When I was a child we lived in a house with an intercom. It looked like a telephone but it was made of a tortoiseshell kind of plastic, and instead of a dial it had a set of buttons, numbered one to eleven for all the rooms of the house. You could speak into the handset and your voice would come out of a speaker in whichever room you chose. This house also had a complicated and thorough system of dumbwaiters. Someone small enough—me, at the time—could climb inside and show up in any one of several rooms or corridors, or simply sit there inside the walls, listening.
Since my mother was a medium, and held séances and gave readings at home, she found these features handy. Sometimes she let me work as her accomplice. I’d rap out ghostly messages from my place behind paintings, I’d fling objects across the room, I’d whisper through the intercom’s cracked wiring. Sometimes I’d hold the handset on the other side of a box fan, and speak through that, which gave my voice an interesting, otherworldly sound. Once my mother dressed me up in a lace tablecloth, doused me with talcum powder, and had me stumble around the séance room, posing as somebody’s dead child.
My mother was not, however, entirely a fraud. The floating trumpets, the ectoplasm, the spirit rappings: all this, she said, was Theater. Every profession has its necessary theater—teachers with their apples and rulers, doctors with their tongue depressors and white coats. People demand a show. This was especially true in New Orleans, where we lived at the time. In that city you couldn’t go to a parade without having candy and beads hurled at you, or being flashed by somebody in a fright wig, even on the Fourth of July. My mother’s theatrics, she said, were a kind of misdirection. If she could shock and astound, she’d crack open a tiny hole in people’s skeptical armor—only briefly, perhaps, but long enough to sneak some truth in. People believe first, disbelieve later. Or anyway, that’s what she said.
But I, for one, couldn’t always disentangle the real from the fraudulent, the truth from its trappings. Sometimes it seemed as if my mother’s fakery was just a more interesting and beautiful version of what was real. Sometimes it seemed that the truth needed the lies, as if there wouldn’t be any truth without them. At any rate, whatever my mother was doing, it was a rare and powerful thing, perhaps even a form of magic. It enthralled me.
* * *
We lived in New Orleans until I was ten. My memories of that time are scattered and odd but mostly good: taking baths in the kitchen sink while my family sat around the table, playing backgammon; a sugar skull given to me by a customer of my mother, which I left under my bed until one day when I found it half-dissolved and swarmed over with ants; the green velvet walls of the séance room; and helping my mother, when I was three or four, to attach the fabric to the walls with a staple gun. Our house didn’t have air-conditioning, so every room had a collection of fans—ceiling, box, oscillating, paper—each with its own prevailing winds. Summers, we’d stagger from room to room and fan to fan, windblown and exhausted. To escape the heat, my grandfather and I went to the movies. I remember buying pickles in brown paper and eating them in the chilly dark. When the movie was over and we stepped back outside, the heat would feel intensely good for a while, damp and intimate but slightly threatening, like the breath of someone leaning in too close. Later, when my mother and I left for good, I would miss this heat more than I missed the house, or the city, or even what was left of my family by then.
This was my family: my mother and her parents. My grandparents were kind, shy people; my grandmother was a librarian at my school, Saint Ann’s, while my grandfather—a gentle old man with a fringe of white hair on his forehead—kept house. He’d sold his stationery store around the time I was born and now puttered around in his tennis shoes, always sweeping and pulling weeds. The house belonged to my grandfather. It even looked a little like him: tall, hunched, dapper.
The man who was my father did not live with us. He was my mother’s dentist and a good friend of hers, but no one, she said, she could marry. Anyway, he was already married. He visited us now and then, and would sometimes hang around during his lunch hour, wearing a white dentist coat covered with little blood spatters. My mother fixed him sandwiches and he made polite conversation with me. He called me “Squirt.” I was not supposed to let on to him that I knew he was my father.
