Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Elvira Madigan

 

All morning the secret plan had been bubbling, and now she cut out after Biology class, leaving unapologetically by the main entrance the way Jason used to do before he got arrested and expelled. Three sophomores lounging on the steps turned and called “Hey Tan-ya,” after her in that singsongy tone that was part insinuating, part mocking. A freshman, all year she’d had to put up with this shithole of a place, Mrs. Angstrom with her helmet of steel hair and Mr. Benson all crisp and bouncy, sporting his pigtail, thinking he was so with it, plus wall to wall nerds like these guys and the dumb-ass girls. For their benefit now she exposed her shirt with its message in looping red script:

                                  

You jocks and preppies think you’re cool

but you’ll soon learn that stoners rule

 

Shifting and bobbing, they snickered.

 

The oaks along Westmoreland Drive tingled with fresh limey leaves and the sun poured through them in a spinney haze that made her sleepy. A distant siren wailed on Interstate 80 beyond the bluff. Jason, seventeen, was waiting for her at the back table in Taco Bell, hunched over his coffee like an old hobo protecting one of his few remaining pleasures. Life sucks, was what his slumped body seemed to say, and sure, he was right, but what made it bearable was that they had each other, a little island of love in the dreariness pulsing on every side.

 

 Tanya hung back at the window, studying him in profile.  He was changing his hair style again, from Mohawk to the Afro he was now trying to train into dreadlocks. But his silky black hair didn’t lend itself to tightly matted rolls. Rather than boil down off his skull in sausages of defiance, they bunched in projections like hooty carrot tops. But he was so naturally handsome, his features strong, his green eyes bold and wounded, that he projected those weedy plumes with confidence, like someone who was setting out to create a new fashion.

 

Catching sight of her, he straightened, his expression brightening as he watched her thread through the Formica tables.

 

“Hey you!” she laughed.

 

Smiling, he raised his arm in an invitation for her to slide in beside him. He didn’t like to kiss in public, but just snuggling against him was all it took to feel at home again, steeped in his scent, his being.

 

“How are ya?” She burrowed her face into his chest and squeezed him hard.

 

“You’re here.” He chuckled and squeezed back.

 

She gazed up. “Are we still going to—you know . . .”

 

His lips curled down in a decisive nod.  “I’m stoked.”

 

His fearlessness! Yet with simpler things, she knew he was afraid. Of being laughed at. Of being excluded or called to account. The discrepancy only made him more loveable.

 

She caressed his cheek, smooth as a baby’s skin. Freshly shaved, he smelled of Stetson aftershave lotion. However grim the circumstances, even homeless, he took pride in his grooming.

 

They bought rolling papers at Thompson’s Grocery and talked a ratty hard-timer from the Silver Dollar into buying them a six-pack of Bud, slipping him a bottle as part of the deal.

 

The adult world ground on. A cloying oiliness choked the air on Main Street where a road crew in hard hats and orange vests was spreading hot tar on the road. The Methodist Church dozed in its bulk. Geezers in spattered white coveralls were erecting a scaffold along the facade of the VFW hall. The very idea of growing up and becoming part of this gruesome boredom could make you want to put a bullet through your head.

 

At Chestnut a police car crawled by and the crew-cut cop at the wheel looked them over coldly. They pretended not to notice. She could be out of school on a medical excuse. The paper bag tucked under Jesse’s arm could be anything.

 

“Rochford,” Jason spit as the car drew out of sight.

 

“Yeah,” she breathed.

 

Rochford had been her wrestling coach in junior high when she’d still been doing athletics. A Christian fundamentalist blowhard. The only person on the team he’d allowed her to wrestle was Holly Kramer, a gutless noodle. The boys had been off limits, most of whom she could beat. Boys and girls couldn’t put compromising holds on each other, was his position, yaadeedaa yaadeedaa, meaning the arm through the crotch. Mom and Dad had gone to the principal, who hadn’t been able to find anything in the statutes to support the coach and had instructed him to stop discriminating. At that point the creep had consulted his God and refused to go against his morals. He’d threatened to resign first; he was just volunteering anyway. On the phone he’d shouted at Mom that he arrested people for behavior like that. Pressed, the miserable fucker had actually gone ahead and resigned on everybody with the season just starting, getting wrestling yanked from the sports offered, pissing the whole team off at her.

