kaz-news.info 5/24/06 PM Page i Extraordinary acclaim for Janet Fitch’s WHITE OLEANDER. Extraordinary acclaim for Janet Fitch’s WHITE OLEANDER. For starters, Ingrid and Astrid Magnussen are one of the most intriguing mother-daughter duos in recent fiction. Oleander House Book Jacket Series: Bay City Paranormal Investigations  Rating: Tags: Detective, Mystery & Detective. White Oleander by Janet Fitch. Everywhere hailed as a novel of rare beauty and power, White Oleander tells the unforgettable story of Ingrid.
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first novel, White Oleander,become a national bestseller. But White. Oleander itself is no fairy tale. It's the story of Astrid Magnussen, daughter of the beautiful. White Oleander follows Astrid through a a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for An Oprah's Book Club selection and Feature Film. disease and its remedies, on the sickness of the soul and the healing balm of Gilead. The book The Ministry of Healing Principles and Practice of Soil.
By Fitch, Janet , Janet Fitch. Go to the editions section to read or download ebooks. White oleander Fitch, Janet, Janet Fitch. White oleander Close. Want to Read.
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White Oleander , Little, Brown and Company. White oleander: I knew the only reason we were here was because of me. She would be half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to flamenco guitar. I felt my guilt like a brand. Three bolts fell back. He cleared a pile of dirty clothes and Variety from the couch so I could sit down. The apartment was very different from ours, crammed with furniture and souvenirs and movie posters, Variety and newspapers and empty wine bottles, tomato plants straggling on the windowsills, groping for a little light.
It was dark even in the daytime, because it faced north, but it had a spectacular view of the Hollywood sign, the reason he took it in the first place. She was a beautiful woman dragging a crippled foot and I was that foot. I was bricks sewn into the hem of her clothes, I was a steel dress. He had to do it under a pseudonym, Wolfram Malevich, because it was nonunion.
We could hear him every morning, very early, through the wall. It was full of notes and Post-its and underlines. I leafed through the book. She says anybody who ever read him knows why there had to be a revolution. That was where she belonged, in furs and palaces of rare treasures, fireplaces large enough to roast a reindeer, ships of Swedish maple. My deepest fear was that someday she would find her way back there and never return. It was why I always waited up when she went out on nights like this, no matter how late she came home.
I had to hear her key in the lock, smell her violet perfume again. And I tried not to make it worse by asking for things, pulling her down with my thoughts.
I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. But how I envied the way their mothers sat on their beds and asked what they were thinking. My mother was not in the least bit curious about me. I often wondered what she thought I was, a dog she could tie in front of the store, a parrot on her shoulder? I never told her that I wished I had a father, that I wanted to go to camp in summertime, that sometimes she scared me.
Out the window, the glow of the Hollywood sign was slightly blurred with June fog, a soft wetness on the hills raising the smell of sage and chamise, moisture wiping the glass with dreams. She came home at two when the bars closed, alone, her restlessness satisfied for the moment. I sat on her bed, watched her change clothes, adoring each gesture.
Someday I would do this, the way she crossed her arms and pulled her dress over her head, kicked off her high heels. I put them on, admiring them on my feet. They were almost the right size.
In another year or so, they would fit. She sat down next to me, handed me her brush, and I brushed her pale hair smooth, painting the air with her violets. The grinning Pan, cloven hooves peeping out from under his pants? When I saw us like this, I could almost remember fishing in cold deep seas, the smell of cod, the charcoal of our fires, our felt boots and our strange alphabet, runes like sticks, a language like the ploughing of fields.
Can you imagine? She had drummed it into my head since I was small. What could she possibly be thinking? She saw him at a party in Silverlake. Wherever she went, she complained, there he was, the goat man. I thought it was only coincidence, but one night at a performance space in Santa Monica where we went to watch one of her friends beating on Sparkletts bottles and ranting about the drought, I saw him too, four rows back.
