The county hospital was a dumping ground for the indigent and uninsured, for refugees, immigrants, prisoners, drug addicts, the mentally ill. Addicts wandered in off the streets, shackled inmates in orange jumpsuits, heads shaven, were led in from white transport vans. Yesterday, an escaping inmate was gunned down in the hospital parking lot. The story didn't make local news; Mrs. Wisdom only knew because Berlinda had been there when it happened. She'd come to visit her baby and found the hospital surrounded by squad cars with flashing lights. Born eight weeks premature, Willa Skye was in the neonatal ICU, a short walk from Berlinda's husband's office. Stanley worked in hospital communications, so their daughter's medical care was practically free. Berlinda visited Willa twice a day, Mrs. Wisdom went along every afternoon.
In the elevator, standing beside a somber policeman with a long chain and padlock in his fist, Mrs. Wisdom recalled a bit of trivia she had heard on the radio that morning. Odd facts clung to her like parasites; she plucked them off by telling someone, usually Berlinda. "I heard on the radio," she would begin, or "I read this article ..." Since her husband's sudden death eighteen months ago, she began too many sentences this way. If someone asked, she would say she had never felt so unmoored in her life.
"I heard on the radio the pumpkin flavoring in our lattes is made from chemicals, but that laboratory bacteria is going to replace the chemicals. It's cheaper."
"We'll be knocking back bacteria that tastes like Thanksgiving," Mrs. Wisdom flashed her sunniest smile at the policeman to show she was unbiased by his gun, his chain, his doleful face. He closed his eyes, ignoring her.
The second the elevator doors opened, the policeman shouldered his way out, in some hurry. Mrs. Wisdom had an impulse to follow, see where his sour self, shackle, and gun were headed.
She and her daughter walked along the putty colored corridors of labor and delivery towards the NICU. Belinda used a wall phone to call in Willa's name; an automatic door wheezed open. After washing their hands and pumping on hand sanitizer, they waited while a nurse punched in a code to another door that opened directly into a twilit techno-womb where twenty to thirty babies, some weighing less than one pound, were kept alive. Fifty years ago, these bits of life, struggling for every teaspoon of breath, would have died.
An hour later, after the visit, Berlinda was back in line to buy a bottle of Smart Water. Mrs. Wisdom stared up at local news this time.
The Phoenix police department had just mailed out orange Halloween stickers warning "No Candy at This Residence," to registered sex offenders. Offenders were required by law to put the pumpkin-shaped fluorescent stickers on their front doors. That is the most asinine thing I ever heard, Mrs. Wisdom thought. She glanced around to see if she had spoken out loud.
Mr. Wisdom had collapsed from a brain aneurysm less than twenty-four hours after his doctor declared him fit. She had gone in for a root canal and returned home, face numb, to discover Bert slumped on the shower floor, water uselessly spraying his bluish body. He looked surprised, and for a moment she thought he was playing a joke, trying to get her goat the way he had when they were first married. She'd gotten through it, calling 911, the autopsy, the wake, the funeral, selling the house, finding people to adopt his five desert tortoises, giving away his mostly khaki sport clothing, fishing gear, books. Mrs. Wisdom hadn't loved her husband for years, loyalty to her marriage an unexamined, even lazy, faith. At some point, Bert had turned from a taciturn, mysterious seeming young professor of linguistics into the dullest man on earth, as plodding and mute as one of his tortoises. He'd even resembled one, with his beady murk-colored eyes, beaky nose, and compressed lips. Scant difference between an unloved husband above and an unloved husband below ground. If her eleven-year-old, wire-haired dachshund, Otto, had died, Mrs. Wisdom's misery might have been greater.
In the aftermath of her husband's death, Mrs. Wisdom discovered herself accountable to no one. Frightened, she moved the twenty miles from Mesa to Phoenix to be closer to her pregnant daughter and son-in-law, another wordless man fond of fishing, propelled about by an exaggerated sense of order. Her first Thanksgiving as a widow, when she and Berlinda went to Safeway, she could hardly believe it when her daughter drew a red cloth tape measurer out of her handbag along with Stanley's tiny penciled sketch, exact to the quarter-inch, of the required size of turkey for his new outdoor barbeque. She held one end of the red tape against the frozen length, girth, and bosom of a dozen Butterballs before Berlinda found the perfect one.
With no one bothering to ask how she spent her money or her time, Mrs. Wisdom began doing things she'd heard women of comfortable means and excess leisure did. She got an anti-aging facial at an expensive salon from a Russian woman named Lucy that ended up costing four hundred dollars in "essential" face products. She saw a Swedish masseuse, then a reflexologist who, finished with her feet, practiced visceral manipulation on Mrs. Wisdom's organs at no extra charge since she was, she explained, still in training. She went to a five star stylist to update her hairstyle, unchanged since college. She got a gel manicure, a gel pedicure. Gathering momentum, she ordered new furniture, a vintage double bed from France, its white headboard and footboard carved with delicate roses, indulging in what she called her Parisian feminine aesthetic. There was a lot of patterned ivory, a French country loveseat and matching club chair upholstered in taupe linen, oversized goose feather pillows covered in broad pink and white striped French silk. She added a pink linen Windsor chair with a matching pink ottoman and a plush white area rug from India with a label on the back saying "Child Labor Not Used." The label had the opposite effect on Mrs. Wisdom, causing her to think a great deal about child labor, and to doubt the manufacturers of the rug for putting the label there. Something felt defensive about the rug as it sighed off incriminating wisps, floor level cirrus clouds, all day long, so that she was forever sweeping white puffs of wool from corners and along baseboards. Despite some new, extraordinary fatigue dismissed by her doctor as symptomatic of a grief she didn't feel, Mrs. Wisdom awoke each morning immensely pleased with her little bungalow, her ivory, pink, and taupe dollhouse.