           

Beyond the railroad tracks Jason veered into the grove where he used to sleep after his parents kicked him out. Tanya waited while he crawled into the brush on all fours and returned dragging a tan plastic suitcase, careful to keep it from snagging on branches. It contained a sleeping bag and clothes all neatly folded—Jason, fastidious, whatever the circumstances—and a box of thin white vinyl gloves like dentists wear. 

 

“What are those for?”she asked.

 

He smiled mysteriously and slipped them in his pocket

 

In his toilet kit was the stash, a baggie of small fat buds bristling with crystals, Indica, skunk weed, just two puffs and you’re zonked. They rolled some numbers and he hid everything away again. Toking up, they continued all innocence up Bunder to Westmoreland, high, floating along through the mild spring afternoon, through the buttery sunshine, steeped in well-being like the lovers in the old video they’d watched last night, Elvira Madigan. It was a true story supposedly. The young cavalry man deserts his regiment to run away with the beautiful girl. They’re happy in love until their money runs out. Instead of facing the harsh adult world that will separate them, they decide to eternalize their happiness. He shoots her first with his pistol. Then he shoots himself. Jason hummed the beautiful Mozart theme from the soundtrack. They ambled down around the curve to the ranch house in the pines and entered by the backdoor.

 

At the refrigerator he removed the hamburger Mom had bought yesterday, shaped three patties and set them sizzling in butter in her big iron skillet. He took to cooking the way other boys took to hotrods or guitars. Tanya shared his beer. It was fun to watch the lively way he worked, the deft strokes of the knife as he sliced tomatoes, the levered force he applied to dicing onions, the caress as he spread butter on the warmed buns. Beyond his shoulder the window looked out on Hewel’s cottage half hidden in the trees. Hewel and his wife were spending another winter in Arizona in their Winnebago.

 

Though they weren’t due back for another month, her stomach fluttered as though the old man would shuffle into view any minute, barrel-chested, tall and bent in his overalls, his face square and hair white as milkweed. He’d set the sprinklers in the flower bed or cart junk around in his wheelbarrow, pleasantly surprised to catch sight of you so he could stumble over and talk your ear off, freeze you in his amiable rambling till he bled you dry and you just had to break away, call over your shoulder, right, good talking to you. Mom hung in longer and claimed to like the old fart, kind as he was, their landlord. Living so close, she said, it was important to get along.

 

Tanya tried to think of some mean thing Hewel had done, but the old guy was all good-natured mush boiling over and running out his ears. Once his wife Annie had shuffled to the door, all pasty-faced, her ankles wrapped in Ace bandages, and twittered that Tanya’s boom box was just too loud, would she please turn it down—the old hag.

 

Jason handed Tanya her hamburger on a plate and she kissed him, feeling more taken care of by him than by Mom who paid the rent and bought her clothes and worried constantly about her health. And those books about adolescence got to be a drag, the woman-to-woman talks about drugs and the options for birth control. Mom meant well, and maybe our culture didn’t offer rites of passage, but that didn’t mean she had to keep dragging you off to women’s gatherings for initiations and healing circles, and all the stuff that comes out when they pass the speaking staff.

              

The doorbell rang and the pace of the day quickened toward their plan.

 

“Enter thee that knock,” Tanya called and Dorlene rushed into the living room, breathless, waving a cigarette. Embracing Tanya in her messy sisterly way, she gushed about some fight she’d just had with somebody, some asshole. She was wearing shorts. The nipples of her boobs showed through her tie-dye shirt. She kept touching the sides of her scalp which were shaved to accentuate the spiky crests of DayGlo green hair that ran from her forehead to the nape of her neck in the scales of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tweak scissored in after her and stood looking around, grave and uncertain, all lanky arms and legs with that tiny head up top that made him look like a praying mantis. Everyone was here! Jason handed Tweak a dubbie and his Bic.

 

“Thanks, Governor,” Tweak quipped in a British accent. Toking up, he passed the joint to Dorlene. “So . . . ah . . .”

