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JOSEPH C. PIAZZA
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF FINE ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Joseph C. Piazza
This thesis is dedicated to the Asian boy with the broken arm who I tripped in
kindergarten while I was sitting on a bench during a ten-minute Time-out.
I would like to thank David Leavitt, a fellow S.F. Bay Arean and my thesis
director, for correcting my atrocious grammar and telling me in workshop that I
misspelled my own grandmother's first and last name. Eventually I will heed his advice
and install the spellchecker for Microsoft Word on my laptop, because my grandmother's
name is not the only thing I do not know how to spell. Another thank you goes to my
workshop buds who had to put up with it. Finally, I would like to thank the freshman girl
from my Technical Writing class who perfumed her last homework assignment. It was
unexpected and sweet.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W LE D G M EN T S ......... ...... ......... ................................................................. iv
A B ST R A C T ........................................ vi.............................
1 B L A C K O U T .................................................................. 1
2 DEPOSED KINGS .............................................. ............ 18
3 B U G E Y E S ................................................................................................................ 4 0
4 M Y O P E ...................................................................................................................... 6 4
5 BLIP ON TH E SCREEN ......... ......................................................... .............. 82
6 OBITUARY (AN EXCERPT)............................. ..................... .............. 93
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H .......................................................................................... 103
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts
Joseph C. Piazza
Chair: David Leavitt
Major Department: English
This collection is a series of six stories that involve off-kilter mother-son
relationships, biology, and abandonment. The subject matter includes the loss of people
and imagination, and distorted visual perception. The characters tend to be individuals
who have lost something of importance.
Mrs. Wilkens gathered candles, incandescent, scented, unscented, any candles
she could find stowed away in drawers and closets, and scattered them throughout the
house. When she finished, she sat on a wooden stool in the kitchen, watching the flame
from a red candle in a glass holder dance in front of her on the tile island counter. A
portable radio was on the refrigerator, which was spotted with magnets and had a
calendar on which her son' s psychiatric appointments had been circled with a red pen.
The radio was on, but she had stopped listening to it some time ago. She considered for a
moment yelling to her husband and son, who were outside, that checking the fuse box
was unnecessary. The man on the radio had said it was a five-block-wide black out. But
the window was closed, and she didn' t possess enough energy or care enough to open it
or raise her voice. Instead she turned her gaze to the lights slashing through the kitchen
window, drawing on the walls. She could' t see what was going on outside, so she
imagined two men, criminals, chained together at the feet, trying to outrun bloodhounds
unleashed by the police through a wooded area, cops following their supersniffers, with
flashlights in hand.
Mr. Wilkens was in his moccasins, swinging his flashlight as he stepped through
his backyard. Walking at a cautious pace, he stabbed at the noises in the darkness and
kept an eye on the cement path in front of him, looking out for garden snails that might
have been taking a stroll along the pavement. The air was humid, causing Mr. Wilkens to
pull his shirt away from his sweaty chest.
His seven-year-old son Jeremy, wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, trailed behind
aimlessly. Jeremy slashed the side of the house with the sign of Zorro, then pointed his
spotlight to the starry sky to see how far one-million candles of power would travel
through space. Jeremy figured it'd travel quite far.
He noticed that the distances between stars diminished the closer they were to the
horizon. He got the impression that some alien race was playing a practical joke. The
idea that the sky darkened due to the sun disappearing for a period of hours was actually
incorrect. The truth, he believed, was that the aliens covered one side of the planet with
a supersized colander. What was mistaken for a sunset was the lowering of the strainer' s
lip onto the earth, like the glowing light from the crack formed by the floor and a closed
door. And then after a while, usually not a consistent while, the aliens with their tractor
beam would deposit the colander on the other half of the planet, alternating sides
according to their whim.
Jeremy searched the sky for movement. He watched for anything. A shooting star,
the flickering red and white lights of an airplane, any sign that showed that they could be
out there, somewhere. But the sky was as still as a photograph.
There was one time, just a month ago, when Jeremy had thought he found
something. It was night and he'd been playing catch with the pitch-back, breaking in a
new baseball glove his father had bought him, when he heard a rumbling overhead.
Jeremy stopped throwing and waited for whatever was making the noise, which had been
growing louder by the second. At its crescendo, just as the universe had sounded as if it
was tearing, an object flanked by blinking lights appeared thousands of feet above the
house, Jeremy, and his pitch-back. It seemed to hover. Jeremy dropped his glove and
retrieved the spotlight from the garage, the one he was told not to shine in other people's
faces. He pointed at the UFO and pressed the trigger, following its slow trajectory.
When the beam illuminated the craft's underbelly, Jeremy was disappointed. It was not a
UFO, but an airliner (reported the next day on the local news) making a crash landing in a
wheat field a mile north of Jeremy's home.
Mr. Wilkens aimed his flashlight at the fuse box above the freshly planted cherry
tomatoes that were harnessed by metal wire that coiled like strands of DNA. He lifted
the latch of the fuse box and opened the door. He peaked inside and looked for a break in
one of switches.
Mrs. Wilkens heard the back screen door open from where the kitchen
bottlenecked. Mr. Wilkens stepped in. The laces on his moccasins were undone and
were whipping the top of his open feet.
"There isn' t a break," Mr. Wilkens said.
"Yes," she said. She adjusted herself on the stool. "It' s a five-blocker. They
don' t know when it' s coming back on."
"The radio," she said. The radio announcer was giving the hourly sports update.
Mr. Wilkens put his flashlight on the counter next to the dish rack. He surveyed
the kitchen like a traveler who has stumbled upon a glorious landscape and can do
nothing but observe for a little while. Then he said, "I didn' t realize we had this many
"Nice, isn' t it?" Mrs. Wilkens said. She crossed her legs. "You should go to our
bedroom. It smells like a meadow."
Mr. Wilkens took a tour of the house. Although he had lived in it for fifteen
years, it seemed foreign to him now. "The place looks like a cathedral."
She pressed with her finger on the candleholder, turning the candle slowly like a
record. She glanced at a candle set atop the gas stove. Then she looked at the other
candles in the kitchen.
"I can' t imagine how they lived this way," she said.
"Those in medieval times." She said no more.
Mr. Wilkens carried in a chair from the dinning room. He set it down across his
wife, on the other side of the island, and sat down.
"To live without electricity," she said. "You could certainly understand why they
believed in talismans and the devil and all that. Every few minutes I get this feeling like
there's something behind me. But when I look, it' s only the waffle iron or the cat or a
shadow from a tree."
"That' s because it is only the waffle iron," Mr. Wilken said. He went to the
fridge and grabbed ajar of dill pickles. He unscrewed the cap and removed a pickle,
drumming it several times against the mouth of the jar. Then, he put the jar back and
rinsed the pickle off in the sink. He wiped it dry using a double-ply paper towel. He
disappeared for a few minutes and returned with the pickle on a string that was tied in a
loop. He placed it around her neck.
"Here," he said. "The evil spirits won't get you now."
She looked down silently at the pickle dangling against her stomach. After a
moment, she looked up again. "I know that it' s only the waffle iron," she said. "But
that's what bothers me. I know it' s nothing. Sometimes I wish things were more than
"Are you okay?" he asked. "I think all this darkness is getting to you." He
walked to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water, still cold. Mr. Wilkens took a drink
and returned to his seat.
She walked to the window to check on Jeremy, who had at that moment retired
into a camping tent set up at the edge of the lawn. He reemerged with his telescope, a
Christmas present, in its box -- one with creases from numerous openings. He set it on the
trampoline and reentered the tent.
"What' s he doing?" Mr. Wilkens asked.
"Looks like he' s about to set up his telescope."
"Why did you buy him that thing?"
"I bought it after your suggestion. Don' t look at me."
"I think we need to temporarily take that from him for a little while. At least until
this phase, situation, or whatever you' d like to call it passes. This can' t be healthy. I
don' t care how old he is."
She left the window and returned to her seat. She adjusted her skirt for comfort.
"I' d like to see you try and do that. I' 11 watch from the window. He' 11 throw a
fit and I can' t imagine that making things any better."
"It could' t make things any worse," he said. "Now, come on. How long are
we going to keep up this game? How long has he been out there? Two weeks. This is
getting ridiculous. I had a chat with his homeroom teacher yesterday. She called. She
said he' s been withdrawing. She asked if there were any problems at home. Of course I
told her no. Didn' t tell her about baseball. I really don' t want to the school to get
Mrs. Wilkens grabbed her dangling pickle and bit the top off, spraying pickle
juice on the counter. "What do you mean? I don' t see how this is any different than
before," she said. She pressed her fingers on the scattered juice spots. "Before it was
Santa Claus and now it' s aliens. I don' t see the problem here."
"Well, first of all I didn' t want to be Santa. I' m all Ho' d out. I told you that.
Besides, he' s seven for crying out loud. I don' t think there' s a seven-year-old in the
world that believes in Santa Claus."
"I think you should see it as a reflection on your performance," she said.
"You' re a very good Kris Kringle."
"My performance has nothing to do with it. Part of growing up includes having
one of your friends tell you during recess that Santa doesn' t exist. One of the many
things that your friends will ruin for you. So here' s my question. Where' s his friends?
Does our son have any friends?"
"Are you blaming his friends for all this?"
"Yes. Yes I am."
She laughed. "It' s not their fault you can't Ho Ho and run."
Mr. Wilkens looked at the ceiling. He focused on the dangling light fixture,
attempting to turn it on with the sheer power of his mind. He was in no mood to argue.
"What's his friend' s name? Martin?"
"Who's Allen?" he said. He opened the fridge, spying a snack.
"How long has he had that name?" He closed the door.
"Since he was born." She had been picking the solidified melted wax that
dripped down the base of the candle holder. Some of it had wedged under her fingernail
and now she was trying to get it out. After cleaning her nail, she flipped the kitchen light
switch on and off. She left it in the off position and went around the house, turning off
all the switches. She returned and adjusted herself in the chair, shifting her weight until
she was comfortable.
"Don' t move," she said.
Mr. Wilkens, who was trying to understand why he thought his son' s friend' s
name was Martin, said, "Why?"
"Just don' t move."
Mr. Wilkens stood at the door of the fridge, frozen. He saw Peats, their black cat,
walking past him with his tail waving elegantly in the air. "Is that all?" he said. "I can
"Oh really? You would have stepped on him if I hadn' t said anything. What a
horrible time to have a black cat." Mrs. Wilkens reached down to pet Peat' s back as he
passed. The cat lifted his back end in appreciation and his purr grew louder. Mrs.
Wilkens picked him up and set Peats on her lap. Peats kneaded at his master' s stomach
and did a couple of circles and then rolled over, burrowing his head under Mrs Wilkens'
shirt. Mrs. Wilkens petted Peats along his side with smooth, repetitious strokes.
Now Mr. Wilkens noticed the shadows cast upon his wife' s face by the candles.
Her dark hair was down and there was a look of evil on her face, imagined or not, that
reminded him of the mischievous face a witch projected when looking into her glowing
crystal ball. If he had been in a playful mood or a child, he would have pretended that he
was in a witch' s nest. One that he was trapped in the middle of. But he had grown tired
of pretending. He wished the lights would turn on.
The screen door opened and Jeremy strolled straight for the eight-clawed rack
against the wall that held pans and a white colander. He grabbed the colander, tucking it
under his arm. He looked at his parents and his facial expression was indiscernible. He
turned around, and as he left out the backdoor, he picked up the flashlight that was next
to the dish rack.
The Wilkens stopped their conversation and looked at each other, brows
furrowed. They walked to the window, pushing away the curtains, and watched their son
place the colander on his face like a mask as he turned his head to the sky. Clutching his
flashlight, Jeremy turned it on and pointed it at himself as a solitary tourist would do with
a camera to get a self-portrait.
Mr. Wilkens moved away from the window. "Now what's he doing?"
"It looks like he' s about to set up his telescope." She responded as if what they
witnessed was commonplace.
Mr. Wilkens sat back down momentarily. Then he sprung up again, pacing the
small kitchen, hand on chin, like a prisoner devising an escape plan from his cell. He
halted and turned around to face his wife. "I feel like going out there and telling him that
it' just a goddamn satellite. For Christ' s sake, it' s a goddamn satellite. What else can
Mrs. Wilkens took her seat. She did a little hop to get on it. She tucked her skirt
under her legs.
"It could be anything," she said.
"No, it could' t. It can be one and only one thing."
"He thinks it' s a space ship. Let him think it' s a spaceship. Why can' t it be a
"Because it' s not." He broke off, facing the fridge, huddling with the icemaker
as if to discuss his next move.
"Let him have his spaceship," she said softly. She knew it was a satellite. What
kind? Spy, Weather, Cable? She didn' t know. But she knew that she wanted it to be a
spaceship, maybe more so than her son. "What' s the harm in it?"
He read a greeting card pinned to the freezer door. He plucked the card from
under a rubber magnet. "He' s projecting. Or shifting or something. He' s shifting
something. I don' t know what to call it. Ask Dr. Delarose. She' 11 be able to explain it
better than I can. He' s been going to her for three weeks now," he said. "Substituting?"
"If you talk to Dr. Delarose, she' ll tell you that he' s just trying to find order.
Patience. Just ride it out."
"I was willing to ride it out until our space cadet decided to take a stroll down the
main street. There are three stoplights between here and the Quik Mart, you know?" he
said. He tossed the card onto the counter. "Here, I stopped off at the pharmacy and
bought a card for Allen' s mother. I figure we ought to do something since she picked
him up. Who knows where he would have ended up?"
Working with only his flashlight as a source of light, Jeremy set up his telescope
meticulously. He extended the tripod and attached the telescope to it with the speed and
fluidity of an Army man who has dismantled and reassembled his rifle thousands of
times. He gazed into his telescope then picked it up and moved it onto the cement
pavement. He looked again and found that his view was blocked by a dead street light
and therefore he had to move the telescope, once more, onto the grass, lifting it and
lowering it a few times in order to find a flat area of the lawn. He peered into the
eyepiece and turned his telescope in a full circle to make sure he had a clear view from all
angles. He stepped back and looked into the sky, which was fortuitously clear.
He walked to his tent, his home for almost three weeks. He crawled inside and
reemerged with a plastic bag of goldfish crackers and a digital watch on his wrist. He
looked at the kitchen window and saw a figure pulling back the curtain. He assumed it
was his mother, but there was no acceptable reason for why he thought that. But he did
know that he was going to miss her. He realized that of his parents, he preferred his
mother, if not for her understanding of his situation then, at the very least, for her bags of
He turned his back to his viewer and looked in the sky, but the sky was too large
for his eyes to scan. Maybe it would have been easier if the stars weren' t out, he
thought. But knowing he could do nothing about that, he thought about his mother again.
He had decided to stop seeing the doctor. He didn' t see the need in talking to her
anymore since he was leaving soon. This was, Jeremy figured, the last loose end that
needed tying up. He knew that he could' just leave, so over the past couple of weeks,
he had ended all his connections to this place. Against his father' s wishes, he'd quit
baseball, which he'd never liked anyway, because the coach always stuck him out in right
field. He had decided yesterday to stop attending Mass even though he liked the bread
they handed out at the end. Ultimately, it was just bread.
He dropped his bag of goldfish at his feet and kicked it under the telescope. He
pressed his eyeball against the lens and adjusted the focus. He turned the telescope a
little to the right and then a little to the left. He pulled his head away in disappointment.
