Ever Seen Sedona?
I’m kneeled on the old woman’s green shag carpet, bubble-wrapping forty-three Tiffany- crystal miniature presidential busts from her china cabinet. Lance is across the living room packing up her entertainment center, rifling through CDs and calling out musicians he loves.
“Don’t ever let me collect anything I can’t give away,” I tell Lance and he looks at me like I’ve just asked him to whittle the Seven Wonders of the World.
“Relax. I’m not asking you to marry me,” I say. Lance owns Prescott, Arizona’s largest moving company and because he takes as much time with sex as he does explaining String Theory, I tag along on my days off. “All I’m saying is that if we’re still together when I start stockpiling matchbooks, kill me.”
“How do you want to die?” He mimes holding a pen to imaginary paper. “I’m taking notes. Not a bloody death, please. Not for my Goldilocks.” In the adjacent bedroom, his three-man crew is making a racquet taking apart a canopy.
“Cyanide, then,” I say. Lincoln, with his especially fragile stovetop hat, requires an extra layer of bubble wrap. “Enough to down a horse. I don’t want to feel a thing.” His face instantly disfigures. “Man, Leah. Why are you rushing?” He grabs Lincoln from me and demonstrates a chaste packing technique. “Slow down, sweetheart, pack it like it’s yours.”
Mid-morning sun slants through the condo’s vertical blinds, adding more angles to his already Modigliani-chiseled face. If Grandmother met him today she’d say: He’s too good-looking for a good life. She’d call him a lady-killer and not mean it as a compliment, but as prophecy.
“Don’t forget,” he says, “everyone’s shit is my bread and butter.” “That’s what you should have had painted on your trucks.” “What’s wrong with Let Us Move You?”
“Sort of schmaltzy,” I say. “ And slutty.”
He moons me and goes back to fawning over the CDs. As I look up to agree with his appraisal of Elton John, I see him sneaking Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits into his Carhartt jacket.
Last week was the first time I caught him stealing—a set of diamond cufflinks— and he said not to worry because he sells most stuff on eBay and donates 40% of proceeds to Prescott’s no-kill animal shelter. He said it’s actually charity work because he’s helping people cull down their crap and appreciate what they didn’t lose.
“Are you coming with me tomorrow to visit Mom?” I’m fuming mad about having to ask him a second time. After dating a month I asked, even buffering the question with “my mom.” But now we’re going on three months and it’s hardly any skin off his back anyway to meet Mom when he won’t have to say a word, not even Hello.
“By the way,” I told him about a month ago, “she’s in a coma and has been for almost twenty-one years, since a stroke.” And he said, “Wow. That’s how you’re going to tell me? How frighteningly sociopathic.” And I said, “Sorry. I don’t tell people ever. I’m short on practice.” Right then he took me in his arms and we sat on his brick fireplace hearth while the heat from the fire pulled my face tight. “I thought the Hope House only took dying people?” he finally said. And before I could tame my completely reflexive and hostile expression, he was already buttering me with apologies, practically mewing into my neck. “Please, stop,” I said. “I get it: she’s dead to everyone but me and Grandma. Trust me, I get it.”
“Tomorrow won’t work,” he says and I can see that the bulge in his pocket is bigger than just a Whitney track. “I want to, but I can’t. Next week. Promise. Tomorrow, we’ve got a ‘three by three’ on the schedule.” That’s his industry lingo for moving folks out of a place with three flights of stairs and into a place with three flights of stairs.
While he’s loving on a Kenny Rogers CD, telling me how he used “She Believes in Me” for his Harmonic Frequencies paper in college physics, I pull off my sweater and quickly nestle Bill Clinton inside. I’m careful not to let Lance see, more careful not to snap off the itsy cigar some smart-aleck designer at Tiffany’s carved into the corner of Bill’s smirk.
I clock out at noon the next day, shed my apron in the break room, and squeeze through the service hallway past stacked boxes of our signature Ho-Ho-Ho Honduran Blend. We’re only one day in to November and already grinding through seventy pounds a day of the nutmeg-undertoned bunk. By New Year’s Day, The Beanery will have sold fifty five thousand cups, enough to stain the enamel of every Prescott resident, twice.
