Sarah’s uncle telephoned in the morning with the news but was so distraught Sarah had difficulty understanding him. Told he would call again later when he knew more and had more things arranged, Sarah tried to remain calm—her mother was gone—while thinking through preparations for going to Louisiana for the funeral. She finished a stack of patient progress reports as the day wore on and that night was cooking stir fry and checking the television listings for something to divert her thoughts when her uncle called again. The receiver under her chin, she had trouble following his rambling sentences—especially after being informed in a cracking voice that her mother had taken a swan dive from a bridge in San Francisco.
“And she wanted me as a pallbearer?”
“Yes,” Billy Wayne told her. “She left instructions how things should be carried out.”
“And you’re telling me the funeral is at an old bar in Louisiana?”
“No, no. The request is for the pallbearers to meet there prior to the funeral.”
“If you weren’t my uncle I would think this a joke. My mother is really dead, right?”
“I assure you this is no joke,” her uncle said, the seriousness in his voice like he was giving closing arguments at one of his client’s drug trials. “Will you honor your mother’s last wishes? May I put you down as a pallbearer?”
She had lost track of her mother a year ago, and, now, anger never buried very deeply began to surface about those long ago days, anger fueled by pallbearers gathering before the funeral in an old bar and her mother’s request for her daughter to carry and feel her weight one last time.
“Bizarre,” Sarah said softly. “Can you give me the particulars once more?”
After Billy Wayne had gone over all the details and hung up, Sarah looked at the stack of case folders on the counter, the top two beginning a slow slide off of the pile, admitting again she became a psychiatric social worker with dim hopes of saving her mother, or failing that, saving herself.
Sarah finally fell asleep before dawn and dreamed of her mother’s perfect swan dive from the Golden Gate Bridge, arching body parallel to the dark water below, held there a moment before plunging and her mother bringing arms beside her head, her fingers straight and overlapping, a flying chevron of red fingernails, her form as fine as an Olympic platform diver. Down Lacey went in her daughter’s dream, her dress outlining legs, the hem flapping flags, the cold wind bringing quick tears to both their eyes, twin divers now, Sarah turning for a last glimpse of her mother who didn’t turn her head, the impact of the water a ringing explosion ending the perfect swan dives from the Golden Gate Bridge.
After she was up and thought about the dream, Sarah smiled grimly, remembering her mother’s words—suicide parade—and wondered about her place in the lineup. She was certain it would never be a plunge like her mother had taken, knowing from her uncle that Lacey’s dive was really from the Dumbarton Bridge, a more appropriate name to her daughter’s way of thinking.
As an adult, she had never visited the town her mother grew up in, the move to Florida coming before Sarah was a year old. Louisiana was about what she expected when she got off the interstate and drove down Highway 61, the small towns a pattern of paint-faded buildings along the main streets, mostly pickup trucks parked at angles along uneven sidewalks. She had left for the funeral from The Sunshine State two days after her uncle had telephoned, planning to study the landscape as she plunged through Louisiana, the thought that seeing a string of vistas similar to her mother’s hometown might help explain what the early years were like, her mother finally escaping with damages incurred and carried like a suitcase of worn clothes. Silly, of course, Sarah knew no view of small towns in the summer heat could tell her anything. But she knew about baggage, oh, yeah, Lacey always on a tear, her daughter a stand-in therapist, telling Sarah intimate details of her life no reasonable mother would ever share with her child. Ages before the dive into the pitch-black water of San Francisco Bay, Lacey’s alcohol-fueled recollections in Florida were strangely sober-sounding, not a neat folding and careful cataloging of events, no, but garments wadded into balls, the wrinkles always permanent.