He checked his watch and looked into the sky, scanning, but his neck only allowed him to
do it for less than a minute before it began to hurt. If only there was a way to gaze upon
the sky without getting a sore neck.
The thought passed and he sprinted for the giant trampoline in the center of the
lawn. He dragged one of the plastic lawn chairs from the edge of the grass. Using it as a
stool, he climbed onto the trampoline and jumped and flipped and somersaulted, not
always in that order.
From the window, he heard his mother tell him to take his shoes off if he wanted
to jump on the trampoline. Jeremy landed and bounced a few times before he was able to
steady himself. He looked at the figure in the window and did a back flip, a forwards
flip, and then bounced and bounced and bounced in an attempt to get higher and higher
and higher, being careful not to bounce off the trampoline in the process.
The screen door swung open and after a few steps his mother emerged through the
concrete archway that separated the backyard and the back patio. She marched up to the
trampoline, following her son' s parabolic movements with a flashlight. She halted a foot
from it and slammed her hands on its edge, grasping it as if she wanted to pull it out from
under him like a rug.
"Jeremy Michael Wilkens," she said, "get down now."
Jeremy continued to bounce, but bounced to the other side.
"Jeremy," she said.
He paid no attention.
Mrs. Wilkens stepped onto the chair and then the trampoline, stumbling each time
Jeremy landed. She made her way to the center of the circle, falling to one knee more
often than not. Jeremy, realizing that the distance was diminishing between them,
jumped onto the lawn before he could be captured. He ran into his tent and zipped it
Mrs. Wilkens remained motionless. Her face pressed against the mat of the
trampoline. She rolled over, pushing the flashlight away from her body. She closed her
eyes, for she had a fear of staring into space. Since childhood, her eyes had needed to be
focused on a concrete object such as a star or plane or else she' d find herself getting
pulled into the black void. It' d be incorrect to call it transcendence, for transcendence, to
Mrs. Wilkens, should' t be so terrifying.
She opened her eyes and anchored a gaze onto the tail of the Little Dipper, the
North Star. Although she knew that the stars were in their own orbits, the illusion that
the night sky was fixed in time and place was a difficult one to see through. She
followed the tail and attempted to make out Ursa Minor but failed. She knew very little
about astrology-or was it astronomy? What she did know was that some of the stars,
fixed in the sky like white Christmas lights, were merely shadows of what they had once
been, and no twisting of the star would turn them back on.
A while had passed without any movement. Jeremy squatted on his knees peering
out the top of the zipper, with one eyeball engrossed on his prey or maybe, more
accurately, his hunter. He waited for some movement by the aggressor, preferably a
retreat into the house. Finally, he unzipped the tent. He stepped onto the lawn and made
his way to the trampoline, which was shoulder level. He examined his subject, observing
her from different angles as anyone would do when looking for signs of life in a dead
body. All that was missing was a stick to poke her with.
"Jeremy," his mother said.
"Jeremy, come here please."
Still no response.
"Jeremy, I see them. They' re up there. Look."
Jeremy climbed onto the chair hastily and tumbled onto the trampoline, but at a
safe distance from his mother.
"Where?" he asked.
Mrs. Wilkens pointed but it was impossible to follow the line that her arm was
trying to make. The distance was just too great.
Jeremy searched a dispersed area, but all he could see were motionless points of
light. He searched for about a minute, then stopped and sat up.
"You' re lying," he said.
"No I'm not," Mrs. Wilkens said. "See that star? The really bright one?"
"Keep your eye on it. They' 11 be coming around again soon."
He lay back down. He focused on the star and waited.
"I still don' t see them."
"Patience. They' re coming. They' re probably over China by now."
Jeremy lay down, creating a minor rippling effect. He found the star again and
His eye caught the deliberate pace of a faintly flickering point of light entering the
mouth of the Little Dipper and then exiting the bottom. He rolled over to the edge of the
trampoline and carefully lowered his legs over the side, balancing himself with his
forearms on the mat. He let go and stuck his landing. He sprinted to his telescope and
pointed it at the Little Dipper, anticipating the UFO' s next revolution.
Mrs. Wilkens rolled onto her stomach to get a better view of him. "What do you
think they' re doing up there?" she asked.
Jeremy kept his eye pressed against the eyepiece.
"They' ve been up there for quite a while," Mrs. Wilkens went on. "What are
they waiting for?"
Jeremy turned his telescope to follow the path of the UFO. "They' re looking for
me. This world is a big place, you know. I guess it takes a while."
"What if they find you? What are you going to do?"
"I' m going with them," he said. "What else would I do?"
"Won' t you miss us? Your father and me?"
"Sure, I guess. But I gotta grow up sometime."
"I suppose. But I was hoping that it would' t be for a while. What' s the big
hurry? Be a kid. Play baseball and eat glue."
"I don' t eat glue."
Jeremy pulled his head away from the telescope. "They told me in my dream that
they' 11 be coming for me. They told me to wait and they' 11 make their way."
"But you' ve been watching the sky for weeks now and you' re still here. You' d
think they' d have done it by now."
"I don' t know," he said. "Maybe they can' t find me. As I' ve been finding out,
this place is rather big. I used to think that if I crossed Walnut Grove I' d disappear.
Poof. Like they do in the movies. But you know what? I didn' t. Ijust kept on
walking." He forgot about his telescope.
"Well, there' s no way they' 11 find you now," Mrs. Wilkens said. "It' s pitch
black. They' d need a homing beacon to find you."
"A homing beacon," she said. "They need a signal to lock onto so that they can
find you." Mrs. Wilkens puckered her face. She stood up, but not without a little
trouble, and turned in circles, taking in the geometry of the trampoline. She felt its edge,
the crust of the pie, to check the stability. She craned her head upward and then looked
down at the trampoline. Satisfied with her amateur survey, she stepped down onto the
chair and then onto the grass.
"Let' s get some candles," she said.
Jeremy and his mother carried candles two at a time from the house and placed
them on the rusted metal lawn table. After numbers nine and ten, Mrs. Wilkens told
Jeremy that that would be enough candles. She instructed Jeremy, who now had
binoculars dangling around his neck, to grab the spotlight and get on the trampoline, but
only to sit.
Jeremy, more than willing to oblige, scurried to the trampoline and sat at the very
center. He viewed the constellation through his binoculars, focusing with his free hand.
Taking the candles two at a time, Mrs. Wilkens placed them along the outside of
the trampoline, being mindful that they would' t tip over or drip wax. Standing at the
kitchen window, a shadowy figured loomed, watching. Mrs. Wilkens wondered how
long her husband had been there. She could feel him shaking his head, but she didn' t
care. They needed the candles more than he did.
When everything was in place, she got on board, next to her son. She picked up
the spotlight and, with her other hand, fixed his hair. Jeremy kept the binoculars glued to
his face, unresponsive to her grooming. She could hear the chuckles of the shadow,
could hear his threat of dismantling the tent and making psychiatric appointments for her.
She fired one-million-candles worth of light into the window, pushing him away from the
window and deep into the house. Sitting inside the circle of lights, she dragged the
spotlight across the sky like the floodlights at a movie premiere. After a few sweeps, her
arm stopped and remained outstretched. Then, at a moment she felt was appropriate, she
turned off the spotlight.
The long wooden bench in the church's ready room was as hard as cement. I was
having difficulty finding a position where I wasn't placing too much pressure on a
shoulder or a hipbone. I preferred sleeping on my side. My late father's tweed jacket
was balled up under my head as a pillow, but unfortunately I didn't have enough fabric
for the rest of my body.
My mother was standing in front of a full-body mirror, checking her gray hair and
make-up, straightening out her wedding dress. This was her fifth marriage and she still
wore the traditional, white wedding gown. For the two days I'd been up in Kent,
Washington, she had yet to make mention of my wife's absence. For the past month,
when my mother would call Palo Alto (where Nancy and I had a house), she'd ask when
had I started answering the phone. I had a strong aversion to telephones. I'd tell her that
Nancy was out doing something-shopping, taking and then picking up her power suit
from the cleaners-something believable, something specific, but most importantly
something that wouldn't cause worry. Now I was worried.
"Jonathon, if this marriage doesn't work out, then I'll know it's been my fault,"
my mother said, looking at me through the mirror. She laughed, but there was something
else in the laughter I couldn't put my finger on.
I sat up and shook my head to clear the drowsiness you feel when you didn't sleep
the night before. I combed my hair with my hands. It was parted on the left side. It was
eleven-thirty in the morning and I was resigned to not getting any sleep. I wasn't
blaming the bench, though. I hadn't been sleeping on anything lately. A soft queen-sized,
feather-topped bed. A plush Jenny Convertible couch. A firm double with an orange
comforter. The last one was in a Motel 6 just down the road.
The groom, a semi-retired independent contractor, entered through the only door.
He had an envious amount of hair for a man of sixty-two. A priest's robe was hanging on
a mount and swayed when the door shut behind him.
"Reginald," my mother said. "What are you doing here?" She stuck out her arms
as he approached her.
"I couldn't help it, Louise" he said. He was wearing a tuxedo and a ridiculous
smile. "I just had to see you. You look beautiful."
"No, no, no. The groom isn't supposed to see the bride before the ceremony."
Even after four marriages, she still believed in such superstitions. As if the success of a
marriage hinged on luck and not stepping on cracks.
"Just a kiss. Just one," he said. He nodded at me, the first time he had
acknowledged my presence in the room.
"No," she said, pushing him to the door. "Out, out, out!"
He left the room, but not before stealing a kiss on the cheek.
My mother hurried back to the mirror, examining the violated area. She pulled
out a make-up pad from her purse and dabbed her cheek. When she deemed herself
beautified, she returned her attention to me. "Are they here yet?"
Shrugging my shoulders, I unrolled my jacket and flapped it a few times in front
of me, then slipped it on. I poked my head out the door, on the other side of which was
the alter and rows of pews. Guests were trickling in.
"They should be seated in the last row," she said.
I looked to the back. The right pew was empty, while in the left three older
gentlemen were sitting quietly. I couldn't make out fine details but I knew it was them,
my mother's ex-husbands.
"Why do you invite them?" I asked, although I had my suspicions.
"Because they'd come anyway, probably drunk," she said. She detached herself
from the mirror. She was ready to go. "Are they there or not?"
"Yeah, they're there." Of course they were. No one doubted that they'd come.
Someone who didn't know her would see this gesture-inviting ex-husbands to a
wedding-as touching. They would say, "If Charles and I ever separated-heaven
forbid-I hope we'd have the cordiality to do something like that." But there was also
something cruel about it. The men didn't play an active role in her life, except for
sending the occasional card or flowers for birthdays and holidays (some special and some
of a dubious nature). She invited them not because she wanted them but because, I
believe, she knew that they would come if she beckoned. It was this abuse of power that
I disapproved of. Where the origin of this power came from, I don't know. The hold was
inexplicable. They wanted to read something into the invitations, that she still needed
them, loved them, that the new marriage was against her will and the invitations a
distressed signal. Or else why send an invitation at all?
"Drunk?" she asked.
"No, doesn't look like it."
"Good. Now make sure they stay that way. Keep an eye on them. I don't want
them causing any disruptions."
So I went. I cut in front of the altar and turned down the carpeted walkway that
my mother would be walking up. I reached the ex-husbands with little fanfare. They
were settled in like three deposed kings, all looking in different directions, none at me.
They sat a good distance apart from each other, enough to suggest they weren't together,
which they weren't.
I took a seat between Brian and Jeffrey. They were my mother's third and fourth
husband, respectively. They gave their greetings and obligatory smiles; for them, today
was not a joyous occasion. Mr. Wallenby sat at the far end. He was my mother's first
husband, and his name was Marcus, but I didn't call him by his first name. He wasn't the
kind of man whom I felt I could call by his first name. He fought in the Second World
War and a man who has done that doesn't deserve to be called by his first name. He was
looking at one of the pictures of Jesus walking to his crucifixion, the one where he drops
the cross. I knew Mr. Wallenby the least of the three, since his relationship with my
mother predated my birth. For that reason my conversations with him never amounted to
more than a few sentences of pleasantries.
Brian Falter, along with being my mother's third husband, was a pharmaceutical
salesman and friend of my late father. I lived with him and my mother in Sand Point,
Idaho, during the tailing years of high school, after which I went into college on the east
coast. He had broken his back on a skiing trip in Vermont. It was fully healed now;
there wasn't a hump, nor a noticeable limp when he walked. If it wasn't for his pain
medication addiction, you wouldn't have known that he'd broken his back at all. The
marriage lasted into my last year of graduate school. I had always assumed that his
substance abuse was why the marriage failed. But now I understood that such matters
were rarely simple.
After divorcing Brian in the spring, my mother moved to Washington state, where
she was originally from. She was looking for a house somewhere outside Seattle, using
her settlement money. A real-estate agent named Jeffrey Lenski showed her a few
houses in Ollala and Bellevue. She decided on a house in Bellevue that had green trim.
After she put a down payment on it, he asked her out to dinner. He told her he'd wanted
to ask her out from the moment she stepped into his office, but had made himself wait out
of courtesy and business ethics. Not too long after, they married in Seattle. I was in
California then. I was working in Palo Alto, and Nancy and I were only dating. I took a
few days off, using the few sick days that I had stored up, and attended the ceremony.
When I got back home, Nancy asked how the wedding had gone-how were the flowers,
who caught the bouquet, how did my mother look, etc. I'd told her the day had been
going how weddings should go until the minister asked the witnesses if there was a
reason these two people should not be joined together in the bonds of holy matrimony.
Now what happened next was something I had seen only in the movies and daytime soap
operas, something that in real life probably should happen more frequently. Brian-
hopped up on a new prescription drug his company was selling-gave two reasons why
they shouldn't be wed. The first was that he still loved her and the second was that he
knew she still loved him. It didn't come out that clearly, because whatever he was on
caused him to slur his speech. Jeffrey stood at the altar, enraged as much as one could be
when standing in front of friends and family not wanting to create a scene. When a few
ushers got Brian quieted down, the ceremony was completed. Brian was not present at
Her marriage to Jeffrey lasted only two years, her shortest by far. Officially, they
split due to "irreconcilable differences." My mother said, in confidence, that she let the
romance blind her. My mother didn't have any daughters, so I was her reluctant
confidant. Jeffrey saw it a different way: "The marriage was doomed before it even
began. It's all his fault." Whether it was Brian's fault or not was debatable. My mother
had told him that it had nothing to do with him and that it was just like Jeffrey to assign
the blame to someone else instead of acknowledging his own culpability. But truthfully,
I believed that the disruption Brian caused weighed heavily on her mind.
The ceremony began at noon. The guests shuffled in through the main oak doors
wearing suits and nice dresses, and took their places-friends and family of the groom on
the right, of the bride on the left.
Because of the time of day and because there were no clouds, the sunlight shone
through the stain-glass windows onto the altar, where the minister and the wedding's
participants were to stand. It was nothing short of brilliant, and had I not known that my
mother had done this four times already, I'd have felt a supernatural presence, that
possibly there were witnesses not of the flesh. Instead I saw it as very good lighting.
