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HOT SPRINGS A Novel
By GEOFFREY BECKER
Tin House Books Copyright © 2010 Geoffrey Becker
All right reserved.
Prologue Bernice was ten when her mother walked around the block naked. It was the week before Christmas, the night after they'd set up the tree (her father swearing and muttering as he tried to keep it straight in its stand). School was out, and she had a rabbit named Mr. Ed, and she was supposed to be getting an easel. That was what she always got-art supplies. Her friend from school, Casey Littlejohn, was getting a bicycle, but Casey lived in a different neighborhood, one with yards and quiet streets, where it was safe for a kid to ride a bicycle. In Bernice's neighborhood, you had to be more careful. One day, in front of Tony's Market, a man in a blue jacket with a neatly trimmed beard had asked her if she wanted to be in a movie; she'd just shaken her head and kept walking. Another time, robbers had held up the liquor store at the end of the block. She hadn't seen this happen, had only heard about it later-she imagined comic figures in black masks running out with canvas sacks of money. And when her dad had left his grill out on the porch one night after cooking them all hamburgers for dinner-they'd been so charred and dry they were nearly impossible to eat, even drowned in ketchup-it was gone the next morning, and he announced that he was retiring from barbecuing.
She'd seen other things. A woman with no legs carried out crying and cursing from her house by two policemen. A man with a stomach so huge part of it bounced against his knees. In addition to thieves, she was beginning to understand, the world was full of misfits and grotesques who hid away most of the time, but who occasionally had to go out like anyone else to pick up a loaf of bread or mail a letter. You could see them, if you kept your eyes out. It was like watching for shooting stars, which she'd done with both her parents one night on their roof, the three of them climbing out the third-floor window, she in her nightgown, her father holding a star chart of the summer skies he'd pulled out of National Geographic. Most of the time there was nothing to see, but if you were patient, every now and then something emerged from the darkness and scooted across your field of vision.
This was something like mice, which she didn't mind, but not at all like rats, which disgusted her. Mice lived in their big kitchen, and at night they came out and foraged for crumbs. Her dad killed them with traps he baited with peanut butter and placed under the sink, but Bernice always rooted for the mice. Rats, on the other hand, didn't scoot-they didn't have to. They took their time, and she often saw them in the alley behind the house, because at the end of the block was an apartment building with multiple overflowing garbage cans. "All-you-can-eat buffet," her dad called it.
The day of her mother's naked walk, they'd seen a movie together that she didn't understand at all. It was called Smooth Talk, and in it a girl stayed home instead of going to a cookout with her parents, and then let a dangerous-looking hoodlum and his buddy into her house. In the theater, her mother had started to cry, and Bernice wasn't sure why-the story was more mysterious than anything else. She had no idea why anyone was doing anything, and she felt strongly that it was somehow for adults-that it was hopeless for her even to try to understand. She'd spent a lot of the movie thinking about her envelope-lining collection, and the new addition she'd made to it just that day, which had come from inside a letter her father had received from Japan. She kept these cut squares of paper from security envelopes in a small leather album, and she now had over seventy different examples, and she thought they were beautiful the way wallpaper could be beautiful, the way rain on the roof could be, repetitive and calming.
During dinner, she'd counted the glasses of wine. She did this because she'd recently learned the meaning of the term alcoholic and was curious to figure out if it described her parents, who drank every night. At school, a man had come and given them a lecture called "Ethyl Is No Lady." Ethyl was alcohol, it turned out. During the talk, Casey Littlejohn kept poking Bernice, whispering "Luuuuucy!" Bernice and Casey Littlejohn thought I Love Lucy was the greatest show that had ever been on television, and their favorite name to say out loud was Ethel Mertz. Both of her parents had five glasses of red wine. She thought this was probably a lot, but at least neither of them planned to drive.
After dinner, which was quiet-just the sounds of their chewing, the tick of flatware on plates, the occasional clanking of the broad-shouldered steam radiator that hunkered along the interior wall behind her father's chair-she went to the parlor to practice piano. They had an old upright that wouldn't stay in tune, but she liked it, liked the sourness of it the same way she liked bitter vegetables that none of her friends had even heard of, Swiss chard and kale and beet greens. This was the thing she and her mother had in common. One of things, anyway.
Her father went upstairs, as he always did. Bernice worked on the Minuet in G. It wasn't going well, but her grandmother was paying for lessons, and she felt some responsibility to try to get at least one piece learned. From the hallway, she heard the click of the front door opening. Then she heard it close again, quietly. A few moments later, cold air slipped into the room, settling around her feet.