It was an awkward situation. My mother loved him. I could tell by the way she pretended not to: she avoided his eyes if anyone else was looking, and made a big deal about “forgetting” her dental appointments, as if they meant nothing to her, but she always called to reschedule. He might have loved her, too, though my mother didn’t think so. “Two people never love each other at the same time,” she told me once. She had just returned from a dental appointment and was sitting in the kitchen holding a teabag to a tooth, and frowning. “One loves, and the other is in love with being loved. The fun is in guessing which one’s you.”
Bottles of perfume and silk scarves had a way of appearing around the house, and we were never short of toothbrushes. But if they ever planned to get together, if he ever thought about leaving his wife, I knew nothing about it. I would be surprised if he did. Run off with my mother? She did not seem to be the running-off-with kind. She was tall and bossy and had a big nose; I couldn’t picture her collapsing in someone’s arms, or galloping away on horseback. In any case, by the time I was seven or eight he was gone, to an army base in the western part of the state. And that was that. I never saw him again, though before he left he gave me a checkup and a set of windup choppers. To tell the truth, though, I was relieved. I didn’t like what he did to my mother. He made her moony and wistful, made her want something she could not have.
It would have been easier for her, I think, if he had died. She had special access to the dead. Living, but disappeared, he was completely out of the picture. If he’d died she’d at least have bits of him, now and then: his voice, flattened and tinny and small, floating from her trumpet, or a whiff of his aftershave in a darkened room, or—best of all—his ghostly fingers, probing her mouth for signs of decay.
* * *
Those years, the years we lived in my grandfather’s house, my mother practiced a particularly outdated and quaint brand of spiritualism. She didn’t know. This was the seventies, and by then most mediums had turned into “psychics” or “tarot card readers,” and spent more time developing their ESP than communing with the departed. The few remaining spirit trumpets—the big tin cones that amplify the voices of the dead during séances—were preserved in museums or stashed in attics, but my mother had one, and sometimes it even levitated for her. I think she suspended it from a horsehair; it was lighter than you’d think. Modern psychics have no use for the dead at all. The living is what they care about, and lottery numbers, and horoscopes. My mother wasn’t aware of this trend. She learned what she knew from books. She ordered her equipment out of an obscure catalog from somewhere up north. I remember it—the pages were rough newsprint; the printing type, minuscule.
But her work had a large following, especially among the old and morbid. One of these people was a woman named Beryl Kemper, who was obsessed with the thought of her own death. When she and my mother got together for one-on-one sessions, which they did every other week or so for several years, she’d often whip out her left hand and display the break in her lifeline.
“What do you think?” she’d ask my mother, breathless. “Do you think I have three more years? It looks to me like I have at least two. Look at that crossline there.”
My mother, neither fortune-teller nor palmist, would politely push Miss Beryl’s doomed hand back into her lap. “You know that stuff’s bunk. Besides, your left hand’s what you were born with, and the right is what you do with it. You can guess my advice, Beryl.”
They’d drink coffee and gossip for several minutes, then my mother would take both Beryl’s hands into her own, as if to warm them. “Your mother’s here, dear,” she might say, looking right into Miss Beryl’s eyes. “She wants you to take better care of yourself. There’s an empty pot on the stove, she says. Does that makes sense to you?” Beryl ate it up. She didn’t need evidence—a floating guitar or a tipping table—as some people did. The session would always end with a long chat with Miss Beryl’s dead daughter, via the intercom. I would put on a gaspy, choked voice, because Irene had died of the croup when she was a little girl. For a baby, Irene could impart a great deal of wisdom. I would sometimes read from The “I AM” Discourses:
Out of the heart of that Great Silence comes the Ceaseless, Pouring Stream of Life, of which each one is an individuized part. That Life is you, Eternally, Perfectly, Self-sustained…
Beryl knew it was me. How could she not? But she’d always cry to hear “Irene’s” voice, and she seemed comforted by my mother’s prayer, which ended, “And there is no Death, and there are no Dead. Amen.” If I met her in the kitchen as she was leaving, she’d squeeze my shoulder and tell me to come by her house on my way home from school, so she could give me a Mallow Cup. Whether what had happened was “real” or not didn’t matter a bit to Miss Beryl. She—and really, all of my mother’s customers—swallowed it whole, and why not? My mother made their lives more interesting and more meaningful. From these old women I learned that belief didn’t have to be something you got after weighing the evidence; you could just have it. Belief was a decision you could make.