From where we sat in back, I studied the backs of heads of third cousins and great
aunts, most gray or artificially blond. Although I felt disconnected from the proceedings,
I was also relieved to be seated in the back. There were four empty pews between us and
the next occupied pew. This separation saved me from the painful questions from
attentive relatives who might have noticed that my wife was absent. She came by last
Saturday to pick up the remaining clothes she wasn't able to fit in her bloated Honda
Civic on the first trip. She hadn't collected the dishware yet, so I remained hopeful. In
case a cousin or uncle would wander up to me, I had a prepared answer: Nancy had to
work because a project was due. She worked for Apple, after all. Projects were always
The bridesmaids walked down the aisle clutching bouquets and the arms of men,
wearing matching mint green dresses that stopped at the knees. They marched down one
by one until the organ started up the familiar tune that elicited the Pavlovian response to
stand and look behind you. Here came the bride, all full of smiles. She carried at her
waist a bouquet twice the size of her bridesmaids'. Her older brother was escorting her
down the aisle. Their father had died a couple of falls ago. This was her brother's first
time. You could see the concentration on his face as he timed each step. His forehead
shone. He created a sense of uneasiness among the gathered, like the nervousness I felt
as a child watching jugglers toss scimitars to each other, expecting one of the swords to
lop a hand off. And just like the jugglers, he escorted her down the length of the aisle
without incident, proving our worries to be for naught.
The priest had an Irish brogue. He added an Irish-Catholic simplicity that would
have been missing otherwise. I imagined sheep walking past the closed front doors of the
church. For most of the ceremony, I studied the back of the pew which held various
literature: a hymn book, a card that asked for donations for the construction of a Sunday
School that was already in progress, and the New Testament. I flipped through the New
Testament, noted that the sayings of Jesus were in red print, and put the book back. I
looked up when the priest asked if there was anyone who objected to the union. At that
moment I checked on Brian. He sat with his hands in his lap. He gave no impression of
an upcoming objection. I was surprisingly disappointed.
The reception was held at the town's community center. Reginald was a
recovering alcoholic and was the founder of a new sobriety group that appealed to those
who couldn't rely on the presence of a higher being. His guests only filled the first two
pews of the church. Most were friends from this group. Apparently his years of
alcoholic abuse had decimated his friend base and alienated one entire side of his family.
But he had been slowly rebuilding. His circle of friends now consisted of those
unfortunates that showed up, voluntarily and sometimes not, at the meetings. Reginald
had one surviving brother, who received an invitation. He was a no-show.
The reception was held indoors. It wasn't raining and the sky was speckled with
It was an open bar. Those under twenty-one years of age-and those who were in
Reginald's sobriety group-were required to wear green plastic wristbands that chafed
whenever the shirt sleeves pushed towards the wrist. Reginald's guests agreed to wear
them only because he asked them to. He wanted to show solidarity, a one-for-all kind of
thing. The two bartenders were obligated to ask everyone who stepped to the bar for a
drink to roll back their sleeves. I went up, sleeves already rolled, and ordered a glass of
champagne for myself, a gin and tonic for Mr. Wallenby. The other two ex-husbands had
their drinks already.
"Sorry, one drink per visit," the bartender said. Her voice had no inflection, like
the voice recordings you'd hear over the phone when you dialed a disconnected number.
"But the gin and tonic is for that gentleman," I said. I pointed at Mr. Wallenby,
who was staring out the window at something I couldn't see or recognize. He turned his
head and looked at us for a few seconds before turning back to the window.
The bartender shrugged her shoulders. "It's the rules." Her hair was pulled back
into a bun with what looked like a chopstick sticking out of it, a hair kabob. She leaned
forward onto the bar. "You not sleep well last night? You look dead tired."
"It's the motel I'm staying at," I said. "The bed's too soft. It's turning me into a
raccoon." That of course was a lie. I hadn't been able to sleep for weeks, not since
Nancy had moved out. I'd been finding myself tossing and turning, and waking up at
three in the morning, never to fall back to sleep. After seven years of living together,
five years of marriage, I'd grown accustomed to the indentation she made in the bed,
concaving it, and the rhythmic breaths of her sleep. In her sleep she'd jerk around. She'd
kick her legs as a dog that dreamed about chasing cars would. I'd been meaning to ask
her what she dreamt of.
I returned to our table against the wall with my champagne in hand. Most of the
wall was a large window, not one of those ceiling-to-floor windows but close to it. Mr.
Wallenby was still watching whatever he was watching. I tried to see what it was but all
that was out there were acres of green grass, enough grass to put up an 18-hole golf
course. He studied the table, his eyes roaming for his gin and tonic.
"What happened?" he asked. His voice was gruff and rusty, as if he didn't use it
too often, which was probably the case. He hadn't said more than a word since I met
"You've got to get it yourself." I rubbed the perspiration off my glass. Then I
turned the glass, analyzing its shape as if it were a perfect jewel, something worthy of
focusing attention on. In truth Mr. Wallenby intimidated me.
To my right I could hear Brian ranting to Jeffrey about Replica, the company he
"Our global quest is to improve the quality of human life by enabling people to do
more, feel better, and live longer," Brian said. His freshly shaven cheeks were flushed
from the champagne or the pills in his doctor's satchel under the table or both. "How
many people can say that what they do for a living has that large of an impact on the
"A cashier at McDonalds," Jeffrey said dryly. He put his drink down on one of
the hundred doilies crafted by my Great Aunt Martha, who had been spending her
autumn years crocheting blankets with bear-face patterns, socks, and other useful items
so that we wouldn't forget her. She knit a sweater for Nancy. It had two kittens playing
with a ball of yar on the front. Nancy never wore it, kept it in the bottom of her drawer.
She took that to her sister's too.
"Can a cashier claim to have totaled 5 billion dollars in sales?" Brian rebutted.
"Can you claim to have totaled 5 billion?" Jeffrey asked.
Before Brian could respond, the DJ announced over the speaker system lining the
walls that "Mr. & Mrs. Reginald Merriweather" were ready to partake in their first dance
as husband and wife.
Everyone stood up from their tables. We formed a circle and inside it my mother
and Reginald danced. Well, not everyone joined in on the circle. Back at my table Brian
and Jeffrey were still sitting. I could hear them from the circle. I was along the outside
of it, not fully committed. Brian was flinging diseases and other severe health conditions
"Tetanus, whooping cough, influenza, diphtheria, hepatitis A and B."
"What exactly is a 'whooping' cough?" Jeffrey said. "Do you actually 'whoop'
when you cough? What's the difference between that and your typical cough?" Jeffrey
stopped, made a look as if he'd been shot, then turned his head to the joyous crowd.
"Christ sakes! I hate this song."
Fortunately, Mr. Wallenby was being spared this inane spat. I spotted him
standing at the bar, his hands shaking above his head.
"I wouldn't mock the whooping cough," Brian said. He had grabbed his satchel
and placed it on his lap. "It has wiped out countryside, small African tribes and the
Jeffrey barked a laugh, a quick skeptical one. Brian laughed, too, because
laughter was contagious and because he was doped up.
"Truth is I'm in the business of healing. I've got everything anyone would ever
need right here in this bag." He tapped his bag, then opened his satchel and reached in.
"If someone, say Marcus, has a stroke, I'd give him this yellow pill. If someone comes
down with a horrible rash, I'd give him this green pill. Some gastrointestinal problems,
this blue pill."
"Why... aren't you the medicine man," Jeffrey said. He was holding his glass,
but it had been empty for quite some time.
Brian laughed again. He wiped his big forehead with a crumpled paper napkin.
"You're right. I am the medicine man."
Mr. Wallenby came walking back from the bar with two gin and tonics in each
hand. He sat down and put them on some doilies. He winked at me. I went back to the
table. He said, "You've got to know how to talk to people. Thirty years in the military
will teach you a few things."
The music ended. Applause rose and the circle of well-wishers dissipated. Some
went back to their seats, others to the bar or bathroom. Emerging from the scramble of
people was my mother. She was headed our way.
It wasn't until she was within ten yards that any of my three table partners
noticed. And when they did they stopped what they were doing-Brian and Jeffrey
arguing; Mr. Wallenby drinking-and began grooming themselves.
"Hello, Martha," Jeffrey said. He got out of his chair, in the process banging his
knee under the table and almost knocking over Mr. Wallenby's drinks. Mr. Wallenby
covered the tops of both with his palms to minimize the spillage.
"Hello, Martha," the other two said. They too were standing. Mr. Wallenby
checked the positions of his lapels. Brian just smiled, one hand on the table for balance.
"Hello, boys," my mother said. "I hope you're all behaving yourselves."
"We are," they said in unison.
"Martha, did you get my card?" Mr. Wallenby asked.
My mother frowned. "We won't be opening the presents until tonight."
Mr. Wallenby shook his head. "Not that one. The one I sent you months ago.
Did you get it? I never heard back from you." He was strumming the table with his
"Are you talking about the one for Veteran's Day?"
"Yes." He banged the palm of his hand with his fist.
"Marcus, that did confuse me. Why did you send me a card for Veteran's Day?
I'm not a Veteran."
"But I am."
My mother didn't say anything. Her eyes were rolling around in their sockets,
maybe looking for a proper response or trying to pass out.
Then Jeffrey jumped in. "Martha, I would be honored if you would dance with
me," he said. "You can pick the song if you wish."
"I'd like a dance," Brian added, seeing an opportunity arising.
"A dance would be wonderful," Mr. Wallenby said.
"Well, all right. But I insist that first I dance with my son."
"Of course," they said.
She extended her hand, newly adorned with a diamond set in a golden band. I
took it and we walked out to the dance floor, on which couples were already spinning
each other around. I became suddenly uneasy, for I remembered that I hadn't danced
since my own wedding.
My mother danced first with Jeffrey. It was a quick-tempoed song that didn't
require a lot of body contact. After she returned him to our table, she left with Mr.
Wallenby. While Mr. Wallenby was dancing the fox trot with my mother, I quickly
became good friends with the bartender. The other bartender-the woman-had gone on
a break. Instead of taking my drinks back to the table, I just downed them there for
efficiency; it saved me the trouble of walking back and forth. The bartender's name was
Ted and he had a wife and two kids. One-a girl-had just begun her first year of formal
education. The other-a boy-was walking, in diapers, but still sucked on a pacifier,
which bothered Ted.
"We've been trying to ween him off it for the past six months," Ted said. At this
point he had stopped asking to see my wrists. "We've been using all the tips that are
given in these parenting books Cheryl's parents got for us when we had Nikki, our girl."
"By the time the kid's walking, the sucker needs to be taken away. Although it's
no rule. Not like it's etched in stone." I swallowed the last of the champagne. I was
starting to feel the alcohol's effects: hot cheeks, light-headedness.
"That's what the books say, but he doesn't care. If he doesn't have the purple
plastic rubber in his mouth, he goes ballistic. His face matches the color of the pacifier.
Looks like his head's going to explode. I've been trying to get him to suck on his thumb.
Just to get the pacifier out of the equation."
"Don't do that," I said. I shook my empty glass in front of his face and set it
down to be refilled. I used to know this kid who sucked his thumb well into junior high.
The only reason why he didn't get the snot beat out of him was because he was as big as
an ogre. "You'll just be shifting the problem," I went on.
"Yeah, you have kids? Sounds like you know some stuff."
"Nah, I don't have any."
Before we were married, over dinner at the Garden Cafe Nancy had made a
proclamation-fired a warning shot across my bow, you could say-that she had no
interest in children. Didn't want them. Made it a point that she was pro-choice. She'd
said she knew she'd be a horrible mother. She'd just fuck them up. Her parents had been
horrible parents. And children tended to model their parental skills after their parents,
which, she'd said, meant disaster. I'd told her she'd be a great mother, not because I
believed it (it was our third date), but because I thought it was the right thing to say. She
just shook her head and chomped down on a turkey melt.
A woman stepped up to the bar, ordering water in a way that seemed unnatural to
her. On her right wrist was a wristband. This was either a young girl who had an
extremely hard and sober life, or a woman in her mid-thirties. She tugged and jostled her
dress and her undergarments as if they belonged to someone else. She took a swig of
water and caught me looking at her wristband.
"They didn't have to put it on so tight," she said, twisting it around her wrist,
which was thin, bony. The veins in the wrist were visible and green.
"It's probably so the kids can't slide it off," I said. She played with it a little
"Yeah, I'm sure that's the reason."
I glanced at the dance floor and then at my table. Mr. Wallenby was back in his
chair. Brian was at the table too, his turn on the dance floor to come later. Outside the
sky was gone, blanked by gray clouds. That was Washington for you. The weather can
turn on you like that.
"My name is Tina," she said. Her hair was short, not like a boy's. But it didn't
reach her neck. It was combed back and to one side like in a tabloid photo I had seen of
Princess Diana. She pulled out a canister of Altoids from the purse that she hung on her
white shoulder and placed one onto her tongue. Then she deposited the rest back into her
"Hello. John." I extended my right hand. She took it with her left, the awkward
one. I suddenly became very conscious of the alcohol in front of me and of the smell of
my breath, which after five or six drinks was surely detectable from where she was
standing. "May I have one?"
She resembled a one-eyed jack, with the way her head was cocked. "Your breath
is fine," she said.
She told me that she was from Tampa Bay, Florida. She was new to Reginald's
group, Washington, and sobriety, and was at the wedding because Reginald was her
sponsor. She had now been sober for seventy days-the longest she'd been without a
drink in eight years. She said all this without satisfaction. She looked as is she was in
need of a cigarette, or something stronger. After every sip of water her face took on a
look of disappointment. She started telling me about her weird dreams she was having
while in detox.
"I'm standing there in a street in the middle of nowhere. I don't know where I am,
exactly. I don't recognize anything. But I do know that I'm in Washington because the
sky is gray and the sun is gone. It's like hell. Or at least what I'd imagine hell would be
like. Then it just starts pouring down. Of course, I don't have an umbrella with me or
anything. Dreams are never that kind."
"I used to have dreams where I'd be at school naked. Why no clothes?" I said.
She ignored me.
"I get soaked pretty quickly. My hair is matted on my face. I don't run because
there's no buildings to run to. No trees within the vicinity. This is fucking Washington,
and there's not one tree. Eventually I sit down right in the street and drink the sky."
"That doesn't sound too unusual," I said.
"The lack of trees isn't what's odd. It's what's raining down on me. It's not
"What is it?"
I paused to think what that meant.
"Crazy, isn't it?" she said.
"You've had this dream more than once," I said, more as a question.
"Has it always been Jack Daniels?"
"No," she said. "Other times it's been vodka." She finished her water and
I had switched to water myself at that point, but it was having a different effect on
me. Where the water for her was insipid or acrid, for me it was replenishing and
soothing. Especially, my throat, which until now I hadn't realized was dry and tender-
the early signs of a developing illness or just dehydration.
After the conversation died out, we stood their for a little while. I thought of
things to talk about but none of what I came up seemed good enough. Still I didn't want
her to go. It'd been a while since I talked to anyone about anything. When she ordered
another water and started to leave, I started searching again and picked the first thing that
"My wife left me. She's staying at her sister's."
"Oh, poor baby," Tina said. It sounded sincere, but it came out so quickly that I
could tell that it was something that she'd done before. She pressed her side against me.
It gave me a slight erection and my skin began to tingle so fiercely that I had to scratch
my sides, my forearms, wherever it itched. It had been a while since I'd felt the heat, the
weight of another body. Moved by her gesture, I found myself trying to slide off my
wedding ring into my pocket. It wouldn't come off. I had gained a few pounds since my
"Yeah, poor me," I said.
