By Elaine Olsen Thompson
"Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known men; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you and do ye to them as is good in your eyes . . ." Genesis, Ch.19, verse 8
I didn't know what dogma meant at age ten, but I was admirably able to conjure coyotes into being. They slinked around in these hills, while I studied the sky where my mother told me the heavenly kingdom stood-a bright castle, I imagined. Spirits flew out from there, and it was a woman's job to give them a home in her belly so they could become babies and have a chance to make decisions. Of course, if they made the wrong choices, they'd be condemned to hell-the scary part of that story.
Daddy was an atheist. He and my mother disagreed on everything. I never understood why they married. Now I'm forced to return home, and the moonlike hills that I pass, done in beige to near black (as familiar as childhood pets), tell me that a big emotional showdown is not more than a couple of hours away.
The wipers, whipping across the windshield, chant, "Richard/Richard/ Richard, alternating with "Mother/Mother/Mother." I switch them to high to keep my vision clear, and they shout, "Death/death/death" in double time. I search for a trading post I know to be near. I'm hurting for a cup of coffee.
Finally the sunshine stabs through the clouds, bringing brilliant pillars of light against the dark Vermillion Cliffs, a picture that might be found in an illustrated Bible where God is about to deliver a revelation. Instead I see the trading post and park next to the only other car, a Lexus with California plates.
A man, huge, like Beowulf, and cut from rusted metal-his eyes made of brass balls set in copper circles-stares out over the empty space toward the red chasm where the Colorado River flows. I hurry. Inside, the smells of beer and hamburger greet me. A blond waitress watches. I take a stool at the bar.
Four men sit in a booth. One looks much like my father, strong, cutting features and curly hair. He directs his sunburned nose at me, while his hamburger waits in his big-fingered grip. He smiles, broadly, not at me, just smiles into space. I'm inclined to say, "Father?"
I may be falling into the crazy-bin here: Father died a year ago. The man and his companions-well into their cups-laugh at jokes they pass among themselves, some squealing with glee at their cleverness. I'm reminded of the sunroom in my childhood home.
The waitress, attractive in spite of her double chin, stands before me. In a vague way, I sense I know her.
I feel I've stepped into a rabbit's hole in this place, a mere trading post in the desert. And yet it appears that actors have collected to perform tricks on my senses and increase my anxiety. The waitress brings me coffee with an eerie, in-your-eye-contact and says, "I think I know you."
* * *
I think I see a flush in her cheek as she studies me. Finally she nods, slowly, suspiciously. But I am interested. I'm drawn to her in this funny way. We share so much that she doesn't know about. I'd like to tell her, but then she'd really be upset.
"Headed home, huh?" I say to ease the situation.
"Visiting my mother," she says, indifferent. Even as a child, she was aloof. I remember her in church and in choir practice. I feel like challenging her, breaking through her plastic exterior.
"Your mother was once the church organist, wasn't she?" I say, teasing her with my knowledge. She obviously doesn't recognize me.
"Yes," she says, puzzled. Frowning. She looks back at the door. Probably wishes I'd go away.
"I loved your mother," I say. "Truly." I shrug and lean toward her. "She taught me so much," I whisper, indicating vast secrets. "And she did so many nice things, didn't she? Always."
Her mouth drops open the tiniest bit, and her mint breath bathes me. I've got her number now, but the men laugh in their intoxicated way and disrupt her puzzled examination of me.
"They're fishermen," I say. "Probably spent the day with Doby. He sends all his customers to me."
"Yeah. A guide. Takes them up the Colorado River to the dam and back. Shows 'em the pools. Sometimes he even hooks the fish for them and then lets them reel 'em in. After the catch, he takes their picture. Then they throw the fish back in the river. Well, most of the time."
"What are you doing way down here in House Rock Valley?" she says.
"I had to get away. Such a gossipy town, you know. Things got out of hand-sort of."
How stupid can I be? Now she'll think the worst. Changing the subject, I add, "I partially own this place. I'm happy here." I wave my hand to show how amazed I am about my ownership. I did say partially-I'm honest that way. I could never claim to own this dream by myself, but now I'm getting into forbidden territory again. I watch her interest as she studies the back bar mirror with its turquoise frame, fronted with a colorful vase and eye-striking artificial flowers made in Mexico. She might recognize her mother in the way this place is decorated. I unbutton the top button on my blouse. "It's warm today, isn't it?" I say. The men laugh.