On the gruesomely hot July afternoon she'd moved in, several neighbors stopped by with iced coffee and fresh baked cookies. Two attorneys, a retired nurse, a woodworker, one writer. Good people, she told herself. City people. She never saw them again. The other half of the duplex was still empty, her landlord installing aspen wood cabinetry in the kitchen before renting it out. Directly across the street was a light-colored house with a pale, Alice-blue front door, reminding Mrs. Wisdom of a one-layer birthday cake with butter cream frosting and blue candy letters. Three or four ginger-haired children were always in the front yard, their toys spilling off the lawn onto a sidewalk chalked with hopscotch squares. The parents came and went. She called them the Rockwells, after Norman, and liked to sit on her new French loveseat and watch the children playing with their balls, their jump ropes, hula hoops, and sprinklers--noisy, old-fashioned games that made her nostalgic for her own long-ago childhood, although it had never really been like that.
The city's historic district, architecturally unique, bowered by mature trees, was in high demand. Houses sold in less than two weeks, rentals were snapped up in days. In late September, her landlord hammered a rental sign into the lawn in front of the vacant half of the brick duplex. Two days later, a black truck drew up in front of the house, and in less than an hour, a person of few possessions, exactly one truckload, moved in. She never saw her new neighbor and only knew there was a dog because it barked daintily, furtively, from inside a small, fenced yard running adjacent to the sidewalk. Sometimes, she heard the man whistling the dog inside, and regretted she hadn't paid more for his bungalow, with its yard, instead of having to trot Otto out to do his business on the front lawn numerous times a day, as well as in the middle of the night.
Three days after whoever-he-was moved in, Mrs. Wisdom, a courteous introvert, waited until his truck was gone before going next door with a Tupperware container of peanut butter cookies, Bert's favorite, along with a handwritten note, introducing herself and welcoming him to the neighborhood. When she took Otto outside for his 4:30 A.M. nature call, she saw that both her container and card had disappeared.
His truck rarely went anywhere. Occasionally, she heard muffled TV-like sounds from the common wall inside the house, or heard him calling "Lily," presumably the dog, inside.
In human years, Otto was eighty-four and had a bladder the size of a lima bean, so that by pre-dawn hours, he needed desperately to pee. He nudged Mrs. Wisdom awake every morning, between 4:30 and 4:40 A.M. Wearing men's pajamas and a robe, her hair a rowdy mess, she led him, leashed, to the front yard. As the weeks went by, Mrs. Wisdom grew less afraid of being abducted by rapists or seized from behind by murderers. Evil, contrary to myth, did not lurk on every corner, and only once did someone walk by at that hour. The morning the figure sidled past, double-humped with a backpack and a bedroll, the stench of his homelessness staggered Mrs. Wisdom even as she heard the soft, vaguely Southern greeting, "Mornin', m'am." Safely inside, she regretted not answering. What would it have hurt to say good morning? There but for the grace, etc. Broadly, she accused civilization of making people too afraid to say boo to one another. If the poor soul passed by again, she would say hello.
As unfriendly as the other half of her duplex felt during the day, jalousie blinds pulled tight as the eyelids of a dead man, whenever she took Otto out before dawn, her neighbor's lights were blazing. What was he doing? A shame, two human beings a wall apart, the rest of the neighborhood coupled up so far as she could tell. At least they could shake hands, exchange names, agree to help one another in emergencies. Mrs. Wisdom's loneliness deepened now that there was a person next door who wouldn't speak to her. One morning, when his truck was gone, she slid a second note into his mailbox, inviting him over for coffee. On his concrete porch, not even a welcome mat, she blinkered her eyes to peer in one window just as Norman Rockwell's five, six, or seven--who knew how many--flame headed children burst from their blue front door shrieking, pelting one another with miniature pumpkins. Why weren't they in school? Over the next several days, she waited for a call, a note, a knock on the door. It was childish, feeling rebuffed, but it was also clear that Mr. Whoever wanted nothing to do with her.
By the time she got home from the hospital, having first dropped Berlinda at her house, it was only 6 P.M., but Mrs. Wisdom, still dressed down to her pantyhose and shoes, dropped face first onto her bed and slept as if clobbered. Waking an hour or so later, she leashed Otto, took him out to wrap his long body halfway around his favorite palm, waited as he cocked a leg and streamed with slow dignity. Back in the house, she fed him organic beef, changed into her pajamas, took a microwaved quiche to bed, and watched two episodes of Blue Bloods on the iPad Berlinda and Stanley had bought her for her birthday. She also wore a pair of socks Berlinda had given her, "doxie socks," a long-nosed dachshund profile on each one. Since Bert's death, small waves of panic beat against her waking dark hours, and for some reason, these forty-five minute police dramas with scripted solutions, fatherly figures, and sentimental messages of earthly justice soothed her.
