1. The Web
Valentina gets me a spot in the Web. Eight weeks later she’s tucking a gold iPhone into my hand and saying, it’s necessary and that makes it right. Once upon a day, Valentina hardly ever breathed in the same room as me. Now, I might get a couple sidelong looks from my peers while walking the halls. People never ask me about Valentina Rolfe, though.
The newly programmed phone resting in my palm, shiny and scratch-free, Valentina says, “If you’re seriously afraid it will lead back to us, you might as well stay at level two.”
Four ounces of Apple-made anodized aluminum suddenly feels like a palm full of universe. See, there are two groups of people at Oakridge High: those who know about the Web, and those who think January’s fire sprinkler episode in the science wing was just a system malfunction. The same ones who ogle Jake Morrison’s new Jeep Wrangler “straight A” parent prize, but have no clue he failed both his bio and world history mid-terms.
I know, though. And if I ever tried to get out I wouldn’t be dead or anything. But I’d maybe wish I was.
“There’s no such thing as absolute truth, anyway,” Valentina says and reaches into my tote for my old silver iPhone. “Everything is relative.”
I tap in the access code that appeared at the bottom corner of my bedroom window this morning, written in MAC Russian Red lipstick. The gold phone lights up––additional contacts and codes, expanded data. “Well, then your statement about nothing being absolute can’t truly be…er, absolute.”
Valentina keeps staring down at the football field but her mouth snaps sideways. “That right there, the weird thinking part of you––it’s why you made level three in less than three months. It’s why you’re in at all.”
What she doesn’t say, but blares as loud as the Eagle marching band, is that I’m supposed to invoke the full potential of that weird thinking part only when summoned. There are reasons no one knows everyone who’s in at any given time. Oakridge High isn’t really run by any faculty team or any school board. It’s run by the Web. And Valentina Rolfe runs the Web.
Whether relative or absolute, it’s just what’s true.
So we’re at the pep rally sitting at the top corner of the bleachers on another California-cloudless day, far enough away from other ears. I’m smooshed against the side of the wooden frame barrier that’s streaked with decades worth of peeling paint flakes. Blue once covered forest green that once covered brown and I’m supposed to be sitting with the other sophomores, but I’m up here with Valentina. No one, not even my homeroom teacher, does anything about it.
Any minute now. Any minute and I’m still in awe about how nobody questioned Friday’s lunch period when only the students who ate the cheese pizza in the caf developed “tummy issues,” but not those who ate the pepperoni slices. Jamison Taylor hates pepperoni, that’s why. And then I think back to my first summons. How Valentina aced her english quiz even though I was at PE running laps and she can’t even spell Prufrock.
That’s how the Web operates. A few people doing a little bit of something, no one doing everything. It works because Valentina Rolfe makes it work.
Right now, the first thing that’s supposed to happen, does. Margo Clark’s bouncing at the tip of yet another Vee formation, rallying up the crowd. Pom-poms, pleated skirts, and high ponytails flying the same way they always do:
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Play, pause, rewind.
Red light…green light…red light.
And straight-up on cue, Bethany Greenfield pukes the world all over the center section aisle. I’m watching from our little nook and people don’t know how to deal around puke. Girls anywhere near the spew trajectory are checking their ballet flats and boyfriend jeans and pinching their nostrils, and guys not even sitting close to Bethany are gagging and everyone’s just scattering. Mick and Taco and C.J. seem pretty adept at the whole phantom-vomit thing. Teachers eagerly shoo them out to the bathroom from their sections. Not even five minutes and they’re done with their part even before the custodian gets here. People can’t deal around blown chunks and Valentina knows this.
Margo Clark will lose it all today. No one at Oakridge High is gonna hear the canned Eagle football team rally song through the loudspeakers. The Web-furnished Tom and Jerry theme song might not play for long. But even ten seconds of this particular jingle will be enough to spook the hell out of Margo while 65 choice members of the student body receive a photo in an encrypted text message.
With a level three phone now hidden in the pocket of your jean jacket, it’s easy to think you’re some big-shot cat. But still, you can’t help but wonder if you might be just another kind of mouse.
Any minute now then next thing that’s supposed to happen, will. It’s just what’s true, even if I maybe wish it wasn’t.
2. Lost and Found
I’d already checked the usual places for my track shoes––my gym bag, the wooden rack in the garage, the wide, toothless mouth of the shoe-swallowing creature that lived under my bed. Even the top of the dryer, where my mother often set my sneakers after ridding the insides of all traces of teenaged-boy shoe funk with a mixture of baking soda, corn starch, and lavender oil.
With an hour left until the meet, I gave up and sought the supreme finder of all things lost. I knew where to find her. Mother, at least in physical body, was never lost.