"It's warm. And humid." She nods. Her voice is a deep alto-a musical sound.
"You must be Karen's little sister. So I'm guessing your name is Sharon. Right?"
She doesn't answer, and I turn even more nervous. "It's a beautiful name, like a rose. There is a Rose of Sharon isn't there?"
"I don't know much about roses," she says, a touch of annoyance in her voice, "but, yes, my name is Sharon Sloveskie."
"Oh, married!" I say. "Wow. Never heard that name before."
She examines me, brows gathered in her generally placid and pricelessly alluring face.
"Where's your husband," I say and then add, "If you don't mind my askin'?"
"Working," she tells me.
"What does he do?"
"Does that scare you? The terrorists? Gall, that'd scare me to death."
She's cool, I'll tell ya. Always was. Not like the rest of her family. I guess a part of me doesn't like her superior airs. Her mother always said she was like her father, an atheist, one of the worst things a person can be around here. Might as well hang a target around your neck. I guess it's the same everywhere. People hate atheists.
"I'm sorry, but I can't remember your name," she says.
"Celeste Jones," I tell her.
"Oh, I remember now." Her face brightens; her rosebud lips form a smile and her finger points at me. "You played basketball. Took state championship."
"Yeah." She suddenly seems to accept me. "A long time ago," I add.
The men in the booth hee-haw.
We both look at them and shrug.
Sharon rises from her stool, leaving two bucks on the counter for me. I'm amazed. Must have read her wrong. I melt. Want to hug her-she looks so much like her mother.
"I've got a long way to travel," she says in an apologetic way. "And I think it might rain again." She stops at the door and looks back. "Do you get lonely out in this wilderness?"
"Nah," I say. "There are neighbors about. Scattered, but friendly."
"By the way, you own this place with someone else?" she asks, squinting like a reporter planning to write a story.
I'm paralyzed for a moment, reminded of how she studied the vase filled with flowers. "Yes," I say, "but that's a secret. I want you to tell your mother hello for me. She's terribly sick. Or, so I've heard."
"Well, everybody knows."
Sharon shows a slow and lazy smile. I have no idea why she would do that at the mention of her mother. I wave at her and experience a hot flash. The door closes. The men laugh. I open a beer.
* * *
My child-spirit wilts. I'm five again, or maybe ten, or even sixteen. My mother hovers over me like a vast, ghostly giant. Now she has cancer and is going to die.
Father died only a year ago. I drove this same route to visit him in Salt Lake City. Mother wasn't there. My parents hadn't seen each other in years.
I took my father's hand and leaned over him, hoping he would speak some philosophical last words for me to live by. He didn't respond at all. He only sucked air like a man, drowning. "Pneumonia," his doctor said. "Nothing we can do."
The nurse-a man-said, "Talk to him. He will hear you."
I froze, not knowing whether to believe him or not. I didn't know what to say. What could I say to my father? I watched him grabbing air and whispered, "Thank you, Daddy." I didn't say I love you. I said, "Thank you," and felt silly. Why would he care under the circumstance? "Life is a play, a delusion"-that's what he used to say. And the curtain was about to fall. "Did you hunt fossils as a defense against delusion, Daddy?"
Strange question. Probably came from my own insecurity about death. Daddy would have said, "When you find a significant fossil, you're stepping into the realm of truth." In my own mind and as a child, I always added, "And truth will make you free," picturing brilliant light where angels sang on high.
For three nights and days, Daddy fought for life before his huge lungs quieted-nights and days of terror.
"Your mother wants you to be a good Mormon so you can be with her in her Celestial Kingdom. That's important," he once said.
"But I want to be with you, Daddy."
"That's nice, honey-love, and I want to be with you. Just like now. Always live for now because life is literally a fucking accident," he said. He touched my hand and smiled. "Don't tell Mommy I said that."
"Is that why you and Mommy separated?"
"Partly. But not the whole story."