He spent the whole time trying to catch her eye. After it was over, I wanted to talk to him, but she dragged me out fast. When he turned up at the annual publication party for Cinema Scene, I had to agree that he was following her. It was outside in the courtyard of an old hotel on the Strip. The heat of the day was beginning to dissipate. The women wore bare dresses, my mother like a moth in white silk.
He saw me, and his eyes immediately swept the crowd for my mother. He started through the crowd toward her. I was close behind him. Her eyes flicked cruelly over his mustard-colored tie hanging to one side, his brown shirt pulling at the buttons over his stomach, his uneven teeth, the shrimp in his chubby fist.
He put his finger alongside his nose, winked at me, and walked on to another group of people, put his arm around a pretty girl, kissed her neck. My mother turned away. That kiss went against everything she believed. In her universe, it simply would never happen. We went down to the apartment pool and swam slow quiet laps under the local stars, the Crab Claw, the Giant Shrimp. My mother bent over her drafting table, cutting type without a ruler in long elegant strokes.
A window onto grace. When I glanced up, he caught my eye and put his finger to his lips, crept up behind her and tapped her shoulder.
Her knife went slicing through the type. She whirled around and I thought she was going to cut him, but he showed her something that stopped her, a small envelope he put on her table.
She opened it, removed two tickets, blue-and-white. Her silence as she examined them astonished me. She stared at them, then him, jabbing the sharp end of her X-acto into the rubbery surface of the desk, a dart that stuck there for a moment before she pulled it out.
It was a gamelan concert at the art museum. Now I knew why she accepted. I only wondered how he knew exactly the right thing to propose, the one thing she would never turn down. Had he hidden in the oleanders outside our apartment? Interviewed her friends? Bribed somebody? The night crackled as my mother and I waited for him in the forecourt of the museum.
Everything had turned to static electricity in the heat. I combed my hair to watch the sparks fly from the ends. Forced to wait, my mother made small, jerky movements with her arms, her hands. How despicable. I should have known. Remind me never to make plans with quadrupeds. All around us, women in bright summer silks and a shifting bouquet of expensive perfumes eyed her critically. Men admired her, smiled, stared.
She stared back, blue eyes burning, until they grew awkward and turned away. He grinned, flashing the gap between his teeth. Only peons made excuses for themselves, she taught me. Never apologize, never explain. The gamelan orchestra was twenty small slim men kneeling before elaborately carved sets of chimes and gongs and drums.
The drum began, joined by one of the lower sets of chimes. Then more entered the growing mass of sound.
Rhythms began to emerge, expand, complex as lianas. My mother said the gamelan created in the listener a brain wave beyond all alphas and betas and thetas, a brain wave that paralyzed the normal channels of thought and forced new ones to grow outside them, in the untouched regions of the mind, like parallel blood vessels that form to accommodate a damaged heart.
I closed my eyes to watch tiny dancers like jeweled birds cross the dark screen of my eyelids. They took me away, spoke to me in languages that had no words for strange mothers with ice-blue eyes and apartments with ugly sparkles on the front and dead leaves in the pool.
She sat in her chair, her eyes closed.
She liked to be the last one to leave. It spoiled her mood. She was still in that other world, she would stay there as long as she possibly could, the parallel channels twining and tunneling through her cortex like coral.
She raised her hand for him to be quiet. He looked at me and I shrugged. I was used to it. We waited until the last sound had faded from the auditorium. Finally she opened her eyes.
I was hungry, but once my mother took a position, she never wavered from it. We went home, where I ate tuna out of a can while she wrote a poem using the rhythms of the gamelan, about shadow puppets and the gods of chance.
The summer I was twelve, I liked to wander in the complex where the movie magazine had its offices.
White Oleander Janet Fitch
It was called Crossroads of the World, a s courtyard with a streamlinemoderne ocean liner in the middle occupied by an ad agency.
Along the outside ring of the brick-paved courtyard, fantasy bungalows built in styles from Brothers Grimm to Don Quixote were rented by photo studios, casting agents, typesetting shops. I sketched a laughing Carmen lounging under the hanging basket of red geraniums in the Sevillian doorway of the modeling agency, and a demure braided Gretel sweeping the Germanic steps of the photo studio with a twig broom.