I run the five blocks to Hope House to visit Mom. The sidewalk is slick with freezing snow; I feel my foot muscles orchestrating my balance. Grandmother’s daily passage is written on a Post-It and stuffed deep in my jacket pocket. A righteous man hateth lying. -Proverbs 13:5.
I visit every day at noon; Grandmother visits only on Wednesdays, after 2 o’clock confession. She says she must be pure in the face of a miracle. Mom will wake one day, she says. It’s only a matter of time, as much as Mom’s survival was only a matter of timing. If, when she snapped her spinal cord at C1, the apartment’s night security guy hadn’t found her three minutes later to administer CPR and get her heart beating, she’d be dead rather than—Vegetative? Comatose? I’ve tried understanding the differences, stayed up late following trails on the Internet, but have decided that whatever she is, it’s not what she wants.
At Mom’s closed door, I rehearse like the village idiot, what to say. Grandmother tells me that we don’t know what Mom does and doesn’t hear. It’s the closest we will come to intimating a conversation with God.
Finally, I barge in and yell, “Congratulations, you’ve both won the Nobel Peace Prize for perseverance.” Mom is rolled on her side for a view of the sink, and Nancy, mom’s roommate of five years, is turned toward the wall heater. The nurses say she went in for breast enhancement surgery five years ago, but came out with a ventilator.
I roll mom on her back and sit at her socked feet. After reading the Bible passage, I stick it to the metal bed rail next to the others. Grandmother allows them to be thrown out on the first of every month.
A menagerie of clips secures Mom’s long graying hair atop her head. Her arm is a flute, her fist a root-ball of fingers that I pry open about once a week to slip in a Tootsie Roll, or a weather update, or six years ago, my wisdom teeth. I imagine her waking one day to these gifts, then rising and screaming like a kid on Christmas morning.
“This is president Clinton,” I say and force her stiff fingers around the crystal bust. “I was in grade school when he got his presidential blow job under his desk, under a stack of Classified CIA documents.” I imagine her laugh sounding like mine, which Lance says fills him with happiness and more cum than he knows what to do with.
I coat her cracked lips with the Cherry Chapstick kept at her bedside. Mom’s the color of cold Earl Grey tea and I hate how I judge her against the higher standards of the living. But every visit, every day, there’s a moment when I feel like I’m back in her womb, her body preoccupied with assembling my green eyes, my disappointing lips, while I’m listening to the muffled ticking and beeping keeping alive this woman who I’ve never met except through Grandmother’s stories. Her name is Jill Thompson. And if this were a merciful day, I’d say was. I’d say: Her name was Jill Thompson.
The next night, Grandma is still up waiting for me at the glass kitchen dinette. The old bronze fixture casts anemic shadows on the beef patty, the canned peaches and rice pilaf, each claiming space on her partitioned plastic plate. I untie my coffee-stained apron and sit beside her. Midnight, I’ll bet my left tit, doesn’t look like this for any other twenty-one year old.
“Did you hear me, Grandma?”
She sips from a ceramic Farmer’s Insurance mug. “Yes, out with Lance again. I heard you. How long you two been seeing each other? And why haven’t I met him?”
She licks her finger and rubs at something on the bubbled glass. Sometimes I think she’s mad at me for reminding her too much of Mom.
“Three months,” I say. She hasn’t met him because, as I said, she’ll either proclaim him lethal or want me to marry him immediately. Either way, I lose.
“That necklace is from this Lance boy?”
I nod and steal a peach slice from her plate. “He’s really busy during the day. But, I swear, you’ll meet him.”
Her warm dough hands touch the yellow topaz pendant resting on my neck. “You know, that’s your mother’s birthstone?”
“I told Lance the other day that Mom’s birthday was next week and he shows up tonight with this.” There’s that love squall again rising up in my thighs and tumbling through my heart and up into my head where I try to reconcile what I’ve heard about men with what I feel for Lance. I think back to the day we met, not knowing then how quickly a nobody stranger can become everybody, everything. The story goes: Lance walks in to The Beanery just before noon, all armpit stains and Popeye biceps, like he’s the blue- collar Messiah come to shake-up the sedentary world. When he orders a steel cut oatmeal and a vanilla latte, I almost kid him about the paradox of “steel” and “vanilla”, something like: “Wow, the first well-rounded man since Jesus.” But he leaves without us exchanging anything more than flighty eye contact and a thank you. An hour later, he shows up again, and asks if I doubled his shots. Yes, I tell him, of course I did. Laughing, he holds up his shaky hands, saying that he’d ordered one shot of decaf and for my near lethal oversight would I please accompany him to detox tonight at a nearby restaurant?
