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There was a girl in Alta's bed when the phone rang, a girl all red-haired and fair-skinned and fleshy, which is to say, nothing like Shy. And that's just the way Alta wanted it. She was tired of trying to turn a vague resemblance into desire, tired of playing hide-and-seek between memories worn thin and a stranger's familiar face. They say things get easier in time and people forget. Yes, everything had changed, and for the better, but she remembered it all.
Alta smelled the girl on her hands even as she crossed the room. She thought it might be Renny, her best friend, calling, or one of any number of girls who had her phone number on business cards or lipstick-blotted scraps of cocktail napkin. She didn't care who was waiting at the other end. The girl was watching her and she liked it, liked her eyes from across the room, which was what she'd noticed about her last night before she'd brought her home. Pat, the bartender, had winked as they left. "People can always tell who Alta's gone home with," she'd said behind them, "because a shadow of her silhouette is burned into the wall."
"Hello?" Alta spoke as if she were saying it to the girl and as if it were the first thing she'd said to her. She was already replaying newness, one morning after one night, and she knew she'd never touch her again, not on purpose, after the girl left in an hour or so.
"Hello, Alta." Her mother.
"Hello," Alta echoed numbly, though it struck her as funny that if she could manage to call her Mother, the girl might think Mrs. C. phoned Alta as a matter ofcourse on any random day. "To what do I owe this privilege? What's wrong?"
Mrs. C. ignored Alta's irony. "It's about Shy's mother, Mrs. Mallon."
The leaves outside kept bouncing in the wind, the cars moved by. Her mother spoke calmly, good-deed church voice taut over what sounded to Alta like triumph or at least a certainty about the order and rightness of events, a trait Mrs. C. called faith and Alta called rigor mortis. Mrs. Mallon was the one good thing from Alta's past that had made its way forward to her present.
"What happened? Is she okay?"
Alta held her breath the way Shy used to make her do when they'd pass through tunnels and under bridges, holding their feet off the ground, counting seconds in their heads. Those days when they still believed that they had mystic power over fate and that wishes could be held the way you hold your breath.
"I'm calling from the hospital, St. Luke's. They think it's some kind of stroke. At this point she can't talk or move, really."
Alta sat down on the edge of the chair by her desk. The girl wrapped the sheet under her arms and hugged her knees so Alta could see her freckled back, the curve of her spine.
"Everything okay?" she mouthed.
Alta shook her head and looked out the window. The day was so bright the few clouds glowed, and the dust on her windows was dappled by the shadows of bobbing leaves.
"She collapsed on her front lawn this morning. I came out and found her lying there. Lucky I was on my way to work, wasn't it? I had to call 911. They wanted to take her to Hamilton, but I convinced them St. Luke's was at least as close. They have to go by regulations, you know. I said she was Catholic, though if you ask me she wasn't much of one. Well, that's between her and God now, I'd say."
"What do you mean by that?"
"You mean she's dying?"
The girl got up and padded down the hall.
"I just mean she can't talk."
"I'm going to see her right now. St. Luke's is just off the frontage road, right?" Alta's father had died there when she was too little to know the way.
"Well, listen here, Alta. You'd best call Shy, because I don't have her number. She gave it to me when she was here for her dad's funeral, but I didn't hold on to it." Mr. Mallon had died three years before. Alta had been away at a special weeklong work retreat, and Shy'd left before she got back.
"You know I haven't seen her since long before that."
"Listen, Alta. They've been asking me all sorts of questions about her medical history, and, to be honest with youand I told them thisI've lived next door to the woman for sixteen years and I don't even know her maiden name. Nothing. I can leave it in the hands of Father Hobin, but I don't see what more he can do. She's still in emergency, but they're going to have to move her up to intensive care, and they're going to need her insurance information, at the least. I know you go in and out of that house as you please, and Shy's number must be in there somewhere, don't you think? Dr. Gilbert has been very patient with my absence today, but I've got to get to work. He hardly knows how to function without me."
"I'll see what I can do." Suddenly, Alta was a child again, not trying hard enough, never pleasing her.
"Tell Shy I'd like to see her if she comes. She can stay here if she wants, but then that whole big house is empty next door, so she won't have need of a place, will she? But tell her to be sure to visit me."
"Of course she'll come"
"Oh, and Alta, don't ride your motorcycle into the neighborhood. It draws a kind of attention to yourself that isn't right. I still have to live here, you know."
And then Alta was listening to the empty phone line.
The girl came back, naked, with a cup of coffee in her hands. "Carefulit's hot," she said.
