Green Hills Literary Lantern

Clay

 

             “What do you want to be called?”  her daughter had asked the day she discovered she was pregnant for the first time with a being whose proof of existence consisted of a digital swirl that more resembled the snow of failed television reception than it did the sparking of a new generation.  Sarah was skeptical, even superstitious, about such premature efforts to influence the mind of her offspring’s offspring. If she’d learned anything in life so far, it was that it was necessary to concede how little sway one had over other people or events. 

            Still, she was drawn into the spirit of re-naming herself.  The generic “Grandmother,” no article,  summoned up Little Red Riding Hood or, when her son-in-law said it, wise old squaw, which, though wizened-sounding, at least conferred a measure of respect as opposed to obsolescence. “Grannie” was a poorly-executed square knot, while “Gran’ma,” which was what she’d called her own unlettered, soup-making forebear, was too close to Granma, the name of the boat in which Fidel Castro had returned to Cuba at the success of his revolution.  If you believed the newspapers, which she’d spent most of her life not doing, Fidel was gravely ill or even dead.  How could the steely Fidel be old and dying, even if the reactionaries had been waiting for it all these years?  He must be a grandfather many times over by now—Abuelito, little grandfather, like Heshie, except two years ago Heshie had died and left her the sole living root of their family tree.  In the end, she’d settled on “Grannie,” though she winced when she first heard her daughter say it almost gleefully, as if her new title might evoke from her a more unconflicted  maternal impulse than “mother” ever had.  

            Tonight,  Sarah stands waiting in the dirt turn-around between her 40s bungalow and the canyon road.  Her aging yellow lab, Barcelona, waits with her for the arrival of what she thinks of, when in one of her more existential moods, Generation III. The grandchildren. The house is the one she and Heshie bought before he got sick. It stands close to the highest point on the canyon road,  at a topographical divide from which everything, certainly anything liquid, must run either back down into the valley or the other way, to the sea. The gutters need cleaning,  the wood could use a coat of paint, and the chaparral has crept in a good deal closer than the fire department’s one-hundred-foot limit.

            The stillness is broken by a passing car using the canyon as a route to the Valley. The eroded roadsides are pale with sand and clay and rocks that sift down through brush still blue-green from underground water. It hasn’t rained in nearly a month. The moon’s hardening  image stands high in the dark lit sky above a concave dry creek wall that bristles with dead-end roots of chaparral. Everywhere, the earth is coated with powder as fine as what she uses for the clay she throws on an old kick wheel in her garage studio.

             A breeze stirs the creosote plants.  She’s seen rattlesnakes and bobcats up here and one early evening the previous summer, a mountain lion.  La Pantera, she thought as she looked into its eyes.  La Pantera was what her husband called her in their activist days. An honorific from the mythology of the Spanish Civil War,  it also became an artifact of their sex play. She stood  frozen that day, silently invoking Heshie’s protection while trying to recall what she was supposed to do in the face of a wild animal. After several moments,  the puma, as if bored,  had just turned and walked away.  Tonight, except for Barcelona, she is alone in the fading light.

            A car engine, straining on the grade, relents as it approaches the crest of the hill, but  passes by. Not them. 

             This is the first time she’s agreed to take the grandchildren for an entire weekend. Three years before, her family tree, which, it seems to her,  has been filling out like a sycamore in early spring, produced a second member of Generation III, a female named after both Sarah’s deceased  mother and the goddess of the hunt.  Two nights,  two days, she thinks in biblically resonating terms. She draws a halting breath and anticipates the weekend with a familiar divergent frame of mind. On one hand, she wants to know these new people,  Henry and Diana. She wants to give her daughter a needed respite, since she knows how exhausting doing-it-all can be. In compensation for Heshie’s being gone, she wants to exert her–their—good influence. What she doesn’t want is to lose herself, to dissolve into them.