When Otto nuzzled her with his nose at 4:3 5 A.M., she wondered, for the umpteenth time, if he had swallowed somebody's watch. Sashing her pink "spa" robe, shoving her socked feet into grass-stained pink slippers, she poked on her reading glasses and followed him into the front yard. Majestic, the late October sky, the silent, sleeping houses, the evenly spaced trees on either side of the street rustling in the breeze. She thrilled to the sky, its urban blackness marbled with moving clouds, drank in air tasting of iced champagne. It was the one time of the day she felt poetical. Drowsily, she glanced over at her neighbor's house, where the lights, as usual, were on. Wait, she hissed, tugging Otto along, padding in her slippers across the sprinkler-damp lawn. There it was. An orange sign glowing right in the middle of his front door. She tiptoed closer. Just as she made out the print on the pumpkin sign, No Candy at this Residence, Otto lunged after something in the shrubbery, a phantom cat. Towing him into the house, shutting and locking the door, Mrs. Wisdom clipped off Otto's leash, abandoned her soaked slippers, and put her hand to her chest. Her heart thudded irrhythmically.
The tri-fold flyer was nearly swallowed up and lost in the next day's mail, a litter of catalogs, bills, mattress sales, and dental implant ads. Printed on cheap paper, the flyer from the Phoenix Police Department was marked IMPORTANT: Sex Offender Notification. She stared at the stamp-sized headshot of "Offender Jesse Spain," read the terse description of his Level II crime, Attempted Sexual Conduct with a Minor, committed ten years earlier. She noted his current address. Standing at her living room window, holding the flyer, she watched Mr. Rockwell in sockless loafers and Bermuda shorts steer a collapsible stroller down the sidewalk, a tower of small pumpkins wobbling up from its sagging seat. Why would he be doing that? A very small Rockwell, wearing a tiny version of his father's shorts, trailed behind, dragging a teddy bear by its red cape. One of his sisters, copper braids flying, arrowed down the sidewalk in her pink Barbie Jeep. Had they received a flyer, too?
After breakfast, she started to call Berlinda, then stopped. Her neighbor's criminal past had unearthed a shard of marital history, something Mrs. Wisdom had made up her mind never to think about, certainly never to discuss with her daughter, who had been a toddler at the time. The family living next door to them in Mesa had accused Bert of fondling their youngest child, a cherubic, unwashed girl of four. Preposterous, said Bert, do I look like a child molester to you? She had to agree her husband appeared harmless, preparing a mash of banana, butter lettuce, and strawberries for his five desert tortoises, who waited in a patient clutch outside the kitchen door. He had recently trained the oldest female to "knock" at the door with her right front claw. Bert was a solidly benign soul, disinterested in sex, certainly uninterested in making love to her. Both families, accusing and accused, hired attorneys. There were out of court negotiations. Eventually, the father, fired from his janitorial job at a local two-star resort, packed up his seedy brood, and with a hefty check from the Wisdoms--hush money or extortion--depending on one's perspective, left town. The little girl, Jax, used to appear at their kitchen door every day, sweet and unkempt. Mrs. Wisdom gave her cookies and a glass of milk, seating her right beside two-year-old Berlinda. Jax liked to crawl on all fours alongside Bert's tortoises, tickle their hard, mottled shells, squat down to help feed them. Once, when she went missing, both families searching, Mrs. Wisdom found her in a far, neglected corner of their property, inside the first turtle hut Bert had built then discarded, fast asleep in the dirt, thumb in her red, pouty mouth. After the accusation, the little girl's visits stopped.
Mrs. Wisdom had taken her husband's side, never doubting Bert's version of things. Just look at them, he'd say, slovenly, illiterate types squeezing money out of some poor joker like me, by any tawdry means. By Christmas, the Slovens, as Bert bitterly took to calling them, had moved out, and the house was rented to an elderly Methodist couple who traveled a great deal and otherwise kept to themselves. The Wisdom's only brush with scandal, narrowly averted, was never discussed again.
Mrs. Wisdom looked forward to the afternoon drive to the county hospital with her daughter. She liked the ritual of buying their lattes, squinting up at the day's terrible news, taking an elevator to the second floor and following the maze-like path, familiar now, down the corridors of Labor and Delivery, a chaste sanctum, considering the dire situations most of these new mothers were probably in. Doors to patients' rooms stood open, and Mrs. Wisdom glanced in as they passed. Hispanic, East Indian, African, Caucasian--new mothers, all wearing shapeless, open-backed hospital gowns. One or two scuffed along the hall with iv poles, accompanied by a husband or boyfriend, discomfited, made shy, by his too-obvious part in things. Whenever a new baby was born, the opening phrase of Brahms's lullaby crackled over the intercom.
She and Berlinda walked past one door, always closed, a handwritten sign taped to it, each letter spiked, angry looking: No Men Here. Today, the sign was gone, the open door revealed an empty room, a flat, made-up bed, a woman's story gone elsewhere.