In high school at the age of 17, Sarah’s mother began seeing the connections between all the stars in the sky, their arcs and paths and intersections diagramed with dotted lines like Morse code, supplying messages only she could decipher, never for herself, but a foretelling for others plucked from the massive darkness linking all those winking points of light. Since Lacey always wore one of her father’s old hunting vests over her blouse and a red headband holding her dark red touch-of-Irish hair away from her face and carried her journal with the crumpled ends of papers sticking out among the pages, word had gotten around school that her distinctive beauty she seemed so casual about was somehow tied to her ability to understand all that other worldly mumbo-jumbo. The boys came buzzing about, human flies with completion problems, drawn to her honey-colored skin, sidling up to her between classes and asking if making out with her was in their stars. She always opened her journal and pulled out her fountain pen with red ink and asked their birthdates and quickly charted their futures and their chances with her. If the guys were particularly obnoxious, there was no need to chart their course by signposts overhead. Just by shaking her head, biting her full lower lip, then looking up at them with those huge blue eyes—and just that, pretty face and blue eyes framed by dark red hair—always made the heads of those boys rear back between their shoulders, eyes rounding for whatever reading of the stars came out of her mouth. If really obnoxious, what emerged was this: Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, draft, capture, torture. Yeah, that’s all it took for them to take a step backward, finally turning away, one stumble-step before disappearing down the hall.
Lacey was guileless and knew it, didn’t care what most people thought of her, once at a party raising her hand when the talk circled around that there were no more virgins in the world. Lacey raised her hand and smiled a bit and rolled those blue eyes upward while giving a sweet unapologetic shrug of her shoulders. Well, hell, it was like chumming the water for sharks, guys she didn’t really know at school or had ever even seen before now were circling fresh meat with a swagger that really made her laugh. Sometimes the scary nature of understanding the stars and predicting the future made her sad, and those large tear-filled eyes certainly served her well in being mysterious and fending off the boyhood beasts she had no desire to be around, much less date. But the guys continued coming around, as if she was a marked woman—hell, she was—and the bounty for the first guy to bag the trophy was to be bragged about far and wide forevermore—or at least throughout the corridors of high school for a while.
Lacey used her gift outside during lunch break and squinted at the blue sky when confronted with a guy and smooth talk that made her think of a dubbed Japanese monster film when the words and lips weren’t in synch. So she squinted at the bright sky and she could always see the stars hidden by daylight, which always surprised and frightened her, but not as much as knowing what message they conveyed. She would look at the guy with smooth out-of-synch talk and hide the fact that they were going to die young by saying, Uranus is in the wrong house. That usually brought a frown from the clunk of gears grinding down in the guy’s head. Lacey would then ask their name and birthday and time of birth, pulling her pen out to record the answers (not that she ever needed those). That was usually it, a shrug from the guy, his hands turning over, a quick shake of the head back and forth like palsy, and the usual backing away.
She told her daughter Sarah her weapon against all those guys was Full Moons, T-Squares, & Uranus Pluto Squared.
It worked every time.
At 17, Sarah, I knew, Jesus, 17. I knew I was a mixture of inexperience with a huge gap in me and of knowing a lot—you know, aware of things in history and the general placement of events. A voracious reader, able to talk about film, proud that once after telling my brother Luther I had just watched and loved Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant, I had gotten back a reply that my brother now knew I was going to be just fine, despite all the shortcomings at home I would survive. School was never a problem for me, listening in class and taking a few notes, and my grades were fine, really, quite a bit better than fine. I was flirting with being Salutatorian and was content with that—whether I ended up with the second highest average in school or not, feeling wherever I ended up was just that, some slot filled in the way things were done. I was not willing to compete with Bobby Freneau for the top prize because it meant taking time away from things I valued more: going to as many movies as came to our little burg, long quiet times lost in a book and experiencing adventures I never would otherwise, walking the levee and exploring the changing banks of the Mississippi with my brother’s old Topcon D-1 camera he got in Vietnam. Oh, I was well-rounded, I knew that, and pretty enough, sensitive and comfortable around adults, easy to laugh and all that other blah blah blah stuff. What did bug me though was a feeling I couldn’t articulate, an emptiness and a restlessness that something was missing, some fault line, a thin jagged fracture that ran through me that might crack open and reveal a huge chasm impossible in its dimensions, dark, echoey, totally empty, something I had pulled from my reading that I called my Dark Matter (because saying I had a Black Hole in me was just too fucking funny). I remember studying the expanding universe for science class and coming across a term that perfectly described the feeling within me that I couldn’t describe: missing mass.
