Buy the Kindle book at Amazon.com
I’m speaking on a panel in San Francisco. Alternative medicine. They ought to call it Quackapalooza. Acupuncture, which has never been proven to do anything. Nutritional supplements, which are completely unregulated, and thereby scare the hell out of me. And homeopathy, which is just an out-and-out scam. In this kind of company, marijuana looks downright establishment. Thanks to the feds’ refusal to allow testing on it for most of the 20th century, pot’s effects remain largely anecdotal, but given such an enormous sample size, its benefits in the areas of pain management and appetite are pretty freakin’ obvious. Still, I try to be a good colleague and not roll my eyes while the other panelists are talking.
We are ensconced in one of those old hotels that got a little swallowed up by surrounding buildings. The place offers the kind of intimate, old-world charms not found in its skyscraper neighbors. We meet in a catacombish conference room before an audience of spectacled academics and aging hippies. The great exception is a woman in the second row who literally towers above the rest, whose frosted blonde hair and green eyes are doing a number on my powers of concentration. So far, she has been responsible for three ums, two ahs and one ahem. I fear I am beginning to look like an amateur.
After a round of elbow-rubbing in the foyer, I head down the street to a place called Major Tom’s, where my panelist badge gets me a fifty percent discount. It’s a buffet-style sports bar, high wood-paneled walls, 27 televisions. The food is comfort-style American, and I cannot resist a slab of sauced-up homestyle meatloaf. I succeed in finding a small table near the back and am about to dig in when the tall blonde sits across from me. Apparently, Reeferman has acquired the power of conjuring supermodels.
“Hi.” She takes a sip of iced tea and smacks her lips. She’s wearing a cream-colored blouse that reveals trace amounts of bra and cleavage.
“Hi.” She smiles expectantly.
I clear my throat. “Ahem! I think we covered that. Are you here for the, uh, conference?”
“I’m here for you.”
I’m about to request a price list when I notice a small scar on her collarbone.
“You look very much not like a Jehovah’s Witness.”
“Excuse me. I’m going to eat a big bite of meatloaf now.” Callie waits patiently as I ruminate.
“Mormon?” I ask. “Lutheran? Presbyterian?”
“No! That’s my least unfavorite religion.”
“I like it.”
“So… what happened?”
Callie takes a look sideways. “My mother died.”
She wipes her eye. “Skin cancer. Godawful, horrible. It ate her from the outside in. It burned her alive. I can no longer accept a God that would intentionally torture a beautiful human being. And I began to ask questions. Which set into motion the same humiliating, dehumanizing process that I once inflicted on my very… dear husband.”
Her eyes crinkle. She tries to smile, but only succeeds in producing more tears.
“Could you… could you ever bring yourself to forgive me?”
I would not suspect my ex-wife of subterfuge, except that the décor seems to match her hair. We are settled in a corner of the hotel lobby, a charming little compartment of Spanish arches and amber bead curtains. We’re drinking Irish coffees.
“I never answered your question.”
“I think I interrupted you with waterworks.”
“The answer is yes. Of course I forgive you. In the classic Mafia sense, you ratted me out, but you also did me an enormous favor. One thing I can’t figure, though. Why did you keep inviting me back? You knew the church wouldn’t take me.”
She smiles. “I wasn’t speaking for the church. I was speaking for me. The impossibility of the real-world situation did not faze me, because I was operating on faith, which is really just the same as stupidity. And God I missed you.”
I’m not yet ready to admit that I missed her. She takes my hand.
“What about now? Can I have you now?”
I have no answer. She takes my finger and sucks it into her mouth. “I have a room in this hotel. And I am not any longer a moral woman.”
Without the semi-arranged marriages of JW, I never would have landed a woman like Callie. And we would not have discovered an extraordinary sexual chemistry. The memory of those volleyball-player legs has me considering her offer.
“How long have you been out?”
“You’ve come a long way.”
“Answer the question.”
“Half Moon Bay. Answer the question.”
I bite a fingernail. “A painful no.”
She lets my hand drop. “I guess I can’t blame you.”
“You got a little time? Can I tell you a story?”
“Some other chick?”
“Some chick whose religious tribulations make ours look like a trip to Disney World.”
“Well. Okay. But I’m gonna need another drink.”
She shivers. “Man! The old epithets are kinda sexy.”
“You have only begun to discover the joys of secular… well, Buddhist life.”
She waves a hand. “Buddha’s a cover. I’m still not ready to call myself an agnostic. I keep expecting lightning bolts.”
“Yep. It takes a while. But it’s worth the trip. Another Irish?”
“You got it.”
Sam inisted on sleeping with me. He was concerned about the knife incident, and wanted to act as a human shield. The first night, he wore the pants and shirt from his green suit. The second night, I insisted he at least strip down to his long johns. On the third night, I had a visitation from the moon-faced angel, the one who warned me away from the phantoms on the orange bridge. She told me that I should take up painting.