             At last, her son-in-law, who’s apparently drawn transport duty,  pulls into the driveway with their spit-polished, gas-guzzling SUV.   Generation III is just visible in the burnished interior lighting of the vehicle.  Both ride in separate car safety seat into which they are strapped like astronauts about to burst into the future.  Even when she glimpses  them through thick, tinted glass, Sarah sees something that frightens her. What is it in those clear, wide new eyes? Is it the way procreation interferes with the ability to think and reason? How it expands exponentially personal vulnerability? Is it the lure of selflessness or the swell of feeling that comes when she allows herself to think about generations passing and the immortality of DNA? 

              The son-in-law kisses her cheek with lips still cool from air-conditioning.  “The radio says there may be weather coming,” he says. 

              “One minute it’s El Niño,” she jokes to the broad-shouldered, cell-phone toting semi-stranger to whom she is mother-in-law. “The next it’s La Niña. We need some more rain. We’ve only had seven inches so far. Don’t worry about us. Well just stay put.”

             “You’ve got to be pretty tough to live up here.” The son-in-law’s gaze rises from house, to creek bed,  to the hillside beyond.  He opens the SUV door and reaches in to unlatch one child, then the other. “Okay, let’s get everybody out.” He unpacks them like cargo and sets them on their feet in the driveway dust and hands them their backpacks. “Say hello to Grandmother.”  

            Generation III stands before her, clutching comfort blankets, a doll, and a stuffed bear. 

            She bends to greet them. Their cheeks cool against hers and their thin arms around her neck immediately begin to induce in her exactly the altered cellular state she’s vowed to avoid.   

             “Tienen tus peluches,Sarah says in halting Spanish she’s learning at an adult school in the Valley.

            The children, who give her a blank look, started out bilingual, courtesy of a bright, upwardly mobile Latina nanny of ambiguous immigration status, but their Spanish lies dormant now that they’re in grammar school and therefore deign to speak only the language of the oppressor.  Spanish, of course, will soon be the language of the southwest again as it becomes de facto Mexico once more. 

           “You’ve got your stuffed animals,” Sarah says, translating.

            The son-in-law launches into a litany of cautions and reminders directed to the children, but primarily for her benefit. Wear your shoes, eat the food that’s on your plate, go to bed when you’re told. The children nod, compliant. 

            Sarah objects to the obsessive child-centeredness of the intervening generation (as if mankind had never produced offspring before), but especially as it appears to go hand in hand with a lack of concern for the state of the world at large. Everything they touch, she thinks, is prescribed, certified, or regulated by an official authority—the FDA, the DMV, the EPA. Child safety, at home and in automobiles,  is the new purview of an overzealous government, leaving child care, health care,  living wages and figurative safety nets to the whim of the capitalist marketplace.   Still, her policy is to hold her tongue.  She consoles herself with the thought that one day she will be the one to encourage them to be free spirits, to express themselves authentically in the increasingly regimented, overcrowded, cautious world they will inhabit, and, of course, to think about the world and the need to make things better.         

            The son-in-law’s final act before leaving them in her hands is to transfer both car safety seats, one slip-covered in leopard spots, the other in stitched blue denim, into the back seat of her  aging van, a decrepit vehicle permanently coated with canyon dust.  He then squats, lays one hand on each of their shoulders,  and makes intense eye-contact. “So, you kids are going to stay here with Grandmother while your mommy and I go off together  for a couple of days.  R & R. Okay?  I want you to cooperate and help out, right? And remember,” he intensifies his stare, “your Mommy and I love you very, very much.”

            He kisses each of them, and they straggle with their paraphernalia  toward the little brown cabin of a house where they are met by Barcelona, who manages to get them to fall all over her in the dust. 

            The son-in-law shakes his head.  “They love coming here. You going to be okay all alone with them?”

            “We’re good ’til Sunday,” Sarah says.  “After that,  I turn into a pumpkin.”

The son-in-law smiles uneasily.

             She points to a light just visible through the trees and brush. “My neighbor, Jack’s,  right over there,” she tells him, even though she knows he plans to be gone for the weekend.

            Jack is a rangy man in his seventies,  also, as she is,  a refugee from sea level. Good grandfather material, she sometimes thinks, which has nothing to do with her and Heshie, as she tells her dead husband at three in the morning when she can’t sleep. 