I knew better than to mention my emptiness to any of the girls I was friendly with—especially Karla Mae who would say I needed a boyfriend to make me feel like a woman, that my feeling was from not being truly intimate with a guy I loved. That wasn’t it, some guy on me pumping away to the rhythm in his head. I did experiment on myself in the shower and lazy afternoons alone in the house after taking a hit or two of grass from the stale roaches in my old cigar box, knowing and liking the feelings when aroused, my skin an otherworldly network of nerves. Yes, those times of getting to know myself did reveal feelings of surprise and wonder, did widen some other fault line within me, but somehow my touching time did little to fill that other missing mass. The only thing I knew when alone and being intimate with myself was that I didn’t imagine some bulked-up football player like Sidney. Those intimate times it was me and the feeling itself, a connectedness with someone not me and complete and secret and joyful and so satisfying that all other things were closed out.
While Sarah was packing for her trip to Louisiana, she knew she should call Stephen and tell him what had happened. She loved him but the last thing she wanted was for him to accompany her to her mother’s funeral. She tried reasoning that out, why she didn’t want the man she was supposedly going to marry to be by her side, to comfort her while whatever emotions surfaced while she was saying goodbye to her mother. And that was it. At the moment she didn’t particularly feel much sadness. She loved her mother, yes, but Sarah knew she had spent the last several years learning to forgive herself for the life she had lived in her youth, for allowing her mother to use her as a sounding board, listening to things no child had any business hearing about a parent.
She decided she would call Stephen from the road.
When Sarah was a child, her mother and her mother’s sister-in-law, Karla Mae, had gone to high school and been friends with Stephen’s mother, Jane. Lacey and Jane and Karla Mae often drove Sarah and Stephen to the banks of the Ascension River. While the three women drank wine and laughed about early regrets, Sarah and Stephen were corralled on blankets and strapped next to each other in swings hung between large oaks on the bank. Sarah still remembered the women laughing and seeing Stephen flashing by, twin pendulums during their alternating swings. On Halloween night, since there were more houses in Travellers Rest, Lacey and Jane and Karla Mae drove the children into town and sat in the car on each street, again drinking wine and laughing and flicking cigarette ashes out of the windows. Dressed as Jack and Jill (with large pails for candy), Sarah and Stephen always felt their adventure was second to the blousy good time their mothers were having. Later they were dressed as Hansel and Gretel and Peter Pan and Tinkerbell and Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, and always a chorus of exclamations during the taking of too many photographs. A bit older and Sarah and Stephen were Batman and Catwoman. Finally, when old enough to escape the fairy tale theme and decide their own personas, Sarah and Stephen walked the streets for candy dressed as Ramses and Nefertiti, and then travelled darker streets in Stephen’s rusty Ford dressed as Frankenstein and Bride and Bonnie and Clyde. One Halloween, a private joke between them since all three women asked what characters they were going to be, they went pretty much as themselves but considered they were portraying Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the couple years earlier who roamed out west, killing 11 people before being arrested.
Sarah’s aunt, Karla Mae, had stared at them.
Who? Who the fuck are you?
Karla Mae, bless her heart, we grew up together, Sarah, you know that, same classrooms all through school. Best friends all our lives ‘cause we made each other laugh at everything, mostly about boys though, which ones were handsome and what kind of husband they’d make and wondering how they kissed and how their fingers inside us would feel.
Oh, Karla Mae was a girl for the changing times and knew it.
She wasn’t the brightest girl around, and she slept with any boy she could, and I never judged her for that, never—but no damn wonder the rest of the country thinks it is all incest and inbreeding down there. Your father Sidney dated Karla and I married Sidney and then Karla dated your uncle Billy Wayne for a while before marrying his brother Luther.
Shit, even I need a scorecard.