 

Jason nodded and glanced out the window toward Hewel’s cottage. “Tanya, why don’t you go out front like you’re checking the mailbox, see if anybody’s around?”

 

Outside, the afternoon air was fizzing like sarsaparilla. She felt like skipping but played the somber citizen plodding out the driveway to collect the dreary mail. Rewarding her restraint, she hammed it up a little, all giggly inside, removing the mail from the box and browsing through the stack. She knit her brow in Mom’s frown, pretending to identify the senders and wonder about the contents, while the thoughtful faraway gaze allowed her to survey the neighborhood for signs of people moving about. Nobody. The mailbox sassed her with its door open like a tongue hanging out.

 

“Shut your trap.” She flipped it closed and started back. The letters in her hand felt like the threads that hold the adult world together, thin as needles, set with wicked barbs. They meant so much to Mom, less to Dad kicked back in Mexico though he’d have you believe he cared.  How come?  Her mind glitched and she remembered helping Jason swipe cassette tapes at Melody Music, Stetson aftershave at Rite-Aid pharmacy, a little flask of whiskey at Phelan’s Grocery, and all in a new light. They were underground acts, little snips of the thread that holds the grid in place, guerilla actions weakening the fabric, secretly preparing the way to freedom. 

 

Entering the house, she was aware of being the youngest of the group, bringing important information. The enormity of what they were about to do seemed to discourage talk and hike their energy up like a ball in a pinball machine, send it ricocheting from pin to pin, spinning almost to hilarity. Everyone’s eyes were bright. They clinked beer bottles, toasting their solidarity, the challenge of the mission ahead. They were brave commandoes, cool in the face of risk. For a moment Jason looked like the young cavalry man in Elvira Madigan.  Then he changed into Che Guevara and they were his men. They were going to liberate Hewel’s bungalow.

 

“Hewel?” Tweak snickered.  “What kind of name is that? Stool. Fool. Ghoul.”

 

Tanya winced but said nothing. She didn’t want to appear foolish, like a girl scout. New in town, Tweak was still a wild card to them all. Did he have a hard side, or was he just playing around with words?

 

They gathered substance as they left the kitchen, filing out of the briefing tent, heading for their horses.  Jason looked almost heroic, strolling along nursing a beer, a pry bar concealed at his side, launching a new style of being. They entered Hewel’s space and registered the alarm rising from the crap he had stored everywhere, the rowboat upside down on sawhorses, the stacked trestles, petrified dinosaur eggs at the edge of the flower bed. From the porch a cigar store Indian, nicked and worn, watched in silence.  

 

The back of the cottage was hidden from the road. Jason reached up and jimmied open a little window. He distributed the white vinyl gloves and Tanya, the smallest of the four, climbed up on his shoulders and stuck her head inside.

 

The interior was dark and damp with a faint odor of Lysol. As her eyes adjusted, a commode and a sink separated themselves from the blackness and emitted a dull porcelain gleam. Feeling around, she couldn’t find anything to ease her descent. Wait, something was just in reach, a towel rack it felt like. Trusting more and more of her weight to it she pulled her lower body through the window, drew up her knees and started toward the floor.

 

With a crumbling snarl the rack ripped free and she fell. Stars exploded and jagged yellow lights streaked in all directions. Voices called from outside, urgent but subdued. She remembered where she was, that the others were out there, counting on her and she called back “I’m ok,” or maybe she only thought she called out so she called again, “I’m ok.”

 

But her head pounded and she could barely move. The room was thick with the substance of Hewel and Annie, a viscous jelly impeding her as she tried to crawl to the door. Her breath came in gasps, the air close and smeary, bristling with a heavy female presence— whose? She couldn’t make it out. It filled the space with its big sour body and she had to crawl through it, a presence too massive to be Annie, too charged and bullying, broadcasting wave after wave of indignation, meaty arms folded across a magisterial bosom,Tanya, I’m deeply disappointed in you, tall as the world looking down, bristling, catching her in the act of breaking in, from such a nice family, I can hardly believe it, I expected more from you than this.

