills, and a piece of plastic. She'd never carried a purse. Men may have liked her for her vivacity and looks, but I think she liked them because she understood them. She shared their attitudes and didn't fuss over herself. There wasn't a trace of the female narcissism that had always afflicted me.
Zack was playing in the sandbox behind the house. Melody knelt to embrace him. She was a devoted mother, a much wiser and more conscientious mother than I'd expected her to be. Than I could be. "I'll be back in a little while," she said. "Be a good boy for Aunt Clover."
He clung to her neck and whispered in her ear. She rolled her eyes at me. "All right, I promise," she said, and waited until he detached himself from her.
She came to me and said, "Sister", and kissed me on the lips and hugged me fiercely. She kissed me on the lips again. I repressed a cringe. "Sister," she said. "Thank you."
"For coming out of your shell. Why did you make me wait so long?"
Before I could think of an answer she'd leaped in her car. Decay was the only thing holding that machine together. It was three colors: gray, another shade of gray, and blue, not counting the multicolored rust that fringed the wheel wells and flowered at random on the body. The exhaust sounded like an automatic rifle. Backing out of the driveway, it sprayed gravel. I wondered how Melody managed to do that in such a decrepit vehicle. She waved and was gone. The rattle of the exhaust faded.
I brought a lawn chair from the garage and sat near Zack. I asked him what he was building -- a sand castle? But he glanced at me, and didn't answer. I asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he didn't answer that, either. I said it was a nice day. He didn't so much as turn his head. I let down the top half of the chair, and lay back to nap. I should have been working, but since I'd arrived I'd felt no desire to do anything but bask in the atmosphere of home.
The ringing of the phone roused me, and I went inside. It was Tim, asking to speak to Melody.
I checked my watch. "She should be there by now," I said.
We agreed that he should wait a bit longer, in case she'd got sidetracked or remembered an errand. She'd never been punctual or reliable.
Through the window I saw Zack trying to climb into the swing, and dangling across the plank, head down on one side, feet on the other. I said goodbye and rushed outside. When I'd put Zack in the swing he said, "Push." He could talk, after all, if he wanted something.
I wondered whether I should take my mother's car and look for Mel, but I wasn't sure Zack could be persuaded. He seemed to be having fun. A minute later a fire truck roared past on Fifteenth, and a minute after that, an ambulance. Zack lifted his arms and I managed to grab him before he fell out of the swing. I let him down, and he ran to the street. I ran with him, to stop him going too far. He imitated the sound of the sirens and pointed east. A moment later he turned and pointed at the garden center. I took his hand in mine.
"Look both ways," I said. We crossed the street.
Inside the greenhouse he examined the metal reinforcing rods where the concrete tables were chipped. He petted a cat. He admired the doves in their cages. At the checkout counter he stared at small metal paperweights in the shape of ants and bees and flies. He looked at me.
"I didn't bring any money, Zack."
One of the women behind the counter said, "You're Clover, aren't you?"
"I'm Pilar. I was Melody's friend."
"Oh. Hello. I didn't recognize you, it's been so long, and your hair's so different. I like the colors. Are you still living next door?"
"A couple of blocks down." She pointed north. "With another girl."
"That's nice. You know Melody moved back. This is her son Zack."
She looked at him. "Yes," she said. "I know."
"Did Melody tell you she's getting married?"
She winced. "No. We don't talk."
"She's very busy," I said. "With school. With Zack."
"Yes. I'm sure."
"I'd better go."
"If he wants one of those paperweights we can put it on your mother's account. She's our best customer, the only one we keep a tab for."
I thanked her and said to Zack, "Pick one."
He pointed to an ant, and I handed it to him. After looking at it and holding it for a moment, he put it back on the counter and reached for a fly instead. I handed it to him.
"Thank you," I said to Pilar. I said to Zack, "Can you say thank you to the lady?"
He stepped closer, almost touching me, but didn't speak. Pilar nodded without looking up. She was updating mother's account.
Zack and I were crossing the parking lot when the ambulance screamed by, going west this time. Zack stared, not imitating the noise. We held hands and crossed the street again.