Anyway, early in high school there were noticeable changes between me and Karla after we started double-dating, dry-humping a thing of the past for her, she and Sidney in the back seat, Imitation of Life on the screen beyond the windshield, them huffing and puffing as Susan Kohler threw herself on her mother’s coffin up on the big wooden screen, me and Sidney’s friend Rodney in the front seat, Rodney with sweaty hands that thrust and parried a few times before I put my back to the door, a full frontal defensive position. Sidney had Rodney get in the back seat and Karla Mae sat on Rodney’s lap and I could feel the top of my seat being pulled back, hands using it for leverage, I guess. Of course, I couldn’t help glancing back, Karla Mae and Rodney behind me so I couldn’t really see them moving around, but I knew what they were doing. Sidney studied me like he had been waiting for me his entire life. He got in the front seat, not saying anything, quietly waiting for me to catch his eye while his girlfriend and Rodney did their business. He gently took my hand and put it on his lap.
Yeah, there was a noticeable shift between Karla Mae and me after that, really, me declining more offers of sweaty drive-inn double-dating, her knowing I had captured Sidney and would eventually let go and give in to him, putting all my feelings into the wider world of skin and nerves—no matter what form that took.
And then, much later, I got pregnant on purpose and we got a divorce.
When Lacey got pregnant by an older man she met while bartending in New Orleans, Robert, pregnant by someone other than her husband, since Sidney knew he couldn’t have been the baby’s father, he gave his pregnant wife a farewell salute from rice paddies and moonlit waters of the South China Sea. Not at all surprised things ended so quickly as expected, Lacey left things behind and moved to the east coast of Florida. The beach was a ten-minute bicycle ride away and Sarah grew up along the shore, riding the harder packed sand so the fat tires wouldn’t sink, staying away from the house on weekends when she was beginning to understand what had happened to her mother in south Louisiana. Sarah learned the benefits of after-school club meetings and swimming in the ocean with friends until dark.
When Sarah rounded the corner of the street and approached her house, the window shades and curtains were a clue to what she would find. A reflective white surface always a cue that with blinds drawn the house would be quiet, no empty wine bottle on the kitchen counter, no music from the radio or stereo, the television silent, just the hum of the refrigerator (the icebox her mother called it) when she came in through the back door. She usually went straight to her room and softly closed the door. Other days, shades up, curtains pulled back, meant loud music and the television always on Afternoon at the Movies with Count Julius in his fright wig and black robe—a cross between scary and camp. If her mother, Lacey, was at the kitchen sink when Sarah came in, she always turned to her daughter with wide eyes, a smile playing across her face, immediately exclaiming in a breathless voice about something heard on the radio or a song with hidden meaning she wanted Sarah to listen to—or even an upcoming scene in a romantic movie seen countless times flickering on the snowy television. Her mother would fool with the tuning knob and the image would go from snowy to blizzard conditions.
It had gotten so bad that a few summers Sarah stayed with friends in New York, preferring to work as a hostess in the East Village Thai Restaurant to earn money for her next semester at Columbia, avoiding the drama being played out in Lacey’s head that forced her daughter into roles not wanted, the same scenes played out in an endless and frustrating loop. The last summer Sarah spent in Florida with her mother, if the shades were completely rolled to the top of the window, she would walk by her house to the end of the block, turning right and going to the small park a mile down the street—sandbox, slide, a swing set with four swings, two broken. She would sit on one of the two benches and read and watch men coming and going from the small building with bathrooms set at the edge of the property near a wooded area. Sarah knew what all the activity meant but the men never bothered her, never approaching along the broken sidewalk that went past her bench, the men always taking a shorter route to a small parking lot along a grassless path. She would sit there until after dark, her loneliness akin to the men she watched, sitting until she had to go home and face whatever the windows told her.
Honestly, Sarah, with Sidney, I remember it as being good at the beginning.
When Karla Mae said no way she could be my bridesmaid, with all my other friends scattered after graduation, I decided Sidney and I would just head for the Mississippi coast and find a justice of the peace. I didn’t care for all those wedding day trappings anyway, invitations, talking to some minister I didn’t know and marrying in a church I surely didn’t attend. So after first mentioning our intentions, eyebrows lifting, most folks—including friends and my brothers Luther and Billy Wayne—sort of shrugging it off like it was an event years down the road, we just kept our mouths shut and headed out one hot October weekend.