While I drew, I watched the tall beautiful girls coming in and out of these doors, passing from the agency to the studio and back, where they bled a bit more of their hard-earned money from waitressing and temp jobs to further their careers.
It was a scam, my mother said, and I wanted to tell them so, but their beauty seemed a charm. What ill could befall girls like that, longlegged in their hip-hugger pants and diaphanous summer dresses, with their clear eyes and sculpted faces? The heat of the day never touched them, they were living in another climate. Instead, I followed her around the corner, and there, leaning on an old gold Lincoln with suicide doors, stood Barry Kolker.
He was wearing a bright plaid jacket. My mother took one look at him and closed her eyes. Did you steal it from a dead man? I was astonished. And now he was holding open the back door of the Lincoln for me. We picked up the freeway on Cahuenga, drove north out of Hollywood into the Valley, then east toward Pasadena. The heat lay on the city like a lid. Santa Anita sat at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, a sheer blue granite wall like a tidal wave.
Bright banks of flowers and perfect green lawns breathed out a heavy perfume in the smoggy air. The horses shied at children at the rail, at flags, all nerves and heat. The jockeys had trouble getting them into the starting gates, but when the gates opened, the horses pounded the brown of the track in a unit.
My mother laughed and hugged me, hugged Barry. Barry had bet twenty dollars for her, and handed her the money, one hundred dollars. Yes, I prayed. Please say yes.
After all, how could she refuse him now? My mother just had a glass of white wine. That was Ingrid Magnussen.
During the meal Barry told us of his travels in the Orient, where we had never been. The time he ordered magic mushrooms off the menu at a beachside shack in Bali and ended up wandering the turquoise shore hallucinating Paradise. His week spent in the floating brothels of Bangkok. He had forgotten me entirely, was too absorbed in hypnotizing my mother. His voice was cloves and nightingales, it took us to spice markets in the Celebes, we drifted with him on a houseboat beyond the Coral Sea.
We were like cobras following a reed flute. On the way home, she let him touch her waist as she got into the car. I hungered for Barry, I thought he might be the one, someone who could feed us and hold us and make us real. She spent an hour trying on clothes, white Indian pajamas, the blue gauze dress, the pineapples and hula girls. It had a low neck and the blue was exactly the color of her eyes. No one could resist her in her blue dress.
She chose the Indian pajamas, which covered every inch of her golden skin. I lay on her bed after she was gone and imagined them together, their deep voices a duet in the dusk over the rijsttafel. I floated on my back and looked up at the stars, the Goat, the Swan, and hoped my mother was falling in love. Marlene answered the phone, covered the receiver with her hand. That evening, in the long summer twilight, people came out of their apartments, walked their dogs, drank blender drinks down by the pool, their feet in the water.
The moon rose, squatting in the strained blue. I wished I could shut it in a locket to wear around my neck. I wished a thousand-year sleep would find us, at this absolute second, like the sleep over the castle of Sleeping Beauty. There was a knock on the door, wrecking the peace. Nobody ever came to our door. My mother put down her pen and grabbed the folding knife she kept in the jar with the pencils, its dark carbon blade sharp enough to shave a cat.
She unfolded it against her thigh and put her finger to her lips. She clutched her white kimono, her skin bare underneath. It was Barry, calling her. Barry was wearing a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and carrying a bottle of wine and a bag that smelled of something wonderful.
She invited him in, closing the knife against her leg. He looked around at our big room, elegantly bare. We had lived there over a year. The sun was hot through the screens when I woke up, illuminating the milky stagnant air wrapped like a towel around the morning. I could hear a man singing, the shower pipes clanking as he turned the water off.
Barry had stayed the night. I stared at her as she dressed for work, waiting for an explanation, but she just smiled. After that night, the change was startling. My mother, for whom a meal was a carton of yogurt or a can of sardines and soda crackers.
