|Jan/Feb 2016 Fiction|
Artwork by Karen Fox Tarlton
When I was 13, I started collecting facts and figures. Like C.P. Scott, who made "facts are sacred" the catchphrase of his newspaper, I felt a reverence for them. I'd sit on the floor of my little sisters' bedroom, cutting clippings from yesterday's newspapers and last month's magazines, gluing them into spiral-bound notebooks I still have to this day, over a quarter century later. One in every four million lobsters is born with a genetic defect that turns it blue. A square inch of human skin has 32 million bacteria on it. Premature babies who are massaged three times a day gain weight nearly twice as fast. The 50-star American flag was designed by a high school student for a class project.
Jacques Ellul said a slavish devotion to facts is a hallmark of our age. I don't mind admitting it's a hallmark of Kristen Denning. Not that I took more than one statistics class in college, or that I'm particularly logical or scientifically-minded myself. On the contrary. I majored in history, so I have some understanding of the pandemonium unleashed by the human race these last 3,000 years or so. But facts give us something to hold onto in this shifting and chaotic world.
These days the Internet facilitates my appreciation for facts. At any given moment, I'm just a click away from the entire accumulated knowledge of the English-speaking world. There's no question that somebody, somewhere, hasn't already asked and answered. When it was time to start Ellen on solid food, or to teach her to read, or when the TV pundits said we were all going to die of swine flu or Ebola, I found these facts and numbers very reassuring. I have many such examples.
Unfortunately, facts do occasionally fail me. I know, for example, the likelihood of my dying in a plane crash is about one in 11 million, but I still can't fly. As soon as I buckle myself into the seat of the plane and the engines start to whir and click, I fall to pieces. My heart beats so quickly and lightly, I can't feel the individual beats. I keep sneaking my hand up to my chest, trying to see if I can make them out, but I never can. I stay like this, light-headed and sweaty and nauseous, my heart rushing my blood through me, until my feet are back on the ground. If I were religious, I might pray; if I were a drinker, I might get plastered. But I'm neither, so I just suffer through it.
This has come to the fore because Gracie asked me to go with her to Saint Augustine for a convention in May. Her idea is I could hang out at the beach while she does whatever she has to do, then we'd have the evenings together. She also wants to visit a shrine to the Virgin Mary. After spending four years and a small fortune on fertility treatments, I guess Gracie's up for anything at this point. Only I can't fly, so I've told her I probably won't be going. She hasn't given up, though. Talking people into stuff is Gracie's strong suit. Which is why she's such a great real estate agent.
Ellen also wants me to go to Florida. She's ten and is a model of Zen Buddhism like her father, exuding peace and tranquility. Which is partly why I stopped after one child—because she turned out exactly like I'd hoped: not like me. It's exhausting being me. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. My fear of a pulmonary embolism seemed like another good reason not to have any more children, even though my husband and my daughter both want additions to the family. I was convinced I'd die in labor with Ellen, and when I didn't, I figured I'd dodged a bullet and should quit while I was ahead.
When she heard about Gracie's offer, Ellen jumped up and down like a cheerleader, shouting, "Go, Mom! Go to the beach!" This Mom thing is new; I was always Mommy before this year, and I think I'd rather stay Mommy, but I'm trying to resign myself to it. Cindy, my therapist, is big on letting Ellen take the initiative on stuff like that. She wants me to kick Ellen out of my bed, too, but I haven't, not yet. If Ellen needs me, I want to be there. That's part of why we homeschool. My point is, I take her to ballet and violin and, occasionally, play dates—I'm usually close by, but she has her space. Cindy's point is, not only Ellen's autonomy but also my intimacy with Cal is compromised by having Ellen in the bed with me and Cal in the guest room. But there wasn't too much of that anyway.
Not that there's anything wrong with my husband. On the contrary. He's kind, decent, and rock solid. I don't doubt he'd go to church if it weren't for me. He really believes in all that and has a kind of integrity I wouldn't have thought existed before I met him. And Cal's successful, too. He and his brother Jason do a booming business at their feed and seed store, and he manages our farm with machines and a couple of hired hands, gentleman farmer-style. We're comfortable. I don't work. Maybe he prefers NASCAR to novels and four-wheelers to foreign films, but he's as good and straightforward as the rain. Any problem we have, it isn't Cal.