The Gulf Suites were a string of motel cabins linked to each other by narrow carports, each cabin settled in the sand like beached and half-buried shrimp trawlers, each painted a bright primary color that the sun and salt air had faded to the paleness of watercolors, gauzy, the grain and swirly knots of the clapboards like varicose veins seen through stockings. We gave up trying to keep the sand swept out and finally, after getting married early one morning with strangers as witnesses, we just treated our bungalow like it was a fancy cabana facing the Gulf, the floors in all the rooms gritty, the sandy footprints trails of discovery.
We stayed in swimming suits the entire time, sunning on the beach, several times a day Sidney leading me back to the cabin and teaching me things, his roughness a surprise, and under his hands and weight of his body, I let myself go, my mind filling with nothing else but the feeling of what was happening to me, everything dropping away, no time to think, the cracks in my soul sealed for a time by physical connection. Once I laughed out loud, thinking at the time maybe Karla Mae had been right early on, saying all I needed was a man to make me whole.
Mama, I have to study.
Let me just tell you one thing.
I’m sure I’ve heard it before.
Well, go on and study then. Go on.
Okay, Mama. Tell me. But hurry, okay?
Oh, I don’t want to hold you up.
Tell me, Mama.
Where was I? Hand me that ashtray, will you?
Those are going to kill you.
Honey, it won’t be cigarettes that do the trick.
I thought Sidney’s decision to enlist before we got married was wrong. Since his father and brother had served, I didn’t say much at first. It all still seemed so new and exciting, being married and an Army wife. The feelings of being grown up lasted through Sidney’s first tour. When he came home it was married strangers meeting again, those first months together like fog rolling in from offshore. We simply were not the same people who had stood in front of the justice of the peace in Gulf Breeze and said whatever we said before buying sparkling wine and saluting our nakedness with cloudy jelly glasses pulled from the kitchenette shelf. Anytime I wrapped a sheet around me, Sidney pulled it away and gazed at me, a slight smile parting his lips, the prize he sought for so long there in all her sandy glory. Looking at the bulk of him was scary in the bright daylight pushing through the thin curtains. What I needed on those honeymoon afternoons as a too-young married woman with no experience were shadows from candlelight, moon over the Gulf shining through the windows.
All that made me laugh later.
All I know is it hurt because Sidney was too rough, doing his business too quickly, and it was horribly delicious and painful, and I thought both were things I deserved.
There was a long stretch during her days at Columbia when Sarah didn’t see Lacey. She knew her mother had men living with her at various times, sometimes traveling with them and calling from Mexico or New Orleans or Las Vegas, the din of voices always in the background. Sarah also knew the house in New Smyrna Beach looked like a hurricane had come ashore, the winds blowing through rooms and moving everything that wasn’t nailed down, letters from her opened and read and dropped where Lacey finished them, dirty dishes on the coffee and end tables, newspaper on couch and chairs and the floor, magazines opened to an half-read article and each looking like a badly sagging paper M. Sarah tried her best not to feel guilty, knowing she had to take care of herself, find her own way, that whatever happened down the road with Lacey, Sarah would have to be prepared to pursue some dreams of her own. That usually made her laugh, most times not able to see further than the next tuition payment, or the rent, utilities, never mind buying books or having a session where she could spill her guts about the way things were. It was hard enough for Sarah to keep her mother current on bills—Lacey by this time on complete disability—and just thank God that Billy Wayne, her mother’s brother that Sarah was so grateful for, was always there to help with payments on the house in Florida.
