“Miss Val! Miss Val!” A swarm of five-year-olds buzzes around me in the kindergarten playroom. Marni is standing in the middle, feet planted, lower lip sucked in, staring down her blood-coated finger from under her scrunched-up eyebrows as though the finger should have known better. This is leftover hubbub from bigger and scarier trouble in the courtyard, which involved a stuffed monkey, the edge of the sandbox, and a superficial but profusely bleeding head wound, but the ambulance has already left, whisking away the lollipop-loaded victim, and the droplets of blood are being cleaned up outside the courtyard doors.
In all the early photos of my life, you are wearing a long skirt. It is pleated, with an elastic waistband, patterned with purple and red Japanese flowers. I imagine you purchased it from one of the consignment stores in Lincoln Square, their window displays nothing more than dresses and shirts hung on latticed wood wound with fake ivy. I imagine you kept wearing it because the polyester didn’t need to be dry-cleaned and you preferred not to shave your legs.
Outside, on my grandparents’ back lawn, which rolled off into an alleyway, I would crawl between your ankles. I did not want to be near the dog, or my cousins with their large chins and black eyes. My father would tell me to run through the sprinkler, or to play with the peeling block puzzle that had been scattered across the grass, the same one he had played with as a child. But I wanted to be inside, on the quiet, humming floor of our kitchen, so I tried instead to hide beneath your skirt.
What if there were no light, he wondered. Just sound & scent owning the night, without the invasive
Surf Shop green neon, or PCH streetlamps glowering at everyone.
Their glint was wrong, false, while the waves sounded
like aloe on a burn, a quick fix.
Some blue & some red lights also flooded the water—flashed
Right before Baby finished ninth grade, Jerry (Baby’s dad) announced that Baby and Carla (Baby’s older sister) would work for him that summer. Baby thought it was a great idea. She would much rather landscape for Jerry than work at one of the three pizza/sub joints in town, or at a basketball camp for kids, which was most of what of her teammates were doing.
Jerry was six-three (two inches taller than Baby) and had a thick mustache and a laugh that rattled fine china. He’d built the house they lived in. In church he sang the loudest and the most out of tune. Six nights a week he did a hundred push-ups. He never took a sick day. It was true what everyone said, that Jerry was the most hardworking, honest man in Waldo County, Maine. The other thing people said was he didn’t suffer fools, but Baby was not one hundred percent sure what this meant, so she couldn’t say if she agreed.
We are driving through downtown Columbus, away from the Greyhound station. I spent fifteen hours on a bus traveling from New York City to visit for Christmas, a holiday, my mother reminds me, that is not even about Jesus anymore. This is a thought she has reiterated over the years, yet it never prevented her from partaking in the holiday during my lifetime. The absence of a decorative tree and gifts reflected a lack of money, not a rejection of the commodification of religion.
At the meal with the earnest centurion and the woman full of pain, he wanted to say the lamb was delicious. It surprised him to love it as much as he did the blinking gaze of the newly sighted, but to say so didn’t suit the narrative that was running through his fingers like water.
The bed they’d given him for the lonely night was more than adequate for a man. Besides, he was now nearly sentimental about the roughness of linen and the funk of straw.