At first, she thought she'd keep playing. But after a moment she stood and hurried to the window, climbing up onto the ledge so that she could peer out over the top of the lower shutters, which were closed. What she saw filled her with dread. Her mother was walking out to the sidewalk, nude except for her running shoes, the reflective strips of which flickered in the thin light from the street lamps. Her boyish body was right there on public display for the neighborhood: her flat bottom; her small, white breasts; all her most secret places. She paused for a moment and looked at the house, and their eyes met. Her mother smiled and waved, then gave a thumbs-up, fluffed her hair, and proceeded to walk down the street.
Bernice wasn't sure what to do. She felt panicked, but more than that, she was afraid that if her father found out, it would somehow be the end of everything. Bernice sensed that her family was held together so lightly it was almost certain to someday come apart like a cheap toy. Her dad had been her mother's teacher before they fell in love. He was twenty years older, and he sometimes seemed so frustrated with her that Bernice saw her mom as just an overgrown kid who might even be better off coming to school with her rather than staying around the house all day.
She was gone about five minutes. Bernice watched her come up the porch steps, then left her post at the window and stood at attention in the parlor entrance. Her mother reentered the house, accompanied by a draft of frigid air. She pushed the enormous oak door shut behind her, the heavy central glass pane rattling loudly in its frame. Her skin was bright red. She stood with her back to the radiator in the entrance hall, rubbing her hands together. She seemed pleased with herself.
"Mom?" said Bernice.
"Pretty," said her mother, and for a moment Bernice thought this was directed at her, but then she realized her mother was looking past her, to the Christmas tree directly behind, which glittered in the corner by the far parlor window, covered in bright ornaments.
Bernice turned and looked, too. She knew exactly which presents were hers. The easel was obvious, wrapped in candy-cane paper, a lumpy object too big to fit under the tree and so leaned up against the wall beside it. With her father's help, she'd bought her mother a book called The History of Photography from a discount catalog, something she felt reasonably certain qualified as the worst present ever given anyone. She dreaded the moment when her mother would open it.
She turned back. "He doesn't know," she said, at length.
"He doesn't?" asked her mother.
"I don't think so. We don't have to say anything."
Her mother's eyes lit up. A secret. She loved secrets. The cold air had turned her cheeks alizarin crimson. "Do I have a kimono?" her mother asked. "I don't, do I? I should have one. Everyone should have a kimono. But no. Instead, we have bathrobes." She grasped her breasts with both hands, as if reminding herself that they were there.
"I can get your bathrobe," said Bernice, happy to have something to do. "You stay right here."
"No kimono," said her mother.
She went up to her parents' bedroom and got the big blue bathrobe out of the closet and brought it back down. Her mother was still naked, still by the radiator, waiting, humming to herself.
She took the robe and put it on. Then she bent her knees so that her face was even with Bernice's. Her breath had a sour, almost medicinal quality to it, and Bernice didn't like the way her eyes looked at all. "Do you know what that was like?" she asked. Her expression suggested that a part of her was still outside. "It was like sailing around the world."
"Did anyone see?" Bernice asked.
"Did anyone? I think so. I hope so." She touched Bernice's nose. "Don't worry so much. It will give you lines around your mouth later in life."
"Who? Who saw?"
"I don't know," she said. "A better question would be, what did they see?" She stood. "Do you want to stay up all night with me?"
"No," said Bernice.
Her mother scrutinized her, then smiled in a way that made Bernice feel peculiar, as if she were being forgiven for something she didn't even know she'd done. "Of course not. All right then, up to bed."
"It's too early," Bernice said. "I want to watch television."
"You're a shining star," said her mother. "That's what you are. And you know what? I could have just kept on sailing. Honestly. Except for you. You brought me back." Then she stood up, went into the kitchen, and set about making tea.
* * *
He didn't know, and Bernice never told, but she didn't have to. Christmas came and went without much in the way of further incident. They all played their roles, pretended at being a normal, happy family. But her father was on to her mother. How could he not be? She'd been his best student-at least that was the story-and they'd fallen in love, and now she was going crazy. Or maybe she'd always been crazy, and that was why she was his best student, and it was what he'd loved about her. Bernice didn't know, and she found the circularity of the puzzle dizzying. One thing led to another, didn't it? Perhaps it was the burden of being his best student that had started to make her crazy. Perhaps it was no longer being his student, and hence no longer being the best, that was the problem.
Sometimes her mother went out at night and didn't come back until very late.
Sometimes she wore black lipstick.
She liked to sing along, very loud, to Elvis Costello records, and also sinister-sounding blues ones.
One day, Bernice found that the crotches had been snipped out of all her underpants. That night at dinner, her mother started giggling and had to be excused.
Sometimes Bernice could hear her sobbing in her studio, when she was supposedly working on her paintings. (Her father did his painting outside the house, in a rented space downtown.) Bernice imagined what Casey Littlejohn would say about that. Wimp, maybe? Froot Loop, more likely. Bernice had made the mistake of telling Casey about the underwear incident, and now she lived in constant fear that Casey would someday stop being her friend and let it get around to the whole school, at which point Bernice's life, as she knew it, would essentially be over.