But we were talking about Cindy. She wants me to go to Florida, too. Her take on it is, I'd be proving something to myself if I got on that plane and made it out alive, or even, somehow, had fun. But, like I've said before, I can't fly. No amount of working on by Gracie or Cindy or Cal or even Ellen can change that.
Part of the reason Ellen's so keen on my going is we've been studying marine animals for this period's science unit, and she's gotten all into them. She even says she wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up, which is kind of funny given how land-locked we are here in Missouri. She wants me to go to the beach and the aquarium and bring her back all kinds of photos and souvenirs, or probably even a marine animal itself if I could smuggle one back. Besides that, if I went to Florida, Ellen would get to spend five days with Katie and her schnauzers, Rufus and Lucretia. It's because of my sister the Classics professor that Ellen could count to 20 in Latin before she could in English. She always comes home with new Latin phrases after she spends the night with her Aunt Katie. The last time it was abundans cautela non nocet, which means "you can never be too careful." I think Katie may have taught her that one sarcastically, for my benefit, since she believes I am a little too careful. Anyway I'm thinking of having it engraved on something.
Katie's actually my half-sister. She's ten years younger than I am, and much hipper, with a house near the university, Lenore Chinn prints above the sofa, and a Prius. She has a bust of the emperor Titus in the guest room, under whose dimpled chin and enigmatic smile my daughter sleeps when she stays over. Ellen kisses it before she goes to bed. And Katie's partner Gwendolyn is director of the art and archaeology museum on the campus. Ellen thinks the two of them are cooler than rubber band bracelets and any boy band on the planet.
I know she's my child and everything, but I really can't talk about Ellen without pointing out how intelligent she is, and not only because she's homeschooled (though studies do show homeschooled kids outperform other kids on measures of achievement); she was just born brilliant. She's been writing screenplays since she was six and has three finished novels. Granted, short novels, okay, she is a child, but she says her next book is going to be longer than Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. She looks the part, too, her little aqua-framed glasses perched on her nose, eyes all squinched up, thinking up plot twists and cliffhanger endings. She's a smaller version of me, with a touch of Cal—a very faint touch of Cal, like a single drop of food coloring in a glass full of water: something around the mouth. But she has my pale reddish hair, my green eyes with the same short, no-nonsense eyelashes (her father has implausibly long lashes, a total waste on a man like Cal), and my slight build. We're both a standard deviation or so underweight.
I get asked all the time, "Kristen, how do you stay so thin?" It's true I've been a vegetarian forever, but I think it's mostly just nervous energy that keeps me so skinny. I'm like the fish in Ellen's fishbowl. You can flip the lights on at any hour and there he (she?) is, going round and round, never stopping. I do sleep, of course... but neither as much nor as well as I should. If I were a pill-taker, I'd be an addict, but, given that 2,500 deaths result every week from properly prescribed, properly used, FDA-appproved drugs, I figure medication is the last thing I need. I won't take so much as an aspirin unless I'm at death's door. So, again, I suffer through it instead. I've finished many a novel in the wee hours, though, and my oven is always clean, so that's something.
In the end I tell Gracie I'll think about it, and I do think about it, though not in the way she probably wants me to. That is, I think about how I've never been away from Ellen for so long before, and how Katie might let her eat something I wouldn't. (Even though she has my do and don't list on her fridge; I know because I always check to make sure it's still there.) Then I start to think about that moment just before take-off, when the plane is going so fast there's no turning back, you can't stop now even if you need to because the runway's too short, there's no space to slow back down, no escape—and before long I've talked myself out of it again, if I ever began to entertain the possibility in the first place.
By the age of 18, the average American has witnessed some 200,000 acts of violence on television. We see these acts from the innocuous settings of our living rooms, our bedrooms, our family rooms and dens. We watch them as we eat, drink, talk on the phone, and make grocery lists. Katie likes to say the most brutal spectacles of the Roman Colosseum don't begin to compare to the bloodlust of the modern American. Perhaps it's no accident the United States has spent, statistically, 90% of its existence engaged in armed conflicts somewhere.