I had never heard the "whole" story. My life was a game of secrets when I was a kid.
"Flow with timelessness and yet be interconnected," Buddha said. "It leaves one bemused, gentle, and unflappable." I've been studying Buddhism, lately. As I drive, I try to flow with timelessness and be unflappable, but my body feels weighted. Sometimes I think I'm suffocating-especially now on the way to reunite with my childhood.
A last tiny town on the Arizona Strip has a Mormon church built of rust-colored brick. I went to a church exactly like that. My father never attended after I turned seven or eight. I sat with my sister Karen-named after our mother. "Why here's Karen and Sharon," everyone said as if we were twins. People (women mostly) always talked to Karen because she was the eldest and could answer more properly. "Where's your father today?" they'd say. "Finding fossils," Karen would answer.
Early on, I knew how important it was to dress well for church, but I always had to wear Karen's hand-me-downs. I felt like an impostor, an actress imitating my older sister, with only emptiness inside. "But you look so pretty," my mother said.
Karen has blond curls and eyes like Daddy's. Mother and I have large eyes with hooded lids and straight hair. Some people say my eyes appear sleepy. Bedroom eyes. I prefer soulful, although I don't exactly know what that means. Is it religious? Spiritual? Or simply self-centered?
Karen's husband, Richard Bingham, has dark, almost black hair. He raped me shortly after he and Karen were married. We hadn't even received the wedding pictures back from the drugstore yet. I left home. Went to college in Arizona. Daddy paid my way, but I never told him about Richard. Never told anyone.
Out of college, after studying journalism to become an investigative reporter-delving into secrets-I landed a job on television as a weather person. I learned to be jolly, sexy, and somewhat silly-in my opinion-but in spite of my effort, I didn't last. "You lack personality," the manager said. I cried. He patted me with sympathy and said he'd find something else for me. The something else was to interview the local rich and famous about their home furnishings and architecture. The people I interviewed had perfect skin, hair and teeth. They dressed as if they were auditioning for a soap opera. Made me feel dowdy.
After he raped me, Richard said, "You asked for it." God, what guts he had. Fucking bastard. And I'm headed his way.
My parents met at the University of Utah. Mom majored in education and, to earn money, typed and edited term papers for graduate students. My father was one of her customers. I imagine their romance as an argument over syntax or the use of verbs.
Shortly after my mother's graduation, she landed a job teaching biology at the high school in Berksville. Daddy took leave from his doctoral program and bought us an old Victorian house and then took a job at the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, which was a long way out into the wilderness. He came home every other weekend in the beginning, but then stopped altogether.
Mother didn't mind. She worked on the house, bought used furniture that she painted with colors like chartreuse, orange and pink. She covered the sofa and chairs with bright fabrics and placed large pots filled with shockingly vivid artificial flowers all about. The flowers, which she bought in Nogales, made our home appear happy-a feeling I never quite acquired.
Mother found a Mexican artist in Nogales who copied famous people like Rivera-who loved Easter lilies and brown women. She hung his pictures all over our walls. After we girls were grown, she bought paintings of grossly fat women from the same artist. The women's tiny feet teetered on high heels, their faces ecstatic, as they danced about, making my Mother's bedroom, where she hung them, seem like a party in progress. But mother's attitude was generally dower. She spent hours at church, practicing the organ, and at home, she admonished me to practice the piano and Karen the violin. She said Karen had exceptional talent, and we grew up knowing that Karen was special. She played at all kinds of church functions.
When Daddy did come home, he brought friends. They played pinochle in the sunroom where Mother raised herbs. Mother would wash the dinner dishes, slamming kitchen cabinet doors and hustling about with angry energy while Daddy and his friends told stories and laughed. One story, I remember, involved being swallowed by a whale and taking along a backpack and a butane lamp to study the interior. The story appealed to me much more than the fright in the story of Jonah, but Mother told me I mustn't pay attention to Daddy's rediculous stories.
Karen agreed with Mother, Daddy told silly stories. We both said that sometimes, but I didn't really believe it.