 

She turned and took another direction. Her shoulder brushed against cabinet drawers. Feeling her way up a strip of vertical trim, she encountered a door handle and turned it to find the door yielding access to another room, larger and much brighter. She crawled into it, dizzy, confused, apparently in Mrs. Mortenson’s cabin on the mountain, the cabin she’d broken into last summer, but the woodstove wasn’t there, nor the antlered deer head on the wall, nor the turquoise refrigerator with its tiny hiss. No pictures of John Wayne as cowboy, pirate, naval captain. The only sounds were faint whispers and a light crunching of gravel beyond the wall.

 

She crouched by a stool, feeling sick, her head pounding. What was happening? This wasn’t Mrs. Mortenson’s cabin. It was Hewel’s. His lumber jacket hung by the door. Opposite the TV stood the cushioned rocker where Annie spent her days, ankles on a stool, this stool that seemed to shrink from her, afraid.

 

Tanya collected herself, reprising the day as if by choice a person could emerge wherever he wanted. Among commandoes, on a mission of liberation. Her duty was to open the back door and let her comrades in.

 

The room resisted her advance. She felt like a fly fluttering in a web. In the half light filtering through the drawn blinds, the room was silently screaming at her intrusion. The two old fuddies were everywhere, in the circular rug of woven rags, in the salt and pepper shakers precisely centered on the circular table. They were in the bare counter, the double bed sheltering in the alcove, the hardware store calendar by the telephone. Her apron hung on a hook, his boots stood by the back door. Even the knickknacks on the shelf, the gilded sea shells, the china bunny, the porcelain squirrel with young, were steeped in the fusty order of the old couple and screamed at her in collective outrage GET OUT!

 

“Tanya?” Jason’s voice through the keyhole broke their hold.

 

She crawled to the door and released the latch. He opened it from outside and slid in quickly, glancing at her as he slipped by, his expression bright and tense. Dorlene and Tweak followed.

 

“You ok?” Jason lifted her to her feet, and without waiting for an answer he directed her and Dorlene to the alcove, Tweak to the closets, taking the rest of the house himself. Her head ached but she was one of the raiders again, second assignment completed, gloved like the rest.

 

 The collective resistance of the bungalow was broken and seemed as pathetic now as the worn puffy slippers beside the bed.

 

From a photo on the bureau, a youthful Hewel smiled out hopefully with his bride. Other pictures displayed an infant propped on a pillow, two young boys grinning up from a sand castle, a lean replica of Hewel in mitered cap and gown, a sailor gazing blandly into the distance, surrounded by milky light.

 

As Dorlene reached for the handle of the top drawer, she glanced at Tanya, her eyes sober and reflective as if to ask are we really doing this?  Tanya’s throat thickened and she fought a swell of distress before her eyes filled with tears.

 

 Dorlene gathered her in her arms. “What is it?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

One hand cupping Tanya’s neck, the other stroking her back, Dorlene crooned, “Poor baby.”

 

The photos? The throbbing in her skull? She sobbed quietly, raggedly, and burrowed deeper into Dorlene’s arms.

 

Tweak appeared, bending his tiny head to get in under the arch. He carried something black and he stopped at a respectful distance as though not wishing to intrude.

 

“Yes?” Dorlene asked sharply.

 

“Jason says to give you this.” He tossed a garbage bag on the bed and ducked out.

 

Tanya rested in Dorlene’s embrace, drowsing in her warmth, her odor of cheap perfume.

Then Mom’s phrase stay on task whispered itself, and Tanya pulled away, opening the top drawer herself and exposing the glitter of jewelry.

 

Though the drawer was partitioned by dividers, no attempt had been made to separate the rings and necklaces, the earrings and pendants. The teeming scramble seemed incongruous with the muffin-shaped old woman who kept an orderly house. It hinted at something questionable about the old couple that they were here to expose.

 

Still, she wondered whether she should go on with this. Dorlene gazed back at her with the same doubt—two females about to loot the adornments of a third. From the living room a low cry of triumph roused Tanya to action. Out of respect the least she could do was to remove her gloves dirtied by crawling across the floor.

 

“No, girl!” Dorlene frowned at her. “Keep them on.”