Sarah struggled, sometimes despairing, often close to tears on four hours or less of sleep a night, hurrying to school and then to as many jobs as she could juggle, never mind studying when she got home after midnight. When climbing to her cramped one-room apartment she sometimes thought of Sidney, technically her father, she guessed, since he was still married to Lacey when she got pregnant, sometimes thinking of him while resting halfway up the four flights of stairs, taking a deep breath and whispering, knowing if she said the name aloud—
—tying his name to his total lack of regard for her mother—that it would propel her to take the next step up, and then the next, the next.
The first time was just something that happened.
I thought that at the time, Sarah.
Sidney was between his first two tours and this shy guy from Maryland was with him—no parents, grew up with an aunt—Sidney’s way of helping someone by having ordinary days and then the twisted fun of a married woman. Anyway, the boy had been discharged, damn close to shell-shocked or something, his eyes watchful, hard to hear when he did say anything.
There was a week of cooking chicken and steaks outside, sitting around the barbecue pit until all hours, drinking beer, feeding small limbs to keep a fire going, finally the three of us loosening up, even the kid beginning to smile and relax. One night we continued with the beer and doing shots and moved inside because there was a light rain. We ended up on the living room floor, playing strip poker, laughing and deciding if the kid’s belt constituted an article of clothing. It was all just fun, looseness, a reflection of the times.
So the guys finally get down to underwear and I’m in panties and bra. We kind of knew it would end there. We kept drinking, Sidney and me telling high school stories and making the kid laugh and him telling a few stories of his own about his bad dates. I don’t know, at some point things got quiet, us still on the floor leaning against the couch pillows we’d pulled down, and I caught a glimpse of Sidney’s naked legs climbing the stairs. A feeling in my stomach, I knew he was leaving us alone purposely, me imagining him getting into bed, waiting for me, knowing he would be bright-eyed and ready when I came upstairs. It was the way he had just eased out of the room. The kid was looking at me, trying his best not to let his eyes wander down to my breasts. I don’t know, he reached out and so gently cupped one and I put my hand on his, us staying like that until I finally reached around and undid my bra. God, that was so unlike me, but the booze and the blazing need in the kid’s eyes, something in me finally breaking open. I took his hands and pulled him to me, him glancing at the stairs, me touching his jaw and turning his head back to look at me.
Her mother’s stories that last summer together in Florida were always exhausting. Sarah’s eyes when she looked at herself in the mirror after listening always made her think of Willie Loman, the tired-to-the-bone salesman with slumping shoulders she had seen in a play at a little theatre down the Florida coast. Or maybe she was a throwback to ancient times, her mother’s stories like food to be absorbed by her daughter to absolve perceived sins in her mother’s head.
Sometimes, shades up, mother-daughter roles reversed, the discussion would be about Lacey spending money they didn’t have, that her excesses meant Billy Wayne would have to be asked for help with the mortgage, that the doctor bills would also go unpaid for another month and that Sarah would have to ride out Lacey’s highs and lows. No medical visits, no prescriptions to treat the mood swings. That last summer of turmoil Sarah would come into the house, shades up, radio and television on, and glance out of the window to confirm her mother’s Buick was not in the garage. The empty house filled with noise but without any sign of Lacey became a pattern. She would disappear for days, each time her weary daughter telephoning Sheriff Bronwyn and asking for his deputies to watch for the automobile. When Lacey showed up in a dusty town near her Louisiana home, Sarah got a telephone call from a sheriff in a parish along the Mississippi River, prompting her to call Lacey’s brother in San Francisco, her voice choked with emotion when her uncle answered, tears streaking her face. Billy Wayne, aware of the erratic behavior, hearing that Lacey’s episodes now were more frequent, offered to have Lacey come stay with him. Perhaps a change of scenery and treatment at a different clinic might shore up the crumbling floodgates. Long removed from his radical days of bombs and time served in prison, Billy Wayne had married a lawyer while in law school himself and Sarah was not to worry about the money. Let Lacey come to California for treatment, he would hire a companion to help keep her on track, and Sarah could concentrate on her senior year at Columbia.
Sarah played it like it was a sudden trip so Lacey could see her brother, her only relative. It had been several years, and the spontaneous act of traveling dovetailed perfectly with Lacey’s upbeat demeanor. Once out there, in the city of ocean fog, together with Billy Wayne, Sarah would broach the idea of her mother staying longer, stretching out the visit to include treatment and a balancing that would patch the widening fault lines.