Two weeks later, our sleeping arrangements have become a habit. Sam tells me it helps him to sleep better, knowing that he doesn’t have to worry about my safety. I enjoy having him beside me, his breath rising and falling. He reminds me of my atheist Jesus. When it gets too cold, I wrap his arm around me. Sam scolds me for this, but I don’t think he means it. He’s had too many years of worrying about his public image, and doesn’t seem to realize he no longer has a public.
In the morning, I stoke the fire and place a teapot on the stove (Sam is a veritable addict). I give myself a quick sponge-bath and head for the Sunday-school classroom, where I have cleared the back wall and covered it with white paint. After a thorough search of the art supplies, I found a box of French colored pencils marked with the letters IH – Isadora Hampstead. I begin at the very center, eye-level, with tiny lines, crosshatches and squiggles. They spread from the spot like a puddle. I have no particular aim, but soon my hand produces letters, numbers, punctuation marks, scattering across the wall like moths. The letters begin to congeal into names: Jacob, Amethyst, Matterhorn, Sass, Cloudburst, Throckmorton, Paul, Tamalpais, Sylvia, Depot, Paul, Mill, Wonderland, Javid, Montana, Molly, Paul. Paul. Every time I write Paul, the letters send a buzzing down my arm. Then I write Ruth Elizabeth and I freeze, just the way I froze at my basement door. I take a breath and write it several more times, each in a different color: Ruth Elizabeth, Ruth Elizabeth, Ruth Elizabeth Copper.
Sam drops by, teacup in hand, and marvels at my work. “Child! What a magnificent whirlwind.”
I step back from my work and take his hand. “I like it, too, but some of the words puzzle me.”
“Why? I see biblical names, geography, my name – thank you…”
“It all seems fairly random, which I assume was your intention.”
“I don’t know if I have an intention, but… I feel like the words are trying to tell me something.”
Sam laughs. “Being words, that is their inclination.”
“Oh! Now you’re making fun of me.”
I return to the wall, to the letters written in gold.
“This one especially. Ruth Elizabeth Copper.”
“Isn’t that your grandmother’s name?”
“I… I never met my grandmother.”
“Which would explain your curiosity. It’s very natural to yearn for heritage. If you want, I’ll look into the church records. But tell me, this painting – and drawing. Has it helped? Do you feel better?”
My face feels hot. But I don’t really want to revisit the knife incident, so I say only, “Yes. Thank you.”
“Could I leave you on your own tomorrow? I had best get to some hunting.”
I look at my shoes. “Yes. I’m over it now.”
“Good.” He comes over to lift my chin and kiss me on the nose. I wish that he would kiss me on the lips.
“I’ll leave you to your work. Michelangelo.”
“Thank you, Sam.”
I dream of letters, W’s with wings, H’s with legs, big hairy Q’s chasing me toward the ocean. I run along the spine of a bald mountain, and I realize too late that half of it has been eaten away. My fall is punctuated by letters: Aaaaaaeeeeeooooo...
I land on Sam’s bed minus Sam, and I experience a brief panic before I remember his hunting trip. His absence makes me feel insufferably alone. I cannot face my wall of mysteries, so I heat up enough water for a lukewarm bath and prepare for a hike.
It’s early April, I think, and the weather has been generous. I take a trail that crosses a meadow behind the church, and I find that the snow has been replaced by a thousand yellow daffodils. I take off my sweater and stuff it into my backpack – the one that Justin bought for me. This makes me think of Irma and Sal, my train-wreck family. My step feels lighter.
The trail rises into a hillside of birches. I stop at a rivulet carved by the snowmelt, and I see a flash of white. I dip a hand into the water and pull out a shaft of cloudy rock, capped by a lopsided pyramid. It’s a crystal. Quartz. My childhood hobby comes flooding back to me. I wash away the sand, burnish it with my shirtsleeve and stow it in my pack, wrapped by the sweater.
The trail climbs onto a small plateau. I pass an outcropping of dull brown rocks marked by coyote scat, then I spy the crown of a sycamore tree, nestled in a swale of clover and mustard. When I enter the clearing, I smell cigarette smoke. A red-haired man. I turn and run.
“Wait! Kelly! It’s Jacob, I… Jasmina!”
The basement door. Ruth Elizabeth. My body is constructed entirely of emergency brakes. I look back, ready to sprint away at a sudden movement.
“You are. Also Kelly Copper. Childhood friend of Jacob Andergrast.”
I peer at him, the thin build, the rusty hair, the funny stiff set of his mouth.
I pace toward him, close enough to get a better look. He stands perfectly still, like a soldier under inspection.
“What’s the game?” I ask.
He looks down and laughs. “It’s sex. We didn’t know that. We saw two college kids on a motorbike, and we just… did what they did.”