Miss Beryl lived on Carondelet Street, which wasn’t on my way home from anywhere. But sometimes I wandered around after school, chasing cats and looking for money on the sidewalk, and one day I decided I would stop by and say Hello to Miss Beryl, and maybe get my candy. Mostly, I wanted to see the house where a dead girl had lived. I had never known any real dead people, let alone dead children.
I knocked on the door, and after a long wait Miss Beryl answered, surprised to see me and without any makeup on. She let me in, though, and I stood in her front room while she burrowed through mounds of things, looking for her Mallow Cups. On the wall, over the piano, there was a blown-up picture of a child’s face, a girl’s. There was something odd about the eyes.
“That’s Irene in her casket,” said Miss Beryl. “I had a man paint her eyes in.”
It was chilling. I stared and stared at the photograph, unable to get enough of it. Her pale hair was clasped with two silver clips, and the fingers of one hand curled along the bottom of the picture, the nails dark. Her painted eyes could have shot bullets.
When I said good-bye and was back on the sidewalk again, I noticed the Mallow Cup Miss Beryl had given me was so old—its yellow wrapper faded to white— it might have once belonged to Irene. The chocolate gave way under my fingers into a sticky, powdery mass, and the marshmallow in the middle was tough as cartilage. It smelled like an old book. I ate the thing anyway.
For a long time after that I could not think about death without remembering the photograph of Irene Kemper in her casket. That picture became death to me: to be dead meant being suspended over someone’s cluttered piano, twice life-size, eyes forced open in an unnatural, unblinking gaze, forever.
* * *
If I were to die, I often wondered, what would my mother do? How would she feel? These questions haunted me. Until I was eleven or twelve, I was sick a lot—so sick that I sometimes thought I would die, though I never mentioned this to anyone. My illness was mysterious: every couple of months I’d begin throwing up everything I ate or drank, and couldn’t even brush my teeth without vomiting. This would go on for a week or more. I’d lie in bed almost unable to move, falling in and out of sleep, under the flick flick flick of the ceiling fan. If I touched my fingers to my lips they felt like something else, not like lips at all, but like a bit of carved ivory or bone. I’d listen to the voices of people in the street outside and not remember what it was like to be well.The doctor didn’t know what it was. Except for the throwing up, I was fine. He gave me a bottle of pink stuff I couldn’t keep down and some advice: Don’t be so nervous! Take some deep breaths if you feel like you’re going to heave-ho. Lots of fresh air can’t hurt.
Before he left, the doctor would pat my hand and tell me it would pass, and it would. After a week or so I’d wake up and see a glass of water by my bed, and it would look good. I’d sit up on my elbow and drink a little, then a little more. Later, when I woke up again, I’d notice the sunlight in the leaves by the window, and the shadows on the wall, and the bright blues and reds of the books on my shelves. Once, I smelled my grandfather cooking chicken downstairs, so I crept down to the kitchen, joined my family at the table, and began to eat without saying a word. My mother and grandmother glanced at each other, then at me.
“I had a little chat with the doctor,” said my mother. “He said it’s all in your head.” She gave me an accusatory look.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked my grandfather. He frowned, brandishing his silverware.
What she meant was, I was doing it for attention, though not necessarily on purpose. The very thought made my heart pound with shame.
“Utter baloney,” said my grandfather.
“She knows,” said my mother, still giving me a look.
I swallowed my chicken. Could it be true?