Sarah drove her mother to the airport in Orlando, Lacey chattering the entire way, the excitement in her eyes a glassy sheen. She hugged her mother as long as Lacey allowed—which wasn’t long—and then cried her way back to New Smyrna Beach, stopping in a restaurant off the highway to wash her face, slipping into a booth and ordering a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke. She composed herself during this ordinary act, getting her head around the idea of each day for the rest of the summer—maybe the rest of her life—coming home into an empty house.
The pallbearer’s met for a drink in the bar across the street from the Absent Friends Funeral Home, one of several last requests Lacey had written out before her plunge. Maybe it was an attempt to loosen things up, but the most discussed topic was Sarah as a pallbearer, the daughter of the deceased.
“Yeah, strange,” Sarah told them. “If you knew Lacey you probably aren’t that shocked.”
The six of them talked about Lacey but the stories never really went anywhere. Her mother was different than the other girls in high school. Later, during the service, when the minister had to keep glancing down to make sure he was correct on the full name of the deceased, that added to Sarah’s feeling of disconnection, being in a hometown that little remembered her mother. Feeling that disconnect, not wanting to raise the dead for others through stories, Sarah had declined Billy Wayne’s suggestion of doing a eulogy. She smiled as the service was ending, noting he hadn’t delivered one either, no doubt like her wanting it all to be over.
With the blue sky fading to dusk after the graveside ceremony, Sarah nodded goodbye to the other pallbearers and stood among the graves for a moment, a quick thought of the last telephone call with her mother, having disappeared despite Billy Wayne keeping tabs on her, and then finally surfacing with some guy in Alameda Point, a poor neighborhood Sarah guessed, Lacey off her meds, Sarah knowing nothing had changed, swearing she would get out to California but knowing no good would come of it since it never did.
During her own long years of therapy before beginning social work—to shrink folks you had to be shrunk, so the theory went—Sarah understood intellectually why she was the way she was. She suspected she might not ever understand it emotionally. Was it even possible to help her patients while carrying so much baggage of her own?
Being alone was always a conscious effort on her part—hell, she hadn’t even allowed Stephen to accompany her to the funeral. It was just so much easier than the charade of being someone other than herself. That was a bit of drama, she knew that, but her feeling of isolation was real. The thought of sharing her life completely with someone made the hairs on her head prickle. She had dated over the years, only one man seriously though, Stephen, and knew she would eventually marry him, a man with looks and a fierce wit to match, but thank you, Dr. Freud, not just yet. She and Stephen had never had intercourse, their wrestling matches of exploring and feeling up each other powered by heavy kisses always ended with excuses from her, the eventual awkward laughter at stopping before whatever came next. Once she allowed his hand to wander up between her thighs, and he had paused there, feeling the raised ridges on her skin before frowning, just the slightest frown. Sarah scanned the mental horizon of his face, his furrowed brow, while wondering what she wanted to happen in this relationship, whether this would be their last night together. She came home after telling Stephen those raised ridges were scars from cutting herself, most of them old lines on a map she had almost no use for anymore. He had nodded in understanding, but she came home feeling out of sorts, disgruntled and anxious that she had opened up to him. As soon as she thought of her mother telling stories late into the night, it was a deep sadness she felt.
She tried remembering how the nightly stories had started, the mock sessions during Sarah’s years in school, she hurrying home to study, knowing after listening to her mother’s hop-scotch topics that her attention would be divided. She encouraged the talks at first to see if they would help some, but Sarah knew, really, because of their relationship nothing truly therapeutic could ever be accomplished. She listened because of what she didn’t know, hadn’t heard and figured out, and listening to paths taken during the old days had fired Sarah’s desire to know how her mother’s marriage to Sidney had come about, how the willful pregnancy by another man had ended in a wanted divorce to end things.