"Aren't you an angel." Alta took a big sip, scorching her tongue and throat. She pulled the girl down on her knee. Suddenly bodies seemed to be electric conveyors of memory and mood, dangerous to touch. Alta had an uncomfortable urge to confide in the girl. She couldn't tell her about Shy and Mrs. Mallon. She had abandoned her childhood, except for Mrs. Mallon. She had trained herself in the hasty rhythms of this lovely city, its lusts and brawls and mini- tragedies stretched over a several-mile radius that extended into the Bay and then across that rusty brace at the mouth of the ocean and into its gray waters. If she'd had time, she'd have drawn pictures for the girl of her life here, to remind herself that it was real, more real than Shy, more real than the past--it had to be, being the present, right? She brought home girls, elegant, playful, delicious girls, not for the sex, though she enjoyed that, too, but for the chance, half asleep afterward, to tell them the stories of her days, of her adventures, of her friends. She made them laugh, she held them as they fell asleep, yet, still, she had never told the real stories. Tomorrow she would return to work, to her everyday routine of flesh and piercings, the present as she had created it, but Mrs. Mallon was the underpinning of all that was most important to her, and whatever Alta could do to fix everything, she would do. "Would you like to go for a ride ?" she asked the red-haired, eager girl. "I have some business I have to take care of, and I'd welcome company." And of course, because Alta wanted her to, because Alta knew she would, for no other reason than that Alta was Alta, with heat in her hands, heat in her eyes, a way with women and words, the girl said, simply and without need of convincing, "Yes."
In California it's possible to ignore winter--a few weeks of rain, shut your eyes tight and it's done; the sun reappears, the sky is brighter, if possible, than it was. It's hotter across the bridge than in San Fran- cisco. In the City the fog layers the cool over even the most un- bearable heat. But go east, and the world is baked yellow, cracked dry. Alta's thirst when she lived there was immense. Shy and she would mix pitcher after pitcher of lemonade. They agreed exactly on the amount of sugar needed to cut the bitterness without dispelling it altogether.
San Francisco itself seemed to quench Alta's thirst, even as it stirred her hunger for things she'd only imagined and things she'd never imagined at all. The day sparkled across the waters on either side of them as they crossed the bridge--brilliant, harsh handfuls of light shot back from the rippled surface. Alta's Honda 450, with its straight black seat and what was left of the red trim, gleamed and grew hot. The girl held on to Alta lightly--at least it felt light to her because it was a purely physical hold. Just the thrill of the ride. The gravelly roll of roads buzzed in Alta's bones. She knew every inch of these roads, because she'd used them to put distance between herself and that place she'd once called home.
"Little place near San Francisco." That's what she used to tell people when they asked her where she had grown up. "Little place not far from here." In the last couple of years, people seemed to assume she'd sprung up full-grown in the City. Some people wonder about the kind of childhood that creates a person like Alta, but the wise ones wonder what kind of childhood didn't destroy her.
When she was very young her father would hold her hand while she was falling asleep. The skin of his palm felt reassuring and rough. She loved its warmth against the cool cotton of her pillowcase. After he died she had dolls and teddy bears, but none of them measured up to the sour-sweet smell of mothballs and beer and Old Spice, the low-down timbre of his voice that lulled her into a trance. She wanted to be just like him. When he died, the only space where she was just fine caved right in. Her cowboy outfit would disappear for weeks at a time, as if she might forget in the meanwhile who she was and what she wanted. Her Star Wars action figures were replaced with fuzzy toy mice in outfits of purple and black lace. The onslaught of dolls began. Nothing comforted her like her daddy's hand in hers until the first night she held Shy in her arms. Maybe Alta had learned the irrevocable lessons of loss and need before she ever met Shy. But her childhood was a fire that was trying to destroy everything that mattered to her about herself, and she buried herself in Shy so she wouldn't get smoke in her lungs, so she could keep on breathing every day.
Everything slowed as they went east: the speed of the traffic as if a cop were close by, the sound of the wind, the smiles, if they came at all. There were lies Alta told herself when she was riding; she liked to think that she was free, that she could turn on the road and head in any direction, go. The truth was, she couldn't go anywhere. Her face might as well have been printed on WANTED flyers in post offices for all the sanctuary she was given, even by those who had brought her into this world with no guarantees. Her life was full, plenty of girls and no shortage of business, but she crossed the boundaries of that world at risk. It was more than a mere disadvantage: her life was endangered every time.
"Mrs. Mallon, Mrs. Mallon," she chanted into the oncoming wind. She tried to imagine the woman who had become her friend lying in a hospital bed. But the Mrs. Mallon of her childhood had always seemed familiar with death, and it was she who came to Alta now. Her eyes were the darkest blue Alta had ever seen, clouded and full of sorrow. Alta thought of the meals Mrs. Mallon used to cookstrange dishes so different from the meatloaf and boiled vegetables of Mrs. C.'s kitchenand the way they ate those meals in silence. Mrs. Mallon scared Alta in those days, but her rare, effortful smile encouraged Alta to believe that the sweet and sour of her food were as much an unspoken message as Shy's closed-eyed sighs in the nights. At that time, Alta was forced to take what communication she could from the small gestures of the livingthe way she would wake up in the night with Shy's body pressed against hers and once or twice Shy's shirt found bunched at the bottom of the blankets and all her skin under Alta's eager, careful hands; the way Shy looked at her occasionally when they were alone, her eyes staying on Alta's, not turning away, scarcely blinking, so that Alta sensed that Shy's longing for her might be as real as hers was for Shy.