She could eat peanut butter for weeks on end without even noticing. I watched as she bypassed stands full of her favorite white flowers, lilies and chrysanthemums, and instead filled her arms with giant red poppies with black stains in the centers. She wrote tiny haiku that she slipped into his pockets. I fished them out whenever I got a chance, to see what she had written.
It made me blush to read them: Poppies bleed petals of sheer excess. You and I, this sweet battleground. They both looked bombed. I never imagined it was something that could happen to her. They went out and she told me about it afterward, laughing.
Where have you been? He is with me now. I am the only one he wants. I watched her close her eyes, I could feel the waves of her passion like perfume across the teacups. In the mornings, he lay with her on the wide white mattress when I crossed the room on the way to the toilet. They would even talk to me, her head cradled on his arm, the room full of the scent of their lovemaking, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
It made me want to laugh out loud. I had only questioned her once on the subject, I must have been in kindergarten. We were back in the States that year, living in Hollywood. A hot, smoggy day, and my mother was in a bad mood. She picked me up late from day care, we had to go to the market. We were driving in an old Datsun she had then, I still remember the hot waffled seat and how I could see the street through a hole in the floorboards. School had just started, and our young teacher, Mrs.
They had jobs like lawyers or drummers or installing car window glass. She downshifted irritably, throwing me against the seat belt.
I had one, I know. Just forget it. I began to watch fathers, in the stores, on the playgrounds, pushing their daughters on swings.
I liked how they seemed to know what to do. They seemed like a dock, firmly attached to the world, you could be safe then, not always drifting like us. I prayed Barry Kolker would be that man. Their murmured words of love were my lullabies, my hope chest.
I was stacking in linens, summer camp, new shoes, Christmas. I was laying up sit-down dinners, a room of my own, a bicycle, parent-teacher nights. A year like the one before it, and the next like that, one after another, a bridge, and a thousand things more subtle and nameless that girls without fathers know. We ate hot dogs and they drank beer from paper cups and he explained baseball to her like it was philosophy, the key to the American character.
Barry threw money to the peanut vendor and caught the bag the man threw back. We littered the ground with peanut shells. I hardly recognized us in our peaked blue caps. We were like a family.
I pretended we were just Mom, Dad, and the kid. We did the wave, and they kissed through the whole seventh inning, while I drew faces on the peanuts. The fireworks set off every car alarm in the parking lot. I was violently seasick on the ferry, and Barry held a cold handkerchief to my forehead and got me some mints to suck. I tried not to hang around with them too much once we got there, hoping he would ask her while they strolled among the sailboats, eating shrimp from a paper cone.
Something happened. All I remember is that the winds had started. But he seemed more interested in impressing me with how smart he was. I kept walking along, looking at the shapes the boulders made, the blue of their shadows. I had the sense that they were inhabited, like people in hiding. The boy followed me. I could barely make out the blurred markings, two larger prints followed by a smaller one and then another. He smiled, his teeth slightly pushed back, vaguely rabbitlike himself.
I wished he could read my fortune in the dust. He smiled. He was a boy who wanted to be seen. There was a daughter too, Carolee. The other two, Owen and Peter, were foster like me. But even her natural children had been in foster care, when Starr was in rehab. How many children had this happened to? How many children were like me, floating like plankton in the wide ocean? I thought how tenuous the links were between mother and children, between friends, family, things you think are eternal.
Everything could be lost, more easily than anyone could imagine. We walked on. Davey pulled at a bush with bright yellow flowers. Pea family. Green scent of laurel sumac, which Davey informed me the local Indians had used to sweeten the air in their wickiups. Clumps of giant ryegrass, still green, but already crackling like fire. Two hawks circled the seamless blue sky, screaming.
That night, motifs of cowboys on broncos, lariats, and spurs decorated my sleeping bag bed, where I lay zipper open to the coolness watching Carolee, sixteen years old and tall as her mother, a sullen girl with pouty lips, zipping her top. It was not the night magic, my mother and her young men, murmuring to strains of imperial koto in the scented dusk.