The next time I was sick, my mother’s manner was brusque and distracted. She set a glass of water on my night table and squinted out the window. It was raining.
“I’m not doing it on purpose,” I whispered. My mouth was parched, dry as paper.
“Oh, I know,” she said, still watching the rain. “But you don’t see me or your grandmother getting sick, do you? We have work to do. We couldn’t possibly lie around in bed.”
I closed my eyes, trying to cry, but no tears came.
“You’re not much of a trooper, are you?” said my mother.
* * *
I didn’t die, of course. Instead, my grandmother did. It was a shock to all of us; she seemed immortal, not old at all, though she must have been seventy then. One spring afternoon she did not come home from work at Saint Ann’s. That night my mother called the police, who found her bicycle the next day, propped up against a fire hydrant in a not-very-nice part of town. Foul play was suspected. And though they found her a few hours later, alive but incoherent, wandering along the riverfront, she died in the hospital before we could get there. She’d had several strokes.
My mother screamed in the hospital waiting room. How could this happen? she wanted to know. How could a sick old lady walk around town for an entire day, without anyone helping her?
Unfortunately, they said, there’s no shortage of sick old ladies in this town. And anyway, somebody did help her. When the police found her, she was clutching a sack lunch some kind person had given her: an egg salad sandwich, a nectarine, and three sugar cookies.
They handed the sack lunch over to my mother, who pressed it to her face and wept.
But that was all the grief she allowed herself. By the time we got home that afternoon, she was, to all appearances, over it: she threw herself into housecleaning and funeral preparations with the energy of someone organizing a carnival ball. My grandfather, shrunken and pale, climbed the stairs slowly and shut himself in his bedroom. I wandered from room to room, crying and hiccuping. In the parlor my mother swept past me, smelling of lavender furniture polish. She turned and put her large hand on my head.
“Poor Naomi. Silly Naomi. You’re crying for yourself, you know. Your grandmother hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s right here watching you.” She pointed to the corner, where there was a large vase of peacock feathers. “You’re making her sad.”
I wiped my tears with my fingers. There was nothing in the corner, as far as I could tell, except for the feathers, which drooped and were clumpy with dust. I tried hard to see something else, a shimmer or a quiver or a glow, but there was nothing.
“It’s your grandfather you should be crying over. Stubborn fool has no faith. I don’t know how he gets through the day, I really don’t.”
She squatted on the floor with her cleaning rags, her cotton dress pulling across her muscular back. A bead of sweat slid down her neck.
“Come, help,” she said, and tossed me a rag. “In a couple of days this place will be full of weeping librarians. And don’t think for a minute they won’t notice the housekeeping—that’s all they’ll notice. That and the finger sandwiches. Right, Mother?”
It was a bit eerie. A few hours before, I had seen my grandmother lying dead on a hospital bed, looking not at all like herself—gray-faced, her hair tied on the top of her head with a rubber band—and now my mother was chatting with her as if nothing had happened, as if my grandmother had simply misplaced her body but might find it again at any time, under a sofa cushion or in the back of the fridge. Until that moment, spiritualism had been a fun sort of game to me, but suddenly the momentousness of it unfolded darkly in front of me: it could allow you to raise the dead.
I rubbed hard at a table leg, watching my mother. A dark lock of her hair slipped down over her forehead; she left it there. She was beautiful, in spite of her big nose and broad, mannish shoulders. I wanted to put my arms around her and bury my face in her bosom, but I knew if I tried anything like that she’d give me a shove and tell me to act my age, so I didn’t. Instead, I knelt alongside her and worked hard at polishing the table leg.
She glanced over at me and nodded approvingly. “Good girl.”