Much of our violence is perpetrated here at home; someone is killed with a gun in this country every 16 minutes. Before last week, the deadliest mass shooting in American history took place on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. A single gunman, a 23-year-old student, killed 32 people and wounded 17 more before turning the gun on himself. The gun in question, one of two that he used, was a Glock 19 pistol, the same gun employed again eight days ago by Lucas Scott Morrison when he surpassed the existing record with a 34-victim mass shooting. That is, 34 dead victims. That's where they get the rankings for deadliest shootings, from the dead. They don't count the maimed, the paralyzed, the orphaned, the childless, the gruesomely deformed, or the traumatized.
In this case, the number doesn't count me.
You probably already know the details of the shooting from the 24-hour news networks, which have summarized, analyzed, scrutinized, and politicized the incident from every possible angle. You may even have heard my name. Our local paper ran a short piece about me—short because I declined to be interviewed—entitled "The Woman Who Lived," a hokey allusion to Harry Potter that Ellen nevertheless got a kick out of. Anyway, in the interest of not boring you or repeating what you already know, I'll begin in medias res.
It was Saturday, March 25th, and I'd seen Ellen safely installed at the barre at Miss Betsy's Academy of Dance before making the ten-minute drive downtown. I was standing a few feet from the front entrance of the Ezekiel Vision Center, alone but for a few bespectacled models looking on coyly from their cardboard displays. The lady attending me (a middle-aged grandmother of four named Janice Thrubridge, I later learned) had just excused herself to the optometrist's office in the back to ask a question when Scott Lucas Morrison—Luke—burst through the door and stood about seven feet from me. My purse was on the counter before the mirror where I'd been trying on glasses frames, but I knew this wasn't a robbery. There was a long pause during which nothing happened. I stood looking at him, the glasses I'd just tried on dangling limply from my right hand, mouth open, struggling to make out what the hell was going on. I'd never faced a deranged gunman before.
It didn't help that Luke didn't resemble any conception I had of a deranged gunman. He was wearing a light blue t-shirt with a brown logo over his heart—not body armor, not a trenchcoat—and a pair of jeans. Except for the weapon in his hand, he looked completely normal. He might have been one of Katie's undergrads just come from class with his backpack slung over his shoulder. He might have been our little brother, all of us with the same gray-green eyes and gingery hair, which in his case fell in loose curls over his forehead. The afternoon sunlight—it was a little after three o'clock—illuminated his face, and I could see the fine, red-blond stubble on his cheeks. He had a handsome, sensitive face, not unlike that of the angel in Paolo de Matteis' painting of the Annunciation.
Luke had already killed 33 people and wounded 11 others before he opened the door to the optometrist's shop that afternoon, but there was no commotion to alert me of his approach. Part of it was he used a silencer, but that's also how automatic and semi-automatic weapons work—so fast there isn't time to do anything. Luke had fired into the crowd in line outside the Regal Columbia movie theater next door, and now he stood looking me in the eyes, breathing heavily but otherwise immobile.
Then the moment ended, and two things happened almost simultaneously. There was a movement to my right as Mrs. Thrubridge returned and Luke opened fire in her direction. A rain of glass and sparks—eyeglasses, mirrors, display cases, lights—fell in a dazzling array. I felt completely calm and clear-headed as this happened. It was as though I were watching from a distance or in a dream, with a vague but definite certainty nothing would happen to me. Then the glass storefront shattered. When I lowered my arms, which I'd thrown up instinctively to shield my face, Luke lay before me face down, splayed, the blood spreading out in a Rorschach pattern across his baby blue shirt. My last view, after they'd covered his body with a dark shroud, was of his protruding white high-top sneakers. They were like those stiff baby shoes mothers of a different generation used to have bronzed.
