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Hal walks uphill. My son is mad, he thinks, and turns a corner, passing a coffeehouse where three women in sweatshirts sit at an outdoor table.
It’s cool, gray, and damp: summer in San Francisco.
“Hey, Hal,” says one, a client. Hal waves.
“Yeah, he’s great,” she says to a friend as he walks on. “He got me back a thousand dollars last year.”
My son is mad, thinks Hal. I am dying.
He almost stops to call Nan and say thatI am dying, I am dyingbut he knows that she will reply, calmly, “You are not dying, Hal. Did you talk to the police today?”
Sometimes he just can’t handle herher persistence, her smooth face, the way she occupies any chair as if she has just built it herself out of a tree she felled with her little saw. I am lost, he thinks, I am sure that I’m dying, my son is mad, and his mother won’t admit that she can’t carry him by herself.
Hal walks on. No one has found Christopher yet, no one has called to say that they’ve seen him, no onenot even Nanhas come in from the desert or the mountains carrying him. Hal looks up at the sky, as if Christopher might appear there, but the sky is blankly bluish gray. Back in Christopher’s room in Hal’s house, Christopher’s saltwater ﬁsh tank is burbling to itself. Expensive ﬁsh circle through the carefully tended water: a lionﬁsh, a snowﬂake eel, three temperamental tangs, and a bamboo cat shark who spends most of its time lying on the bottom of the tank, looking malevolent and morose.
Since Christopher has been gone, it has fallen to Hal to take care of Christopher’s ﬁsh. This morning, Hal noticed that the tank seemed warm and the ﬁsh sluggish, that they were swimming slowly, like a carousel winding down. Hal felt a panicky rush. He believes in omens and portents and signs of all kinds. He immediately set out for the aquarium store, the good one in Noe Valley where he had opened an account for Christopher. He thought he might see an omen or sign on the way, but so far there has been nothing, nothing at all, but that random, friendly hello and miles of sky without a break.
Hal looks down again, at the street. A not uninteresting man with a squashy nose looks Hal’s way, but Hal doesn’t look back.
Hal, walking uphill, is equally certain that Christopher is alive and that he is dead. Either way, he is certain that it will fall to him to carry Christopherwho, at sixteen, is much too heavy and tall now to be carried even by Halin the end.
Nan works in her garden. It is a long, narrow plot of land containing four square beds of ﬂowers outlined by planks of silvered wood; around the beds is grass. Around the garden is a fence, also silvered. Trumpet vines tumble wantonly over the fence toward earth. Midway down the garden is a slender, deep purple, ﬂowering plum that has never ﬂowered or plummed but maintains a hopeful, leafy look. A few feet away from the plum tree, nestled in some tall grasses and a few wayward daisies, is the stone head of Sor Juana. Nan pulls a few weeds from around the pansies. She chews on a shred of chive. Her right hip aches, a tedious reminder of being forty-ﬁve, of the car accident at eighteen that broke her hip in the ﬁrst place, and of the doctor inMexico who didn’t set it right. She picked up the statue during that trip, before she even knew who Sor Juana was or had a garden to put her in. She just liked Sor Juana’s melancholy, downturned stone eyes, her stone wimple; feeling like Orpheus, Nan lugged her back over the border on the bus, placing her heavy stone head on the next seat.
Nan’s body remembers everything and retells it to her from time to time whether she wants to hear it or not. She taps a loose end of a plank into place with her spade.
Marina said, over dinner the night before, “He’s all right. I feel that he’s all right.”
Nan had stared at her plate, willing herself not to think. She found her hand closing and willed her ﬁngers to open. She willed herself not to say, “You couldn’t possibly feel him. You didn’t bear him or raise him.” She put her plate in the sink and walked outside to stand in the dark garden. But what was worse was the fact that Nan didn’t feel anything either.
She had no idea at all where Christopher could be. No breeze stirred the dark leaves.
Today the garden is calm. Nan stands up, holding the spade: a hopeless, foolish tool against the wide world. She thinks how foolish she herself must look, a short woman wiith short, graystreaked hair, in dirty jeans, armed with nothing but a spade. She sighs, dirty ﬁngers clenched around the dirty spade. She closes her eyes for a minute, thinks ChristopherChristopherChristopher, then opens them again. The garden remains empty.
Nan leans down too pick a few small green tomatoes for the windowsilllll. She tugs at a weed. Her hip complains. The cool, damp air washes over her. She tries to feel comforted by its purity.
She listens intently for some sound or cry, perhaps from a great distance, but the only sound is the chink of her spade in the earth.
Marina paints the branch of a tree. The light in her studio is muted. The studio is in a converted church in the Mission; now it’s a church of art. She works in the choir room, a boxy space with rickety windows and the ghost of the smell of wet wool. It’s a mess: scattered around the room are, among other things, her bicycle, canvases in various states of use, work boots, cans of powder paint and acrylic, squashed tubes of oil paint, archival glue and Elmer’s glue, a jigsaw, a drill, sketchbooks, a box of old snapshots bought at a ﬂea market and another two or three overﬂowing with cut-up old books and magazines from her collage period, a hunk of dried-out clay, a kid’s bead loom in a box that says american indian loom, a ruler, a bunch of mismatched baby shoes, a sculpture leaning against one wallan exchange with another artistwhich looks something like a side of cured beef.