And then, less than three months after the naked walk, her mother solved everything by moving out. This came as a complete surprise to Bernice, although she had sensed that something was up. Often she heard her parents fighting down in the dining room after she went to bed, their voices drifting up the stairwell, the individual words losing definition and becoming more like the distant sounds of animals, or perhaps the moaning of unhappy ghosts.
Her father came to pick her up from school. On the way home, he suggested they stop at Safeway and get Berger cookies, her favorite. It was a Monday, and the day before, in a magical transformation, as if they'd been holding their breath and were now exhaling, all the cherry and pear trees in Baltimore had blossomed at once. Sunlight glanced off the pink and white flowers, and Bernice felt excitement at this clear promise that summer was coming. She liked summer. She loved the sun.
They bought the cookies. He seemed preoccupied, distant. When they got back to the house, he nosed the car too far into the garage and broke a hole into the wooden cupboard that stood against the back wall.
Inside, he got her milk from the refrigerator, then sat with her at the kitchen table. "Your mother," he said, "has gone to live with another man."
"What other man?" Bernice asked.
"Just someone. I don't know, to tell you the truth. A musician, I think. It doesn't really matter. The point is that she doesn't live here anymore. You are not to think about her, all right? It's just you and me, now. We'll get along fine. If she calls, I'd like you to give me the phone. What she's done is inexcusable, and she knows that." He hadn't looked at her the entire time he'd been talking, but now he did. "All right?" he asked. He might have been working out a deal on how much television she'd be allowed, or on what kind of grades she'd need to get an increase in her allowance.
Bernice knew that this was not necessarily her real mother doing this, whatever it was. It was her Froot Loop mother. The underwear snipper. The person who had sneaked in and was wearing her real mother's body like a Halloween outfit.
"I want to talk to her," she said.
"Well, you can't. She's not here." He stood up. "You may need counseling or something like that. If you do, I hope you'll let me know. It's expensive, and I'm not sure whether my insurance will cover it or not, but that's all right. I want you to know that-you can go to counseling if you want to. We'll make that work."
The next weekend, her mother came to pick her up in her green VW bug for Sunday brunch. Her father, after a brief telephone discussion with her mother, had agreed to this. She wore a low-cut brown dress and makeup. Bernice wore jeans and a pink shirt. When she got in the car, she gave her mom a drawing she'd done at school. It was of a screen door with a girl behind it, which was a scene from the movie they'd been to.
"Oh," said her mother, when she saw it. "This is really nice."
"Thanks. It's for you."
She took it and reached around, placing it carefully amid the detritus on the backseat-candy wrappers and empty soda bottles and library books and plastic grocery bags.
They drove to IHOP, where a tall, skinny man was waiting to meet them. His name was Craney Crow. "Just like the song," he said, smiling.
"What song?" Bernice asked.
Her mother laughed. "That's what I said!" They were in a booth in the back of the restaurant, and almost all the people at all the other tables were black. Many of them were dressed up very nicely, and Bernice couldn't help staring, even though she knew it was rude. One woman wore a purple hat with white flowers on it that was so big it looked like a very wide wedding cake.
Craney Crow had nice eyes, but he also had snaggle teeth, olive skin, and a little soul-patch beard. He said "cool" too much. That was what he'd said when her mother had introduced them out in the reception area, where he'd been waiting for them. Cool. Craney Crow was a cool cat. He had long, tangled dark hair that Bernice wanted to run a comb through. "It's this song," he said. "People know it."
"What people?" asked Bernice.
He stared right at her. She wondered if he were going to use whatever magical powers he had to seduce her into liking him, the same way he had her mother. "People."
"Not any people I know," said Bernice.
"Shake-a-my, shake-a-my, shake-a-my, shake-a-my, shake-a-my Craney Crow."
"It sounds like a dumb song."
"What songs do you like?"
She sang him a line about standing too close.
"Jesus, she likes the Police. What did you do to her, Eve?" He turned to her mother, picked up his spoon to use as a microphone. "Da doo doo doo, da daa daa daa," he sang.
"I like that one, too," said Bernice.
Their pancakes arrived, along with Bernice's Belgian waffle, and they set about eating. Bernice's mother had asked for a pitcher of hot water with hers, and she poured it over the top of the stack.
"She wants to make 'em bigger," said Craney Crow. "You put hot water on 'em, they inflate."
The pancakes did seem to grow an extra third or so in size. Her mother offered the pitcher. "You want to try it?"
Excerpted from HOT SPRINGS by GEOFFREY BECKER Copyright © 2010 by Geoffrey Becker. Excerpted by permission.
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