There's been a lot of discussion in the media as to why Luke did it. He'd been diagnosed with ADHD as a child; he played a lot of video games; he was painfully shy. But there was no history either of violence or mental illness, leaving most of those giving their opinions to conclude he suffered only from the usual angst of early adulthood—girl troubles, difficulty focusing on his studies, uncertainty about the future. Unlike many mass shooters, Luke left no manifesto, posted no threats or explanations on social media, filmed no videos... he didn't even write a goodbye letter. The only person who knows why he did it has been laid in his ignominious grave, and the rest of us will never have an answer to the question why?
But, for at least one person involved, the question is not why Luke did it; the question is why he didn't.
When they finished questioning me, and having refused an ambulance—an EMT looked me over and declared me free to go—I stepped gingerly through the metal outline of the storefront, glass crunching under my shoes. The optometrist, ashen-faced, gave me a nod of recognition as I passed him, but neither of us spoke. When I was beyond the crowd of police officers, reporters, and onlookers, I took my cellphone from my purse and called Katie to ask if she could pick Ellen up from ballet. "I've been held up at the eye doctor."
Then I walked away. Not toward my car, which was parked just beyond the yellow police tape, but the opposite way, further into downtown Columbia. The late afternoon sun glinted blindingly off the windshields of cars parked along the street. There was some event going on in Freedom Park; I could hear the zesty tempo of a patriotic-sounding military march, but it wasn't a song I recognized.
My parents' relationship was a fling meant to last a few weeks, but which reconvened when my mother discovered she was pregnant with me. The two of them played house for a year or so before my father moved back to California and became little more than a name on a Christmas card each December. I used to hole up in my bedroom and study the handwriting on these cards, as though it might provide some clue about the respository of the other 50 percent of my genetic material. One year he failed to include the customary exclamation mark after Merry Christmas, and I agonized over the idea he was angry or disappointed. Later he wrote he'd gotten married. I wondered if his new wife was anything like my mother and what he'd told her about me. But these were questions I couldn't ask. Our telephone conversations were short, stilted, and infrequent. They were conversations between strangers.
When I was 13 and went to live with my father, I found him to be ugly and boring, nothing like the man I'd spent so many years imagining. I thought it was no wonder my mother hadn't kept a single photograph of him. His neck didn't fill up his shirt collars, and when he spoke, his Adam's apple bobbed in a way that brought to mind the expression, a frog in the throat. His eyes were too small behind his glasses, as though he'd once gotten a look at something horrifying that had stunted their growth forever afterward. He was the night supervisor in a factory that made frozen dinners, which meant we had to be silent all day while he slept, and also that TV dinners were the standard fare at most of our meals.
My stepmother, Mau, wasn't of the wicked variety, though I don't doubt it was galling to have me thrust upon her the way I was. She was a pale, silent woman from Cambodia with a great tiredness about her. Had she spoken more English, or had I been more receptive to her, perhaps—for she was never unkind—we might have become friends. But we didn't. She spoke Khmer with her two daughters, twins named Chanlina and Chantrea. The girls were a few months old when I arrived, and they hadn't yet begun school when I left, so I never had a chance even to help them with their homework. To say I was superfluous to their little ménage, in a box-like, two-bedroom duplex in which the kitchen table had four place settings, is a bit like pointing out the sky is blue.
Such were my teenage years: an endless variety of TV dinner trays from which I raked hunks of unidentifable meat in gelatinous sauces and gravies into the garbage, a sleeping father, the scrubby yard whose grass always seemed to be yellowed, the humming tones of a language I couldn't understand. I took solace in my fact notebooks and the monthly letters I received from Bill and later Katie. I attended college on a scholarship, then moved back to Missouri. Bill had married by then, and Katie had a little brother, Tory. I got a job teaching history in the high school I would have attended if I'd lived in Columbia during those years. My father went back to being mostly just a name on a Christmas card, a more satisfying arrangement for everyone involved.
But I'm stalling. The truth is I'm dragging out my father so as not to have to come, inexorably, to my mother. Because when it comes to my mother, words fail me. Maybe this is why after her death I began to collect words, statements, facts, realities. Because I had none of my own. In that way I was a lot like her.