“Your father was sweet like that with your mother, at first,” she says. Her pain is so deep if she were cracked open it’d be its own organ with its own pulsing vein. She leans in, hugs my shoulders. Her pink nightie has lost all its elasticity and I get a glimpse straight down the gaping neck and find two miserable, shapeless breasts that—I decide right now—hang like half-empty IV bags. “I must take something back.”
“Buyers remorse?” I say. We’d gone shopping for clothes earlier today, before my shift. She bought me two pairs of pants without fighting me on them being too tight. She bought herself a pink cardigan, and on the way home, stopped for milkshakes at Arby’s.
“No. About your mother. I said something untrue today in Sears.” She breaks off a piece of the patty and crumbles it between her fingers. “She never said anything rotten about your father. She should have, but she didn’t. Your mother was too kind. Not once did she hint at what he was capable of.”
She walks her plate to the sink and dumps all the food down the disposal.
“I would have eaten that,” I say. Lance and I didn’t eat. After work, I’d walked straight to his condo. We talked about how his PhD in physics, how his expertise in black holes and transmutable universes translates seamlessly to moving people’s shit. He told me there is something called the God particle that holds the formula for when the cosmos will destabilize and the world will end. He told me I was stupid for dropping out of the University three-credits shy of graduating. It’s good to have that piece of paper, he said. Nobody can own you, he said. Then we had sex.
“Let me make you something. Grilled cheese and tomato?” Grandmother’s umpteenth failed attempt at making Mom’s favorite sandwich mine.
“Cereal is fine,” I say. “I can get it.”
Grandmother hushes me and is already up at the cabinet pulling down one box each of puffed wheat and Corn Pops. She begins pouring them into Mom’s plastic red bowl, stopping to stare midair, at nothing— or everything maybe. Maybe her entire life is finally coming back to life and there’s her half-dead daughter riding in on a shaft of that dull light like Calamity Jane. She looks down at the bowl and laughs. The joke is on her again, nobody but me around.
“Did your mother like yesterday’s Bible passage? It’s one of my favorites.” “Yes.” My answer has been the same for as long as I can remember. Mom was twenty-two years old when she moved into the Hope House. Next week she turns forty-three. “I think I felt her twitch at ‘hateth’.”
Grandmother resumes pouring cereal. “Your mother, you know, loved her cereals mixed. Wanted it all at once; always afraid she’d miss out on something.” And without looking at me, she sets down a placemat, the red bowl, a matching red plastic fork, surely meant to prompt me to do as mom did and use it to skim out the cereal, then drink the sugar milk alone.
I’m still eating when Grandmother flicks off the light and walks out, her red mess of hair eaten up by the dark in the hallway. It’s on these nights I go to bed wishing to suffer the same fate as Mom and maybe not wake up the same person.
“There’s this running joke in my family,” Lance says. We’re sitting on the floor of his empty condo eating Pad Thai from a carton. All his furniture, including a 10-foot fake Christmas tree, is already set up in his new house—a foreclosure he chased down after moving out the distraught family—but the walls were painted today and even tonight the fumes would be too ripe.
“‘Lancey,’ they go, ‘You didn’t even have to reach for the stars, they were given to you, and yet, you’re still playing in the dirt.’” He grabs my hand; I fondle his knuckle hair as he goes on. “I guess owning a moving company isn’t good enough when your great great grandfather was Percival Lowell. You know the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff?”
“Know it well,” I say. “Grandmother still insists on a visit every new moon.”
His carpet is nappier than I remember but we make it our mattress anyhow and pillage hoary depths of animal pleasure. Lance has blonde pubic hair. Lance is 5 feet 7 inches of butterscotch pudding and humble privilege. Lance is a petty thief who could have more, but is happy enough cherry picking the best from other people’s lives. Lance is thirty—that’s nine years older than me. Same nine-year age gap as Mom and my biological father, Rich. Nine bastard years. And no matter what I do to ignore her, Mom’s up in my ear, yapping something about Rich, or rather Lance, and how he’s another Rich, what with all that handsome charisma and pent-up passion. Don’t you see it, Leah, my history lurking in your shadow?