I rubbed harder. I loved her so much.Over the next few months, my mother’s mediumship acquired a new intensity. All sorts of exceptionally peculiar people—and not just old ones, either—began hanging around the house: a young man with hoop earrings, a woman who scolded me for my “prickly aura.” And others: hippies and transvestites and young women in torn vintage dresses. They would start in the kitchen, eating crackers and cheese and drinking tea with my mother, then move into the living room and begin rummaging through the liquor cabinet. They’d lie on the sofa with their feet hanging over the armrest, drinking and shedding crumbs and giggling at nothing. By dark they’d be in the séance room, alternately silent and roaring with laughter. This is when my mother took on her new name: no longer Patsy Ash, she was now Madame Galina Ash, or sometimes just Mother Galina. She began to wear tight sweaters and slacks and eye makeup, and she was voluptuous and dark: sexy. She painted her nails fire-engine red, toes as well as fingers.
I found myself feeling nervous and vaguely jealous. My mother needed less and less help that summer, so I was left to moon around the house alone, or play board games with my grandfather. He wasn’t taking the constant parade of visitors well. “Lowlifes,” he called them, ungenerously. “Parasite weirdo circus freaks.” We hid out in his room.
It was the spirit of my grandmother, I discovered one day, that was causing all this uproar. I found this out by climbing into the dumbwaiter and squeaking up behind the wall of the séance room. I was getting too big for it, for sure: I had to press my face into my knees, which made it hard to breathe. But I was certain about what I heard.
“Dora?” said someone, possibly the young man with the earrings. “How are you feeling today? Are you ready to help us?” This was said in the too-loud, condescending tone people use when speaking to the very old, the very young, or spirits.
There was a groan. It sounded like my mother, but I couldn’t tell for sure.
“That’s all right, Dora, take your time.”
Dora Ash was my grandmother’s name. The woman had no use for spiritualism; she, like my grandfather, was a lapsed Catholic, an ardent materialist until the day she died. To think of her on the other side of the wall, talking to these people, shocked me.
I listened for a while. Most of what “Dora” said was mumbled, and I couldn’t make it out. She said something about “Paradise,” something about “The River.” The voice came from different places in the room, and I heard what sounded like footsteps. It took a while for me to figure it out: my grandmother was controlling my mother’s body, speaking through her, and walking around the room. I imagined my mother’s eyes closed, her head lolling on her shoulder, her feet doing a slow shuffle, and for a moment I was sickened with embarrassment for her. But then I was struck with another thought: what if it was my grandmother in there? Could the soul of my grandmother—who was a small person, and fragile, like a shorebird—have put on her daughter’s body like a huge and heavy dress? And if so, where, then, was my mother?
The dumbwaiter was hot and had a sour, dusty smell. Claustrophobia wrapped me in its panicky arms. I wanted to push the walls away from me, explode out of there and drink up the fresh air like water, but for the moment I was trapped, like the house’s own soul.
Breathing slowly, I felt for the ropes, then inched the dumbwaiter upward. I stopped outside my grandfather’s room and risked opening the door a crack, then pressed my eye to the opening. He was absorbed in a jigsaw puzzle and didn’t hear me. The back of the old man’s neck was red and creased and prickled with short white hairs, and a plate with a cheese sandwich, half-eaten, sat on the card table by his elbow. He was hunched in a pool of yellow light. When he picked up the puzzle box to examine it, I saw what it was: the Taj Mahal in front of a greenish, faded sky. Over the months he had done dozens of puzzles, always buildings, always beautiful: monument after monument to his tireless, bottomless, glorious loneliness.
* * *
The heat that summer was an aberration—a torment. For months the city was delirious with fever, but no rains came. Giant purple clouds rolled in every afternoon, glared down at us, and moved on. The heat itself seemed to originate not from the sun, but from the things around us: the buildings and the cars and the trees, and in particular the people. The furniture in our house seemed too hot to touch. Eating was difficult; wearing clothes oppressive. Small things began to go to pieces. Plaster walls softened; clothes soured in their drawers. A peculiar odor filled the house—it was like a wet animal at first, and then like a dead one—and finally my grandfather discovered a plastic sack of potatoes in the back of a cupboard, deliquesced.