It was the statue that turned my thoughts to my mother on the afternoon of the shooting: the statue of Columbia, patron goddess of my city and my nation. In our local rendition, she's full-hipped and buxom, as much sex symbol as Greek ideal, and all-American, the shield in one hand emblazoned with stars and stripes, and the word LIBERTY running the length of the sword in the other. If she'd been designed more recently, she'd be dressed in black leather and packing heat, like Angelina Jolie in an action movie. Her tunic defies gravity—there's no reason why it should bunch up around and between her breasts but stretch taut across them, or should gather to a suggestive V between her legs but hang loose at the hem. Her hair spreads out voluptuously around her shoulders, and she looks over her eponymous city with a smoldering gaze that seems to ask in sardonic double entendre, "You wanna piece of me?"
This goddess, though, Columbia... well, she's a fake. Faux Greek, with a made-up name that derives from our founder, the conqueror and slave-maker who brought civilization to these lands. My mother, my personal patron goddess, was nothing like Columbia. Until Uncle Jack pressed one of his many weapons upon her, "just in case," "for self-protection," and "since there's no man on the premises," I doubt she'd ever fired a gun. My mother didn't go in for violence. She was weak. She wasn't grounded. And there was nothing to weight her down. The usual stuff—a job, a husband, children—didn't seem to work for her. For one thing, she didn't marry. She wouldn't marry, didn't believe in it. Jobs came and went but were never worth caring about. The only good job she'd ever had, doing music therapy with the developmentally disabled in a state institution, ended when the other party took over the legislature and cut funding for all "non-essentials." My mother was non-essential.
With me she tried. I remember a homemade birthday cake one year with an icing unicorn drawn in a quavery hand. She sang songs and told elaborate, fantastical stories I lost interest in long before they ended. She let me draw on the tablecloth. Even my mother's flaws were endearing: the stack of dishes that piled up in the sink while she worked on a song for three days, the eviction for keeping stray dogs in an apartment where pets weren't permitted. She was impractical, improvident. She once bought an elaborate system of tubes and tunnels that ran the length of our living room for a hamster who died the following week. Another time she spent 300 dollars on handcrafted Cape Cod windchimes because she loved their sound. She packed school lunches from whatever she came across first in the kitchen: a plastic container full of the same oatmeal we'd eaten at breakfast, three Granny Smith apples and a box of raisins, a can of Spaghetti-Os for which she forgot to send a can opener. The teachers noticed. They frowned or raised their eyebrows according to their dispositions.
Meanwhile, the doctors prescribed her more, and different, medicines. My mother collected medicines. She dutifully lined them up in rows on the kitchen counter where other moms put flour and sugar. She kept them close—in her purse, in her coat pocket, near sources of water. But the pharaceutical miracles she was prescribed failed my mother. They couldn't make her like everyone else. Over time these medicines became my particular enemy. One made my mother's tongue thick and her speech slow. Another gave her nightmares from which she'd awaken, sweaty and disoriented, clinging to me as though I were the mother and she the child. Once I found her in the coat closet, knees pulled up to her chin, eyes shut tight, convinced she was being stalked by a demon. Then came the "suicide attempt." But I knew better.
After that, my mother met Bill, and things got better. Bill was smart, a philosophy professor. His eyes crinkled up when he smiled, which was often. My mother made baked spaghetti and lentil soup and broccoli casserole and cupcakes, which we ate on round placemats that looked like the inside of a watermelon. She wore clothes instead of a housecoat, and her face filled out. Before long Katie came along.
Later, after we were reunited, my sister used to bug me for details about our mother, trying to supplant her own lack of memories. Any little detail pleased her: the faux wooden hairclips my mother used; the quilt we slept under; the way we squirted Dynamite, our cat, with a spray bottle when he jumped onto the kitchen counter.
"Tell me about the bubbles."
"I've told you that one about a million times. You always want the bubbles."
"That's my favorite one. Come oooooon." This was the game we played, her wheedling, me holding out, both knowing I'd tell her whatever she wanted in the end. I loved talking about our mother as much as she loved hearing about her.