            She sleeps poorly,  a condition her doctor unhelpfully terms age-related insomnia.  Instead of pills,  she listens to the radio at low volume, tuned to a public station that carries the BBC late at night.  Despite in-depth reports of rape, female circumcision, and genocide in Africa,  precisely the outrages her generation has failed to stop, the accented commentators’  voices keep her from hearing the intrusion of her own mind—and Heshie’s.

            The son-in-law draws his cell phone from its holster at his belt and holds it out to her.  “I know you loathe these things,  but we’d like you to keep it just for the weekend while the kids are here.”

            She nods in silent surrender to the enormity of “we. He demonstrates the use of the phone, pointing and punching, and the infernal thing comes to life like a calliope. 

            “I doubt you’ll need to use it,” he says. “How about some classical music for the ring tone?”

            “Fine,” she says.  “Mahler?”

            “Done,” says he,  pressing, punching. 

            Grandiose tail lights pump on and off as the behemoth SUV pulls out onto the road.. The children have gotten up off the dog and are watching, too. A chill runs through her as the last traces of red  lights slide away into the silent canyon. She’s it now. For the next forty-eight hours,  her consciousness will not be her own. She will be at sea with her charges and responsible for the species the way Noah was.  This is not what she should be feeling, of course. She ought to be grateful that she is healthy and alive and that her relations with her daughter are resolved enough for her to be entrusted with Generation III  for what in the scheme of things is only a moment in time.  Still, her soul or some essential part of her is inexplicably at risk.  

            The grandchildren head for the only bedroom other than her own along a low-ceilinged, brown-carpeted hallway.  They heave their things onto two narrow twin beds, and, their reticence gone, go about re-establishing sibling frontiers. Mine, yours. How does it happen so fast? She still refuses to accept the idea that possessiveness and private ownership are  the natural, hard-wired way of the species. Two days, two nights. Which child will be the first to mention her lack of a  television set, a medium she thinks they see too much of at home? It will come when they first realize they miss their parents which will be when she has become less than fascinating to them.  Still, they are beautiful,  full of promise and, in a certain way, hers.

            She has prepared  food  for them, of course, bought at the farmers’ market down in Topanga or supplied  by Jack, who, by virtue of an astronomical monthly water bill, produces enough zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and Japanese eggplants to sustain himself with some to spare for her. Dinner will be couscous with sautéed vegetables, nuts, and raisins. She doesn’t eat meat or chicken anymore, nor fish. Generation III’s developing brains can hopefully  do without animal protein for one weekend.

 When she and Heshie  moved up into the canyon they’d decided they would do without a freezer as well as without a television, the production of energy being the ruination of the  planet. They were doing it for the grandchildren, Heshie said. They’d be gone in a decade or two, but Generation III would have no choice but to slog through some science fiction horror movie of a future. A bag of compensatory ice she’s picked up at the liquor store that afternoon stands melting in a bucket next to the back door.  

             Finicky, but polite, the children, cloth napkins tucked into the necks of their T-shirts,  move the food around in their plates. 

            “When can we see Jack?” Henry wants to know.  

            “Jack’s not going to be around this weekend,” she says.  “He’s gone to see his kids who are grownups and live up north.”

            “Why can’t he be our grandfather?” Diana asks.

            Jack’s relations with his own two kids are far from perfect,  probably due to an early divorce, but the advantage of being alive is undeniable. She says, “Grandpa Heshie is your grandfather, remember?  His picture’s right up there.” She points to the mantel and the picture of Heshie in rafting gear,  prescription goggles, orange life vest, iridescent helmet.  

            “But he’s dead,” says Diana.    

            “Yes, honey, your grandfather Heshie died,” Sarah says, gliding over a catch in her voice. 

            “Why did he die?” demands Henry. 

            “He had a very bad disease.”  As many times as she’s explained this to them, her mind returns inexorably to the months of too many doctors, serial bad news, and mutual white lies that ended with Heshie’s, by that time, not unwelcome death. 

            The grandson takes a peremptory swipe at his sister. “Can we still ride Jack’s pony?”

            “I don’t see why not.” She threads Henry’s golden locks behind his ears. “I promised to make sure Emmy Lou has her oats and water over the weekend.”     