“Back to your question,” Lance says. We’re loitering in that dangerous post- coital confessional territory. “I’d say my most strange moving experience was when a woman asked me to pack her closet for her. So I start opening her drawers and there’s like, you know—”
“Kinky Lingerie?” I say, instantly embarrassed for sounding so novice.
“No, no. Videos. A serious porn library. And as I’m bubble wrapping each one, per our standards of excellence, she walks in and says she should really weed through them before wasting my time wrapping junk. Next thing I know, she’s screening them on her bedroom TV. Turns out they’re all videos of her.”
“God no. Me and the guys are staying busy coming in and out, but we still see too much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Puritan. But all I can say is: wrong place, wrong time” He turns on his back and stares up. “Because I’ve always worried I’d either sound like a fruitcake for not taking her bait or I’d come off as a pervert for even telling the story, I’ve never told anybody. Stupid, now that I think about it.” He sits up, takes my right foot in his hand and massages the arch.
“You look like you’re about to bitch me out for being a scumbag or something.”
“It’s about my mom,” I say, hoping to God he’ll look at me quickly and ask why I’m shaking so I can explain that I’m afraid he’ll confuse his own hot rush of sympathy for liking me. I want whatever happens between us to be about us, or me, just me, and not about Mom. I don’t even know why I’m telling him now, but the urge is huge and heavy, maybe like giving birth when there’s no turning back—when it’s right there at the threshold of tender flesh and all you can do is breath and respect the urges of your body.
“I know, I’m a total asshole for not visiting her yet. I’ll go tomorrow. What time? You tell me. I’ll have the crew cover for me. I’m an asshole. It’s no excuse, but hospitals, and that kind of thing—” That kind of thing, I think, he has no idea what kind of thing. “—they’re out of my league.”
“Remember when I told you she’s comatose because she had a surprise stroke? Not true. She was pushed off her apartment balcony by my biological father, Rich. She was six months pregnant with me.”
“My God. Leah.”
“They’d had a fight about what she was wearing, apparently something too skimpy. Anyway, so he goes to prison for life and three years in, he trips over a barbell and breaks his neck and dies.”
“Shit. I guess that’s the good of it. Right? Not like just karma, but ricochet karma, the same bullet back at you.” His difficulty with the news is more genuine than I want, and also exactly what I want. “I’m being a total idiot. Go ahead, say it. Can I come for her birthday tomorrow?”
“Not her birthday. Soon though. Her birthday we always spend alone. Plus, I have to give her fair warning. She’ll want to doll up.” His laugh is so unsure and his legs so thin next to mine, I’m knocked with an awful urge to devour him, like a lioness does with her runt cub.
He hurries to a drawer in the kitchen and returns with a pair of earrings, no tag or box, likely stolen, to match the yellow topaz necklace. “If she’s anything like you, she’ll expect the set.”
More talk about Mom and the four known spacetime dimensions in the Superstring Theory and it’s one o’clock in the morning. “I better get home,” I say. “Once a week sleepovers is all I get?” He zip-lines the topaz from behind my neck back to its forward position with care in his hands I think must be the human version of primate preening and I’m hit hard with guilt by my wanting to stay here, indefinitely. “She needs me home.”
As the car bumps over the rounded curb into my short driveway, his headlights graze an object in the slushy front lawn. He backs up to shine the lights directly on the thing. It’s Grandmother wearing a nightie and snow boots, slumped over and asleep in a lawn chair. A paperback is fanned over her chest, the harlequin cover rises an inch with each shallow inhale.
“Lance, cut the lights.” I’m not ready for them to meet. I lean over and kiss him goodbye, tasting the briny tears from him crying earlier when I also told him how Mom is two years shy of making it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest surviving woman in a coma. I played along like it was an accomplishment and now realize he was probably crying for my clinical denial.
“Crap, Leah, she’s getting up,” he says.
Shaking a finger at us, she lumbers over like the swamp thing’s bride. Lance rolls down his window and as she leans in, a breast tumbles out and is instantly shoved back in its place as if she’s reprimanding a rascal puppy. I can smell Muscat on her breath. “Oh look,” she says, tipping up Lance’s chin, “It’s the Great Gatsby