In spite of this strange weather, or perhaps because of it, my grandmother continued her visits. She had things to say about it, and about politics and the stock market, and Indian ancestors, and impending illnesses. Once she made a flashlight gallop across the room. A perfume pervaded the room when she appeared—a minty, lily-of-the-valley-type scent, according to the rumors. People you’d never expect to see at a séance showed up at the ones my mother held. The wrong types, my grandfather said: gangsters and buffoons. But it was as if the weather had persuaded people that anything was possible, that everything they thought they knew about the world had come unfixed.
One night I overheard an argument between my mother and grandfather. Before his wife died, my grandfather never expressed much of an opinion about spiritualism. He tolerated everything, and would nod and say, “Interesting,” or “What do you know!” when shown spirit photographs, spirit fingerprints in wax, flowers that appeared from nowhere. But things had gone too far.
“My wife is dead,” he told my mother. “Dead!”
“Not to me, she isn’t,” she said. They were in the kitchen, leaning over the table at each other. “To me she’s still here. To me! And that’s what a spirit is. I feel sorry for you, if she really is dead to you.”
My grandfather’s face darkened. He began to shake. “You have the wrong woman!” he roared.
* * *
Though my mother enjoyed her sudden popularity, it had its problems. The least of them was the friction with my grandfather. He was, above all, a quiet man, and would usually rather ignore what was happening in his house than make a scene. More problematic were the police. There were rumors that my mother was running some kind of drug den. This they couldn’t prove, so then they told her that fortune-telling for money was illegal in New Orleans. My mother spent a lot of energy trying to convince them that what she was doing was religion. They wanted to know what church. She actually found one—the Church of Spiritualist Studies, headquartered in upstate New York. She joined a local branch. It met every Monday in a tiny storefront on Terpsichore Street. I went with her often. There were folding chairs and plates of snacks and a podium draped in white velvet. Most of the spiritualists were quite old, but I was used to that. They took turns giving lectures: “The Rainbow as Spirit Matter” was one, “Was Eisenhower a Spiritualist?” another. Dull as it was, I was relieved to be going to church at last. I had never gotten over feeling that I could die at any time, and, in that Catholic city, I couldn’t help but feel that not going to church was a very bad idea. And I liked this kind of spiritualism: predictable, bookish, reverent.
Most of all, I enjoyed the message service at the end of every lecture. Each week a different medium was scheduled to serve. She or he stood in front of the podium and gave out spirit messages to the audience—I have an Emma here. Does anyone here know an Emma? It might be her middle name. A small woman, white hair…that’s right, she’s yours, Barnard…—prosaic things, for the most part. The recipient of the message would smile and respond loudly and happily, though they must have all gotten ten thousand such messages during their spiritualist careers. I got very few, myself. Once a tiny fat woman told me, in no uncertain terms, that my father was there. She said that he wanted me to know that he loved me very, very much, and that he was happy in the afterlife, and that he didn’t miss me because he visited me every single night while I was asleep.
I leaned over to my mother and whispered, “But he’s not dead, is he?”
She rolled her eyes. “Sloppy work,” she whispered back.
Another time, I was told that I had to take better care of my eyes, because this life would have a lot to show me. I touched my eyes through their lids. They felt hot, tender, ready to explode.
* * *
We left New Orleans suddenly, one November morning. That is, my mother and I left. My grandfather remained, alone, in the tall, narrow house full of contraptions he had no use for. While we stood on the curb, waiting for the taxicab that would take us to the bus station, he stayed inside. He was too softhearted to even say, So long. From the back window of the taxi I caught a glimpse of him, watching us leave from my old bedroom then letting the curtain fall shut. He was my pal, my staunchest ally, but by leaving I had betrayed him. I hadn’t had a choice, of course. But in my love for my mother I knew I was complicit, and when he died, a few years later, I believed that in the subtlest way I had helped kill him.