            “Yeah! Yeah!  Emmy Lou!” Generation III erupts into cheers and jumps up and down on the kitchen floor,  prompting Barcelona to withdraw further into a corner. 

             She supervises the donning of pajamas and tooth brushing, then they sit together in the living room under the best lamp while she reads to them.   

             A blast of wind blows things around the yard and across the roof. The children are soon drowsing on the couch. Sarah eases out from between them, lifts Diana, the lighter of the two, and carries her down the hall.  The dark hair of the Huntress falls across her face, covering luxuriant eyelashes, her inheritance from Heshie’s people who vanished somewhere in the killing fields of middle Europe.   

            The grandson, who’s heavier,  has to be frog-walked to his bed.  Once in bed, he works himself around onto his stomach,  bottom in the air. She checks all doors and windows so they won’t slam or blow open suddenly.

            She stays up late before making her first attempt at sleep. On her final walk to her bedroom carrying a glass of water, she stops at a photograph of Heshie and herself, that time in Yosemite. He is grinning with the boyish pleasure he took from being outdoors in a magnificent  place. She appears more sober, looking almost severely into the camera  as if she can see what is coming.  

            Her bedside radio announces incoming low pressure.  A storm originating in the Gulf of Alaska is headed in their direction, although it is not clear where or when it will make landfall. At eleven, she turns to the BBC. The world is still in a very bad way.

            Generation III awakens early, clamoring  for Emmy Lou. The pony, in fact, can be heard  kicking the side of her stall, impatient for food.  It’s going to be a long day, Sarah thinks. She insists the children eat a hot breakfast, which they wolf down to get to Emmy Lou sooner.

            Voluminous white clouds edge over the mountains as Sarah and the children approach Jack’s place, which also could  use paint,  brush-clearing, and a trip to the landfill. The children eagerly assist in the feeding and watering of Emmy Lou,  adding an initial layer of dirt and dust to their Day Two clothing.  Sarah attaches a halter to the shaggy beast and leads her,  with Generation III aboard, in a winding course around Jack’s house and yard and hers.

            During the ride, there is a noticeable drop in the temperature. Tempestuous wind gusts are unleashed. Minutes later, a light rain begins. The children protest, but she insists they bring the pony back to her stall and leave her there with a supply of water and oats.  Within the hour, the rain goes from drizzle to rain to monsoon intensity.

            They retreat to the house, where she pulls out the baking things and sets up tasks for the children—from each according to his capacities. Soon all of them are barefoot, and the kitchen is a floury mess. Healthful muffins emerge from the oven so unrefined and bristling with seeds that she tells them it’s a recipe of the acorn-eating Tongva, who lived in these mountains before the white man came.  The children request frosting for the muffins, and she obliges, allowing them to smear their faces with the icing she concocts from confectioner’s sugar. They look at themselves in the mirror and laugh and stamp on the floor. Periodically, wearing a yellow hood from Heshie’s rain gear, she steps outside into the downpour. She studies the imprints her hiking boots leave in what just hours ago was a layer of dust.

             The first mention of television comes from Diana that evening at supper. By this time, the  rain has been coming down hard for several hours.  

            “ I know when it’s raining and your parents are far away you’d probably like to curl up and watch some television.” Sarah kisses the top of the granddaughter’s sleek dark head. 

            “Don’t you have enough money to buy a TV, Grannie?” asks Henry.  

            “I have money,  Sweetie. I just don’t think TV is so good for you.”

            “You mean it rots the brain?” Diana asks.

            “Maybe I think that just because I’m an old  hippy.”

            “You’re not old, Grannie,” says Diana.

            Henry nibbles at his food. “Are you really a hippy?” 

            “What do you think a hippy is?” Sarah laughs. 

            “They have long hair,” he declares.  

            “See, you have long hair, Grannie.” Diana fingers Sarah’s hair, which is softly drawn up and back at her neck, the way Heshie liked it.