I stepped onto the back patio and closed the French paned slider with a gentle kiss against the doorjamb. Mother knelt on a foam knee board, crouching over the flower bed at the west end of the yard. She wielded a metal spade in her gloveless hand, her blonde ponytail dangling underneath a canvas Tilley hat. Her arms raked, her body bowed and swelled, like a conductor over an earthy orchestra of petals and stems and roots.
She didn’t turn, but I knew she heard me. She would’ve acknowledged me, too––even amiably, if I crossed the kidney-shaped lawn and knelt beside her. I didn’t, though. I didn’t because the mere sight of my find-everything mother reminded me that my track shoes still lay in the bed of my truck, where I’d tossed them haphazardly after practice. How the hell did she do that?
More and again, I wondered about this elsewhere she routinely left us for. A voice called to her, its distant hum riding a tail of breeze, over and under the everyday squawk of blackbirds and the warm drone of bees in her rosemary bush. Daily, she crawled through diamond trellises and into a small and secret place––a biotic wonderland I knew as real, but had no experience of my own to give it shape. I only wondered where and what it was. And what, this mother who could find anything, was still looking for there.
I thought of Audrey, then, ripping hastily stitched hems, baring the torn remnants of days after her death. Seventy two hours after we buried Audrey in a white coffin with pale pink satin lining, my father’s best workers arrived with their equipment. Mother watched from the window, steel-faced. I stood––a four year old in Spider Man pajamas, eating Cheerios out of a Zip-loc bag. This pool designer’s wife would no longer tolerate the pool her husband had designed and installed in their own backyard. The pool their daughter had drowned in.
Truckloads of dirt replaced water. And when they left, my mother seeded and tended that dirt until a fine, downey blanket of grass covered the place where Audrey had fallen into a harrowing sleep, and from that sleep into death.
I had to sit. Even though I needed to get to school for the meet, I dropped into one of the metal chairs at the round bistro table, staring at the only amoeba-shaped lawn on the block. Slowly, the answer became the growing thing. It planted itself into the thick, oval plot of my head. First, a seedling, then a shooting stem that pushed up and out into a bloom of knowing, watered by a mother who worked fifteen yards away.
Dirt. They’d drained the pool and filled it in…with dirt.
When water took her two-year-old daughter, my mother ran to earth, clinging to the sun-warmed strength of it. Soil, dirt, ground, solid land, terra firma. To her, water meant death; earth became all life, its steadfast and beautiful opposite. My mother was looking for life again. She knew where it grew.
She’d passed the next thirteen years in toil, shoring the wooden and walled boundaries of the garden with peony and hydrangea and gardenia. White bacopa gathered like snowflakes in the shady spots. Purple morning glory stretched wiry green tendrils over trellises and fences. Roses–– always pink, bloomed within rock circle borders. Her vegetables and herbs filled the east end plots. We ate and shared buckets of crisp cucumber, zucchini, and sugary sweet cherry tomatoes in summer. Winter yielded acorn squash and bitter greens she hid in smoothies, and carrots with floppy-haired tops.
The earth gave and fed. But it also took; it took her back unto itself––welcoming her shards of bone and heart and womb into its soiled home, rooting them there amidst worms and seeds. Earth quivered under the touch of never-manicured hands. It birthed petal perches for ladybugs and butterfly feet. But it also lay spent, gutted into wells, vast enough to hold the grief of a mother who could instantly retrieve my track shoes or my history textbook, but not the sister I had been too young and helpless to save.
And for that, I thought I might find her there one morning, her body bored deep into the black coffee soil––ears, nose, and mouth attached to her white pumpkin head, blonde strands of hair fanning out like vines.
Harrison fingered the tiny prize he’d earned from Mrs. Morris after Sunday school. The apparent worth of his recitation of Psalm 23 from memory amounted to one piece of Bazooka gum. He unwrapped the sugary pink treat, imagining what Jesus himself would say about this.
Grandma Hyde leaned across the rear bench of the ’57 Fairlane, its shopworn cab ripe with August heat. “I do hope they’ve finished the new paint on the corner house.” Her breath carried the dregs of communion grape juice and the rest of her––musty summer weight wool and Yardley English Rose.
“I’m sure they have, Grandmother.” Harrison bit through the stiff rectangle and unfolded the accompanying waxy comic. Who cares? Bazooka Joe and his badass eye patch wouldn’t give a crap, either.
Father eased the car onto William Street with a gravelly sigh. “Merry Christmas and happy birthday, ladies. Mind your eyeballs from jumping out the window.”
Grandma Hyde turned, her outstretched neck, the deeply corded trunk of a Banyan Tree Harrison recalled from a book about Hawaii. “Not so fast this time, Paul. Not like last Sunday,” she said.