She bared her teeth and wiped them with her finger. A dirt bike whined, and she pushed the screen out, climbed onto the dresser, narrowly missing her basket of makeup. It was wide and white in the moonlight, the darkness of mountains darker than the sky, a perfect vanishing point of the road and the telephone poles. I imagined you could follow that road through the vanishing point, come out somewhere else entirely.
Starr drove too fast, bumping up the road, and chain-smoked Benson and Hedges s from a gold pack, listening to Christian radio. Only in the back pages of the L. Weekly, chewing on a phone cord. But her energy was overwhelming. She never stopped talking, laughing, lecturing, smoking.
I wondered what she was like on cocaine. Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior? How can you swallow such shit. My mother and I got our clothes on the boardwalk in Venice. Inside the Clothestime, colors assaulted us from every side. Battery acid! Starr filled my arms with clothes to try on, herded me into a dressing room with her, so we could continue our chat. In the cubicle, she wriggled into a tiny striped minidress and smoothed it over her ribs, turning to the side to see what it looked like in profile.
The stripes widened and tapered over her breasts and bottom like op art. I wondered what Reverend Thomas would think of her in a dress like that. She frowned, pulled the dress over her head, and hung it back up. It still was stretched to fit her figure. Her body in the small dressing room was almost too much to bear. I could only look at her in the mirror, her breasts falling out of the top of her underwired brassiere, the cross hiding between them like a snake in a rock.
Like what difference does it make if I shovel coke up my nose or not? Who does it hurt? Walking naked into a room full of men. She tried on a pink stretchy dress, rolling it down over her hips.
Oh, wait till you hear Reverend Thomas. It smelled of her heavy perfume. When I took off my clothes, she looked at my body closely, like she was trying to decide if she wanted to download it or not. My underwear was torn. Thirteen years old, I should say. I had my first bra in the fourth grade.
The shock of it made me drop a stack of clothes off the hook. I thought back through the past year. I had crossed a frontier in my sleep, and nobody had woken me to stamp my passport. We went next door to Payless for shoes. Starr took a sample red high heel down from the display and put it on without a sock, stood on it, smoothed her shorts over her hips, cocked her head to one side, made a face, and put it back on the stand. People are staring. I tried them on. Starr looked pained when I showed them to her.
On Sunday morning, Carolee was up early. I was surprised. But here she was, up at eight, dressed, her little backpack on her back.
I took the hint from Carolee and pretended I was sick. I could smell a big waft of Obsession. It was nice being alone, the boys hiding somewhere down in the wash, the distant whine of dirt bikes. His chest was lean and hairy, sandy threaded with gray, his shaggy hair out of its usual ponytail. He staggered down the hall. I could hear the sound of his piss, the water coming on. Splashing, flushing. He came into the main room and found a cigarette in a pack on the table, lit it. The hand that held the cigarette was missing one finger and the fingertip of the next.
He smiled when he saw me looking at it. Table for three, please. He was a plain man, lean-faced, sad-eyed, long graying hair.
We were supposed to call him Uncle Ray. He opened the refrigerator, pulled out a beer. Shhhhht, it sighed when he popped the top.
We had the Twilight of the Gods, we had the world tree. I knew about Shiva and Parvati and Kali, and Pele the volcano goddess, but my mother had banned the least mention of Christ. She made me beg a ride off some other kid. Uncle Ray leaned up against the doorjamb, smoking, looking out at the big pepper tree and his pickup truck in the yard. He sipped his beer, which he held in the same hand as the cigarette, dexterous for a person missing two fingers.
He crinkled his eyes against the smoke as he exhaled out the screen. He shot a grin back over his shoulder. It made me feel dizzy, like I wanted to grab hold of something heavy and hang on.
This was the life I was going to be living, everybody separated from everybody else, hanging on for a moment, only to be washed away. I could grow up and drift away too. I could go for years and never see her again. Just like this. People losing each other, their hands slipping loose in a crowd.