             Before they’d moved up into the canyon, she’d  become weary of the increasingly bourgeois talk of their once activist contemporaries—package sea cruises past and future, coupled with dismay over the direction in which the world was headed, lest that tendency interfere with the same vacation trips. Maybe they were right. Her generation’s opportunity to set things right was all but expired.  The pinko-left-wing retirement home, where she and her friends used to joke they would spend their final old lady days together, had closed to make way for chic thrift shops and meditative tea emporiums. And now here it was.  She was a widow, before her time.

             She  herds the children out to the open garage she uses as a  pottery studio. Here the spatter of rain is loud. She’s still a novice at “throwing,” but she’s a purist when it comes to refusing to pay for water in pre-mixed bags of modeling clay. Generation III appears to forget television as they watch the mesmerizing operations of the clay-mixing machine.  Soon, they are pressing  palms, fingers and fingernails into hand-softened lumps of clay. They etch decorations into pinch pots with unfurled paperclips. 

              She works her own clay, caresses and massages it,  until it is warm and smooth and  like flesh to the touch. She moves to the wheel,  places her clay in the center, and kicks the old round stone to life. Soon the mound  is centered, running true between her hands and aspiring to a shape.

            An hour later, when she steps out into the rain, the surface of the driveway has assumed the consistency of modeling clay. The imprints of her boot treads remain pressed into the surface.   She’s alert for signs that the ground may be turning into what potters would call “slurry” or  “slip.”  Ominous numbers come back to her now as Heshie himself, who’d been an engineer, used to recite: two inches of rain in twenty-four hours produces ten pounds of water in every square foot of clay earth,  amounting to 50,000 pounds of water on a 50 by 50 foot lot. In 4 or 5 days, that amounts to 125 tons of water.  It has to go somewhere. 

            Heshie’s voice penetrates the rain spatter. “Nothing to worry about, mi Pantera. Our little square of mountain is draining well enough. You’re fine.” 

            Hearing his voice doesn’t jar her.  He’s never far away, and, as in life, he’s opinionated and emphatic though she doesn’t always agree with him.

            She returns to the wheel, presses a hollow into the center of her clay, then enlarges the opening, using the thumb of one hand on the outside and the ends of two fingers of the other on the inside.  She raises her hands together, inside and outside the pot, to instigate, like a genie, the upward elongation of the pot.

            Now the radio is saying rain continuing through Sunday night. 

            The children go to bed, but not without stories and songs she has to wring out of her memory. There’s little or no chance of sleep for her tonight.  She lies in bed, listens to the rain,  struggles with the sheets.  At eleven o’clock, she switches to the BBC.

            She awakens in the dark except for the aura of a nightlight she leaves on in the bathroom for the children.  The rain is still disturbingly loud on the roof. She steps outside the kitchen door. The saturated earth no longer holds her boot print for long.  The earth’s molecules slide by one another like over-watered modeling clay. She visualizes the ground absorbing water until the hillside becomes mud, oozes down, inundates the house, engulfs the furniture. She sees herself juggling two disoriented children.

            Heshie maintains his contrary view.  “Mi Pantera, you don’t want to be a sea-level shrinking violet who panics the moment the weather turns inclement. What will our grandchildren think?”

             He’s right about this. She doesn’t want to be a timid flat-lander, someone her grandchildren will come to think of as old and pitiable. She repositions the van closer to the road and returns to the house.  She will know when. 

            At two in the morning she awakens and steps out the kitchen door onto a flow of mud and sand. She slides on boots and makes her way around behind the house.  Rain hat streaming, she inspects the concave banks of the dry creek that’s been saturated and come to life. She bends to assess the state of the earth, then slips, but regains her footing. She takes another step and slips again, this time landing on her backside in the slop. She hesitates to get up until she can evaluate the condition of her knees and ankles. Moisture soaks through her pajamas. The earth has undeniably gone “slurry,”  maybe even  to “slip.”  The darkness around her is thick with the downpour. She remains on the ground like a thwarted child on the verge of crying.  “Damn you, Heshie,” she whispers. 

            The children are annoyed and floppy when she wakes them up. Still, they passively allow her to pull their jackets on over their pajamas. She wrestles on their shoes. Attending carefully to each step and trailed by Barcelona, she ferries them, one at a time, their arms unconsciously encircling her neck, to the car, where she manages to buckle one, then the other into their car seats. Barcelona, soggy by now, scrambles up into the front passenger seat.  