"It was a fall day," I intoned in the storytelling voice I was just beginning to hone with my students, "one of those hazy, golden days when the sunlight filters down through the trees so thick it looks like you could reach out and scoop up a handful of it. We were living—"
"Wait! The leaves."
"Ah... the leaves had all changed colors, red, orange, purple, yellow, gold. Some were speckled. A few were still green, and a few others—not many—had already turned brown and were starting to curl up and get crumply."
Katie nodded, gratified to have the leaves so thoroughly accounted for.
"We were living in a little apartment off Novo Avenue at the time, on the second floor—the top floor—of a brick building. There was a giant magnolia tree, and in the springtime the whole front lawn smelled lemony, like yellow dishwashing soap. But that day there were no flowers, just bright yellow leaves. The sun coming through made everything dappled down below, where we were. I had a plastic bottle of bubbles with a string around it, the kind that used to cost 50 cents at the gas station. The string was so you could wear the bottle around your neck and not spill it.
"I was blowing bubbles, and my—our—mother would do this balancing act where she caught them on her hand, or her arm or elbow. The best one was when she'd slide limbo-style underneath where the bubble was floating down and get it to land on her nose. Nine times out of ten it would pop the second it hit her nose, and I'd giggle like crazy while she made a big production of wiping her face. But a few times she actually pulled it off. The bubble would rest there for an instant, poised on the edge of her nose, and I'd hold my breath, willing it not to pop, knowing it was going to."
Katie closed her eyes tightly and shook her head back and forth sadly. "Why do they always have to pop?"
One year, a few Christmases ago, after a stupefying dinner and too many glasses of wine, my sister and I sat up by the fire. Cal and Ellen had gone to bed hours before, and Gwendolyn sat dozing, mouth slightly ajar, in an easy chair.
Katie suddenly turned to me. "Kristen, why do you think she did it?"
I didn't have to ask who, or what.
"I think she was tired," was all I said.
My mother's father, Howard Danforth, died when I was eight. He was a military man, whose silvery hair still stood up to attention in a buzz cut half a lifetime later. A stroke had left him with a type of aphasia that limited his speech to a single phrase: God damn it. Why my grandfather's brain picked out those three particular words is a fascinating question. The doctors claimed his thought process was unhindered—and this seemed borne out by his nodding or shaking his head in response to questions—but he never walked or spoke normally again. He spent the last six years of his life stretched out supine, damning indiscriminately on God's behalf.
My grandmother was a plump little woman who followed him to the grave three months—almost to the day—after he died. I remember her embarrassment, her nervous laughter, when we visited, though at the moment I can't come up with her name. Then there were my uncles, Jack and Ralph. They were men of business, the pair of them tall and straight-backed and important, with wives who looked like they'd stepped out of ladies' magazines and—fortunately, I thought—boys, no daughters. I watched them all sidelong and chewed my hair. They didn't approve of us.
My mother had spent her life disappointing them, beginning with her conception, which was unplanned and happened when my uncles were already 19 and 20 years old. In childhood my mother harbored the conviction she was a foundling from another world who'd been implanted into her mother's womb, a speculation which so horrified my grandmother when she read it in my mother's diary that she had every fantasy fiction book in the house boxed up and taken away. When my mother reached college age, she studied performing arts at Sarah Lawrence. She played in a postmodern band called Masque of Anarchy, after the poem by Shelley. But, though her violin was ethereal, my mother's social interactions were awkward. Her timing was off. She'd start three sentences, then not finish any of them, and she had trouble keeping to a single subject. It was during college that my mother became a vegetarian. There was some talk among the family of a possible eating disorder.
One Saturday morning, I was listening to an interview on N.P.R. when the singer picked up her guitar and began a song my mother used to sing to me as a child:
There is a ship, she sails the sea.
She's laden deep, as deep can be,
but not as deep as the love I'm in.
I know not whether I'll sink or swim...
I locked myself in the bathroom and stayed there until Ellen, who was four, slid a paper under the door with the words, in crayon: "Momy, com bak." I still have the paper.
Cindy asked me once if I was angry with my mother. I'm not angry. Her last act but one was to save me. She put me on a plane to California, to a man I didn't know, to keep me away from my uncles. I've never eaten meat, not even a taste, in my mother's honor. I named Ellen after her.