"Sounds like you need some company."
"I don't need anything." I knew I was lying, but I was still married. And deep
down hope still dwelled in me that when I got home, I'd find the bedroom closet full of
Nancy's clothes, the bathroom littered with feminine hygiene products, and Nancy in the
kitchen chopping vegetables for the salad.
"Honey,"-Tina lowered her head and gave me a knowing look-"we all need
something." Then she strutted away, leaving a wake of cheap perfume behind. "I'll be
right back," she called over her shoulder.
My mother was dancing with an older gentleman I didn't recognize. Reginald
was dancing with my Great Aunt Martha. When the song ended, each dancer returned to
their designated table. At this point I spotted Tina flirting with the DJ, pushing back over
her ear blond hair that wasn't there.
When she got back, she wanted to dance. "I picked this song just for us," she
said, grabbing my hand and pulling me out to the floor. I offered as much resistance as a
boogie board floating on the water. The song started before we got there. From the first
two bars of the song, I knew it "I Wish It Would Rain." At first we were the only couple
on the dance floor, but soon the floor was populated when others recognized the song and
gleefully scurried to take position, so we weren't exhibiting ourselves for too long. We
were lost amongst the dancers, cloaked in anonymity.
Cheek to cheek we danced, much too slowly for what the song called for. Our
bodies rotated like ballet dancers in a music box. Neither one of us was leading. Ragged
and spent, we propped up each other's. Take one away and the other would collapse, fall
into shambles. Take either one, it didn't matter. My eyes closed. I could almost fool
myself into believing it was Nancy I was dancing with. But the wristband scratched the
inside of my wrist, making me more aware of my partner's identity than I wanted to be.
It was the closest I had yet been to her wristband. Now, it stuck out into the air, away
from us. Not dangling, it was fastened too tight, like a handcuff. What I first thought
were engravings were actually divots or nicks in the plastic made by an instrument-too
blunt to do anything-or teeth.
We turned like that, for what felt like ages but was only in fact the length of a pop
song. The DJ announced a five-minute break between songs after he faded out the music.
But we kept on turning. The crowd around us, our protection, began to thin out. Then I
heard her whisper in my ear, "Meet me behind the club. Bring some champagne." She
I was alone on the floor. Feeling naked despite my suit, I slogged back to my
table. I dropped into my chair with such lassitude that if I had been obese I would have
broken the chair. Instead, the only thing I broke was Mr. Wallenby's devoted
concentration on what was on the other side of the window.
"It's raining," he said plainly, as if I wasn't going to notice the monsoon outside.
Puddles were collecting where the grass dipped. Mr. Wallenby's jacket was hanging on
the back of his seat. His legs were straight and he was settled in his chair in a way that
made me expect him to slide out, but he didn't.
Brian sat with his elbows on the edge of the table. His satchel was on his lap.
Every twenty seconds or so he hiccupped loudly, causing him to jiggle.
"He's been doing that for the last blasted fifteen minutes," Jeffrey said.
"I can't help it," Brian said. His voice was whiney. "I tried everything. Holding
my breath. Drinking water. I'm just going to wait it out."
"Don't you have something in your bag that can take care of it?" Jeffrey asked.
Brian muttered under his breath. He clutched his bag close to his chest. "John, I
love what Nancy did with her hair," he said. "It's very fetching."
I looked around the room. My mother and Reginald were at their tables, talking to
well-wishers that passed by. Tina, whom I assumed Brian had mistaken for my wife, was
nowhere to be found. She must have been still waiting for me out back, a place I had no
intention of going.
"She loved Princess Diana," I said. "Nancy was heartbroken when she died."
"Princess Diana," Brian said, "I never did like that woman."
I yawned. My feet were rooting into the ground. I could feel my own dead
weight and I was glad to be sitting down.
"Have you been sick, John?" Brian asked.
"No, just fighting a bout of insomnia." I said it in a it more perturbed tone than I
meant it to.
Brian perked up. He hadn't hiccupped for a while, but I wasn't going to point that
out. "Well, I think I got something here for you," he said and dug through his bag,
occasionally pulling out bottles and then putting them back because they weren't what he
was looking for.
The DJ returned to his post. Music poured out of the speakers. It was something
from the Big Band Era, lots of brass instruments. This prompted Brian to stop diggin.
He jumped out of his chair as if he had been hit by lightening.
"I believe it's my turn, gentlemen," he said. Then he turned in the direction of my
mother's table. She was looking back at Brian, smiling weakly. She excused herself and
headed for the dance floor.
Brian handed me his satchel. "Watch this, would you, John? Saved the best for
last, huh," he added, turning to his companions.
I set the bag on my lap. It was sealed with two criss-crossing metal talons like the
small coin purses my mother had when I was a child. As he walked away, he said to me,
"Go ahead and poke around. I'm sure there's something in there that can help you
I looked down. I thought about the contents in the bag. However, I didn't open
it. Instead I sat motionless until I noticed that the bar was unmanned. I went to the bar
and unrolled my sleeves before I stuck my hand into a pool of half-melted ice. That was
all there was: ice. I looked around for other options, half used bottles, but everyone I
asked wouldn't give theirs up. Finally I gave up and took a circuitous route to the back
of the building, avoiding as many people as I could and also making sure that if anyone
had seen me leave the main room, they'd think that I was heading to the bathroom instead
of the back of the club.
After trying a series of emergency exit doors, I found Tina sitting under an
awning outside the last door of a poorly lit hallway. She had her shoes off and was
holding out her plastic tumbler, letting the rain collect. When she saw me, my empty
hands hidden behind my back, she turned over her glass and shook out the water. She
looked around me, both sides. I felt ashamed. I kept my hands behind me, hoping that if
I hid them behind me long enough a bottle might appear in my hands like I was a
magician, as if I was hiding a bottle in my sleeve without knowing it. But eventually I let
my hands fall to my side, and her head dropped, as if a guillotine blade had lopped it off
and sent it rolling. I didn't offer up an excuse. For times like this, there wasn't an excuse.
I sat down next to her. I cradled the satchel in my lap. She extended her cup out
into the rain like she had done when I found her, and we watched it fill drop by drop.
Salvatora Bonaccorso hovered around her son's oven. Cooking was the one thing
that she knew, the one thing that gave her pride, especially now, at seventy-five, since she
moved in with her son and his family-wife and two children, a boy (Anthony, twenty-
two, who was away for college) and a girl (Josephine, fifteen). Salvatora's husband had
died ten years ago of heart trouble. She had remained in her Philadelphia home-the house
that her youngest son Dominic and her other children were raised in, the house that she
had lived in for over fifty years-until Dominic had decided eight months ago that she
shouldn't have been living alone, that she should move out west to Santa Rosa where the
weather was warmer and they could keep an eye on her. What if she fell and broke her
hip? Who'd know?
Sitting in the toaster oven was a pair of lasagnas-one with ground meat and one
with tofu. Dominic's wife, Allisa, was a vegetarian. Fortunately, this pathological
disorder hadn't been passed down to either child despite the wife's propaganda-an
example of which was on the back bumper of her Volvo station wagon. And although this
eating habit bothered Salvatora, it's what Allisa wasn't-Sicilian-that bothered her
more. She was Irish. At dinnertime, on the days that Salvatora cooked (which was three
times a week), she delighted as she watched her family pillage the contents of the table-
osso buco, veal, anything she cooked. The candles at the center of the oak table would
reflect in her eyes as she wore a devilish grin, one that might have resembled the grin of
the witch that fattened up Hansel and Gretel before attempting to eat them.
On this early Saturday evening, a day when she'd cook, Anthony was bringing a
guest from college, his girlfriend of two years. Salvatora was married at twenty-three
and had known her husband for almost a year. This girl, whose name Salvatora did not
know, would be the first girl that she had ever met. She knew Anthony had girlfriends,
two in high school that she could remember, but it was during those times Salvatora had
been living in her hermitage mourning a dead companion, ruminating on a past.
She pulled out the lasagnas with a gray potholder that hanged by a hooked magnet
on the side of the oven. She placed the dishes next to the bowl of steaming fettuccine.
On the stove cooked the tomato sauce that Salvatora canned herself. It was comprised of
garlic, tomatoes, spices, and a canning process that she wouldn't teach Dominic's wife
despite her incessant requests to be taught and that the experience would bring them
As she removed the garlic bread from the bottom row of the oven, the doorbell
rang. Knowing that it was this unnamed girl, a new potential member to the family, she
hurried the dinner preparations: transferring the food from oven dishes to large plates and
bowls that were to be carried to the dinning room table. The table, with the leaf at the
center, measured eight feet long, sat four people on each side and one at each end. The
candles, bought by Dominic's wife to add an elegant dimension to the dining room, had
been moved to the mantel that held family pictures. With a guest that evening, Salvatora
cooked an extra course, Italian potato dumplings, in fear of running out of food, which
was ridiculous, since there were always leftovers. Always.
She carried out with her forearms a large bowl weighted down with pasta. Her
grandson was introducing his girlfriend to his mother and his father when Salvatora
entered the dining room.
"Grandma, don't carry that. You've done plenty. We'll bring out the food,"
Anthony said, his voice laced with a New England accent. His eyes were brown and his
dark hair had a nice sheen, like his father's before it began to thin. Anthony disappeared
into the kitchen soon to be followed by the rest of the family.
It was then that Salvatora got her first good look at Anthony's girlfriend, who was
standing in the center of the Persian Rug that bridged the dining and living room, her
hands clasped behind her back. She wore a long skirt that gave way to a pair of black
heelless shoes that showed off the girl's red toenails. She wore a respectful blouse, the
kind that most girls would wear when meeting their boyfriend's family for the first time.
The sleeves stopped at her wrists and the neckline was plungeless. However, Salvatora
wasn't interested in the girl's attire or taste in fashion. In truth Salvatora didn't notice the
clothes. All that she saw before her were two giant blue eyes and a large blob of blond
hair pulled back into a ponytail. Salvatora sighed, her shoulders sank. The girl, who had
been holding a smile ever since they were left alone, reinforced her smile.
Finally, most likely tired and sore from smiling, the blond girl broke the silence.
"Hi, Mrs. Bonaccorso. It's great to finally meet you." She extended her hand cautiously,
as if she were attempting to pet a strange dog, worried of not getting her hand back.
Salvatora lowered her eyes at the hand. Her face wasn't scowling. More accurate
to describe it as expressionless, but regardless it was intimidating. She studied the girl's
face, which before was confident but now was nervous and eager, possibly for
acceptance, Salvatora thought. Noticing this and that Anthony had spoken about her,
which delighted Salvatora immensely, she gave a long smile, one that bared both rows of
white teeth, and pushed away the unadorned hand and stepped closer for a hug.
"Welcome, welcome, welcome," Salvatora said. Her small stature had always
caused people she embraced to bend down.
The girl's name was Natalie Samuelsen. Like Anthony she was a senior and a
micro biology major. They had been dating for over two years but had been aware of
each other since they were freshmen. Both had aspirations of attending medical school,
preferably together although she admitted that the odds were long.
"Samuelsen," Dominic's wife said. Everyone was seated at the table. Dominic and
his wife sat at the long ends. Salvatora and Josephine sat on one side, Natalie and
Anthony the other. "Is that Nordic?" She dropped on her plate a helping of lasagna, the
version with chunks of tofu instead of ground meat.
"It's Swedish," Natalie said. She served herself a spoonful of pasta and passed the
bowl to her left to Anthony.
"Swedish. How wonderful," Dominic's wife said. "It's nice to have a fellow
Swede in the house. It evens the numbers a bit."
"You're Irish." Salvatora's tone was accusatory. Her mouth was hidden behind a
ball of fettuccine rolled up on her fork. The fork wavered, as if the mass of pasta was too
heavy for her or she had plans of chucking it at Allisa's head. She shoved the pasta in her
mouth. Strands of noodles dangled against Salvatora's chin. She bit down and the
fettuccine fell to her plate like shredded paper.
"Yes, I am Irish. But the Vikings would make trips to Ireland. Some of them
intermarried with the natives." Dominic's wife tore off a piece of garlic bread from the
basket. "That's why you see Irish people with blue eyes and blond hair."
Salvatora examined the blond hair on her daughter-in-law's head, which Salvatora
knew was no longer blond but Loreal: Excellence Light Ash Blonde. The hair was short
and tapered at her nape. Her eyes were blue and had always worried Salvatora. They
looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets at any moment.
"But your maiden name is O'Connor," Salvatora said. "That's Irish."
"My name now is Bonaccorso. And I'm certainly not Italian."
Salvatora swished her wine glass, watching the red wine reach the top but not spill
out. "No, you certainly aren't."
"Okay, okay," Dominic interceded. "Who wants the last of the quiche? There are
eight pieces left."
"Give me some," Anthony said, to Salvatora's delight.
"Please," his mother said.
Anthony rolled his eyes. "Mother, I'm twenty-two."
"Oh, so it's all right to lose all manners when you're twenty-two. Are those the
manners you'll be using with your patients?"
"Please," Anthony grumbled. Natalie was amused and grabbed his hand.
"Natalie, did you have any lasagna?" Salvatora said. The table went silent.
Natalie withdrew her hand. She looked around the table. Everyone held a look of
fear for her well-being.
"Did you have any lasagna?" Salvatora repeated.
Natalie looked down. A slice of garlic bread-bitten into-and fettuccine were on her
plate. She had already eaten her quiche. AI didn't realize there was any."
"Dad's been hoarding it at his end," Anthony said. Salvatora knew that Anthony
was just trying to defend her. Salvatora remembered the lasagna dish circling the table.
"Well, have some then." Salvatora grabbed a lasagna dish and extended it across
the table to Natalie.
Natalie began to reach for the imbedded spatula when Dominic's wife spoke.
"Sally, I think we should offer her a choice between the vegetarian dish-it has tofu,
yum-or the one with dead animals." Salvatora's insides jostled. She wished Dominic's
wife would refrain from referring to meat products in such a vulgar manner.
Dominic passed the vegetarian lasagna down the table. "Now who's hoarding all
the food?" he said.
Allisa pressed forth the dish, and before Natalie, whether she knew it or not, lay an
important decision. The young lady looked from one dish to the other. Then she looked
into the faces of their bearers. Josephine from across the table motioned with her eyes at
her grandmother's dish but Natalie was eyelocked with Salvatora, who extended the dish
further as if it gained her dish an advantage. Finally, the young lady decided.
"I actually don't like tofu," she said and scooped herself a small portion of the
Salvatora leaned back and smiled. She usually objected to such small portions but
this time she didn't comment. Instead she said, "Thank you, dear. That dish was getting
The lasagnas were returned to Dominic's end. "That's more like it," he said. "I
was worried that the table was going to flip over."
Over potato dumplings, conversation turned to politics, Allisa's job at the small
computer company in Palo Alto, the news of yet another airline company going bankrupt,
and Anthony and Natalie's flight from Boston. Anthony complained about the flight,
how the random search check before boarding wasn't so random-he was searched every
"Maybe you should shave when you fly," Natalie said. "You look like a criminal
with that growth. I've told you that."
"Since when is shaving a prerequisite for flying without hassles. Besides, you
know I can't get a close shave." He felt his growth.