            She returns to the house one last time for the cell phone and to lock up. She turns onto the canyon road and begins to creep slowly down.  Dark, no street lights.  Just the grainy illumination of the rain by her headlights. The ditch on the uphill side of the road is a torrent, moving as fast as a trout stream. Invisible across the narrow road  on her left is the precipice into the deep canyon, a rugged vista of granite and chaparral by day, the abyss by night.

             She applies the brakes experimentally. She can stop the van, but always with a frightening little skid  to one side that comes first. She proceeds as slowly as possible. 

             “Are we going home now?” Henry’s voice is slack and drowsy.  

            She meets his eyes, which are nearly obscured by blond ringlets. “We’re going down to your house. I think we’ll be better off there because of this rain. That way, your parents won’t have to come all the way up here to get you.”

            The van inches down.

            “Are you fed up with us, Grannie?” Diana’s voice in the darkness.    

            Where is this coming from? Sarah wonders. Has the Huntress been making a psychological study of her all weekend?   “Of course not, ” she replies, her focus on the illuminated segment of road ahead.  “I love you and I want us all to be safe.”

            The road runs with water.  Rain pounds on the van roof.  Wipers labor on. With the van moving at the speed of a person walking, she steers along the uphill edge of the road,  the ditch on her right and the low guardrail on the canyon side.

            “Grannie?”  Diana again.

            “Yes?”

            “What about Emmy Lou?”

            Sarah applies the brakes slowly.  The van comes to a stop, but with a nauseating slide toward the drop-off side of the road.  She secures the parking brake and sits hunched behind the wheel. She hugs herself to keep her hands from shaking.     

            She opens the driver’s door and stands in the rain looking back up the hill. She looks for the glow of the yellow bulb at Jack’s front door through the chaparral, but it’s invisible in the fog. She cannot drive back up there. She cannot leave them, the children.

            She opens the sliding door of the van. The  children look down at her from their elevated  perches.

             “We can’t go back now,” she tells them. “Emmy Lou has her oats and her water. She’ll be alright.”

            “How do you know?” Henry.

            “I believe she will,” she says.

            Generation III  is in silent protest as she slides the door closed and walks back around the van.  She completes her circumnavigation of the van,  climbs back behind the wheel, and slowly continues down.

            A few minutes pass before Henry’s voice breaks the silence. At first she cannot make out what he’s saying. Then it comes clear.  “Emmy Lou, Emmy Lou.”  After several repetitions of the pony’s name,  Diana joins him. “Em-my Lou, Em-my Lou.”

            The chant could be the refrain from a nursery rhyme or a song, but their childish voices have taken on a tone of implacability and earnestness and defiance that is familiar.

            It is, Sarah thinks, her own tone,  the repetitive choruses of social protest–of labor strikes, of civil rights, of peace. Then images arise in the rain-spattered windshield of abstracted faces, of determination, of self-righteousness, of open, outraged mouths arrayed against tight-lipped,  grim cop faces, blank and clamped shut until they detonate.  She turns the interior light up a notch, and in the rearview mirror, in the half light,  she sees their faces. determined, even hard, with the look of erasure that follows being overpowered and defeated. Emmy Lou is the protest song, the dogged rhythms of resistance, hard-wired and encoded in the DNA.   She is the heartless new authority.  Once, all of this was second nature to her,  but fire hoses and snarling police dogs were no longer the enemy. The enemy was nature. The enemy was time.  

            “I’m sorry we have to leave Emmy Lou behind tonight,” she says into the mirror. 

            The children pause, then resume chanting. “Emmy Lou, Emmy Lou.”

            Rainwater rushes across a layer of clay mud which in turn overlies the asphalt.   Even at this infinitesimal speed,  she feels the tires hydroplaning.    She holds her breath.  The road is too dangerous to continue this way.  She reaches for the cell phone, turns it on.  Carnival lights and harsh, tinny sounds play cheap  reassurance in the darkness.  Then,  no reception.

            She tosses the useless contraption onto the seat overflowing with Barcelona.     