Karen dressed in homemade frills, lace and ruffled skirts. After about a year, I inherited these fanciful clothes. When we walked along the streets, women would stop us and tell Mother what wonderfully cute girls she had. Karen was taller than me back then, bright eyed, curly headed and verbal. Mother brushed her hair, which made Karen squeal and sometimes cry because it was so curly. I brushed my own hair, which was straight. Mother kept it short to make sure I took out all the snarls. She would then pull it into a ponytail and secure it with red elastics. It spangled out of the back of my head in all directions like a spewing fountain. Mother said I looked cute.
She fed on the compliments she received from the women at church. The men praised her talent at playing the organ, and everyone lauded her teaching. I thought she was taller and had greater beauty than any other woman I knew. But I felt overpowered in her presence.
Mother and Karen got along well-they were buddies. I longed for my father's warmth and was finally allowed into his custody one summer.
At home I retreated to my bedroom, read a lot, wrote poetry and little stories for kids. A teacher Mom knew allowed me to read my stories to her second-grade class. I wrote a story about a girl who felt left out. After I read it, I asked the children if they ever felt left out. Yes they did, they said. They often felt left out. The teacher was shocked to learn this.
In junior high, I began making my own clothes. My first project was a straight purple dress tied with a red sash and slit in back so I could walk freely. It had a mandarin collar and cap sleeves. I also sewed a purple hat with a five-inch shade that made me appear sophisticated-at least I thought so. Mother said, "My gad, you look like a whore."
As a teen, I had grown taller than Karen and could no longer wear her ruffled and ribboned clothes. I loved this distinction between us. I was becoming myself, and only Daddy seemed to understand, but he was never home. He sometimes wrote me letters, and I sent him my stories.
* * *
As I approach the front door, I feel fright. If I examined it closely, I might find terror. It wells towards my throat as I ring the bell.
The door flies open, and I'm greeted by a frumpy fat woman whom, at first, I think I don't know. Then I recognize her as Karen. Behind stands Richard. The fat woman comes forward and hugs me, but my attention is fixed on her husband, who stands holding the door, his baldness a shining arc, his band of black hair clipped close, making a pattern as precise as a military map. His eyes widen, perhaps in answer to my stare, and his thin lips curve. I think he has the mark of the KBG or Ashcroft's FBI. For some crazy reason, I remember saying to my husband, "We have nothing in common, Carl. Our lives simply don't intersect." That was two years ago, before we separated.
"Hello, Richard," I say.
"Hello, you lovely woman. It's great to see you. Come in. Come in."
"Any luggage? I'll bring it in," he says.
"I'll get it later. I'm here to see Mother." I brush by him and enter the living room. It seems smaller. Crowded. I realize a partition has been added at one end to make an intrusive second room. "Where are the children?" I ask.
"At college," Karen answers.
She takes my arm and leads me forward. "Mother's in the family room. The stairs are too much for her."
Karen Decker Blake lies on a slightly raised hospital bed. She stares at me with big dark eyes. Purple pouches hang below them. Does she know me? Or is she arriving at a judgment concerning my appearance?
"Hello, Mother. How are you feeling?"
Shit, how bland can I be? She's dying damn it.
"You're here," she says.
"Yes, Mother. I came as soon as I could."
She closes her eyes as if to sleep.
I know Mom fears emotional situations. I pick up her thin, cold hand, fearing my own emotions. "I'm glad to be here, Momma." (I think I might cry.) "I'm so sorry to see you this way. What does the doctor say?"
"He's a fool," she mumbles. "I'm on morphine all the time."
"Richard takes care of them." She sighs and her chest seems to collapse. She's terribly thin. "What do you hear from Carl?" she says.
"Carl is married to another woman, Mom. I keep telling you that."
"There's a good man here in town, a widower." She appears to sleep for a moment and then, with effort, adds, "I want you to meet him."
"Mother, I'm here for you. I don't want to meet anyone." I kiss her fingers and lay her hand back on the bed.
She heaves a ragged breath that carries a sound of discomfort and says, "The bishop down there said you left town. Is that right?"
"It's temporary, Ma. Don't worry about it. I think you need some rest, and I need a shower. I'll see you in a little bit," I say, but sleep seems to have taken her, and I doubt if she hears me. I'm ready for a big shot of whisky.
When I turn, Karen hugs me.