With Halloween two days away, nurses' stations and display boards in the dun, antiseptic smelling hallways were colorful with fangy Frankensteins, comma-shaped, grinning ghosts, haunted houses, bats, scarecrows, black cats with green, glowing eyes. Along the Formica ledges of the nurses' stations, plastic pumpkins brimmed with cheap candies. It was like elementary school, thought Mrs. Wisdom. Papered over melancholy.
At the NICU station, the desk nurse, Mary, wore purple scrubs covered in fat, flying ghosts and "Boo!" captions in white flowy letters. She looked exhausted, her dyed brunette hair clamped back with a purple comb, her glitter eye shadow smudged. She perked up when she saw Mrs. Wisdom and Berlinda, and joked about her own four children sneaking into the bags of candy she'd bought at Target, getting silly from too much sugar, NICU nurses worked twelve-hour shifts; many chose to specialize, Mrs. Wisdom learned, after having premature babies of their own. Most of them looked chronically tired, on the edge of self-neglect. Their responsibilities were terrifying--so many tenuous, barely-there bits of life. Mrs. Wisdom couldn't decide whether NICU nurses were angels or heroines. The first seemed too ethereal, the second overly historical; both were sentimental. She settled on fulfilled, a giving-to-the-last-drop syndrome. Her granddaughter, Willa Skye, was alive because of these women, but when did so much selflessness turn self-destructive? Bert used to complain that she over analyzed and she supposed she did, but why? To distract herself from what?
While Mrs. Wisdom circled this drain of thought, her daughter removed plastic tubes of breast milk, pumped at home, from a lime green, insulated carrying case. After labeling and bagging each tube with her last name and the day's date, Berlinda opened the oversized refrigerator. The entire top shelf was hers. Other shelves, belonging to mothers of other preemies, were crammed with tubes of milk in shades from pure white to butter. When Mrs. Wisdom asked, the primary nurse explained that the last drops of milk from a breastfeeding, much higher in fat content, were a rich yellow. Hind milk.
Every afternoon, stepping into the NICU, Mrs. Wisdom felt like an extra in a science fiction movie, onboard a spaceship nursery with nurse acolytes in service to a techno-deity. It was a temple of perpetual twilight, of perfect temperatures and pale, smart, soft voices. In garden-like rows, quilt covered incubators, or "giraffes," concealed premature infants, cosseted, nurtured, like tufted, limbed seeds. One or two babies were usually bawling--hot, earthy sounds of hunger, anger, raw complaint mixed with steady beepings from blood pressure, oxygen, and heart rate monitors, an occasional alarm alerting nurses to a preemie in distress. A pagan spirit of Halloween had stolen into this shadowy womb-world with its handmade quilts, preemie caps, and onesies in autumn patterns figured with ghosts, goblins, black cats. Near the end of the first row, Willa was tightly swaddled, a tiny cap knit to look like a piece of candy corn on her downy head.
In the "giraffe" next to Willa's, a boy named Jakar was barely surviving. Revived several times the night before, he was intubated, catheterized, hemmed in by machines. His mouth, no bigger than a grape, was held open with tiny clamps. Mrs. Wisdom lifted one corner of his Halloween quilt and peeked in, marveling at the lusty sprouting of black hair on his head. Such exuberant hair! No one ever came to visit him. In fact, Mrs. Wisdom and Berlinda rarely saw any visitors. Eventually, they learned that many of the mothers had small children at home and no car, no money for a sitter or public transportation. They met only two visitors besides themselves, a grandmother easily weighing three hundred pounds, elephantine, her bare, dirty feet slopping over grey rubber sandals, her breasts, beneath a flag-sized brown T-shirt, drooping to her stomach, flaccid, flat. To keep from staring, Mrs. Wisdom focused on the woman's daughter, on her persimmon bright cheeks, high, black wedge of hair and gummy smile aimed at nothing. Berlinda met Audrey at an early morning feeding, and learned she had five other children at home, including twin boys, all under the age of eight. The father had deserted them, she had no money for pain medication or bus fare. Another story, another person dropping, without a sound, between the cracks. Were the majority of miserable, eked-out lives too ordinary, too alike, to be newsworthy? One afternoon, Mrs. Wisdom watched Audrey cradling her baby, tenderness flooding her wide-as-the-sky, guileless face. Who are we, thought Mrs. Wisdom, to judge the sources of love?
Today, on the other side of Willa's "giraffe," a newborn cried unnervingly, a piercing wintry mew. Berlinda, overhearing the nurses talking that morning, shared with her mother that the baby's mother had come in the night before, high on heroin. Social Services had taken the baby, a girl, at birth, and that poor thing, Berlinda whispered, is in withdrawal, the same as any addict. Her cries, thin and anguished, wracked Mrs. Wisdom. Phoenix had become a major hub for heroin distribution by Mexican drug cartels, she had read that, and wondered what had happened to the mother. As she and Berlinda left the NICU, they passed a storage room, its door left open. From a clutter of supplies rose a pair of narrow metal lockers, one labeled Bereavement Clothes, the other Tiny Bereavement Clothes.