I walk toward him; I stop two feet away. A smile grows across my face, and then his. We meet in a hug.
“Been a long time, Kelly.”
Jacob heats a pot of water over his campfire and stirs in something from a foil packet. The results are surprisingly good.
“They do some amazing things with dehydrated food,” he says. “This is beef stroganoff.”
He pours a dark liquid into a metal cup and offers it to me. “Wine. Not too strong, but it’ll warm you up a little.”
The clearing has fallen into twilight, and I’m worried about Sam. But Jacob seems to know more about me than I do, so it’s hard to leave. I look up at the branches of the sycamore, showing the slightest hint of budding.
“Is this a special place?”
“This was our hangout. Our refuge. Oh! Speaking of…” He reaches into his pack and pulls out a rough cube of crystal. I laugh and pull out my own.
Jacob smiles. “You are the best quartz-hound in Montana.”
“Pure luck. So where’s the amethyst?”
“I gave it to Paul.”
I give him a look that must be pretty easy to read.
“So. Paul rings a bell.”
“Does he… Does he look like Jesus?”
Jacob squints at the afterglow, performing a mental scan, and chuckles. “Yeah. Kinda. If Jesus went to Berkeley.”
“Kind of nerdy. Spectacles. Skinny. Bookish.”
“How about Jasmina?”
Jacob takes out a cigarette and lights it in the fire. “Look. I am in way over my head. I’m not really sure if I’m supposed to tell you any of this. I’m afraid it’ll freak you out.”
“You’re afraid I’ll cut myself?”
“Well, yeah. For one.”
I grab Jacob’s cigarette and take a drag. He looks surprised.
“My first night here, when I found out my mom died, I was about to… Sam stopped me. Then the moon-faced angel told me to paint, and all these names came up in the pencils. I don’t know what they mean, one of them was Paul, but then Sam went hunting and…”
“Whoa! Slow down, Sister Kelly.” He throws his cigarette into the fire. “Okay. Keep in mind, this is just my understanding of things. You went through a lot of shit as a kid. After you left Cloudburst, you kind of developed this other identity. You called yourself Jasmina, and you told people that your parents were killed in Serbia. By a bomb. The thing is, the story was so good that eventually you believed it yourself, and your original identity, Kelly Copper, disappeared. A couple of years ago, you ended up in California, got a job at a movie theater, and hooked up with a bookstore owner named Paul Debenkof.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I tracked you down. Fliers, websites, that kind of thing.”
“I’m your friend. I always wondered what happened to you.”
I am very close to something, and I fear I will not break through this wall unless I force myself to be rude.
“Bullshit! Do not bullshit me. I will leave right now.”
“All right, all right.” Jacob waves me down and lights another cigarette. He takes three long pulls before going on.
“You had a daughter. Because of the game. When you left Cloudburst, you took her with you.”
The pressure rises to the backs of my eyes. I stand and rub at a spot on my forehead.
“She was christened here, in church. The next week, you were gone.”
My nativity dream. The package. The sliding glass doors.
“I’m really sorry, Kelly. If I had known what was going on…”
“I abandoned her. How could I do that?” I’m wandering around the fire now, feeling like a madwoman. “Okay. I abandoned her. Where?”
“Okay. Go on.”
Jacob stands and paces the opposite side of the fire.
“About a month ago,” he says, “you disappeared from California. I had a pretty good idea that you would end up here. But first I went to Minneapolis. There’s a website where adopted kids seek out their biological parents. I had a lead, a girl, abandoned at a hospital the same week you left Cloudburst. We arranged a meeting, and the similarities were stunning. Eyes, face – especially hair.”
He returns to the log.
“Well, Jesus, Jacob. Don’t stop there.”
He cradles one hand in the other, rubbing at his knuckles. “We took a DNA test. I’m not the father.”
I sit next to him and sip at my wine. The afterglow is almost gone.
“Oh God. Sam’s probably worried.”
Jacob glares at me.
“What is this fucking thing with Sam? Do you realize what that asshole did to you? Your mother beat the shit out of you, while you were pregnant, under direct orders from Reverend Sam Matterhorn. It’s like he was trying to kill your child.”
Jacob’s anger frightens me. But I also have the terrible feeling that he’s right. I am frozen. Again. He kneels before me.
“I’m sorry, Kelly. I didn’t mean to raise my voice. I realize you’re in a… precarious state. But you were my best friend, and they took you away from me. So do me this favor, okay? Stay here tonight. Just one night. I brought an extra sleeping bag.”
If the speech didn’t do it, the look in his eyes did. Somewhere in all that shit, I managed to make an actual friend.
He slaps me on the knee. “Good. And… I’m sorry about your mom.”
“She was an awful human being.”
“I know. But I’m still sorry.”
Photo by MJV