I might never see her again. Those dull eyes behind the dry aquarium, the shape of her back. My God, how could I have avoided knowing this all these months? I wanted my mother, I wanted something to hold on to me, not let me slip away. He stuck his cigarette in his beer can and took my hands in his. You can tell Uncle Ray.
My throat felt like there were two hands wrapped around it, squeezing, forcing water out of my eyes. Snot ran from my nose. Ray scooted his chair so he could put his arm around me, handed me a napkin off the table. I buried my face in his chest, and let my tears and snot wet the front of his T-shirt. It felt good to be held. I breathed in his smell, cigarettes and stale body and beer and fresh-cut wood, something green.
Talking to me, telling me nobody was going to hurt me, I was a great kid, nothing was going to happen. After a while he wiped my cheeks with the back of his hand, lifting my chin so he could look at me, pushing my hair out of my eyes. Tell me, is she as pretty as you? I gently stroked my hand over her picture on the back cover, on the beach at Big Sur. Huge rocks in the water, driftwood. She wore a fisherman sweater, her hair swept back by the wind. She looked like a Lorelei, cause of shipwreck.
Odysseus would have had to lash himself to the mast. I wiped my nose on the short sleeve of my T-shirt, smiled. My mother was a woman people stopped in the market to wonder at.
Not like Starr, but just at the sheer beauty. They seemed startled she had to shop and eat like anyone else. It would be too scary. Even if he was just lying to make me feel better, who bothered to do that now?
He flipped through some of the pages, reading. I knew the poem. She used to recite it at poetry readings. I hated that poem. No, she thought because I was her daughter that I belonged to her, that she could do anything she wanted with me.
Make me into poetry, expose my chicken bones and my cowrie shell, my unopened woman. A tear ran off my eyelash and fell on her picture. I wiped it off. As if that was something people did. Not good, but not shocking. I finished out the eighth grade at Mount Gleason Junior High, my third school this year. I ate lunch with Davey. A kitten. How many kittens in a litter? Six to nine. Constellation Andromeda.
Major feature? The Great Andromeda Nebula. Favorite object for observation? The double star Gamma Andromedae. Distance to earth? Two million light-years. Unlike the other spiral nebulae, which are receding from us at high velocities, Andromeda is approaching us at a rate of three hundred kilometers per second. There was a group that brought children to see their parents in prison, and I was going to have a visit.
After the last visit, I was afraid. What if she was still like that, a zombie? And I was afraid of the prison, the bars and hands snaking between them. Clanging their cups. How could my mother live there, my mother who arranged white flowers in a crackle-glass vase, who could argue for hours about whether Frost was an important poet?
But I knew how. Or beaten senseless by guards, or other prisoners. What if she blamed me for not being able to help her? At one point in the night, I even thought of not going. But at five I got up, showered, dressed.
I wore my new pink dress, my bra and my Daisy Duck shoes. I wanted to show her I was growing up, I could take care of myself. The van came at seven. Starr got up and signed the papers while the driver eyed her figure in her bathrobe. There was one other kid in the van. I took the seat in front of him, also by the window. We picked up three more on the way out. It came out of the mist and then it vanished, the world creating and erasing itself. It made me carsick. I cracked the window. We drove a long way, through suburbs and more suburbs.
If only I knew what she would be like when I got there. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, drank Lapsang souchong out of a porcelain cup. She had lived in Paris and Amsterdam. Freiburg and Martinique. How could she be in prison? At Chino, we turned off the freeway and drove south. I tried to memorize this, so I could find it again in my dreams. We drove past nice suburbs, then not-so-nice ones, then brand-new subdivisions alternating with lumberyards and farm equipment rentals.
Finally we came to real country, and drove along roads with no signals, just dairies and fields, the smell of manure. There was a big complex of buildings on the right. I shook my head. We could be there, behind that razor wire. We were silent as death when we went by the California Institution for Men, set way back from the road in the middle of a field. I wanted to remember it all. The kids got their bags, their backpacks.