"You get that from your grandfather," Salvatora said. "You have him to thank for
"It's too bad you didn't get grandpa O'Connor's hair," his mother said. "He could
go weeks without shaving. He had wispy facial hair."
Salvatora leered at her.
"I wouldn't like that." Natalie rubbed his chin. "I like the hair."
"You said I look like a criminal," Anthony said.
"When did I say that was a bad thing?" She gave him a look that was too
suggestive for the dinner table. It made Anthony blush and Salvatora narrow her eyes. It
also gave Salvatora the impression that this girl was a bit too loose, not someone she'd
want her grandson to be dating.
Salvatora examined everyone's plates. Dominic and Anthony's were sponged
clean by the french bread they'd run along them. They knew how to finish a meal. Allisa
and Natalie's plate, meanwhile, had visible remains of spaghetti sauce and pieces of
potatoes. Josephine's plate was the same, except Salvatora forgave her. She blamed
Josephine's magazines, the ones with thin models on the covers.
"Well, I think it's time for the tiramisu," Salvatora said. She got up from her chair
and headed for the kitchen.
"Oh, tiramisu," Allisa bellowed, "Salvatora, I adore ya."
Salvatora's shoulders crept to her ears. That was Allisa's favorite saying. It was
also the only time Allisa would ever call her Salvatora.
Salvatora set down the tiramisu on a tv tray that Dominic retrieved from behind the
cabinet. Josephine and Anthony cleared the table of the dinner plates and replaced them
with smaller versions. During the tiramisu, Dominic and his wife asked Natalie how she
liked the school, the weather, and the people. Josephine also inquired about the people,
but specifically the college boys.
"They're okay," Natalie said. "The pickings are slim since the girl-boy ratio is 6
to 1." Natalie looked at Anthony and smiled. "Although occasionally you find a
diamond in the rough."
"Oh, gag me," Josephine said. As she feigned choking, clumps of partially
digested chocolate tumbled out of her mouth and plopped on her dessert plate.
"Josephine!" her mother said.
6 to 1, Salvatora mused to herself. And this is what you come home with?
The next two nights Salvatora cooked, a request by her grandson who swore the
school's bland cafeteria food was atrophying his taste buds. The following night,
Tuesday, she did not cook. The refrigerator was packed with antipasto, lasagna, quiche,
and other unfinished dishes from the previous meals. Also, the house's supply of
homemade tomato sauce had run dry. So, instead, that Tuesday night Salvatora canned
tomatoes while Allisa attended her weekly book-club meeting on the other side of town.
Josephine, her helper, chopped vegetables on the cutting board while Salvatora explained
the canning process and ran the ingredients through the strainer that straddled the giant
pot on the stove.
As Salvatora ended the explanation, Natalie walked in with a thick book and an
orange spiral notebook tucked under her left arm.
"What goes 'pop'?" Natalie asked. She put down her materials on an open space of
counter next to the refrigerator and pulled up a stool to sit down.
"Nothing," Salvatora said and continued to stir. She didn't like people in the
kitchen when she was canning.
"The cans go pop when they're sealed," Josephine said.
Natalie counted the empty glass jars scattered throughout the kitchen on counters
and major appliances. There were fourteen.
"So where's Anthony?" Josephine said. "Can't believe he let you out of his sight?"
"He kicked me out. He said he can't concentrate on studying while I'm around. I
don't know how he's going to survive medical school."
Natalie opened up her book to a dog-eared page that had charts and magnified
pictures of tiny insects. To Salvatora they looked like mosquitos.
Nicole informed her that they were not mosquitos, but drosophila. She turned the
book to Salvatora, who had begun pouring the first batch of tomato sauce into jars.
"Fruit flies. We're mating them in our genetics class. Anthony and I are partners."
Salvatora poured the last of the sauce and wiped her brow. She was tired. She sat
down and knew the rest of the canning could be done another day.
Natalie was still talking. "Anthony even has a name for our test tubes. That's
where we keep them when we cross the types we want to mate. Anyway, he calls it the
Bordello Bonaccorso." She laughed.
Salvatora did not laugh and instead blew air out her thin nose. She said nothing.
Eventually, she told her granddaughter that they were done and that Josephine could go,
that she would clean up. Josephine took off her apron and left.
"Why test tubes?" Salvatora had seen pictures of scientists in white lab coats
holding up tubes of chemicals to light, but she had never heard of using them for this.
"Because we need to be very particular with whom we mate with who. We can't
just have anyone mating with our strain."
"Of course not." Salvatora lined up the filled jars along the window sill and wiped
down the counter where Josephine had been chopping.
"We need to keep our gene pool clean," Natalie said. She twirled a curly strand of
hair around her pencil and looked at it.
"That is important? Keeping the pool clean."
Natalie pulled the pencil out from her hair. Most definitely. We need to keep out
unwanted genetic material."
"And what is the point of all this?" Salvatora had a befuddled look. "What exactly
are you looking for?"
Natalie shrugged. "Beats us. We aren't told what kind of drosophila we have, and
we won't know until we're finished. We let them reproduce for two generations, and
then we're to climb back up the genetic tree-so to speak-to figure out what we originally
Salvatora's head began to hurt. "How do you do that? They're so small."
"Their eye color."
Salvatora arched her brow. She looked back at the magnified picture of a single
fruit fly. Two giant eyes the color of oxygenated blood were nested on its face. It was
"My," Salvatora said, "what big eyes you have."
Every day since they had arrived, Anthony and Natalie would swim in the heated
backyard pool, because it was something they couldn't do in Boston this time of year.
Natalie would swim for twenty minutes and then get out and sunbathe on a long beach
towel. Salvatora approved of this; the girl needed some color.
After their latest afternoon swim, Salvatora went to the garage and found the pool
net in a plastic garbage can containing other landscape maintenance equipment. She
dropped the net at the stony ridge of the shallow end and removed the buoyant toys
bumping up against the pool's edge. The body raft was the most difficult. Salvatora
didn't know what it was like to pull out a dead body from the water, but figured that this
was what it must have felt like.
Salvatora dragged, not without struggle, the net through the water's surface from
the shallow corner of the pool to the deep corner. She had repeated this at different areas
when her grandson called out to her.
"Grandma, what are you doing out there?"
Salvatora lifted her head, smiled, and waved. She continued dragging.
He stood next to her. "What are you doing?" Anthony said.
She didn't look up. "What does it look like?"
"It looks like you're cleaning the pool." He had a gray towel wrapped around his
waist. Apart from his hair he was dry.
"Then why did you ask?"
He watched her dip again and drag the net like an owner walking a large
"It's not that I didn't know what you were doing, but why. Why?"
"Somebody has to keep the pool clean," she said. "And put on some clothes before
you catch a cold." She examined the net. Droplets of water fell from the net onto her
feet. She found some leaves, a smeared receipt, some insects, and strands of water-
beaded blond hair. She pursed her lips.
"We pay someone to do that," Anthony said.
She wasn't listening. Instead she rubbed her arms; she felt a small discomfort in her
Salvatora woke up the next morning with a knot in her left shoulder and stiffness in
her back that made her walk like an embalmed mummy. Even so, after the kids'
afternoon swim, Salvatora retrieved the net and cleaned the pool. When she finished, she
found more of the same: leaves, paper litter, and hair.
The rest of the afternoon she spent canning the leftover of the tomatoes. Natalie
again had brought her materials to the kitchen, and studied on an area of the counter that
was out of Salvatora's way. Josephine was at school. Salvatora had filled three jars so
far and was suspicious.
Every so often Natalie looked up from her textbook and asked if she could help.
And every time Salvatora refused.
It was twenty-five years ago when Dominic had brought home a young woman
that Salvatora knew was all wrong for him. Dominic was her last hope. Both his older
brothers had married women of Eastern European descent. It was fashionable at that time
for girls to wear their hair long and this woman had been no exception. Her hair went
down to her butt. As she walked, Salvatora was afraid it was going to get caught in
something. Then there was the eyes. Oh those eyes! They were so large that they spilled
out of her head. Salvatora had thought of the farmers that she saw on the news that were
growing genetically altered crops, the kind that were three times their regular size. She'd
remembered the farmers standing next to them for a publicity shot; one farmer sat on a
supersized pumpkin, as if he had just laid it. The girl was a freak. At least that's what
Salvatora had thought. At family functions, the girl had stuck out among the sea of
Italians. Second cousins and aunts would come up to Salvatora and ask her about those
eyes. Salvatora would explain that, as an infant, the woman had seen something so
shocking that her eyeballs had remained permanently protruded after the experience. Not
even $5000 worth of optometrist appointments could correct it. Everyone had pitied the
young lady. And considering she couldn't cook-Salvatora gave the girl a test run in her
kitchen, the results of which ruined two pots and required the use of a fire extinguisher-
Salvatora had believed that her son would see his error and marry a fine Sicilian woman,
after all who could be with someone whose hair was the color of urine. Therefore, she
didn't say anything. So when Dominic had announced their engagement over the phone,
Salvatora dropped the receiver into a boiling pot of water that she had just added salt to
and wondered what she had done wrong.
Natalie was a nice girl. Salvatora knew that for another man, a man other than her
Anthony, she would make a good wife and produce beautiful children. So it was nothing
personal. Salvatora wondered if her grandson and Natalie would produce the same
results as had been produced by Dominic and Allisa: brown-eyed, brown-haired, olive-
"Have you figured out what type of fly you have?" Salvatora said. Her apron had
spots of tomato juice.
"No, we won't know until we get back. Roger is taking care of our flies while
Roger? Salvatora couldn't remember Anthony ever mentioning that name. No
matter. More important issues were at hand.
"But you'll know when you get back, right? It's a matter of climbing back up the
genetic tree, as you said."
"Yes, once we collect all the info. It should be straightforward."
"And it's all because of the eye color?"
Natalie nodded. "Correct."
Finally Salvatora got to what she wanted to ask.
"Can eye color be traced in other things?"
Natalie thought for a moment. "Such as?"
"I suppose," Natalie said hesitantly.
"What about mongooses?
"I guess it's possible. I don't know if they have different eye colors."
Salvatora took a calculate pause. She scratched her chin with her fingernail.
Natalie's face perked up. She flipped through the pages of her textbook.
"Absolutely. That's covered in Chapter 5. There are questions at the end of the chapter
that ask you things like what are the potential parental combinations that can produce a
browned-eyed offspring with so-and-so alleles."
Salvatora stirred the pot on the stove which bubbled like a witch's cauldron. She
could care less about potential Aparental combinations" of pre-existing offspring with so-
and-so alleles. And what are alleles? She wanted to know the potential offspring from
pre-existing parents, she wanted to know what her great-grandchildren would look like.
She wanted to go down the genetic tree, not up it.
"Can we go down the genetic tree?"
"Yes. As long as we know what alleles each parent has."
Salvatora was pleased. But then there was that word again: allele.
"And how would we know what alleles each parent had?" Salvatora said, not sure
she had even pronounced the word properly.
"Their parents," Natalie responded.
"And how do we know their alleles?"
Alleles are alternate forms of a gene that occupy a given chromosomal locus.
Salvatora re-read this sentence several times in bed that same night, the book cradled in
her lap, pressing down onto her liver. Natalie let her borrow it. Salvatora read by the
light from the lamp on her night table. When terms such as chromosomal locus would
appear in bold, Salvatora would be forced to reread the paragraph up to five times. And
when Salvatora thought she had a handle on a concept, such as the difference between
phenotype and genotype, and could thus move on, she found that when those terms
reappeared in the succeeding paragraphs, she'd already forgotten which was which.
It wasn't until alleles and genotype and genes were put into context by Figure 5.6a
did everything begin to make sense to her. Figure 5.6a explained, in red and black font
with pictures of a man and woman, alleles in terms of reproductive inheritance and that
humans were diploid and therefore had two versions alleless) of the same gene, one
donated from the mother, the other from the father.
Salvatora stopped reading, afraid that if she continued any further she'd confuse
herself and be back at square one. She pushed the book off her bed. It made a solid
thump, like a fainting body hitting the floor. She said a prayer, took her blood pressure
medication, and turned off the lamp and went to sleep. She cracked open the book the
next day while she was slicing two eggplants into thin disks. She dipped them into a
shallow dish of olive oil before slipping the disks into a ziplock baggie full of bread
crumbs, which she shook meticulously. As she'd shake, she'd peek over at the textbook.
She had a system: for every slice she'd shake in the baggie, she'd read a paragraph.
Salvatora had grown accustomed to the jargony writing, only having to reread a sentence
or paragraph twice at most. She didn't know whether it was because it was the afternoon
and she was awake or whether it was because she'd given up on matching definitions
with their proper terms and had decided that understanding the concept was good enough.
It didn't matter that she'd confuse genotype and phenotype, as long as she knew that one
referred to the genetic information itself and the other referred to the physical expression
of that information. As long as she could remember that, she was in business.
Salvatora was reading about dominant and recessive alleles when someone entered
the kitchen. She reached for her pocket but then lowered her hand when she saw it was
Anthony in slacks and a solid-blue collared shirt. His hair was recently combed, the
scent of two-dollar hair spray lingering.
"Have a nice swim?" Salvatora asked. She stopped reading. "Not too many days
until you head back. Enjoy it while you can."
"I know. I'm going to miss swimming." He recognized the book.
Anthony flipped through the pages then returned to the original page. "What do
think of her?" His head was lowered, his voice gave away that he was uncertain of the
Anthony had asked Salvatora the same question about a fetal pig that he'd dissected
in a seventh-grade science class. She'd accompanied him to an open house meeting at
school because his parents had to work. His class was midway through a two-week
dissection project of fetal pigs. Everyone had partners, but Anthony's partner, Kelsey,
had let him do all the cutting, because the pig terrified her and the formaldehyde made
her nauseous. The pig had been kept in plastics bags in a refrigerator. When Anthony
had retrieved theirs, he'd tucked it under his arm like a football. Kelsey had placed the
metallic tray and four needles on the table and then stood back B traces of formaldehyde
were present. She let him do his work. When he'd finished, the damp paper towels that
had been wrapped around the pig were lying in a pile on the counter. Salvatora had
gasped at the sight. The pig's limbs had been pinned back like a crucified Jesus.
Anthony had pushed around her intestines with a scalpel and metal poker.
"It's a girl, see. Here are her ovaries," Anthony had said.
Salvatora had looked down fast and then away. "Yes, I see." But she had not seen.
What she'd seen was the hopefulness in his face, the need for her approval. When she'd
seen that, she'd said, "She's wonderful."
In the kitchen, Anthony looked at his grandmother with the same look. Salvatora
knew what he wanted and refused to look at him. She wouldn't give him what he
wanted, couldn't. It was beyond her.
"She's a smart girl," Salvatora said finally. She gave her attention to the eggplant
frying in the pan.
"She says you've taken interest in our experiment."
"I'm just trying to understand it all."
He pulled a stool to the counter. "How's it going?" He pointed to the book.
"What I'm curious to know is why does it take two generations of matings to
figure out what strain of drosophila you have?"
Anthony laughed at the scientific jargon that filled his biology books coming from
his grandmother's mouth.
"It takes a while for certain alleles to show up." He checked her face for confusion
or, possibly, understanding.