"Hungry? I want us to go out for dinner. How about in an hour." She checks her watch.
"Is Richard coming?"
"No. Richard will stay with Mother."
"That's good," I say.
Karen smiles and kisses me on the cheek. "We're so happy to have you home."
* * *
Here they come back. Empty handed. Surprise, surprise, I already took Sharon's suitcase up to her room. Guess they finally figured that out.
I partitioned off this side of the living room and created an office for myself. Even when I leave the sliding door open, the family understands this area is off-limits.
I wonder what Sharon will think when she learns that Mother willed this house to me and Karen. We earned it, taking care of her. Providing her with grandkids. If Karen hadn't had so many miscarriages, we'd have had a bunch by now, a baseball team. I often thought about polygamy, the chance to have a son for God's sake. A lot of men have spirit wives, hidden off in another town. Some have half-dozen kids by other wives. But I follow the rules. I'm a one-hundred-and-ten-percent kind of guy when it comes to rules.
Wonder if Ma mentioned Delbert to Sharon. He'd make a good husband for her. Tame that female a notch. Help her gain salvation. She probably thinks I don't like her, but I do. I want her saved. Karen's already doing work for the dead. She has saved her father.
I hear the girls giggle upstairs. What are they up to? Why was Karen so anxious for me to not go along tonight? Old times sake she said. Got on her knees and begged-which was silly. But I liked it. There's something stimulating about seeing a woman on her knees. Get on your knees, bitch.
Karen is back. Walked into the kitchen, fixing me and Ma's supper, I guess. I'm still wondering about all the secrecy-this wanting to be alone. Maybe I'll slip upstairs and talk to Sharon. Probably scare hell out of her, but that's okay. Get on your knees, bitch.
* * *
"Sensitive, aren't you?" he says.
"Don't ever touch me again, Richard Bingham." I look at him so hard that my eyes might pop out of my head. He grins his FBI grin.
"No need for hysterics," he says. "You don't interest me in a physical way anymore."
"I want to know one thing from you. Then I don't want to so much as see you again."
"Why did you contact my bishop in Phoenix and tell him all those lies? Like I was emotionally unstable."
"Number one, I think you are emotionally unstable. I think you need help. Number two, it was your mother's idea."
"I don't lie. Ma was worried. All those troubles."
"Couldn't hold a man. No kids. No grandkids for Ma."
I squint at him. Step closer. Speak slowly. "Women who are raped have problems with men, Richard Bingham. And, thanks to you, I have problems with men. Now you leave me out of your life. Understand?"
He's silent. Stumped. I think to say, "I know you're not too bright, Richard . . ." But I don't know if he's bright or not. He apparently has Mother hoodwinked. Probably will inherit this whole kit and caboodle. I turn, walk into the bathroom and lock the door.
* * *
I used to be the dominant one-the star. Now I feel wilted. Old and fat. It's hard to remember life being different. Fun has fled. Richard decides everything. Now Sharon, too. I think I'm becoming infantile.
Sharon was Daddy's favorite. She once stayed with him all summer up at that dinosaur dig. I only lasted a week when it was my turn. We stayed in a tent. No-see-ums everywhere. Tarantulas, too. Daddy kept saying, "Stop whining." Finally, he brought me home.
I direct Sharon to turn south on the highway. "The restaurant is out of town," I say. "A motel of all places, but the owner was once a famous chef. Can't remember where, but he's retired now. His daughter, an old maid, runs the motel."
"She's single, Karen. Not an old maid."
"I'm an old maid, too, then."
"You were married."
"Doesn't matter-but let's not argue."
"You've changed, you know that?"
"I hope so."
"Mother wants you to meet Delbert."
"I'll scream if you mention who Mother wants me to meet."
"You like being single?"
"Isn't it lonely?"
"Not especially. I'm a serial monogamist, one man after another. Much more interesting."
"Sharon, how can you say that?"
"Don't get excited. It's not as bad as it sounds."
"Sometimes I wish I were single, but not in the way you're talking about. I think Richard thwarts my talent."
"Don't tell Mother I said that."
"Do you still play the violin?"