Sarah headed to New Orleans along Highway 90, planning to spend the night there before leaving for Florida in the morning. She drove and tried dismissing her concerns. She had loved Lacey the best she could, knowing she should have been able to do more, that she eventually stayed away from her mother mistakenly thinking that would help her, Sarah, but knowing for the rest of her life she would have a missing mass of her own, bringing tears to her eyes, blurring the dark road ahead, a thought coming to her, more than momentary determination to leave the razorblade in her makeup bag, no hurting herself this night, for there not to be any blood.
He was a medic.
You remember that, right?
Sidney said he did what he could. At night he thought of the men who collapsed from mental exhaustion, dropping suddenly like someone knocked them down, curling into fetal positions and sobbing, breath hitching in near seizure, internal wounds bleeding the bright blood of a different kind of death. He said he understood that feeling of malfunction, the daily dancing on the edge of an abyss.
He brought more of the discharged walking wounded home on his next furlough between tours, giving them a week or two to decompress before venturing back out into a homeland they no longer recognized. With Townsend, the first buddy he brought home, it was a homegrown womanly lure that quickly reeled him in emotionally. It was like landing a fish in a bucket, the emotional connection to me unexpectedly quick and strong.
He thought I could save Townsend.
That last time between tours, I called Sidney a baby murdering motherfucker.
He just said they never shot any fucking kids, honest. They roasted them. Slowly, over a fire, so the parents would tell them what they needed to know.
You, dear daughter, should know things got out of hand. Anderson, Malone, Fitzhugh, Collins. They were all holding me down, one on each arm, one holding my ankles, spreading my legs, taking turns climbing on me.
They took turns, finally tying me up with cords cut from the window blinds. They started putting things in me, whatever was handy.
A fun four hours in a hotel room.
It’s so strange, Sarah, thinking back on those days. My God, I was a virgin longer than most, especially considering the times they were a’changing.
What happened to me?
Back then, before my emptiness started filling up with things I couldn’t control, my journey to the center of it was always just me, alone, fairly happy, attempting to find and feel something in order to understand.
That doesn’t even make any sense to me now.
Sarah turned off, pulling her Mercedes into a gravel cutoff with just enough room for the length of the car, the headlights illuminating an iron gate inches away from the bumper, sitting there, both arms resting on the top of the steering wheel, putting her face down between them, sobbing with a strength that surprised her, sobbing for long minutes under the canopy of night, the stars smearing in bands across the sky when she looked up, a decision coming to her in that moment that her life depended on breaking old connections, truly letting her mother go, giving herself a rest from a lifetime of stories on an endless loop in her head. Burn those mental pages, each held by the corner, the red of flame and the rolling black scroll, each sheet curling upward and becoming smoke, and in a final act, rubbing the ashes into her palms and holding the ash-blackened hands up as a shield against the normal corrosion of living.
Leave the razorblade alone.
No more bloody lines on the inside of the thighs.
No new raised scars to explain to Stephen, who loves me despite my baggage, who says we’ll marry and our child will be the only map we’ll need.
I will still dream of my mother, Lacey Marie Leleux, my daughter’s grandmother.
Grace will be her name.
No denying how your grandmother ended her life, I’ll tell her.
I certainly don’t recommend that as the way to go, Grace. I’m going to try for dying in my sleep.
In my dreams I will feel my mother’s love for the city surrounded by water, the cool temperatures year round, the refreshing rain. It is the fog that she adores, early mornings before dawn with it coming in off the ocean and settling against the hills, shrouding the rundown houses and providing a glimpse of what they once looked like, the ends of streets lost in gauzy moisture leading to adventures of discovering answers concealed along routes made magical.
In my dreams Grace’s grandmother walks along foggy streets, secure in the knowledge that one day she will climb to the top of one of the bridges, arteries leading in and out of the city, and give it all up, as all of us must do somehow. In those dreams it is not a thought that scares my mother, rather one both of us find comforting, my mother’s dive alone through fog and the cleansing droplets running across her face.
Read Raymond’s interview about “Motherless Child,” and The Whole Lying Opera, his collection in progress