She nodded. She understood exactly what he said. "Is it because of the dominance-
"Yes," Anthony said. He laughed again. "If a dominant allele is present, then the
alternate recessive allele for that gene will be masked. Thus, the dominant allele will be
physically expressed. In our fly's case, the eye color is what we're interested in."
Salvatora shook her head. She needed this to be explained in context.
"I need an example," she told him.
Anthony left the kitchen and returned moments later with a spiral notebook in hand
and a pencil on his ear. He sat on the stool and opened the yellow notebook to a blank
"Let's say," he began, "we have a male fly with genotype R-R-R representing red
eyes, which are dominant-and a female with w-w-w representing white eyes, which are
"No," she said, "I think it'd be easier for me if we used humans instead of flies. I'm
familiar with those eye colors." She noticed the capitalization, and figured it must be
important, figured it represented dominance.
Anthony scribbled out his writing. "Okay, humans then."
"Let's say," Salvatora took a theatric pause, "we have a man with brown eyes and a
female with blue eyes."
"I'm assuming they're homozygous."
"Homozygous," he said, and explained what it was.
"Oh, yes, both alleles are the same. The man has two brown-eye alleles, the
woman two blue-eye alleles. I believe I read that blue eyes are recessive."
Anthony affirmed the last part and crossed the imaginary couple on paper and
wrote their offspring' possible allelic combinations, which was in fact only one: a
brown-blue combination that he wrote in shorthand as Br-bl.
"Now each child has a blue-eye allele," Anthony said, "but they'll have brown eyes
because that brown-eye allele is dominant."
Anthony was born at Good Samaritan Hospital during the third quarter of the 1978
NBA All-Star game. Dominic and his father had been in the lounge watching the game
while on the fifth floor Salvatora fluffed Allisa's pillows. Allisa's contractions were ten
minutes apart and closing quickly. The pregnant woman's skin was flushed and sweaty,
and her voice was hoarse from the pain. She had refused an epidermal and opted for a
natural birth. Upon the striking of each contraction, the pregnant woman's face would
pucker, her body would tighten, and her eyeballs would bulge from their placement. It
was only a matter of time, Salvatora had thought, until the wave of contractions, at the
proper frequency, would cause the woman's eyes to pop and shoot a gelatinous ooze onto
her bare knees. When it had been time to cart Allisa to the delivery room, Salvatora
rubbed her rosary beads and prayed. She'd prayed for no complications and a healthy
baby with ten toes and fingers, dark hair, and healthy eyes-preferably a dark pair that was
set properly in the socket. Salvatora didn't think she was asking for much. After all,
wasn't her God the one who sent Jesus-the man that could walk on water and raise men
from the dead? At sundown Anthony had been born. Salvatora hadn't stopped praying
from the moment Allisa had been taken from the room until she'd been returned with a
blanket-wrapped newborn. Two orderlies had carted her into the room and had
congratulated her on her son as they walked out the door. The new mother held the infant
in her arms, but Salvatora could only see a tiny hand reach out to Allisa's face from the
bundle of cloth. Salvatora had sat by the window and refused to move when Allisa had
called her over to see her grandson. Salvatora had politely refused, saying that she
wanted to give the mother more time with the baby. Salvatora had held her position until
Allisa had said, "Sally, she has your eyes." Salvatora had rushed to the side of the bed
and had taken a look for herself. She'd been overcome with joy. She'd nearly cried.
"What a miracle," Salvatora had said as she held him. Six years later when Josephine
had been born, Salvatora had experienced the same euphoria. She had been beside
herself. God had been very good to her, doubly good. The Bonaccorso's was a chosen
family. A family that received miracles.
Now looking down at the notebook, Salvatora realized for the first time that it was
no miracle. No divine intervention had occurred. She looked at Anthony but she didn't
see him. She only saw his allelic combination: Br-bl.
Anthony took hold the notebook and began writing. "Now, if we were to cross
this Br-bl offspring with a bl-bl offspring then-"
Salvatora turned her back. She tried not to listen. She didn't need the calculations.
She could guess for herself what the outcome would be. She knew a real miracle was in
In the middle of the night Salvatora woke up from a nightmare. Her breathing was
erratic and she put her hands to her face as if she was checking to see if she was running a
fever. To cool down, Salvatora stood by the open window that looked down on the
empty street that ran in front of the house. Her son peeked into her bedroom from the
hallway. She had screamed.
She'd dreamed that she was in the kitchen preparing a meal when Dominic called
her to the living room. She was wearing a brown cardigan and a skirt. She shuffled to
the living room to find Anthony and Natalie standing among luggage talking to his
parents. Anthony's hair was thinning and he had a weary look on his face that suggested
not enough sleep and too many years of marriage. But he didn't just look older, he was
older. Natalie, on the other hand, hadn't changed at all. She gave Salvatora a big hug.
And while embraced, Natalie whispered in her ear, AI bet you want to see them."
"Who?" Salvatora said.
"Fjord, Paolo, Hans, Maria," Natalie called. Anthony and the others stepped aside,
creating an opening between them. Four children emerged and stood in a line like a
unified front. They were children of similar ages. Their height varied like bars on a bar
graph, and their hair color ranged from a sandy blonde to a chestnut brown. They did,
however, share one unique feature: their eyes. Each child had bulbous eyes the color of
blueberries perched on their faces.
"Yes, mother," they said. Maria, the shortest and possibly youngest, pushed way a
strand of brown hair that covered the top of her right eye.
Salvatora's jaw dropped. None of the children had eyelids.
"Ma." Dominic stood at the doorway of her bedroom, one hand still on the knob,
the other holding a wooden Louisville slugger. "Are you okay?"
Salvatora fanned herself with her hands. Her cotton nightgown stuck to her skin at
random places, places she didn't know a person could sweat. "Yes," she said. She was
now embarrassed. "I hope I didn't wake you."
Dominic looked around the room from the threshold. "I thought there might be
"No, no burglars. Just a bad dream." Salvatora chided herself. She should have
lied, should have said that she saw something in the shadows, something large and
menacing, something worth screaming about and not needing explanation.
Salvatora moved from the window and went downstairs to the kitchen. Dominic
trailed close behind with the bat. From the refrigerator he took a bowl of custard leftover
from dessert and a spoon from the drawer, and placed them on the counter in front of
where she was sitting. He did not sit, but instead leaned against the wall next to the
ironing board. They remained in their positions for a minute not saying anything.
Salvatora wanted him to go back to bed.
She knew Allisa had sent him to check up on her. Salvatora's husband would
always send her to check on the children in the night during times of illness or
nightmares, because her husband had been a plasterer and had to get up early to beat the
She wanted her silence to give him the hint that she wasn't going to talk about it. It
was the same strategy that he, as a child, would employ on her when she'd check on him
at his bedside after nightmares. She'd ask him what the dream was about, and he'd turn
his head the other direction, staring at the long crack that ran across the ceiling like a
river. She'd stroke the hair off his face and sit there, believing that he wouldn't tell her
because if he did he'd scare himself all over again. Eventually she'd take him to the
kitchen to get a snack, if not to coax the dream out of him then to calm him down. She'd
assumed they were caused by the pulp comics he'd read and the late night monster
movies his father had let him stay up and watch with his brothers. It'd never occurred to
her until now that maybe he hadn't told her, not because the dreams themselves had
scared him into silence, but because he'd been too embarrassed to admit to what had
After ten minutes in the dark, the only sounds coming from the neighborhood dog
outside, Dominic tapped his bat on his shoulder and went back to bed.
Salvatora stirred the pudding a few times before planting the spoon into the center
of the bowl like a flag. The spoon fell to the side like a deflating balloon. She scooped
some pudding in her mouth, spreading it with her tongue. She sat in the darkness until
she finished the bowl.
I wait in my Aunt Diane and Uncle David' s living room with what I've counted
to be twenty-nine mostly female porcelain dolls in frilly dresses or trousers, some in
bonnets, all wearing uncomfortable shoes. Their skin ranges from tapioca pudding to
milk chocolate. They are identical otherwise, for their heads appear to have come from
the same original mold, except for a few that have a lip curled or are expressing different
emotional states. One doll, for example, looks like it' s crapping its pants.
Once her son, Michael, started high school, Aunt Diane found plenty of time on
her hands and enrolled in a doll-making class at West Seattle Community College. That
was fifteen years ago and now I' m surrounded by an army of little people, whom she has
perfected over the years and sells individually for a hundred dollars a pop.
Years ago, when Michael still lived at home, when I would visit my mother' s
family in Washington for a week during Christmas, I would sometimes sleep in this
living room on the fold-out couch. In the dark I' d peer over my covers at the figurines
bookending the television, their faces full of malice and mischief. There was only a
handful of dolls then. At that time there was a movie in major release that starred a
serial-killing doll from hell-or something along those lines anyway- that wielded,
among its weaponry, a butcher knife. Remembering that movie-my father had taken
me to see it, one of his many parenting mistakes, according to my mother-I' d check the
two-foot barrier that kept Sis, the dachshund, from getting out of the kitchen at night in
case one of the dolls should get in and grab a butcher knife or a meat tenderizer. I' d also
move the dining room chairs away so that they could' t be used as step ladders. One
night, unbeknownst to me, Sis somehow escaped her kitchen prison-whether she
jumped the wall (highly unlikely) or found an opening to waddle through, I don' t know.
All I know is that I was lying in bed when a shadowy creature leaped onto the foot of the
bed and burrowed its way under the sheets. I swatted the bulging lump with a rolled up
TIME magazine that was in the holder next to the couch until I recognized her muffled,
For the past few days I' ve been sleeping in Michael' s old room. In two weeks
my final year of college will begin, and my mother thought it' d be good if I spent a week
up north before the summer ended. Since my parents' divorce eight years ago, my trips
to Seattle have become less frequent. My mother didn' t have the money to send me,
living paycheck to paycheck as she did. My father, who never really liked her family, the
Pacific Northwest or its weather, never offered to pay. One side of the family was good
enough for him, I suppose.
Aunt Diane and Uncle David have arranged for Michael, who has just pulled up
behind her Nissan, to play entertainer and drive me around Seattle for the day. Anna, the
new old dachshund, runs to the door and barks. She is tan and has the same markings as
Sis, which causes me to call her by the wrong name, which she responds to anyway.
When Michael opens the screen door to the front of the house, Anna immediately
obstructs his path and promptly rolls over, tail wagging. Michael steps over her and lays
down his sunglasses on the top shelf of the living-room bookcase behind the couch, the
one that I used to sleep on, the one where I' m sitting. He sits down on the other couch.
Anna jumps onto his lap and attempts to walk up his chest to lick him in the face, the
ears, wherever her snout can reach.
"Ready?" Michael says to me.
I check my pants for my wallet. I' ve got six pockets-perfect for a six-armed
Hindu god, which I am not. Somehow the wallet is always in the last pocket checked-
which tends to be one of the leg pockets. This creates suspense whenever I' m at a
register to purchase something and there' s a conga line of customers behind me. I pat
my lower half, finding as always the wallet to be in my right leg pocket.
"Let' s go," I say. Aunt Diane has left us two tickets at the box office of the
EMP. The EMP is the Experience Music Project, an experience I' m not looking forward
to. It' s a museum. My aunt is able to get a hold of tickets to different events once and a
while because of her work. She has been working part-time for years for a mechanical
construction and engineering firm. Supposedly the best in the area, according to my aunt.
We head for the door but are cut off by Uncle David, who has emerged in his gray
mechanic' s jumpsuit from the basement-garage where he tinkers every morning with his
'57 Roadster. It' s been making a rattling noise and he' s been trying to locate the
problem. IfI'm still around, he promises to take me for a ride whenever he fixes it.
Uncle David always feels inclined to shake my hand, either coming or going, as if to
make up for lost time. Aunt Diane is in the kitchen washing the dishes from breakfast.
"Both of you out of here?" Uncle David asks.
"What are the plans?"
"Well, we have tickets to the EMP," I say.
"Sounds like fun," Uncle David says. He has strong facial features: a pointy nose
and a heart-shaped face. He' d be an easy person to draw a caricature of. "Just be sure to
make it back for dinner. We' re eating at your Uncle Travis' s tonight."
Michael and I walk outside. It' s ten in the morning. I realize that I' ve packed for
the wrong season: pants and cotton sweaters, no shorts, only white t-shirts. The
difference between August and December is palpable.
Michael has Stargart Macular Dystrophy. Family lore has it that this eye disease
originates from our blue-eyed Jewish ancestors, and even though everyone in the Stein
family is Catholic, the stigmatism remains. If only it were that easy. Only affected males
show the phenotype, like hemophilia with the Tudor boys. Our grandfather had SMD.
He married, had three kids, worked, and steered his boat along the coast on free days.
This disease didn' t appear to have prevented our grandfather from having a normal life.
You can say the same for Michael, provided he passes a monthly eye examination.
Seconds after I was born, the first thing my mother checked as the doctor put me
in her arms were my eyes-not the number of toes or fingers. When she saw two black
coals staring back at her instead of her blue eyes, she was relieved. It was the one trait of
my father that she wanted me to have. She had my eyes checked every year until I was
eight, just to be safe.
My mother has explained to me that having SMD is like placing a blurred spot
over whatever you' re directly looking at, as if there was a chip at the center of your
lenses. All you have is peripheral vision. "It' s similar to the spots that appear when you
get flashed by bright lights. Everywhere you look, there' s a spot," she said. Except the
blurred spot in front of Michael' s eyes never goes away.
I'm thinking about this while Michael speeds down 1-5, changing lanes with and
sometimes without his blinker. I wonder if he can see everything right away. Can he
read the bumper sticker on the Toyota Camry in front of us? (It says, "Women are born
leaders. You' re following one.") Did he notice the plastic bag between lanes that was
being pushed around by gusts of dusty air and exhaust fumes from passing cars? It was
only there for a moment.
Michael drives like a race-car driver: instead of pressing the brake when traffic
slows, he downshifts. In one sense, that should instill confidence; it should reduce the
worry. But it doesn' t. As Michael darts through traffic, the Jesus figurine with his arms
stretched out remains unwavering atop the dashboard.
Michael fiddles with the radio. It lands on a country station for a few seconds,
enough to realize the search for good tunes isn' t done. His eyes may be bad but his ears
aren' t. He settles on an indie station. I can' t recognize the band, nor the gender of the
singer. The singer can hit octaves I can only dream of.
"Where to, boss?" he asks.
"I don' t know."
Michael is twelve years older than me. Back during the time I' d sleep in the
living room, he was too busy dating girls, smoking pot, riding his motorcycle, being a
teenager to bother having conversations with me. His dark hair was down to his
shoulders, and from behind, many mistook him for a woman.
I look at him now. His dark hair is cut short and parted on the left. His eyes are
behind his sunglasses. When he blinks, his eyelashes open like venus flytraps. He has
traded in his motorcycle for a Toyota 4-Runner, after a motorcycle accident killed a
I don' t know the area well," I say. "What' s there to do?" I ask this knowing
that there are things to do. This is Seattle after all.
"We got those tickets." His focus remains on the road.
"We could do that." I' ve never been a big music fan. Press me for my favorite
band and I' 11 freeze. I' ve never understood the appeal for seeing a band live. They' re
never sound as good as they do in the recording. So why would I want to go to a music
"Or we could' t. We don' t have to."
"Or we could. What' s there to see?"
"They' ve got a Hendrix exhibit."