"You must be kidding." I smile because it has been so long since I touched my violin, but also because I see the restaurant. I don't want to talk about me anymore.
* * *
"That would be fine," I say, looking about, seeing that we are the only guests. A top-notch chef? "We'd like to sit near the window," I say. Our waitress waves a hand, indicating that we should sit where we please. I think she might be from Lebanon or some place in the Middle East, a long way from home and sulky about it. Probably can't find friends here. I had a hard time finding friends here.
"Their soup is delicious," Karen assures me.
"Do you remember Celeste Jones?"
Karen turns pale. Her eyes search me as if I have accused her of something. "Why?" she says.
"She's a waitress down in House Rock Valley. I ran into her on my way up here. She gave me a strange feeling."
"What do you mean?"
"Something between her and Mother."
"What? Why?" Her eyes are large with curiosity-or perhaps fear.
"What do you know about her?"
Karen looks down. Holds onto the silverware that is wound tightly in a paper napkin.
She looks up. "What do you know?"
"Not a damned thing."
"I wish you wouldn't swear."
"Sorry. Tell me what's going on. This thing is scaring you."
"Well, it should. It's awful."
"Celeste was Mother's . . . oh," she sighs as if pain were welling up from her stomach. Squeezing her eyes closed, she says, "I don't know how to put it." Waving a hand, she announces, "Lover."
"Oh, my God. Lover? Mother's a lesbian?" My mouth opens and laughter spills across the room. My brain thinks this is a cosmic joke because I don't yet believe it.
"Don't laugh," she says, shaking her head. "Mother nearly died of shame."
Immediately, I sober. "Shame?"
"Of course. She was excommunicated. Lost her job as an organist. Ruined. She tried to reform. Tried hard. Then depression set in. Now cancer. The whole thing is horrible."
"Don't say words like that. It disturbs me. I had to raise two girls, Sharon. My husband is in the priesthood."
"Sorry. I'm not used to being in . . . this culture. I . . . forget."
The dark girl brings our soup. I smile at her, say, "Smells delicious." She smiles beautifully, makes me feel giddy. I want to leave with her as she walks back to the kitchen. I want to disappear into her hideaway, into another land. "Do you have an empty cabin that I could rent for the night?" I call to her.
"Yes. I want to spend the night."
She brings me a registration card to fill out.
I set it aside and look at Karen. "I love you, Karen. And I feel really concerned about you."
Tears run down her cheeks. I hand her a hanky and rise to hug her, remembering the class of children who felt left out.
* * *
"Because she woke up. In pain. You don't know about all the pain she's gone through. You didn't come to help, did you? No. Too busy. To hell with your mother. She asked for you. Wanted to talk to you. But no. You're always too busy."
"Good night, Karen," I said and walked away.
"Where's she going?" Richard said.
"To a motel."
"That's great. Just great. Our sister comes to visit and stays in a motel. What will people think? Why did you let her do that?"
I closed the door behind me, hoping that Richard didn't strike Karen. For a moment it looked like he might. When I got to my car, the door opened again and Richard yelled, "Hey. Come back here."
I fairly leaped into my car and drove away.
* * *
Today I'm driving. It's all down hill. There are mountain passes, but the earth is generally graded toward the Colorado River.
Easy going, down hill. I seem to be headed home, but something somewhere must stop me. Mother's funeral is tomorrow.
I'm shocked to see the trading post-I've come so far. Suddenly I want to see Celeste. I want to examine her as my mom's lover. She's the person who drove my father away. Left me unprotected, an orphan. A cup of coffee, I think. I'll simply sip coffee and stare at her. Scour her with my scorn.
She spots me right away, although the place is crowded for Sunday lunch. I angle to an empty space at the bar. She carries plates, passing to a booth, glances at me with big sad eyes. She knows. Her pain hits me in the throat like a dart. My own pain-which I have willfully denied-brings tears. I wipe them in anger; wish I had stayed in my Volvo, headed down to the river. I sit at the bar, looking at the vase filled with flowers. How could my mother have done this immoral thing?
Celeste brings me coffee without asking. She's busy. Sometimes she laughs with the customers, mostly fishermen, but if any of them had an ounce of perception, they'd see her anguish.