Now I could see the prison — a steam stack, a water tower, the guard tower. It was more like a suburban high school than a prison. Except for the guard towers, the razor wire. Crows squawked raucously in the trees. We filed through the guard tower, signed in. They searched our backpacks and passed us through the metal detector. They took a package away from one girl. No gifts. You had to mail them, a package from family was allowed four times a year.
The slam of the gate behind us made us jump. We were locked in. They told me to wait at an orange picnic table under a tree. I was nervous and sick from the ride. And what would she think of me, in my bra and high heels? Women milled around behind the covered area of the visiting yard. Prisoners, their faces like masks. They jeered at us. One woman whistled at me and licked between her fingers, and the others laughed.
They sounded like the crows. The mothers started coming in from the prison through a different gate. They wore jeans and T-shirts, gray sweaters, sweatsuits.
I saw my mother waiting for the woman guard to bring her through. She wore a plain denim dress, button front, but on her the blue was a color, like a song. Her white blond hair had been hacked off at the neck by someone who had no feeling for the work, but her blue eyes were as clear as a high note on a violin. She had never looked more beautiful. Just to feel her touch, to hold her, after all those months!
She lifted my face in her hands and kissed me all over, wiped my tears with her strong thumbs. She pulled me to sit down next to her. I was thirsty for the way she felt, the way she looked, the sound of her voice, the way her front teeth were square but her second teeth turned slightly, her one dimple, left side, her halfsmile, her wonderfully blue eyes flecked with white, like new galaxies, the firm intact planes of her face.
Lois, someone had scratched into it. One of the women in the concrete courtyard behind the visitors covered area whistled and shouted out, something about my mother or me. My mother looked up and the woman caught her gaze full in the face like a punch. It stopped her cold. Not pliable at all. Kill or be killed, and everybody knows it.
She put her arm around me, her head right next to mine. She pressed my forehead with her hand, her lips against my temple. I promise you. I will get out, one way or another. She hugged me again. Those arms around me made me want to stay there forever. I wanted to curl up in her lap, I wanted to disappear into her body, I wanted to be one of her eyelashes, or a blood vessel in her thigh, a mole on her neck.
Do they hurt you?
I had to pull away a little to see her. Yes, she was smiling, her half-smile, the little comma-shaped curve at the corner of her mouth. I touched her mouth. She kissed my fingers. I sweep, pull weeds, though of course only inside the wire. I will not serve. Clover and nutmeg. I want to remember you just like this, in that sadly hopeful pink dress, and those bridesmaid, promise-ofprom-night pumps.
I told her about the sin virus. I loved the sound of her laughter. And her smile was gone, her face deflated, masklike, like the women behind the fence. My mistake. Write at least once a week. Or send drawings, God knows the visual stimulation in this place leaves something to be desired.
I especially want to see the ex—topless dancer and Uncle Ernie, the clumsy carpenter.
Uncle Ray had been there when I needed him. I had a friend. I imagine where you are. I try to contact you. Have you ever heard me calling, felt my presence in your room? It came to my elbow. I had felt her, I had.
Are you awake?
You never could sleep. Now, tell me more about yourself. I want to know everything about you. She never wanted to know about me before. But the long days of sameness had led her back to me, to remembering she had a daughter tied up somewhere. The sun was starting to come out and the ground fog glowed like a paper lantern.
The next Sunday, I slept too late. It was a sweet dream. She had escaped from prison — she was pushing a lawnmower in front of the building and just walked away. Arles was deep shade and sunshine like honey, Roman ruins and our little pension. If I had not been hungry for that dream, for the sunflowers of Arles, I would have got up when the boys ran off into the wash.
But now I was sitting in the front seat of the Torino. Carolee groaned in the back, she had a hangover from doing drugs all night with her friends. Starr had caught her sleeping too. Amy Grant played on the radio, and Starr sang along, wearing her hair in a sort of messy French twist like Brigitte Bardot, and long dangling earrings.