Coming home at dusk that evening, Mrs. Wisdom saw the orange sticker on her neighbor's front door, the jalousies sealed tight across his front windows, the black truck in its usual spot. A Rockwell girl pranced down the sidewalk in short white boots with tassels, twirling a silver baton, while on the lawn, the father swung his younger children in wide airplane circles. That night, Mrs. Wisdom picked at her dinner salad, and the Blue Bloods episode felt like a tired rerun, though she had never seen it before. Today's visit had depressed her, the heroin addicted baby girl, Jakar clinging to life. Before justice could be served, she dropped into a fitful sleep.
Oppressive, new thoughts nagged Mrs. Wisdom as she waited on the chilly sidewalk for Otto to finish. Why had she stayed married, as though it were an achievement, a goal, waiting until the default of death parted them? She hadn't been happy or fulfilled. She had not given to the last drop. What she had done, she feared, was to prize security and social duty over freedom. She considered getting dressed, taking a pre-dawn walk with Otto. At this hour, nature, so far as nature existed in an urban neighborhood--trees, shrubs, lawns, vines--presided over the mute blocks, lightless houses, over peoples' complicated, compromised, sleeping lives.
But she stood, going nowhere, in her bathrobe and slippers, a silk eye mask on top of her head, as three figures whirred past on bicycles, slowing to a stop in front of her neighbor's house. From the shadow of a palm tree, Mrs. Wisdom watched the boys--teenagers--pelt her neighbor's truck with eggs, windshield, rear, and side windows, a rapid succession of dull, wet thudding sounds. Hopping back on their bikes, they spun away laughing, hooting, weaving in loose formation down the empty street.
In the morning, Jesse Spain was outside with a garden hose, scrubbing at the windows of his truck with a large sea sponge. His dog, a white Maltese, sat watching on the lawn, snowy spume of tail bobbing. Peering between her kitchen curtains, Mrs. Wisdom watched her neighbor lean down to pet Lily, talk gently to her. She picked up the police flyer from her counter, stared from the mug shot to her neighbor. In new looking jeans and a clean white T-shirt, he was chipping and rinsing dried yolk, egg white, bits of shell from his windshield, glancing over his shoulder now and then to check on his dog or leaning down to stroke her head and ears.
At the dining room table, she typed the flyer's web address into her iPad's Google bar. When Berlinda telephoned an hour later, Mrs. Wisdom was still poring over the long list of registered sex offenders residing in Arizona. Fourteen thousand five hundred and ninety. Half-listening to Berlinda, she narrowed her search to twelve hundred and two offenders living in Phoenix. Crime levels, headshots, names, ages, height, hair and eye color, current addresses, area maps jammed with overlapping dots. A red dot for an offender's residence, blue for schools, green for day care centers and parks. Missing offenders were red labeled, "Absconded." She found Jesse Spain's address under "S," one number off from hers. Ending her chat with her daughter, Mrs. Wisdom stood and looked through her curtains. The black truck gleamed, wet; for the rest of the day, there was no sound from his side of the common wall, except for Lily, who barked once.
The "giraffe" was empty, Jakar's name and date of birth removed. Willa's nurse could not tell them what had happened, but her face conveyed the news. Mrs. Wisdom pictured Jakar laid out in tiny bereavement clothes, free of tubes and monitors, his sojourn on earth finished. Meanwhile, Willa Skye, swaddled and capped, sucked on her pacifier, while the newborn, abandoned but given a name, Luveen, wailed on, her pain congenital, undeserved.
At three pounds, Willa was packing on weight, surpassing the markers for development. The star of the NICU, her nurse smiled. With any luck, she'll be home by Thanksgiving.
In a chair beside Jakar's empty bed, Mrs. Wisdom was allowed to hold her granddaughter for the first time. Berlinda took photos and a short video with her phone. Mrs. Wisdom, who didn't like her picture taken, didn't care. This was her grandchild. Her first. In Willa's impossibly small veins ran the blood of Mrs. Wisdom's own parents, of her grandparents and great grandparents, of ancestors going back to some diminishing end point in time. Bert's and Stanley's bloodlines, too, to be fair, but today, Mrs. Wisdom deeply missed her parents, even her grandparents, dead over forty years now.
"You want to give her her bottle, Grandma?"
Startled by the name, Mrs. Wisdom looked up to see her daughter's face, bright with unguarded love.
"Oh, Bee, thank you. Next time. She needs you right now."
Snapping on Otto's leash, following him down the front steps to his favorite palm tree, it was only moments before she heard them. She managed to scoop up the dog and slip into shadow before the first shatter of glass. Clattering their bicycles to the curb, the boys aimed rocks at the front windows of his house. Pervert, one yelled. The others laughed. Emboldened, another screamed, Asshole, Baby Fucker! They peeled off on their bikes, vanishing around a corner.
Should she call 911? Hadn't she witnessed a crime? Otto, dead heavy in her arms, trembled. She carried him inside to think about what to do. Feeling as if her nerves, too, had been cut by glass, what she did was make a cup of chamomile tea, crawl into bed, and try to watch an episode about a sniper, a berserk environmentalist shooting people who drove gas-guzzling cars.