 

Maybe this was all just costume jewelry anyway. She held up a gold pendant. Letters suspended from a tiny chain said LAS VEGAS JUBILEE. Dorlene examined a shiny hair clip. Inside a locket were photographs of an unsmiling couple from the gold rush era.

 

Dorlene opened the hinged top of a little satin box, exposing a ring with what looked like a diamond. “Hey,” she breathed, “this might be worth some bucks.”

 

Tanya held the garbage bag open and Dorlene snapped the ring box shut and dropped it into the opening. 

 

From the other rooms came the sounds of cabinets being opened and closed, the tingle of coat hangers. Tanya and Dorlene couldn’t seem to add much to their bag. Some of the jewelry was obviously fake. With others it was hard to tell. Red stones could be rubies or cut glass. Tanya wound a delicate silver watch to see if it ran. Whispered exclamations from the boys seemed to urge them to act, to hurry. Amethyst earrings went into the bag, a pearl necklace real or not, a silver bracelet with a turquoise stone.

 

Over her shoulder Tanya saw Jason in the main room stuffing objects into a bulging garbage bag. Catching her eye he called in an urgent whisper, “You girls almost done?”

 

“We’re . . .  trying.”

 

In a velvet purse were coins of a foreign currency. A silver spoon with knobby fluting read CHICAGO EXPO 1956. In a lower drawer, Dorlene was scrambling through a stack of old ladies’ underwear, musty and bilious, and jerked out a scarf she held up for inspection.

 

Jason hopped in and knelt beside Tanya. His eyes flashed as he whipped his hand out to display a bright metal object in his palm. “Look at this, babe!”

 

Her heart caught at the sight of a revolver. Displayed there in his palm, compact, the grip a dark dull wood, the chamber silver, the barrel black, it looked positively evil. A tool of coercion, an instrument to end life. She drew back as from a scorpion or a rattlesnake.

 

What they were doing here felt wrong, foolhardy. They were toying with the adult world, teasing it, the great blind giant with its jobs and cops, its prisons and wars.

 

Tweak ducked through the doorway, shouldering a bag of his own. Jason was beaming at her, waiting for her response. Ripples of energy rushed back along his hair. Spinning the chamber, he held it to his head and pulled the trigger. Click. He stuck out his tongue and let his head fall to the side. Straightening, he grinned.

 

“Smashing,” Tweak chirped.

 

“No,” she breathed. “Put it back.”

 

“What? No way, babe. How’d you do?”

 

Dorlene was looking past her at Jason, biting her lower lip. “We got some jewelry and stuff.”

 

“Can I see?”

 

Grimacing, Dorlene passed the bag. It hung limp in his hand, almost weightless. He didn’t even look inside, but pivoted and gazed up at Tweak in incomprehension. Tweak raised his eyebrows and shrugged as if disclaiming responsibility.

 

A siren sounded in the distance.

 

“Let’s go,” Jason snapped. Jamming the revolver in his belt he jumped up, shouldering his bag, and the boys nipped through the main room and out the door.

 

Dorlene grabbed their discarded bag and thrust it in Tanya’s hands. “Hold it open,” she ordered. Jerking the top drawer out of the bureau, she tipped it endwise so all its contents went clattering in. She tossed the drawer in a corner to a splintering of wood. Her jaw jutting, she shoveled the bag full with Annie’s underwear and bras, panty girdles, garters and wrappings, and with a let’s-go jerk of the head, she bolted outside. Stumbling with the load, heart pounding, Tanya followed, pausing to set the button so the door locked behind her.

 

They trotted straight down the hill into the woods. The siren was fading, thank God.

 

Probably just some state trooper out on the interstate. The boys were stashing their bags under bushes, kicking leaves over them the way male dogs scuff with their hind feet after peeing. Dorlene took the bag from Tanya and worked it into the base of a bushy shrub.

 

Squatting, she scooped leaves over it with a threshing motion of both hands. Tanya wanted to drop down beside her and help—convince the boys she was into it—but her body wouldn’t cooperate. The splintering of the drawer had intensified her headache and she saw the stares of the photographs, the gleam of the revolver in Jesse’s palm. Dorlene rose and wiped her hands on her shorts.