“Good grief,” Father muttered.
“It’s not about the houses,” Mother said.
Harrison shot his gaze up from the miniature comic he’d read five times already. He eyed the yellow linen clad blonde in the passenger seat. Mother never spoke during Father’s conciliatory Sunday detour.
“The hell it’s not, Claire.”
She tightened gloved fingers around the faux tortoiseshell handle of her pocketbook. “Not the homes, Paul. It’s only the doors.”
“The what?” Father snorted, yanking off his gray bowler. “Never mind.” He whisked away sweat from the bare circle at the top of his head––a perfectly round anomaly, maybe the last undiscovered crop circle of their time, mysteriously imprinted onto a field of ash brown hair.
Harrison squirmed in his Sunday good-enoughs. The doors? Weeks before, he’d stopped ogling the grand estates crowning the historic Fredericksburg neighborhood. This time, he studied the doors; some were painted in the breezy turquoise of exotic places, some brilliant red, others in black, trimmed with crisp white moulding. His mother dreamed, not of a mansion, only of a real door.
Six months before, Grandma Hyde had moved into their cramped flat. She stood with two suitcases in the spartan interior hallway while Father and Uncle Roy carried her armoire into unit 12. They maneuvered the sizable antique passed the threshold––its covering, a front door of flat nondescriptness, a faded tan extension of the faded tan wall encasing it.
That day, Harrison moved out of the second bedroom. He made his new bed on the slate blue davenport in the parlor. Mother arranged all of his belongings into Grandma’s armoire: pants and shirts, sneakers and caps. Boxes of Civil War cards and army men, cats eye marbles and Hot Wheels racers. His secondhand Rawlings glove hung from a single brass hook. An entire room, stuffed into a hollow block of cherrywood. An entire life, trapped behind doors.
My mother’s summons (my name, ten seconds of grace time) came from the master bedroom. My father had berated her, again. This, I knew because she’d coiled her dark hair into a French bun and had Grandma’s sterling hairbrush already in hand. I sat, as I always did, at her antique dressing table. The tight line of her lips gazed back from the mirror, the skin between her brows folded into a squat number eleven. My mother brushed my long black hair, root to tip, root to tip. Her hands moved like instruments through an orchestral score. Varying dynamics–staccato strokes across a knot leftover from yesterday’s haphazard ponytail. A furious allegro over my bangs. Finally, a long, sad adagio that left my locks as slick as spilled crude oil. No words, no questions––neither of us could bear them. I held mine inside my head, underneath the budding follicles. Was this my fate, too? Would I marry a man like my father? No words, no answers––only my mother’s hands, cool on my neck, smelling of garlic and onions. Then, the soft melody of a lamplit room, freed of all the tangles she could manage.
2. County Fair––July, 1957
Charlotte Montgomery attended her first Wexford County State Fair in a lavender twinset. Children darted around her, tugging on their parents’ hems and shirt cuffs with sticky cotton candy fingers. Her nose twitched from the scent of sugar and grease, whisked into the musky tang of hay and manure from the 4H exhibits. Arcade game booths chimed with bells, balloon pops, and the quick snap of cap guns. Food stalls lined the promenade, offering cream puffs and ears of grilled corn, their papery green coats singed black above glowing coals. Charlotte lined up for popcorn instead. On tip-toes, she watched airy kernels rise and swell like bathtub soap bubbles. She turned, looking for Eileen or Grace, but only saw the teenaged boy standing behind her. His arms were crossed, a pigtail lock of blonde curling over his forehead. He grinned, slowly. Charlotte spun around on new white Keds. Her mama had warned her about boys like this: the ones with cigarette packs rolled up into their sleeves. They’d take her red, candy-coated heart and lick it like a five-cent lollipop. Then bite down, so hard.
The old woman came on Sundays, like we did. Her body bent like a comma, yet she managed well enough up the gently sloping hill, holding a palm-full of stones. Tiny, smooth stones. She’d move along a short row of graves, pausing at the grassy foot of each one before placing one of the gray-brown rocks on its granite top. My mother told me that Jewish people don’t bring flowers to cemeteries; they leave stones, for remembrance. Some believe the stones keep the departed soul tethered to earth, close to loved-ones. Today, I left Caleb’s grave and walked across the lawn as soon as the woman left. Three of the headstones in her family plot held at least twenty pebbles. But the fourth stood bare: a man, who died two years ago, after eighty three years of life. He had the same last name as the bodies resting next to him, the stone-rich bones. I couldn’t peg him as her cousin, or brother, or husband––only as a man who’d earned a legacy unworthy of her remembrance. A soul, she’d let loose into an eternal tunnel of sky.