Sounds of someone sweeping broken glass woke her. Using an industrial push broom, her neighbor was collecting shards into a dustpan, dumping jagged pieces into their shared recycling bin. A glass and window repair van arrived as Mrs. Wisdom left to pick up Berlinda, before her landlord stopped by to inspect the boarded up windows and realized what a liability his new tenant was.
In the car, Berlinda, who was driving, complained about Stanley. The man is completely obsessed with Naked and Afraid. I could strangle him. He watches it all the fucking (sorry, Mom,) time. Mrs. Wisdom had watched a few minutes of the reality show at her son-in-law's house, but after a few minutes, had excused herself to help Berlinda hang a mobile in the baby's room. It was embarrassing to sit next to Stanley, watching a man and woman, naked as jaybirds, bickering in a jungle. As she stood up from the couch, Stanley had looked over from his club chair, an REI cap sideways on his head, and said with perfect composure, "I could do that."
"Do what, Stan?"
"Survive. I'd like to try that sometime."
She'd been dumbfounded, unable to picture her son-in-law naked, much less surviving in a tropical jungle. He'd be drowned in mud and bugs, evacuated on a stretcher, in less than twenty-four hours. Stanley was a nice young man, but he worked at a white-collar job in the county hospital, in communications. There were half-finished projects all over the house, a new ladder never used, a claw hammer lost in the weeds, a latch left unrepaired, a drill misplaced, bits snapped in half. What made him think he could machete his way into some hot, infested tangle, sleep in the rain with bats and baboons, placate a naked, weeping Eve? What was that about?
"I know I should be grateful he doesn't drink or chase women."
"Choose your battles, Bee. That's what I learned."
They drove past a child-sized Hispanic man wearing an oversized sombrero, then a man wearing nothing on his tall, skeletal frame but striped black and white pirate pants. Roosevelt Street was a row of shabby houses painted lime green, yellow, blue or lavender, candy colors, failed camouflage for the bleak look of poverty. Mrs. Wisdom had never been to Mexico, but she pictured Mexico as looking a lot like Roosevelt Street.
"They're bringing back an old remedy for people in poor countries."
"Say what?" Berlinda, leery of her mother's city driving, had taken over driving the car on their afternoon visits. Forgetting to signal, she turned into the Maternity Only parking section of the hospital.
"Maggot therapy. They tape a sachet of maggots, that's the word they used, 'sachet,' over a patient's infected wound. A few days later, the wound is cleaned out, the maggots fat."
"Smart, though. Maggots are cheap."
Mrs. Wisdom didn't know why she wasn't sharing what was really happening, that she was living next door to a registered sex offender, a gentle seeming man named Jesse Spain. Her new capacity for editing the news of her private life shocked her.
"Can we please change the maggot subject? What happened to that guy you went out with? The shrink."
Berlinda was referring to Mrs. Wisdom's two eHarmony outings with a psychotherapist who, minutes into their first date at an Italian restaurant, described himself as a "rock star in his field." After choosing their food, he'd leaned close, elbows on her placemat, examining her as if she were a specimen. Behind his bifocals, starred with dandruff, he reminded Mrs. Wisdom of a preying mantis. Wondering if she'd been over-harsh in her judgment, she agreed to go on a second date, this time to a Lebanese restaurant. It was his birthday, so he brought two unwrapped gifts and casually flung them at her, one of his twenty-six self-published paperback books plus a deck of cards he'd designed called "Masters of Psychotherapy," sixty-four caricatures of the great pioneers of psychotherapy, one being himself. They work for bridge, rummy, canasta, poker, solitaire, he'd declared, then invited her paragliding. I'm afraid of heights. Fixing his mantis eye on her, she'd felt it, the sticky label: acrophobic. When she added that she preferred earth to air and was joining a gym, he said he had a home gym and exercised one hour before sunrise while listening to the Great Courses. He retained facts best, he said, when his heartbeat rose to 164 beats a minute. After that he launched into a physics lecture on quarks, black holes, antimatter, dark energy. By the time he got to "oscillating universe," Mrs. Wisdom had fallen asleep over their shared fig and Spanish cheese plate.