 

One bag between them. The boys had two. If it weren’t for Dorlene, they might as well not have taken part at all. Boys, the way they decide to do something and just do it.

 

“Cool,” Jason stood smiling, decisive in the dappled light. Slipping his arm around Tanya’s shoulder, he drew her against him. “Right on.”

 

The throbbing in her head eased and she found herself moving again as they followed him single-file down through the trees into the draw and up the other side. She was in last place, eyes on Dorlene slopping along ahead of her, dinosaur crests bobbing and fleshy buttocks jiggling under the shorts. The cloth was smeared where she’d wiped her hands.

 

Tough kid, Dorlene, a trooper, envying Tanya her Jason and trying out Tweak, this jesting beanstalk who’d just showed up in town. Dorlene glanced back as though she could feel Tanya thinking about her, her gaze solemn, knowing.

 

They emerged from the woods on River Road, on firm pavement, their mission behind them and the wounded throb of the bungalow fading in the leaves. Jason lost some of the alert handsomeness of the cavalryman in Elvira Madigan. As she took his hand, he felt more like a boy again, someone struggling to stay afloat, a kid you might see cleaning hubcaps at a car wash. Tweak’s tiny head on that manly frame looked almost freakish.

 

Everyday life was claiming them, concealing them and what they’d done, gathering them into its weary hum. Their footsteps on the macadam blended with the distant shouts of baseball practice at the high school up the hill, the swish of passing bicyclists, the whispering hiss of traffic out on Interstate 80. To the occasional passing car they must look like couples returning from a stroll along the river.

 

At the intersection of Westmoreland they passed a joint around in a ritual of parting, separating then from now. Jason said he’d restore the jimmied window that night so nothing would be obvious from outside. The old folks weren’t due back for a month—plenty  of time to dispose of the take before it was missed. Tanya hugged Dorlene goodbye. Her body rumbled like a generator and smelled of sweat. The late afternoon sun sparkled on the row of colored stones that rimmed her ear. She was absolutely bursting with talk but it would have to wait till tomorrow when they could be alone.

 

“Jolly good, chaps,” Tweak backed away with a wave of the hand.

 

Jason’s stride was easy as they ambled down around the turn to the ranch house. The adult world lay broken at his feet, offering up its treasures.

 

Inside, he drew Tanya into the bedroom, kissing her and unbuttoning the fly of her jeans, but she found she couldn’t warm to his touch. Even another toke as they lay in bed didn’t help. She couldn’t get Annie out of her mind, how the old woman was going to feel when she entered the alcove and saw the bureau agape. The hag. And the pistol, the sinister way it gleamed in Jason’s palm. He didn’t realize how serious things were getting, even after all he’d been through, arrest, arraignment, release on Mom’s recognizance, restricted in his movements, awaiting trial, possible time behind bars. Why, Rochford could have searched him today without probable cause, found pot, found alcohol in the bag.

 

She let him go ahead anyway. It was something she could give him, affirm him in his mastery of the afternoon, this rare moment of feeling good about himself and equal to life, even though she had to fake her part.

 

Sleep drew her down in long threads into an underworld where she crawled through a murky landscape, a swamp of purple cabbages and giant mushrooms. She was as small as an ant, in search of higher ground. The screech of a bird sent her into hiding under a toadstool where she looked up at the intricate lines radiating on the underside of its cap, the packed folds, intelligent and breathing like the gills of a fish. The plant was aware of her but held no threat, protecting her, gathering her back to rest at the base of its stalk.

 

The slamming of a car door jarred her awake. Footsteps crunched on gravel. Voices. Mom. Jason helping her carry in the groceries. The bungalow welled in her mind, throbbing in desecration, and she shrank from the prospect of getting up and facing dinner with Mom, concealing what they’d done. Mom was hard enough to deal with at the end of her day, but with this she’d go ballistic. There’d be no end to it. Though how would she ever guess?