"Hendrix. He was good, right. Foxy Lady." The interstate signs have a
silhouette of Washington' s head with a number at the center, just in case you forgot what
state you were in.
"Hendrix was left-handed," Michael says.
To our left sits Puget Sound, wet and blue: the color of toilet bowl cleaners. The
skyscrapers cast shadows over the water. Michael looks behind us and moves into the
right lane. He takes the Seneca Street Exit and navigates his way past houses and fast
food restaurants. He turns onto Pike and heads down 1st Avenue. When we come to Pike
Market Place, I realize that Michael has decided against the EMP.
The market is a three-block area of stores and congested streets that runs along the
waterfront. Michael says parking is impossible on Saturdays, but that doesn' t stop him
from searching the curbs for empty spaces. Hoards of shoppers file up and down the
street, turning their shoulders, lifting their bags to slip by immobile pedestrians who have
decided to peruse a stand of fruit or other knick-knacks.
People walk past us. People walk in front of us. People walk behind us. We
haven' t moved for over a minute. Two cars ahead, a sport utility vehicle is waiting for a
spot to open up. The car behind the SUV is getting impatient. Through the car' s back
window, I can see a woman gesticulate. She appears to be saying something, most likely
something foul, to the driver of the SUV. Meanwhile, Michael is eyeing a group of Latin
girls standing in the sun beside a parked red Harley.
"I would like to know if they' re that tan all the way around," he says. He laughs
and nudges me in the arm. I give a strained smile. Judging from the skimpy clothes, I
can tell that they are that tan all the way around. Which makes the statement even more
puzzling to me.
Finally, the SUV takes the vacated spot. The woman behind it, as she drives past,
throws a fist out her unrolled window. I think I see a finger.
Michael operates cranes for a living. He' s only allowed to work up there for four
hours. The rest of the day he spends as a driver transferring supplies from location to
location. He loves his job, has had it for seven years now. He pulls down eighty grand a
year. He is required to pass an eye examination every month, otherwise no more pulling
knobs and levers. His old optometrist, the one he used to see, didn' t think his eyesight
was good enough to pull knobs and levers from thousands of feet in the air. He speaks of
that doctor with contempt. Michael says it isn' t right that the doctor tried to take away
his right to earn a living. "But it' s all okay now," he says, "I found a new doctor."
He points at buildings that he' s had a hand in constructing; we never found a
parking spot in the market. As he talks about each one, he sounds like a proud papa.
He' s most pleased with the latest job: the Seahawks' new stadium.
"They' 11 be opening it up this season," Michael says, almost wistful. "It' s too
bad it won' t make them play any better."
A few blocks down we come upon a site that' s in progress. There' s an orange
crane jutting through the building' s center like a spinal cord. Michael says that it' s
called a tower crane. It looks like they' re erecting the building around it, papier-
mdcheing from bottom to top. At the top of the unfinished skyscraper, the crane' s head
extends from the structure like a bird' s beak. I think of Big Bird.
"When I was up there last week," Michael says of the crane, "the wind blew it
square around, 360 degrees."
I widen my eyes. If that were me, I could see myself lying face down hugging
what I could hold onto, praying to every god I could think of.
"Would you like to go up?"
"Are you kidding me?"
We move on. Michael points out a Chinese restaurant, a Gold' s Gym, an office
building next to a vacant lot. When he runs out of buildings, he starts showing me all his
previous places of employment. A donut shop in high school, a record store, an
American cafe. He' s had a lot ofjobs. However, the places aren't there anymore; they
were replaced with something more lucrative. So what he says is, "I used to work as a
bartender at a nightclub where that Starbucks is now."
"This is Capital Hill," he says with a hint of disapproval. It' s two o' clock and
the sun is still out in full force. We' ve entered an area where no one over forty and no
one with clear life plans would live.
We pass record stores and cafes with patios where disgruntled youths with tattoos
and stretched earlobes sit drinking cafe lattes. We stop at a light. A bohemian couple
crosses the street, hand in hand before our truck. The girl' s jeans are frayed at the waist
line. Did she buy them that way? The light turns green and Michael steps on the gas.
"I' ve noticed that the moment you enter Capital Hill the number of tank tops you
see on the streets skyrockets," he says. "It' s an odd phenomenon. They like to wear
Such a strange comment. Who would notice such things? I search for levity in
his face, but either there is none or he' s hiding it, as if to prolong the joke. I look out my
window. Two men in white tank tops are walking a poodle that has been trimmed. I
consider his theory.
We drive for a while. We talk of certain family members, name those who are
our favorites. My favorite is my father' s sister. Michael loves my mother. "She's my
favorite aunt," he says. She' s his only one.
"I'm thirsty," Michael says. "How about you?"
"I could go for a drink."
He pulls over to the curb, in front of a small convenience store. We step out. I fan
myself with my sweater. I take it off and tie it around my waist.
The store is tucked between a cigar shop and flower shop. While not wide, the
store is deep, going in about two hundred feet. Inside, the air conditioner is churning out
steady puffs of chilled air. The cooling boxes are at the very back. I pass through an
aisle of potato chips and beef jerky. When I get to the drinks, Michael has an Arizona
Iced Tea in hand.
I open each door as I look inside them, even though they are glass doors. I open
one and then close it, just to open and close another. Finally I consider my options
carefully, as if my selection will have profound influences later. I grab a bottled water,
and before I head to the front to pay, I write my initials along the frosty glass door--
something I' ve done since I was a kid.
I head back up the aisle. I rummage for my wallet, which requires my full
attention. I bump shoulders with a man with dark short hair spiked in the front.
"Excuse me, mister," I say to the man, who doesn' t stop walking. He has a
stocky build, one that rumbles when moving.
I reach the front, wallet in hand.
"I got this," Michael said. He gives the cashier, a woman with a shaved head and
an aura of Eastern mysticism, a five. They exchanged knowing smiles. Knowing what?
"What?" I say. I look at the both of them. The cashier is chuckling. I feel my
face turn red, and I' m getting irritated because nobody likes to be on the outside of a
Michael shakes his head. He walks out the door, letting it close behind him. I
grab my water, which I placed on the counter, and follow him out.
Outside, the sun is playing peek-a-boo with the clouds.
We hop back into his truck. He takes a few drinks of his iced tea and puts it in the
cup holder. He starts the truck, revving it a few times, and takes off down the road.
It isn' t until he' s settled on a new radio station that he speaks. "That was a
woman," he says. He has a vicious smile.
"Who?" I look out the window, thinking possibly that he was referring to
someone on the sidewalk. Although that didn' t make any sense to me.
"In the store. You bumped into a woman."
I turn to look out the back window, as if expecting her to be there. But by this
point, we have left Capital Hill blocks behind.
The sun, falling for some time now, has dipped into Puget Sound like a vanilla
wafer into milk. A combination of magenta and yellow smear the sky. My stomach talks
to me, tells me I need food, tells me it' s finished the burger and fries that I had for lunch.
Michael tells me that he needs to make a quick stop before we drive to Uncle Travis' s
He stops the truck at a three-story brownstone apartment building on a tree-lined
street. He gets out, closes the door, and says, "I'11 be right back" through his unrolled
I watch him jog to the main door, and press something. He stands there for a few
seconds and then disappears inside.
I wait in the car, my head out the window like a dog. I look down both ends of
the street. Not one person in sight. I set my head against the headrest and stare at the
open arms of Jesus. I never knew Michael was religious. I can't recall ever hearing of
him going to Mass.
I let the thought pass and rap my fingers on the side of the door, wishing that
Michael could have at least left the keys in the car so I could listen to some music.
Eventually, he reappears from inside the building followed by another man. The other
man is wearing black pants and a gray cardigan. They chat a little on the porch under the
black awning. They stand very close to each other, as if they' re discussing something
private. When they finish talking, the other man grabs Michael in an embrace, and
Michael doesn' t fight back but instead puts his arm around the man. They kiss on the
lips as they let go, and as Michael walks back to the car, I slouch down into my seat so
that when Michael finds me, he will think I never saw anything.
As we pull away, Michael says, "Sorry about that. Ijust wanted to say hi to a
friend since we were in the area."
I don' t respond. Instead, I rock my head in sync with the bass guitar pulsating
through the speakers. My eyes are closed.
Uncle Travis lives in a West Seattle neighborhood decorated with candy cane stop
signs at the corer of each block. The house is situated on the side of a hill, which
requires visitors who park in the street to turn their wheels to the curb and set the parking
brake. Giant fir trees hug the two-story house like flying buttresses. There is no front
door, so there' s no need to pull apart the bushes that cover the front of the house, looking
for a magic hidden door. A pebbled driveway wraps around the side of the house where
you' 11 find a porch with plastic lawn chairs and a wooden picnic table and a barbeque
grill and, of course, a sliding glass door. The real front door is on the other side, but we
didn' t use it.
Beyond the glass door is the kitchen, newly remodeled, says Uncle Travis, by his
son Kingsley. He' s showing us the intricate design of the cabinets above the sink and
oven. The proof, he says, is in the perfect covers.
Uncle Travis is the baby at 48. In photographs from his youth he had a lean
muscular build that has now been hidden by an extra fifty pounds of fat. If you rolled
him down the top of a high snowy mountain like in the television cartoons, his human
snowball would build and build, and then wipe out the small village below.
He offers the table orange creamsicles from the freezer. I accept one even though
I' m bloated on rump roast, creamed corn and mashed potatoes, and five buttered rolls.
Michael is slicing whatever edible portions are left on the roast and placing them in blue
tupperware bowls for everyone to take home. The creamed corn and mashed potatoes
were all gobbled up. Two rolls remain in the breadbasket, which has now been relocated
to the sink counter.
Aunt Diane and Uncle David sit at the table licking their creamsicles and listening
to Uncle Travis, who finished his already, tell stories, such as the time he followed two
white whales along the ridge of Puget Sound in his Dodge, the whole time yelling out his
driver-side window and wiping away tears from his eyes because of the beauty and
uniqueness of what was gliding gracefully in and out of the water. Another story
involves a four-day-old roast beef sandwich-which looked fresh-found in his
restaurant' s fridge and eaten by him at what he approximates to be around noon time-
the affects of which he did not feel until 4 pm, when his boss, noticing Uncle Travis
holding his stomach and his complexion, told him to go home. Uncle Travis hurried to
car and jetted away, hoping to hold off the rumbling in his stomach until he reached his
toilet. However, he didn' t make it half way home before what he had been trying to
keep down came up. At a red light-one of many he says he hit, like God was punishing
him-he swung open his door, vomited onto the street, closed his door, and drove away.
Only later to stop at another light, and repeat the sequence of events; only this time he
says to "imagine squeezing a twinkie at the very center." By that point he decided to pull
off the road, to somewhere intimate, to "somewhere I could die in privacy." He pulled
off to a back road that led to the dirt parking lot of a Catholic church. Sweat was
dripping down his face as if he were being rained on. Inside his body he felt chemical
reactions building, increasing energy for one last explosion. An explosion that if there
was no release would cause our Uncle Travis to spontaneously combust in his Dodge. He
parked the car in back of the church, the door again thrown open. He vomited (again)
violently, vociferously, repeatedly. Three times, he counts. Once finished he looked up,
gathered his bearings, and saw a crowd of people in suits and dresses, one white, gawking
back at him in disgust, some vomiting themselves, some hiding the eyes of children. A
priest came to Uncle Travis with white towels from inside the church. The priest
consoled him from six feet away. Uncle Travis listened to the priest, who told him that
he too at one time let alcohol ruin his life. It wasn' t until he had given himself up to God
that everything changed.
While Uncle Travis may play fast and loose with the facts (the first time I heard
this story the church was Episcopalian), he tells these stories with such conviction and
fervor that all goes unnoticed or is at least forgiven. His face is now red and veined at the
temples, and he sweats as if he' s going to reenact the event by upchucking the roast,
creamed corn, and mashed potatoes onto the table.
The room quiets up when he finishes his sordid tales. Then everyone begins
telling anecdotes, stories about the past, about people who have departed this world or
their lives. I do not participate. The departed people they speak of-their parents, old
friends, old loves-never entered mine.
Everyone has disappeared upstairs to check out the view from Uncle Travis' s
bedroom window. The view at night is said to be something to behold. Even so, I
remain in the kitchen. I don' t go up right away. I have seen enough of Seattle for one
day. I am in need of a breather. I pour myself a glass of milk from the gallon jug in the
bottom rung of the fridge. I've been told to help myself. So why not help myself to
stronger bones and a better well being?
West Seattle is the older part of the city; hence the barbershop stop signs. I'm
leaning against the sink counter. Out the kitchen window I imagine milkmen delivering
bottled milk, teenagers heading to drive-ins (my mother and sister would hide ten-year-
old Uncle Travis in the trunk of their parents' Chevy Impala), phantom paperboys riding
down the street on bicycles with Roger Maris baseball cards slipped between the spokes.
Each house has a lawn that is green and freshly cut. Aside from small inside renovations,
construction has not laid a finger on this neighborhood for decades.
The lights are out in Uncle Travis' s bedroom. Everyone stands in front of the
bed, looking out the giant window that gives way to Puget Sound below and, behind it,
downtown. Skyscrapers tower over the inlet, emitting points of light that gray the interior
of Uncle Travis' s room. The water is dark blue. The sky is cloudless, empty of wildlife,
with only a sprinkle of stars and a crescent moon. The window' s panoramic view is
reminiscent of a large flatscreen TV or an Impressionist painting. Dollar signs run
through my head as I estimate the property value. The bedroom is the obvious selling
Although spectacular, the view from Uncle Travis' s room is not perfect. The
houses on the hill are arranged like seats in a movie theater. And planted in the backyard
of a house between Uncle Travis' s and the water is a healthy evergreen that stretches
rudely upwards, covering a quarter of Puget Sound, its tip tickling the feet of one the
"What' s with the tree?" I say to the room.
"The neighbor refuses to cut it down," Uncle Travis says. He sits at the foot of
the bed and shakes his head.
"Have you asked them if they would cut it down?" Uncle David says. A question
that has an obvious answer but, I suppose, still needs to be asked.
"Sure I have," Uncle Travis says, "I even offered to pay it."
"I know someone who would do the job for a real good price," Michael says.
"He specializes in nocturnal landscaping."
"Ah, if only," Uncle Travis says. "But they don' t want it cut down. They say
they' re environmentalists at heart. Mrs. Calloway says it makes her want to cry when
she sees logging pictures of the rain forests. The rows of stumps kill her. Utterly
powerless she feels. But this one tree"-Uncle Travis motions to the evergreen-Ashe
"It doesn't have to be cut down," I say. "We could just take some off the top.
Just give it a haircut. Snip snip here. Snip snip there. Just give it a buzzcut."
"Nope," Uncle Travis says. "We can' t touch a single needle."
I move away from the doorway to get a clear view. I round the bed to the other
side of the room and stop before a wooden chair that' s against the wall. From my new
position, the tree covers a different section of the water. On the chair a doll in a sailor
outfit sits, its legs not reaching even halfway down. The boy' s head is turned to the right
so as to ensure that he also can enjoy the view.
"It' s 8:15," Uncle Travis says, reading the digital clock. "The ferry should be
shuttling across any moment."
I cup the child' s cheek with my hand and I am surprised. It feels nothing like a
"There it is," Michael says. He moves next to me.