Celeste was so impressive when I was young. Tall. All that blond hair. A star like my sister, only much older. She never noticed someone like me, introspective and silent. What is it like for two women to make love?
I remember a prize-winning poster back in fifth grade, submitted by a sixth grade boy, of course. It showed a fork in the road. The bad branch said, "Drugs," followed by skull and crossbones. The other said, "Clean-living," and showed a happy stickman riding a bike. My life was full of uncreative advise on choosing the right fork. I could take the road to hate right now, but I'm puzzled instead. The land is amorphous. What is it like to screw another woman? How could my right-living mother do it?
The people thin out. The cash register rings. Good bys are spoken and then, Celeste stands before me. "Could we sit in a booth?" I say.
I want to ask her about Mother. How did it happen? Sitting in a booth, I say, "You and Mom . . . You were lovers."
She stares at me. Her sagging cheeks and wrinkled neck appear obscene, unlovable. "What was it like?" I ask.
She looks at her fingers, moves them, studies the mechanics of movement.
"My father left me," I say, accusingly.
"I'm sorry," she says.
"I grew up alone."
"I know. I grew up alone, too."
"I didn't fit in anywhere." Her eyes lower. "Didn't fit." She shakes her head.
"I was a bad girl, a sinner," she says. "Unredeemable. All I could do was move. Move hard. Play basketball. Ride horses. Jump hurdles . . .. Cry. I cried a lot."
I squint at her; see a child. The child is about to cry. I reach out, almost touching her. She grabs my hand as if sinking in quicksand. I'm flabbergasted. "Forgive me," she says and lets go of my hand to wipe her eyes and blow her nose.
I need to cry as well. But, thank God, the tears won't come. "I didn't know," I say. "You seemed so self-assured." She looks up, gives a soft snort, shakes her head.
I try to visualize her and Mom together. Their arms entwine as I watch. They kiss. I'm shocked and shut my eyes. How can I behold such a thing?
When I was a kid, I knew Mother didn't care if Dad came home. She was happy without him, and I hated her for it. I shot eye-arrows in her direction every time she wanted me to do anything her way, like play the piano or wear Karen's clothes. I rebelled constantly. I feel sweaty from remembering my arrogance. Or was it confusion? I wanted her to love me but felt that she didn't. Perhaps because I was 'uncooperative' as she used to say. When Daddy sent me to Arizona, she begged me not to go. I took satisfaction in leaving her, but once in my dorm, I felt terrorized by loneliness. I wipe away tears and sip my cold coffee. "How could we be so mixed up?" I say. The tears come again, and I can't stop them.
"I don't know," I hear Celeste say. "Let's go back to my living room. We'll both have a good cry."
She fixes sandwiches. "Food will help," she says. We sit on her sofa in the back. I gaze at the painting of a naked brown woman, kneeling before a crucifixion, her arms full of lilies. It's a beautiful picture, reverent and peaceful.
"You are going to the funeral aren't you?" I say.
Celeste appears horrified, shaking her head, saying, "No. No. I can't. People would talk."
"Let them. They talk anyway. They used to say Daddy was evil, leaving his wife and children. Renouncing his religion. And Daddy used to say, 'The highest level of morality is being concerned for other people.' I never thought much of his saying because I'd have to be concerned for Richard, and Richard's an ass-hole."
Celeste laughs, probably shocked by my words. Then asks, "Why do you say that?"
"Because he raped me."
"Oh, my." Her eyes grow large. She takes my hand. "I feel awful. For you. Awful."
"I'm getting over it. Slowly. Let's go to the funeral together."
Her eyes turn curiously excited. She smiles, brushes away hair that is sopped to her cheek and says, "Maybe." A funny grin forms.
* * *
Richard's eyes follow us as if he's seeing the embodiment of hell, fire, and brimstone walking before him. I see redness in his face, his thin lips clamped, holding onto rage. Karen and her sweet daughters have dismay on their faces, and Mother's sister and brother frown as if asking, "Who the hell are these women?" But all are stuck with appearing proper, silent and grief stricken. The people in attendance sit nudging each other and furtively pointing our way. They whisper, but they do it with grace and solemnity. We all know so much about pretending.