The Church of Spiritualist Studies owned a whole town in the middle of New York State, and that’s where we were headed. My mother showed me the pamphlet on the bus. Originally, the town—it was called Train Line—had been planned as a spiritualist summer camp, though people now lived there year round. There was a lake with swans, many tall trees, tiny gingerbread cottages. We’d stay there a few months, maybe, at least until the police forgot about her. She thought they might have had our house under surveillance: she found some tramped-down grass and a pile of candy bar wrappers under a bush in our side yard. These, I knew, were my grandfather’s. He’d taken to lurking out there, sick of the constant comings and goings in our house. For months my mother had been growing increasingly nervous and paranoid, overwhelmed by the new life she’d created for herself, and our leaving had the character of flight: things forgotten and left undone, mail unforwarded.
We got on the bus and trundled northward. Outside, the landscape stiffened and cracked. One morning we were wakened by the idling bus to find ourselves surrounded by snow. I’d never seen it before, or at least, so much of it—occasionally a few damp flakes fell in New Orleans, melting before they hit the ground—and at first I thought we’d parked in a field of concrete. My mother took my arm and we ran out to the gas station to buy a box of crackers before the bus left again, our impractical shoes slipping on the asphalt. The air smelled different, like water in a tin bucket, and crows flapped in circles over our heads. When I spoke, my voice fell straight out of my mouth, completely swallowed up by snow.
Somewhere in Pennsylvania we had to switch bus lines, and there was a long layover. It was eight o’clock in the morning. We tried to sleep in the molded plastic bus station chairs, acrobating ourselves into complicated positions, but failing that we went outside and took a walk along the highway. The sun was just up. It was watery pale and much farther away than it usually seemed. A cornfield stretched along one side of the road, its dead, broken stalks poking through a crust of snow. My mother walked briskly. Her pantsuit flapped against her legs, and her hair, sprayed into a stiff globe, bobbed along with her gait. I had to skip to keep up.
Not far from the road there was a house. It was long abandoned; we could tell because none of the windows had glass in them and the front door hung open like a mouth. The clapboard siding was silver in the morning light, as if it had never been painted, and there seemed to be no way to get to the house other than cutting across the field. We waded through the ditch, my mother taking my hand, and tromped toward it.
The front steps of the house had been taken away, so we clambered up some broken cinder blocks to get in through the doorway. We walked the house carefully, watching for weak floorboards. There was nothing in it but wallpaper—so faded I couldn’t make out the pattern: flowers, maybe, or faces—and a rusted iron stove, and a suitcase. The suitcase lay open on the floor of an upstairs bedroom, as if someone had stayed for a bit, then left without it, arms full of clothes. It had a water-stained, aqua blue lining.
My mother said she knew all about the people who’d lived there. She could feel it. She walked around, touching window frames and doorjambs.
“Here,” she said. “Here’s where the young daughter lay, in a bed right here. See how she could look out the window?” Through the glassless panes I could see more cornfield, a stand of trees at the end of it, some hills behind. It was all a dull winter gray. “She died in springtime. She knew she’d never get to walk through the woods again, but she could look at them and imagine it. She died of consumption. Lots of people did, in the old days.”
“Really?” I said.
She nodded slowly, her large glasses opaque with reflections. Something about my mother’s remarks made me uncomfortable. I had my own feelings—surprisingly powerful ones—about who once lived here. A nasty old woman, hoarding her things, going slowly mad, alone. She would put on a pair of black rubber boots and get her dog and go for walks in the cornfields.
“Honestly!” said my mother, angrily turning to me. “Do you have to stomp when you walk? Be quiet!”
I trailed behind her as she walked slowly through the other rooms. Now and then she stopped to caress the wallpaper, her hand cupped and fingers splayed in a gesture of such forceful intimacy that I found it hard to watch. The old woman—my old woman—would never survive in the bright light of my mother’s vision.