She looked like she was going to a cocktail lounge, and not to the Truth Assembly of Christ. A modern fruitwood cross loomed in front, and a woman with a puffy hairdo played the organ. Her skirt was so short I could see where the dark part of her pantyhose started. The organ playing crescendoed and a man walked to the lectern wearing a dark suit and tie with shiny black shoes, like a businessman.
I thought he would wear a graduation-type robe. His short, side-parted brown hair glistened like cellophane under the colored lights. Now Starr sat very straight, hoping he would notice her. As he spoke, I was surprised that he had a sort of speech defect. By the Cross, we have been saved. He lifts us up to the life. He was good. Starr flapped her hand, nudged me and pointed at the Reverend, as if there was anything else to look at. If there was something you wanted, it was good, because you wanted it.
There was no God, no dying. There was only your own pleasure. It had infiltrated his heart, weakening the structure of his conscience, liquefying his judgment. Luckily, in prison, the young man had a revelation. He realized he was a part of a raging epidemic of the sin virus, and through another inmate discovered the Lord and the life-giving serum of His Blood.
Now he was preaching to the other inmates and doing good works among the hopeless. Although he was twenty-five years into a life sentence, his life was not a waste.
He had a reason for being, to help others, and bring the Good News to people who had never looked an inch beyond their own momentary desires. He was redeemed, a new man, reborn in the Lord. Then something had happened. A light had come on, which let him see the awful reality of his crime. I imagined his agony, when he saw what a monster he had become and knew that he had ruined his life for nothing. He could have killed himself, how very close he must have come.
But then came the ray of hope, that there might be another way to live, some meaning after all. And he prayed, and the spirit came into his heart. And now, instead of living out his years as a walking corpse in San Quentin, hating and more hate, he had become someone with a purpose, someone with the light within him.
I understood that. I believed it. But we have to recognize the danger we are in. We have to receive the knowledge of our responsibility to the heavenly power, and our own vulnerability. I could feel the weight of the receiver as I put it on the cradle. My responsibility. My infection. And those who choose to serve themselves instead of the Heavenly Father will experience the deadly consequences. What Reverend Thomas was saying was true. I had contracted the virus. I had been infected all the while.
There was blood on my hands. I thought of my beautiful mother, sitting in her tiny cell, her life at full stop. She thought she could justify anything, even murder, just because it was what she wanted. She had no conscience. Satan would not serve. And I was crying, my tears coming down. We were dying inside, my mother and I. If only we had God, Jesus, something larger than ourselves to believe in, we could be healed.
We could still have a new life. I closed my eyes as he laid me back in the square pool behind the Assembly building, my nose filling with chlorine. I wanted the spirit to enter me, to wash me clean. I knew where following my own would get me. Nobody had ever given me a party before. Starr gave me a white leatherette Bible with passages highlighted in red. Uncle Ray gave me a tiny gold cross on a chain. Even though he thought I was nuts to be baptized.
His hand rested on my neck, warm, heavy. His good plain face, sad hazel eyes. And I realized he wanted to kiss me. I felt it inside me. And when he saw that I felt it, he reddened and looked away. You may not 1 be baptized, 2 call yourself a Christian, and 3 write to me on that ridiculous stationery. No woman with any selfrespect would have done less.
To dare to see is to steal fire from the Gods. Three cheers for Eve. She took a life because someone humiliated her, hurt her image of herself as the Valkyrie, the stainless warrior. Exposed her weakness, which was only love. So she avenged herself. So easy to justify, I wrote to her. If you were really strong, you could have tolerated the humiliation.It was a scam, my mother said, and I wanted to tell them so, but their beauty seemed a charm.
Men admired her, smiled, stared. I could see it, the jewel, it was sapphire, it was the cold lakes of Norway. Nobody ever came to our door. Then came a time I can hardly describe, a season underground.
They took me away, spoke to me in languages that had no words for strange mothers with ice-blue eyes and apartments with ugly sparkles on the front and dead leaves in the pool.
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