A big plastic bucket is ﬁlled with clipped pictures of nineteenth-century valentines. Hearts and the empty shapes where hearts used to be are tangled together. The bucket sits under a table with curlicue white metal legs and a glass top, meant to be patio furniture; the glass is covered with swirls and blobs and streaks of paint, years of it in a multicolored, perpetual storm. Tacked onto the wall next to Marina’s worktable is a yellowed postcard of an Agnes Martin painting: rows of white lines like stitches traced vertically across a slate background, determined and lonely and earthy. When she ﬁrst met Nan, she thought Nan was like that painting.
Scotch-taped to the upper frame of one window are three dried seahorses, a gift from Christopher: one, two, three little rocking creatures with ﬁxed rococo stares. There is a rent notice lying on the ﬂoor near the door, along with a note from Turner, a printmaker who has the studio directly beneath Marina’s. The note says, The cow Roberta won a Prix de Rome. She’s a cow. COW.
Marina can hear Turner below her, laughing and talking on his cell phone. Through the old porous ﬂoorboards, she can smell the etching acid he uses.
Marina dots the tip of the branch. It’s okay. Today the tree is okay, not so bad, she won’t have to scrape it off and start again.
Probably. She looks at it, wrapping a lock of hair around her ﬁnger: a schoolgirl habit, though this schoolgirl has a head of silver hair cut in a bob that just grazes the nape of her long neck.
Marina is only thirty-eight, but her hair has been silver since she was twenty-ﬁve. She would no more have bothered to dye it than she would have bothered to iron a wrinkled shirt or mend a sweater with a hole. She has always preferred a life of casual accretion.
In fact, she believes in it, almost as an ars poetica: what accretes naturally always turns out to be exactly what’s needed.
Painting should be like riding a bike with no hands, a mixture of velocity and trust.
For instance, this tree that she’s been making for the last seven years: it hasn’t been that well received, but she has persevered for reasons she can’t quite explain. She’s made the tree big; she’s made the tree small; she’s made the tree in oil, watercolor, gouache, collage, tinfoil, Polaroid, and acrylic; she’s repeated identical trees in suspiciously regular rows on a single canvas; once she made an entire forest of trees from fabric remnants. This is a tree in oil, dense and telegraphic. She might have to scrape it off after all.
There’s another tree, a tree she can see clearly in her mind’s eye, that will not fail, as this one suddenly seems in imminent danger of doing. The tree at this point has become fairly representational, close to the tree she drew over and over again when she was ten.
It’s a leafy, spreading, eastern sort of tree that seems quite speciﬁc, though if one were to look at it more closely, one would see that it isn’t actually any particular organic species at all. Its branches bend strangely; its leaves are an uncanny shape. There are suggestions of faces in the bark. When she ﬁrst drew it as a child in Los Angeles, it was a tree she had never seen, except in a dream. In the dream, it was the most beautiful tree in the world. She woke up needing to draw it. That was all she knew. In many ways, she thinks it may be all she still knows.
She begins on another branch, with guarded hope.
When the wind blows, the rickety window shakes and the three seahorses, loose in their old tape, rap very faintly on the glass. It is, to Marina, an unbearable sound. In one corner of her studio, a boom box splattered with paint rests next to a wooden tray full of a random collection of CDs: some opera, some Depeche Mode, a boxed set of Patti Smith with crushed corners. She doesn’t turn on the boom box. She listens hard for the tiny, unbearable rattle of the seahorses. It seems important.
Christopher has been gone seven days.
Day by day, the time accretes with other events, events of much greater magnitude that have affected many more people: an earthquake in El Salvador; a change of power in Israel; the rise of the temperature of the earth by a fraction of a degree. Those events, however, are bearable.
What is not bearable is the silence, punctuated by that tiny, almost imperceptible rapping. How will they survive this? Marina has no idea. A leaf appears, then another.
Nan parts Marina’s thighs with her hands, buries her hands, her tongue, in Marina, as desperately as if this is their last fuck on earth. Marina shakes, but doesn’t come yet. She pulls Nan up beside her in the twisted sheets. Nan is sweating and crying at the same time, and her lips feel rough and hot. Marina kisses Nan with deep, purposeful kisses, wanting to draw the poison out, but they are both poisoned, so she can’t.
They can only pass the poison between them. Nan reaches into the drawer of the night table and pulls out the old cracked maroon cock, slides it up inside Marina, whose glue- and paint-stained shirt is still half-buttoned on her body. Her silver hair is snarled and sweaty. Nan says into Marina’s ear, “Give it here,” and when Marina does it’s like a wall falling down and on the other side of the wall is a rushing wind.
Marina starts to cry. Nan sits up, running the heels of her hands through her hair. She looks at the clock and sees that only twentyone minutes have gone by.
Somewhere near Denver, Christopher hitches a ride with a truck heading south.
Copyright © 2004 by Stacey D'Erasmo.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.