The house was so quiet. Sunlight filled the empty rooms.
* * *
We got to Train Line early that evening. The bus dropped us off at the tall iron front gate. We’d rented a house over the phone but had no idea how to find the place, so I waited by our suitcases while my mother went to look for the main office. Alone with our stuff, I realized I had brought all the wrong things: a new stuffed dog that I hadn’t even named yet, a dictionary, and a glass jar full of coins I’d collected. It had seemed foolish to leave money behind. The thought that there were so many things that I might never see again—my mother’s cauliflower-shaped potholders, or my old slippers—struck me with tremendous force. I wanted to cry out. A cold wind blew off Lake Wallamee, biting my lips and ears and chilling my skull. I no longer owned even a hat.
When my mother came back, she brought a short, chubby woman who was wearing a T-shirt and rubber thongs. She had black hair and giant breasts. She noticed I was staring at her.
“I don’t need a coat because I don’t feel the cold,” she said. “My skin gives off heat. Feel my arm.”
I felt it. It didn’t seem especially hot to me, though it was quite hairy for a woman’s.
“Naomi, this is Mrs. Blackthorn,” said my mother.
I curtsied—my grandfather had taught me that. “How do you do?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, call me Robin,” said the woman, and grabbed three of our suitcases.
We followed her up a narrow, unpaved street lined with houses. The houses were very small, pushed right close together, with no room in front of them for yards. They had one or two stories and large pointed roofs. Most were dark and closed up, but lights burned in some, and the glow of a television in others. My first impression of the town was of clutter. Cars were parked nearly on the front steps, cats jumped from porch roofs and windowsills, hanging plants and wind chimes and mobiles dangled by every door, winnie sandox—said one painted wooden sign—reader. And another: mrs. lawrence, medium, is out. I couldn’t believe it: a town made just for us. The air was bitter and smoky, something I’d later learn to associate with wood stoves.
We stopped in front of shabby cottage with a frill of gingerbread under its eaves. Robin Blackthorn fumbled with a ring of keys, then bumped the door open with her hip. She said to call the office if we needed anything, and we went inside.
* * *
The next few years were the coldest of my life. We heated with kerosene, which meant we had to keep a window cracked open so we wouldn’t suffocate. I’d wake up in the morning with snow in my hair, with ice crusted on the wallpaper. Our windows got so caked with ice I’d have to melt a little hole with my thumb to see out of. Even in the summer, when it was quite warm outside and even hot, I imagined that if I stuck my fingers deep into the soil I’d find ice crystals, a permafrost. I put on weight, maybe because I wasn’t getting sick anymore, or maybe my body wanted to stay warm. If so, it didn’t work. Every year the cold sank deeper into me.
From the little window in my bedroom I could see Lake Wallamee. In the winter it froze, and people rode snowmobiles and skied across it. For those months it would look like a field, vast and remarkably flat, the crops snowed under. The rest of the year it varied in blueness: sometimes gray, sometimes a deep navy, sometimes an algae-choked green. Train Line was on a spit, so the lake surrounded it on three sides. If I pressed my face to the window glass I could see the lake, its ripples flashing silver behind the trees, in any direction I looked. I imagined it had no bottom. It seemed like that to me: dangerous, enveloping, infinitely secretive.
* * *
I thought of a strange thing, lying in my new bed that first night. Strange shadows moved over the room’s slanted ceiling. My ears still roared with the sound of the bus, and when I closed my eyes I could feel the motion of the wheels beneath my body. I managed not to think of my grandparents and our house and my friends from school and my teacher. Instead I thought of Miss Beryl Kemper and the dead Irene. With my mother moved away, Miss Beryl might never speak to her daughter again. Of course, I had been the one speaking to her in the first place. But still. Something had been lost. What was it?
In the dark, I felt Irene Kemper’s painted eyes stare down at me, reproaching me for letting her die twice.
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