A white ferry crosses slowly left to right. You' d think it wasn' t moving at all if
it wasn' t for the white wakes. I cannot tell whether the boat is full or empty. After a
moment, it slips behind the tree.
"Where?" Aunt Diane says from the other side of the room.
I gaze intently into the tree. Specks of what I think is white paint from the boat
appear in the gaps, creating a sparkling effect.
"There," I say, pointing into the tree.
BLIP ON THE SCREEN
The sun was hiding behind the clouds as Lynn stepped onto the wooden deck of
the ecological conservatory. Her son Michael was sitting in a lawn chair facing the
marsh; his back was toward her and his baseball cap was the most visible part of him.
She sat in the other chair that he had placed for her. She saw bits and pieces of the Platte
River from behind some trees. It was a cool April.
She rubbed her son' s shoulder gently and observed the marsh. Michael was no
longer wearing the janitor jumpsuit that his part-time job at the conservatory required.
"Ready?" she said. "Time to change into a new suit for the ball, Cinderella. The
tuxedo store will close in a couple of hours."
"I don' t understand why you could' t have just given me the car," Michael said.
"Then you would' t have had to pick me up."
"How would you plan on paying for it?" she asked. "Besides, I want to take you.
I don' t think you understand how much this means to me."
"I believe you already had your junior prom. You know you can' t go back."
"What' s your size?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "I' ve grown. I' m the same size as my father."
"I don't know," he said. He flicked an insect off his shirt.
"Exactly. I' m going."
"Do you plan on being here for the whole thing?" he asked. "There' s no reason
to be, of course. I promise to take plenty of pictures. In fact, aplethora of memories
shall be waiting for you. How can you refuse a plethora? I' 11 even use a video camera
and set up a website that' 11 follow my entire evening. You could watch it from the boat.
It' 11 probably have an internet connection."
"That won' t be necessary, because I won' t be on any boat."
"Why? You' ve already taken the time off. Haven' t you?"
"I have, but I thought I' d visit my sister Mable in Madison. A train ride is much
more appealing than a cruise to Jamaica. Besides, I hate the water," Lynn said. "What if
the boat goes down in the middle of nowhere?"
"One- you' re a woman and you know that saying. You' 11 get first dibs on a
lifeboat. Two-it' s not going to go down. Three-you paid for it. It was your idea.
Four-it' s not refundable. I looked at the brochure."
"But I'11 miss your prom. I can't miss it."
"Yes, you can. It' s my third one. And it' s just my junior prom. It' s not like
it' s my senior prom, so you can' t use that as an excuse."
"Do any of those girls mean anything to you? How can you go to all these
He smiled. "They' re all special to me. This one, Cheryl, is the most special
They looked out at the marshland toward the trees and the wildlife. A sandhill
crane held a small crayfish in its beak. After swallowing it, the crane walked through the
"Look at that, Michael," she said, pointing out to the crane. She took off her
glasses and placed it on the table between them.
A breeze swept across the deck. He felt a small spray of water across his face
from the wind.
"Is it raining?" he asked. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and lifted
his palm to the sky.
"I don' t know. It could be," Lynn said. "Look at those clouds. Something is
going to come down." She turned her head up into the gray sky. "Are you sure it' s
okay to be out here?"
"We' re fine," Michael said. "You' re with me."
"We might be disrupting the wildlife."
"Children have been disrupting the wildlife all day, and more."
"Maybe we should have asked your father."
"This is his office, so to speak. I might step on something important."
He took off his baseball cap and squeezed the bill to give it more of an arch. His
hair was short and had frosted tips, which Lynn did. He put the cap back on. Michael
looked around, over both shoulders. He stood up and walked inside. After a few minutes
he came back. He looked out at the marsh and then up toward the sun, which was
peaking out from behind the clouds. He pulled at his shirt and khakis.
"We need an umbrella," he said.
Lynn shrugged her shoulders. She reached over and flipped his tag back in his
"I'm thirsty," she said.
"What would you like?"
She smiled. "Something to warm me up. Coffee would be nice. Sweetener if you
have it." She patted his fist.
He got up from the chair and walked back inside the conservatory.
Lynn looked out at the marsh. Two cranes danced in the water. Their plumage
stood out from the trees in front of the river.
Michael returned with two cups of coffee with lids. He sat back down and looked
out ahead. "Look at what?" he asked. He turned his head to her. "You were pointing at
something. Go ahead."
"I was pointing to that crane out there. But there are two now."
He walked to the end of the deck. "What about the crane?"
"I was going to comment on how thin and long its legs were. It' s as if they go
right up to its chest," she said. She extended her leg out and looked at it. She bent it a
few times. "I wish I had legs like that. I can see why your father liked to study these
"Because of their legs?" He smirked, and took a drink.
"Very elegant creatures. Look at that male dancing in front of that female.
Don' t you think they' re beautiful?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Hey, I just work here." He looked back out at the
cranes and laughed. "He' s blowing it. He' s got no rhythm."
"I think it' s beautiful. I don' t know why I never paid attention to them before."
"He looks like he' s walking on stilts." He pushed the bill of his cap up.
"Personally, I don' t get it."
"Say what you want but I think it' s beautiful. I don' t think I ever told your
father that. Maybe it would have helped."
"I would' t dread too much about it, mom," he said. "I' ve been working here
for two summers now and I still don' t understand what' s the big deal with these birds."
"If I had legs like that, maybe he would' t have worked so much," Lynn said.
She put her glasses on. "He worked a lot of late nights."
"I doubt it' s that simple. No point in beating yourself up. It' s not your fault."
"How do you know?" She lifted the cup to her lips. "Has he said anything?"
"No. These things happen. People fall out of love. I do it all the time."
"Well, I didn' t."
He looked at her sullenly. His weight was shifted to one leg.
"Understand that I don' t know what to say here," he said. "I don' t like being
put in the middle."
"Sorry, Michael. I'11 stop."
"Let' s talk about the cranes again."
"Let' s," he said. He looked out at the cranes. He furrowed his brow. "I just
realized something. How odd?"
"What? What is it, Michael?" She looked down at her ring.
"He' s starting a bit early. He' s not suppose to be doing that."
"What the dancing?" she asked, leaning foreword in her chair.
"They' re not supposed to breed down here." He bent down and placed his cup
on the deck. He put his hands around his mouth and yelled out into the marsh, "Knock it
off, you horny bird. Wait till you get to Canada."
Lynn laughed and then he started to laugh. "Stupid bird," he said.
"Maybe it' s foreplay," she said and laughed again.
"Mother!" he said and turned away. "They' re not doing foreplay. Animals
don' t do that. It' s all mechanical to them. They breed and then they die. If they' re
lucky, they breed a couple of times and then they die."
"Really?" Lynn said. She slapped her knees. "That' s too bad. Then where' s the
"Spreading their genes. That' s the name of the game." He looked down to see
where his drink was.
"Maybe he' s flirting with another crane. Maybe he was getting bored. Maybe
his mate' s plumage was getting ratty. He wanted something younger."
The son shook his head. "They' re monogamous," he said. "Until death."
"Oh," she said. Isn' t she a lucky bird?" She stood up and walked to the edge of
the deck, next to her son. She put her arm around his waist.
"It' s a good thing I'm not a crane," Michael said.
"Why?" she asked.
He smiled. "I can' t dance."
"But all those proms. You have to be able to dance by now."
He shrugged his shoulders." I would' t call what I do dancing. I would call it
"Do you care about any of these girls?"
"I told you. They' re all special."
She knocked his hat askew. "Come on. I'm being serious."
He stepped away, arms protecting his head. He took off his hat and rubbed his
forehead. "I like them. But that' s about it. They' re friends."
Lynn shook her head and then grabbed her coffee from the table. She put her arm
around him again. She thought for a moment. "Canada," she said.
"They breed in Canada."
"Among other places, yes. Why?" he asked.
"I went to Canada with your father. It was the breeding season. He did some
research up there. Alberta. I can' t remember the name of the conservatory." She
rubbed her chin.
"Wanted to see how many times they got it on, huh?" Michael said. "Sounds like
a great time. All for the sake of science, I suppose."
She smiled. "I remember there was a class that toured the conservatory the day
we were there. It was an elementary school."
"He helped give the tour. He brought them out here, to the edge of the deck. It
was a lot like this place from what I can remember. He took off his shoes and jumped
into the marsh. The kids didn' t. They stayed on the deck."
"He walked up to a female crane. It was summer and he told them that that was
when they breed."
"What did the crane do?"
"It watched him. Probably just as curious as I was," Lynn said. She took her
glasses off and let them hang by the chain against her chest.
"He started picking up his legs and stretched out his neck and waved his arms
about. I could' t believe he was doing it. The kids were laughing."
"For some reason that doesn' t really surprise me."
She looked at him and nodded. "You' re right. It should' t. Biologists are a
different kind of creature."
"Were you jealous?" Michael asked. "He was strutting his tail feathers around."
"No." Her smiled faded. "But watching him do that, court that crane, I should
have known that the marriage would' t have lasted."
Lynn spotted a plane, following the path of the river. She put on her glasses and
pointed to the sky. Michael turned his head to the clouds.
"Do you think that' s him?" she asked.
"Could be. Doesn't appear to be commercial."
"I can feel him up there."
"How? That might not even be him."
"Ijust know. Call it a woman' s intuition."
"For some reason I thought they counted in the evening," Michael said.
"Maybe the cranes aren' t out then."
She walked back to the table and took her seat. "Do you think your father sees
"From all the way up there?"
"Yes. With his instruments and do-hickeys" Lynn said.
"Relax, will you? He doesn' t know. And he would' t even care."
"What about his crane counter? We don' t exactly look like cranes."
"His crane counter uses infrared. We'll be red dots to him," Michael said. "The
cranes, too. Anything warm-blooded. So will you please relax?" He walked back to his
chair and sat down. "Besides, they aren' t scanning over here."
"Of course," She said to herself, ignoring him. "Why should it be any different?
I'm used to being a blip on the screen."
A small breeze picked up. The female crane was alone near the trees. Michael
dragged his foot across the spaces in the wooden deck.
"Yes." He stopped his foot.
"What time is it?"
He looked at his watch. It was six. "It' s about time to go. I don' t want to rush. I
want to pick a good suit."
"And just in case you think you can just waste your money," he said. "You' re
going on the cruise. You'll enjoy yourself. Trust me. And who knows. Maybe you'll
Lynn covered her face. "I don' t even want to think about that. I don' t want to
deal with that," she said. "I' m too old for that. I don' t want to start over."
"I understand. You don' t have to do anything other than enjoy yourself. But
keep your options open. That' s all I' m saying."
"All right. All right. Fine. But I don' t think anyone will be checking out these
goods. Not with all those young girls in bikinis running around."
"Come on, mom. Don' t sell yourself short. You' re a lively girl yet. You' ve
still got it."
"Lively," she said. "Lively is the best you can do?"
"Well, okay. Luscious," he said, shaking his head for emphasis. "You' re a
Lynn slapped his arm and blushed. "Stop it. Don' t say that word. You know I
hate that word."
"You' 11 meet a guy. I guarantee it. Just wait. You' 11 find one before you hit an
island. Hell, you might meet someone on the plane. You' 11 find someone before you' 11
get your feet wet."
"A guarantee?" she said. "What if I don' t?"
"Then I' 11 have one waiting on the mainland for you. I know of a few guys that
have had their eyes on you. I' ve had to fight off a number of a suitors"
"Well, then. We got a deal."
They shook hands and smiled at each other.
"In fact," Michael said. He stood up and walked to edge of the deck. "While
you' re there, try and find someone for me, too. Just tell the girls how you have such a
great son. That I'm willing to travel."
He had his hands on his hips. He watched the female crane with its head down
foraging. Michael started to leap in the air, back and forth across the deck. He stretched
his arms out, mimicking the crane dance, laughing as he did it. But the crane never raised
its head and instead continued to forage. "Exactly," he said, and looked at his mother. "I
told you I was a bad dancer."
Lynn grinned and checked her watch. "We better be going. If we' re going to do
this today, then we have to leave now."
"Righty-o," he said. They headed for the door. "And look at it this way. You'11
get a nice tan." He looked up at the sky.
The sun had begun to fall toward the horizon. The crane' s head was bent down,
foraging in the marsh. The male crane landed next to its mate, holding some
grasshoppers from the grassland in its beak.
"I think I' m going to take dancing lessons," he said, as they went inside.
"Ballroom. I' ve just decided it. Everyone should know how to Tango. Or maybe
OBITUARY (AN EXCERPT)
From his desk in the basement of the Omaha Post-Dispatch building, Roman
Bannister watches the muted shuffling of brown tasseled loafers and tan pumps and open-
toed shoes through the ground-level windows. Roman is an obituary writer for the daily
newspaper and when he isn't interviewing a relative of the deceased or polishing his
latest article, he's looking out the windows to view the shoes that'll streak along the wall
like stock prices.
It's the end of a Friday in late June. Roman watches the feet march by, feet that
are taking their owners away from the daily grind of employment to a hot meal or a
stress-reducing bubble bath or an awaiting loved one. He envies those feet. At the end of
every day, Roman glances up at the wall clock and becomes nervous. As long as a last-
minute death doesn't trickle through the wire-a death of worldly importance, someone
of celebrity status-he can find himself oining the shoes and ankles outside the window
at exactly six o'clock. On the unfortunate nights of a news-worthy death, the office,
which would be all but shut down for the workday, is sent into a frenzy. Everyone races
around, making sure the birth date is correct, the name is spelled correctly, and no one
rests or goes home until it's ready for print in the morning edition. On those nights, the
number of feet outside the widows will dwindle to an empty sidewalk or, sometimes, to a
single pair of black plastic pumps that strolls back and forth.
Tonight, to Roman's relief, nothing comes down the wire.
After work, Roman enters Pen's house using the key that she gave him once he
began sleeping at her place more often than his own. That was eight months ago, and
there are two reasons why he began sleeping there. The first is that Roman was and is
thirty-two years old and was tired of sleeping alone. He thought he was getting to the age
where it was an embarrassment to continue the sleeping arrangement he has had since he
was five. The second is that Pen's house is five blocks from his work-walking distance.
It saves on gas money, which means a great deal since the gas prices are almost two
dollars a gallon because of the crisis in the Middle East. Pen's key has replaced his own
apartment key on his key chain, for he no longer carries his own, afraid that if he did
carry both and lost his key chain then he would be homeless, so instead he keeps his key
in the top middle drawer of his desk at work. He uses that key once a week to check his
mail and to make sure that he hasn't been robbed or the place hasn't burned down.
He shuffles through the mail he grabbed from Pen's mailbox, separating her junk
mail from legitimate correspondences and bills. He tosses everything-but the utility
bill and a letter with odd bulges and foreign postage markings-into a wicker basket with
tomatoes drawn on its front. He searches the house for Pen only to find himself alone.
She must still be at work. He sets the bill and the letter, stacked, on the brown coffee
table in front of the couch.
In the kitchen he takes out pans and bowls. He has decided to make pasta and a
salad. By the time the Alfredo sauce is simmering in a small pan, Pen walks through the
front door and rubs Roman's shoulder as she passes to the bedroom.
She returns wearing an Omaha Spikes tee shirt and shorts. She sits on the couch
and turns on the television. Roman brings out dinner on two plates, sliding hers on the