On Halloween, Mrs. Wisdom waited next to the lobby elevators while Berlinda used a nearby restroom. A tall, avian looking African woman flew out a set of open doors, followed by a short, very fat man in a black silk shirt with illegible sayings all over it, a stack of gold chains around his neck. Because of the practiced, bored way the woman reached back to grasp his heavily beringed hand, Mrs. Wisdom knew they were married, and she most definitely wore the family pants. She and Berlinda shared the elevator ride up with a three-generation Hispanic family bursting with pink Mylar "It's a Girl!" balloons, a bouquet of dyed pink daisies, an oversized pink plush unicorn with a golden horn. Grandmother, grandfather, father, and four little girls, Mrs. Wisdom guessed, going to visit the mother and new baby sister. The day before, she and Berlinda had ascended to Labor and Delivery with three gangbangers. Mrs. Wisdom was convinced of that, though Berlinda said she was profiling. The three young men, boys really, had close-shaven heads, arm and neck tattoos, silver chains and low slung pants that called attention to their skinny, vulnerable rumps. They scowled out of the elevator and swaggered into Labor and Delivery ahead of Mrs. Wisdom, who wondered which of them was the father. Every social ill she had read about, seen discussed on the news, seemed to find its way into this hospital, and Mrs. Wisdom felt curious about the people she saw here each day. She felt pity for their struggles, yet invigorated, too, as if by proximity she were on the verge of some path of action leading to a new self. Berlinda, as conservative as her father, Bert, after whom she had been named, had become more so after marrying Stanley, a civic-minded Republican, so Mrs. Wisdom didn't feel comfortable sharing her curiosities, her compassionate if vague thoughts, with her daughter. In her worst moments, she suspected Berlinda of watching her like a hawk for early signs of infirmity or dementia, of waiting for her to get old. Berlinda was already driving for her, at least when they came to the hospital. She knew that Berlinda's taking the wheel was out of love and protectiveness, plus Mrs. Wisdom had never enjoyed driving the way some people did, but she also knew that when the time came, Berlinda would not hesitate to take away her keys, or worse, sign her straightaway into some phony "Home." She found herself taking care not to appear odd or overly enthusiastic, not to express new opinions, unusual thoughts, or be careless about her appearance. Her daughter's quiet scrutiny was almost as vexing as having lived with Bert's indifference.
No trick or treaters. Not one. Berlinda, whose favorite holiday was Halloween, crossed the lawn twice, scanning up and down the empty sidewalk, while Stanley, watching Naked and Afiaid, reassured his wife and mother-in-law from his club chair that the little monsters would show up after 7. I grew up here, he added, kids have to finish their dinners first.
Stanley proved oracular. Just past 7 P.M., children began streaming across the lawn, parents hanging back on the sidewalk, or in the case of the littlest ones, standing close behind, prompting "Trick or Treat!" and "Thank you." Scattering handfuls of candies into grocery bags, plastic buckets, pillowcases, Berlinda knowledgeably complimented each Darth Vader, zombie, Ninja, Ninja turtle and Gamora, Guardian of the Galaxy on his or her scary costume. Mrs. Wisdom, holding her own bowl of candy, was at sea. The only princess she could identify had a rubber knife sticking out of her flat little chest, fake blood running down her pink gown, greasepaint blacking her eyes, and a sour, spoilt expression. Where had all the ballerinas, Cinderellas, hoboes, swashbuckling pirates, sheeted ghosts, even the Barbies and aliens, gone? These WalMart, Made in China costumes were cheap violence, plastic carnage, gore. She kept quiet, not voicing her concern about where the world was headed, aware it would make her sound outdated, harking back like an old fogey.
By 9 P.M., the stream of children had dried up, and Berlinda gave away the last of her candy to a trio of fake-moaning mummies in wheelchairs. Mrs. Wisdom washed the dinner dishes, silently criticizing Stanley, who had not budged from his chair. What era did he think he was in, Ozzie and Harriet? Bert, at least, had always helped with chores. She leashed Otto, kissed her daughter, pecked Stanley, patted their two dogs good-bye. She had enjoyed the evening, was glad she hadn't said anything about toxic, gory costumes, about childhoods robbed of innocence, how in her day, Berlinda's homemade Snow White costume, etc. Whether she liked it or not, she was being towed by her granddaughter into a new era.
"Careful driving, Mom. Lots of people still out, especially older kids. Text when you get home."
With Otto posed like a ship's figurehead on her lap, she maneuvered her car past roving packs of older children and teenagers, all wearing black. The mood had changed to something other than gorging on candies and staying up past one's bedtime.
On her street, several houses twinkled with strings of orange lights. Shaking ghouls and plain sheet ghosts dangled from tree branches, Styrofoam tombstones sprang like grey teeth from winter grass lawns. One house stood dark except for an inflatable dancing skeleton. Under a yellow porch light, the Rockwells sat with another couple in Adirondack chairs, while a lively mob of children, some in capes, one wielding a toy sword, its blade lit up, streaked around on the lawn, screeching their heads off.
Jesse Spain's house was completely dark, the truck in its near-permanent spot. As she dug down in her purse for her house key, she thought of Willa Skye, swaddled in her plastic giraffe, wearing her tiny candy corn cap. She thought of Bert, underground, rotted to the bone.
Up to now, Mrs. Wisdom had only heard fake, television gunshots, so when three sharp, firecracker-like pops awakened her, she first thought she was dreaming, then wondered, illogically, if she had been shot, then heard a yelping so close by and terrible, the hair on her neck stood up. Burrowed under the covers, Otto snored, oblivious.
She got up, checked the oven light--3:35 A.M., shoved apart the kitchen curtains. Backlit by a streetlight, Jesse Spain was kneeling on his lawn. Like a shepherd, thought Mrs. Wisdom.
Knotting the sash on her robe, she hurried outside.
A spreading pool of blood blackened Lily's side, the snowy fur. The dog was gone, an eerie, vacant nimbus around her body. Without hesitation, Mrs. Wisdom crouched down, placed a hand on her neighbor's shoulder.
"How horrible. Is there anything I can do?"
In crime dramas, policemen always said, "Sorry for your loss." How stupid.
"Please. What can I do?"
Stroking the dog's head, he shook his head. When he did look at her, crying, she averted her eyes.