When my daughter was young and I held her tight to me, breathing in the scent of her hair, not letting her go, she'd fidget and roll her eyes, or she'd sigh dramatically, long-sufferingly. Now she's old enough not to do these things. She pretends, for my sake. But I know I'm embarrassing, mawkish, clingy. I'm not offended. I'm glad she has me to take for granted. Ellen has never lived in a motherless world.
Five years had passed since my grandparents' deaths, three since Katie's birth. Bill had moved out—she'd asked him to go—and had his own apartment a few blocks away, where Katie spent half her time. He was still hoping things could be patched up with my mother. Patched up, a phrase suggestive of bicycle tires and old pants. It acknowledges the thing in question is damaged and can never be whole again, but it's better than nothing. Anyway, it didn't happen. My mother didn't want patching up. She wanted rest.
The night before, we walked Katie over in her stroller. Did my mother cling to her for a long moment, or is that just something I've invented for myself in the intervening years? Did she fuss over Katie's bib, or her overalls, or hair? Were there tears in her eyes? I don't know. It's hard not to doubt my memories now. I fear reconstructions, fabrications. Hagiography.
Back at the apartment, we packed for my trip. I had to be at the airport early the following morning. It would be my first time on an airplane. There would be a layover in Dallas, where I'd buy my own lunch and make my connecting flight alone, like a grown-up. Then I'd arrive in Sacramento and see my father for the first time. I'd never been so excited in my life.
The questions didn't come to me until midway through the second flight. Why a trip now, a few weeks before the end of the school year and beginning of summer vacation? And why had my mother packed so many of my clothes, even the winter ones? All my shoes. Even the flute I played in the school band. My body went cold, and I threw up all the lunch I'd bought for myself, like a grown-up, in Dallas. I found the envelope stuffed full of money the following day, jammed into a side pocket of my suitcase, but by then we already knew.
Every day in the United States, more than 100 people end their lives. They take drug overdoses, hang themselves, slit their wrists, crash their cars. Some go in for exotic methods like poison. Others jump from bridges. But most follow the easiest path: they use a gun. Guns are quick and nearly foolproof.
In the same way I stood frozen before Luke's gun, I've spent my life frozen before the gun that killed my mother. I feared I'd come to the same end myself, that some ineluctable force would propel me to suicide when I least expected it. It's a fact that the children of suicides are more likely to commit suicide themselves. But I feared an early death by other means, too. Everything seemed possible in a universe that had taken no pains to protect my mother. There are so many dangers: cars, cancer, flesh-eating bacteria, accidents, pulmonary embolisms, deranged gunmen. I knew not whether I'd sink or swim.
But I know now.
When I turned the corner onto Novo Avenue, the last rays of sunlight were glaring off the sleek blue windows of the westward-facing office buildings on my right. Our apartment building had long since been torn down to make room for these lustrous modern offices. I passed the place where my magnolia, another casualty of time and progress, had once stood. I didn't look.
Toward the end of the street, the office buildings became sparser until there were none. I followed the length of the side lawn of St. Mary's, at last sitting down heavily on the low rock wall outside the school's wrought-iron fence. I leaned in, resting my chin on the lower rung and looking at the two figures, the one standing, the other kneeling. I took in her beatific expression, eyes downcast, and his outstretched wings and upraised hand, the first two fingers extended toward her. An inscription engraved along the rectangular base of the statue read: "I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to announce to you this good news." Good news, I repeated to myself. The kind I'd had today.
I looked westward into Columbia for one long moment more. It was twilight, and the lights of the city were beginning to appear like sparks, one here, another there. I heard distant strains of music, at such a distance that there was something unearthly about the sound. I took my cellphone from my purse again and typed in a text message to Gracie, a single word: Yes.
It was six o'clock. I looked up into the infinite sky and whispered the word again: Yes. I thought maybe I would like to have more children after all. Death in childbirth is pretty unlikely, statistically. But anyway I'm finished with facts. I'm ready for mystery.
Then I stood up, but I didn't walk back to my car. I ran.