            The children’s protest quiets to murmurs, perhaps as they pick up on her fear. 

            She cannot see into the blacked-out canyon, but her headlights illuminate the low metal guardrail. In her mind, the van slides sideways until it bursts through the rail and goes off the edge,  tumbles end over end, out and down into the vertiginous blackness.

            “Everything will be fine,” she says.

            “How do you know?” demands Henry.

            She will simply be careful. She lets up on the brakes, then applies them gently, and lets up  on them again. The van eases into a long,  tractionless slide on the bias across the road, headed for  the guardrail. The movement is slow, almost graceful, the direction undeniable. Control is gone.  The van now obeys only the natural laws of physics and inertia, surely not that of man or God. Not hers. She is anchorless and moving between this world and some other she has even less faith in. 

            A voice beyond the aura of headlights is calling to her.  “Venga a mi, mi Pantera. Why do you cling to this foolish,  ruined world?”

            She closes her eyes. Her mind floats, free of gravity.

             “Give it up, come to me, mi Pantera.” 

            A jolt and the scream of metal. The bumper scrapes the guardrail.  The van stops, shimmies on its springs, then is still, poised at the edge.

             She turns. The children are silent in their seats,  staring forward.

            “It’s okay,” she says. We’re okay.”

             She opens the driver’s door and walks around to the front of the van. The front bumper is up against  the guardrail.

            She looks out along the grainy light beam into the space of the silent canyon. “Not yet, Heshie,” she whispers back into the darkness. “Not yet.”  

            Nothing from Heshie.

            She raises her arms and reaches out as if to grope for him in the dark. 

            “I can’t leave now,” she says. “I can’t leave them now. Wait. Wait for me.”

            She turns her back on oblivion and returns to the van. Before the door closes, she has a  glimpse of their faces. Generation III is stern-faced, concentrated on their righteous cause of the shaggy Emmy Lou. They’re entitled to their innocence, she tells herself.  They are young and beautiful, full of promise.

            She tells them they will all have to walk the rest of the way. There is no complaining. They pile out of the van without a word and silently trudge down along the side of the road. She holds her slicker over them like a canopy.  She marches them downhill.

            The Pacific Coast Highway appears in the distance,  a dual undulating trail of red  lights snaking in both directions. The sea beyond is invisible, but above it, there is the diffused aura of light pollution from the city.  When they reach the gas station at the highway, someone calls them a taxi. In the back seat of the cab, she hugs them, sopping wet, and asks the driver to turn up the heat. The children’s eyes remain open until the taxi joins the stream of traffic crawling toward  the city.  Then they sleep. 

            Her daughter’s re-modeled house stands at the end of a suburban cul de sac in a gentrifying section of  Los Angeles. It is in what is called in Southern California Spanish style,  meaning sprayed-on stucco and orange roof tiles.  They pull onto the newly-poured , washed-by-the-rain cement driveway. Security lights zing on.  She pays the cabby and sends him away.      

            She has a key and knows how to turn off the alarm. The sodden children step inside and proceed toward their rooms with proprietary swaggers and orders to change into dry clothes.    

            Her daughter and son-in-law’s office, which doubles as the guest room with a pull-out bed, is sleek with electronics, dual computers, a  flat-screen television four feet across, and remote control units casually strewn  on every surface.  She telephones her daughter from one of the land lines and leaves a voice-mail message telling her where they are. 

            Soon, Generation III presents itself for review, clean pajamas, teeth brushed, and slippers, bargaining to watch television. When she gives them the nod,  they scramble onto the couch with her and expertly, even cooperatively, manipulate the television via remote control.  

            In the light of the screen, Sarah falls asleep between them. 

            They wake her when the program is over. “It’s a school night, Granny.” They kiss her as if she’s the child and go off to their rooms.

            She climbs into the bed and, until she hears the sound of her daughter’s key in the lock,  luxuriates in a sound, dreamless sleep.

 

 

Alexandra Flaisher lives in southern California where, each day, she moves closer and closer to becoming a native, but will probably never become used to the fire and flood aspects of the place. She is working on a collection of stories. “Clay” was a finalist in the first Glimmer Train “Family Matters” competition, 2007.