"She was all I had."
As if the dog might still be saved, he lifted Lily, carried her in his arms up the steps inside his house and shut the door.
The orange sticker, she noticed, was gone.
Shortly after moving into her bungalow, Mrs. Wisdom called an exorcist, a woman with dyed black hair and jeweled slippers, who'd showed up with her "ghostbusting kit"--holy water, yellow sulfur, holy thistle, a wand of white selenite, a dozen St. Benedict medals. Making a paste from the sulphur, holy water, and thistle, the exorcist used her thumb to mark small crosses on every window and on both sides of every door. Singing off-key in what sounded like Latin, she placed a St. Benedict medal on the narrow ledge above every door, fastened a medal on Otto's collar. Obeying instructions, Mrs. Wisdom sprinkled sea salt in every corner of the house. Because it was an old house, each of the five rooms, the exorcist said, was crowded with spirits, discarnate entities who were stuck. There was a sailor, saluting in a corner of the living room, and a woman, a recluse with long auburn hair whose name started with an "E," who had died in the house, who kept wandering up and down the hall, sobbing because she didn't want to leave. The exorcist told "E" to grab a light and go, leave the house, go to any hospital, mortuary, or cemetery, walk into the light. She told all the spirits that. In Mrs. Wisdom's back room, made into a modest library with a desk and reading chair, the exorcist located two portals along the common wall, the wall she shared with her neighbor, and sealed them. The house felt brighter to Mrs. Wisdom, cleaner, after the exorcist finished her work and left, though she wished she'd asked what a portal was, instead of just imagining two port holes of a cruise ship opening into her neighbor's house. She felt a lingering guilt because when she'd asked where the spirits went after leaving, the exorcist answered that a lot of times they just went to some other house in the neighborhood and took up residence there.
On Thanksgiving Day, Berlinda was in her kitchen adding minced garlic and heavy cream to the mashed potatoes, using Mrs. Wisdom's recipe, which had been her own mother's recipe, and so on. Stanley, wearing Berlinda's ruffled apron over his camp shorts, was out near his Tuff Shed, barbequing the turkey, his family's tradition. Berlinda wore Willa, home five days, in a Baby Bjorn sling on her chest. Mrs. Wisdom, at the half-set table, her job, sipped from a balloon glass of red wine.
"Scientists have just created the first transparent mouse."
A new mother, Berlinda was chary, easily alarmed.
"If they can see what's going on inside of a mouse, and eventually, inside of us, they can determine the causes of disease. First, transparent organs, then transparent humans, picture that, Bee."
Stanley walked untransparently in from the yard, bearing his plattered turkey. All three dogs had knit themselves around his legs, while on TV in the living room, another Eve, naked and afraid, wits lost, hysterical, screamed to be cuddled. Suddenly, Mrs. Wisdom missed Bert's dull habits.
"What's wrong, Mom?"
"Nothing, just the holiday. So much to be grateful for." She couldn't say that after that flash of nostalgia for Bert, she was thinking about Jesse Spain. Less than a week after his dog had been shot, he had moved out, driven away in his truck with his few belongings. Fixing up the place a little more, the landlord asked Mrs. Wisdom if she might like it, for the fenced yard. No, she said. We're good here.
And she was. She'd pretty much given up her police dramas and begun re-reading the Victorian novels she'd loved in college. All these years she'd held onto Bronte, Trollope, Thackeray, Dickens. Curled on her taupe loveseat, sipping tea, Mrs. Wisdom found their ornately plotted, familiar histories a respite from ordinary time, and memory.
Less than two years ago, packing up Bert's things for Goodwill, she'd discovered, in the jumbled back of his closet, a shaving kit she'd given him for Christmas. Inside, she'd found worn photos of Jax, a tiny pair of teddy bear print panties, soiled stiff with something whitish, opaque. No proof or measure of crime, only suspicion. No closure, only a permanent scar of doubt cast over her long naive life as Mrs. Wisdom.
It would be early spring, their first outing to a nearby park. Mrs. Wisdom broached her fear indirectly, while walking Otto on his new plaid leash. Berlinda pushed the stroller, with Willa, propped up and wearing a white knit bunny cap with pink satin ears. Mrs. Wisdom related the story of her neighbor, Jesse Spain, who had briefly lived next door to her. When Berlinda's response, beyond a shallow noise of disgust, seemed to point to nothing, to hint at no old, monstrous wound, her relief was enormous yet short-lived, as a mother's relief often is.
Seated at the head of the candlelit table, Mrs. Wisdom began diplomatically, first praising Stanley's barbequed turkey, then Berlinda's cooking. Next she expressed gratitude for her daughter's recovery, for the care mothers and children received at the county hospital where Stanley worked. There was that too, gratitude for Stanley's job when so many were unemployed. Getting in deep, she paused to think of the suffering going on in that good hospital, while they gathered here, nourished and loved. For her daughter's sake, she mentioned Bert, the memory of Bert, saving her fullest gratitude for the miracle of Willa Skye, who, after they'd eaten, endured a silly, hand-knit turkey hat on her head long enough for one snapshot before howling for her mother's sweet, copious milk, fore and hind, for the benison of life given her, terrifying and unasked.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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