I picked up the phone, but I didn't know Tim's number. I couldn't even remember his last name. The phone line didn't have caller i.d. on it. I rummaged through the pieces of paper under the refrigerator magnets, but there were no names and no numbers. Everyone had them on their fridges, didn't they? Why wasn't Tim's there?
I rifled mother's desk, but couldn't find her address book. I started to search Melody's room, but it was such a mess there was no hope of finding anything.
"Come on, Zack. We're going for a ride." I took my mother's car keys from the box by the door.
Zack brought his new fly along. I buckled him into the child seat in the back of my mother's old Volvo. At least he was cooperating.
I drove east on Fifteenth. Just beyond the cemeteries a police car was parked across the street. The officer leaned into my window and said, "You'll have to take Twenty-third, ma'am. There's been an accident. The road's blocked until they clean it up."
Someone had taken away my oxygen. I rested my forehead against the steering wheel.
"Ma'am?" the officer asked. "Ma'am?"
I pushed myself upright and looked at him; I wanted to see his expression. "Was one of the cars an old Volkswagen?"
His face changed, and I knew.
"Is she still there?" I asked. "I need to see her. I'm her sister."
"They took her to Lawrence Memorial Hospital."
When I got there, the bastards refused to let me see her body. I was too upset to argue, especially since Zack was with me. They said I'd have to come back later. I drove to the school and threw gravel at mother's window until she came outside. I didn't know how to tell her. I just clutched her and sobbed.
Later I saw Mel's car, what was left of it, and read the police report. She was hit head-on by a pickup truck, one of those big ones with extra wheels on the rear axle. The driver was taking a chance, passing on the blind hill, driving west. The front of my sister's car was flattened all the way to the windshield. The truck was resting on her legs, and they couldn't extricate her. They tipped the pickup over by hand, pushing in unison. Then they opened the VW like a tin can, to get Melody out, but the pressure of the truck had been cutting off her bleeding, and with the weight removed she hemorrhaged. She died before the ambulance reached the hospital.
Mother visited the driver of the pickup, to make peace with him. He was in the same hospital. I went along. His forehead was purple and he had a severe concussion, but that was all. Mother sympathized with him about his headache, and told him we didn't blame him. She was wrong; she should have said "I", not "we". I wanted to get a gun and finish the job this idiot had been too incompetent to do, killing my sister instead of himself. The only thing that stopped me was seeing how gentle mother was. But I left that room with a bitterness I'd never felt, and the certainty that the pain would never go away, and that I could never forgive that man who'd murdered my sister. He took her away from me and everyone who loved her, and he took her away from everyone she loved. He made Zack an orphan.
At the funeral Melody looked untouched and lovely in her casket. Zack was too little to understand that she was gone, and when Gabriel lifted him up to view her, Zack looked at her, and then at us, and then at her again, as if to ask whether this was a game of pretend. He pushed on her shoulder and said, "Mom? Wake up." I had to go sit next to my mother, so I wouldn't break down. All I could think was, If I'd only held her to me for a minute, she would have been a minute later and the truck would never have hit her. If I'd only held her to me for a minute, she would have been a minute later and the truck would never have hit her. If I'd only held her to me for a minute...
Melody had never liked Quaker Meeting, but she'd started attending
Catholic church with Tim. She enjoyed the ritual, and dressing up
and attending as a couple every Sunday morning.
She'd been taking classes, studying the catechism, preparing to convert.
(" 'Bend the knee, and faith will follow' ", she'd told mother,
and laughed. "That's what they say. As long as you pretend to believe,
they don't really care.")
The funeral was at Tim's church, in Eudora.
The eulogy made us all weep; the priest liked Melody, and managed to catch her spirit,
something none of us had ever been able to do.
But the rest of the service was meaningless. What God could have allowed
her to die, she who had more vitality than all the rest of us?
Where was the justice in that? I took my satisfaction in knowing
that Melody didn't believe in God or religion: Serves Him right, I thought.
She didn't believe in a better world to come. She believed in this one.
She believed in people, and things, and feeling.
How could she have died? She or dad? Either one of them had more life
than all the rest of us. I couldn't understand. I probably never will.
In fact, I hope I never do, because I don't want to. I refuse to understand
anything this monstrous.