 

Tanya remembered back . . . living with Dad in Mexico, his discovering her forgery. He’d put on that grave expression but underneath there was something light-hearted in the way he’d punished her, like he felt obliged to without really believing in it. Then that twinkle in his eye when he’d recount the story to his friends, amused by the mix of conocimiento and inocencia that would guide her, six years old, to tear a check out of his checkbook, fill in all the information in the appropriate places, in Spanish no less, date, signature, writing the amount in figures at the end of the pay to the order of line and writing it out again in longhand on the line below, cien dolares, taking it down to his friend Raoul at La Glaceria and ordering an ice cream cone, two scoops, strawberry and maple-walnut, dipped in chocolate flecks, and Raoul matter-of-factly taking the check in payment and putting it in the register with a hint of a smile but without giving her change.

 

Distressed, Tanya got up and slipped into the bathroom to shower. Her mind was fuzzy. She hoped the hot water would clear it up but it didn’t. Had she slept too long? Maybe she should cut back on pot.

 

She wrapped herself in a towel and went into the kitchen. Mom was cooking dinner. In apron and slippers, she towered over the counter, tall and bony, cutting vegetables, the cuffs of her shirt folded back.  Her skin was sallow and purple pouches hung under her eyes. She frowned as she worked, her lower lip tucked between her teeth. At this hour she was functioning on will alone, the edges softened by a glass of wine at her elbow. Spying Tanya, she let her lip pop free, her eyes glittering over the rim of her glasses.

 

“Hello, Squirrel.”

 

“Hi, Mom.”  Tightening the towel, Tanya padded through an odor of ginger and onions, surprised at this urge to embrace Mom, to placate her maybe or diffuse her anger in advance, in case she guessed. Mom straightened a little and leaned into the kiss on her cheek, her arms stilled as if pausing in some strenuous labor like shearing sheep. Her spine was knobby to the touch, and her body smelled of Wheat Thins, magnetizing and repelling Tanya at the same time.

 

“How was your day, honey?”

 

“So so,” Tanya shrugged.

 

“And school?” Mom wiped her glistening brow with the back of her wrist and resumed cutting.

 

“It sucks.”

 

Mom sighed. “Please set the table.”

 

Where was Jason? He shouldn’t desert her like this. Getting out the place mats, Tanya came upon the list of chores she was supposed to have done that day: a load of laundry, take out the compost, empty the dishwasher. A sideways glance revealed they’d all been done, by Mom of course, feeding her martyrdom, adding to everything else she was going to complain about.

 

Jason returned as if by instinct as the meal was being served, carefully seating himself and bowing his head, already so at home in this household that he reached out naturally to take their hands for the blessing. The fresh flowers in the centerpiece lent a hopeful note but with the candles Mom had gone too far. The sense of celebration they conferred felt forced, as if they came from Mom’s determination to make dinner a special event, the fruit of her labor to provide a roof over their heads and food on the table.

 

Still, the food enlivened her. The weary plains woman lightened until she looked more like a lady in some magazine illustration, a gracious hostess serving a fine dinner in her home. She laughed, her eyes shone, and her graying hair looked almost blond again. The food was good, like always, only the very best organic ingredients prepared by an expert hand, yet Tanya nearly gagged on it, the way it went down like uncooked dough and sat there in her stomach, oozing gas.

 

The third glass of wine loosened Mom’s tongue and with an animation that bordered on hysteria, she recounted her day, one frustration after another, each worse than the last. The publisher had put her in charge of advertising, which was all that miserable sheet was anyway—a rag for selling merchandise. And the articles he’d promised she could write, little human interest things on health or whatever that would make the paper remotely worth looking at, he’d assigned to a kid just out of journalism school. This damn fool publisher had turned her into his gal Friday, having her do lay-out, handle circulation, field telephone calls, deal with delinquent accounts and the rest of it, and all at slave’s wages, so when he went on one of his binges, he had someone who could put the whole wretched publication out without him, The Oilstone Gazette.

 

Silent, Tanya couldn’t wait for the meal to be over but Jason hadn’t finished yet. For a slim dude he was a big eater. He helped himself to seconds of everything while listening attentively to Mom, feeding her questions, urging her along. Despite his distrust of adults, he had a way with them one on one. Mom was all wound up now, stoked by his attention, gaily ironic and merry with gallows humor. Her mood made everything wonderfully absurd. Everything became fair game for complaint, the stop and go traffic on Interstate 80, the price hike on gasoline, just look how Tanya hardly touched her dinner, once again refused to do her chores, just look at Dad down there in Mexico, living the life of Reilly, sending practically nothing for child support.

 

“Between them all they’re sucking me dry,” she beamed at Jason, laughing, waving her glass in a devil-may-care gesture. “The day I keel over, plonk, stick a sign on my grave. ‘Here lies Mom, sucked dry.’”

 

Tanya rose. Jason got up too and cleared the table. Mom remained, glass in hand, silent in the afterglow of her crescendo.

 

In her bedroom, closing the door, Tanya found a dented package of Lucky Strikes. The smoke filled her lungs with a blanketing calm. She was glad now about Hewel’s. She relished the cracking sound the drawer had made when it split. That diamond ring could be worth some money. Floating in a sense of wealth, she contemplated the many purchases now within reach.

 

Through the door came the sound of Jason washing the dishes. Mom was noisy, running another load in the washing machine, then quiet ironing tomorrow’s clothes.

 

The first thing Tanya would buy was that mastiff collar Jason admired at the crafts fair. God, it was going to look good on him, so cool when they dressed up for parties, the black leather against his white throat, the wicked silver spikes gleaming. The turquoise bracelet she’d keep for herself.

 

As he entered the bedroom, she caught a glimpse of Mom out in the living room, removing the sofa cushions and pulling out the hide-a-bed where Jason would supposedly sleep. That was one thing, anyway, that Mom didn’t have the heart to turn him out at night, now that he was homeless. But who was she fooling, that he’d actually sleep there?


“Want to watch Elvira Madigan again?” Jason asked.

 

“No. I want to see The Doors.”

 

He started the VCR and they cuddled, stretched out on the bed, watching Jim Morrison amaze the crowds. The police arrested him for exposing his cock at a concert, closing the show, risking a riot. Toward ten o’clock Mom called goodnight through the closed door.

 

“Good night,” they replied in unison.

 

Basking in the warmth of Jason’s body, Tanya could hardly keep her eyes open. At the end of the film Jim Morrison, his case under appeal, died in a bathtub in Paris. Jason reached over to his pants neatly folded on the chair.

 

She came instantly awake, her heart pounding.

 

Eyes languid, he held the pistol drooping in one hand and lazily spun the chamber.


“Jason!”

 

With a mischievous smile he asked, “How ’bout now, while everything’s still sweet?” 

 

“Y-you mean it?”

 

“Why not?” He twirled the pistol around his index finger. “I’m game.”

 

The room rushed in place. Outside the window the oak tree stood breathing in the moonlight. Everything could disappear, forever, right now.

 

Bending over her, he kissed her lightly on the lips.  The barrel felt cool against her temple. “Ready?”

 

“N-no.”

 

“It won’t hurt. I promise.”

 

“Stop,” she whimpered.

 

“Sure?” He smiled down at her, his gaze tender, sad.

 

She pushed the barrel away.

 

Sighing, Jason tucked the pistol under the pillow. “It’ll be so simple. Like this.” He reached across her and turned off the light.

 

Tanya lay rigid in his arms, her pulse thudding in her temples.

 

Jason murmured and twitched as he fell asleep.

 

The window blazed with the glare of the full moon. The oak tree threw a devouring shadow over the swings on the lawn. Without a sound something alighted on the window screen, something the size of a tarantula but thin, ghostly, lime green. In a languor all its own it opened and closed its wings, opened and closed them while the two large eyes studied her in her aloneness, now gazing into her, witnessing, then in the next breath, gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

W. K. Dolphin is a meditator and a writer of poetry and fiction . He enjoys other cultures and has lived in Europe, Africa, India, Israel, and Mexico. In 1981 he brought forty acres of raw land on a forested mountain top in Northern California and has developed it into an off-grid retreat center for artists and meditators,  www.mountainretreatcenter.com. He has published short stories and poetry in many literary magazines, has published two books of poetry and translated a number of books from French and German, among them, letters by Teilhard de Chardin.