Alta always thought memories pressed harder than the present. She didn't let many people matter to her now the way the people from her past had mattered: her father, Shy, Mrs. Mallon, her mother, her little cousins. They had all mattered before she even understood what that meant. Then they were gone; or rather, she was gone, but it amounted to the same thing.
Well, that was all the past, the pain and the comfort of it, she told herself, running one gloved hand behind her up the girl's thigh. She'd do what she could for Shy, who, even with all the anguish she'd caused, had made the years of her childhood and adolescence as bearable as they had been, and she'd see if she could do anything at all for Mrs. Mallon, who had reached through her own sorrow and shown Alta a way out. And then she'd leave again, as soon as she was finished, and be free of itfree of it all, if she could.
The first time Shy came over to play, all disheveled and tan, her family had just moved in next door and she had a rash from poison oak on her left arm. She and Alta sat on either side of the old, worn couch where Alta's father had slept the last months of his life, when he was too tired to move, even in the daytime. There were red bumps all over the skin from her wrist to her elbow. Alta couldn't look at them.
The girl had seemed more appealing when the moving van had first arrived, and Alta had watched her from her hall window until her mother had caught her and said, "Isn't it exciting that another little girl is moving in next door?"
The girl was nine and Alta was seven, though she was only one year ahead of Alta in school because her mother had started her late. The school, which was part of their church, had already told Mrs. C. about the Mallons' arrival. Alta hated when her mother said that: "another little girl"words all full of her push for Alta to become one, too. Her mother had always wanted a little girl, she used to tell Alta, as if this were a sign of love. It took her longer than Alta's father to accept that she hadn't exactly gotten what she wanted. Alta began to dread this little girl's visit; she was such a pretty girl. Even as a child, Shy was delicate and strong at the same time, a combination Alta's mother longed for in her.
Then she was here. "Let's chase my cat," Alta suggested, turning her eyes away from the rash. Old Spike sat in the window licking a patchwork face. Slowly, they got up and tiptoed over toward the unsuspecting creature. Shy was already several inches taller than Alta. When they were halfway there, Spike raised an eye to them, paw midair. They burst into giggles and ran toward the cat, who plopped off the sill and scurried away. They followed, down the hall and into the bedroom. The cat dove under Mrs. C.'s big bed. Shy and Alta lay on their stomachs and watched. Spike settled low on bristling haunches and eyed them. They waited. Alta noticed Shy's lips parted for huffs of breath, then the bumps on her arm again.
"Here, Spike, come on girl," Alta called.
"He's a girl?"
Their eyes met and they giggled.
"Spike?" They rolled over, laughing.
Spike bolted. They followed. Up, out the door, down the hall. They ran right into Mrs. C. Spike slipped around her ankles and outside.
"What are you girls doing?"
She stared down at themShy all tall and skinny, and Alta with her father's dark eyes and hair, even a bit of his tummy hanging over her cowboy pants.
"Leave Kitty alone, you hear? She's an old cat now."
They were sent back to the couch. Alta stared at Shy's arm and inched away from her.
"Is that catching?" Alta asked.
Shy shook her head. "Not anymore."
Alta moved farther away. She didn't want Shy to touch her toys. She wondered if the next person who sat on her daddy's couch would come away with those red bumps on their arm. Shy didn't say anything. After a while, Mrs. C. came over to them again.
"Don't you girls want to play?"
"I don't want her to touch me with that red stuff."
"Alta! That's not nice. Sasha's father told us it wasn't contagious anymore. Now go show her your toy mice."
Alta shook her head. She hated those mice.
"I'm going to count to three ..."
"She can have them all."
"Sasha, I think you'd better go on home and come back another day. Alta is acting like a baby." Alta squinted her eyes at her mother and wished she could make her feel the burn in the look.
"Okay." Shy stood up and Mrs. C. walked her to the door.
"Welcome to the neighborhood," Mrs. C. said. "Tell your mother to drop by sometime." Every time a new family joined their parish, Mrs. C. pursued them. Alta knew her mother wanted to be friends with the new woman next door; she liked being a part of the parish community, though she was younger than a lot of the other church mothers, and a widow with only one child.
Alta heard the door close and her mother come back to the couch. "Stand up." Alta stood. Mrs. C. slapped her twicehard, stinging smacks across her cheek. "No more rudeness from you, little miss." Alta swore then that she would be bigger than her mother one day, feeling in that moment that she could will this andas indeed proved the caseit would be true.
Alta got off the freeway and neared the West Side, her old neighborhood. Alta wished she could take the girl somewhere else, sit her down and find out who she was, start to care if her eyes would follow Alta always, if she understood how Alta managed her days. The girl had layered eyes, a smile that came and stayed. Why couldn't Alta string these facts together and hold on to them, to her, to someone else besides Shy and their mothers and the past she had tried so hard to shrug off? Already the familiarity of the streets was sinking into her, the reddish-green bushes, the houses each so different from the next. If memories were more insistent than the physical world, it was because they crawled into things, took refuge in the structures of the present.
Shy and Alta had lived next door to each other on a side street in a jumbled area of town: part commerce, part warehouses, and in between, unexpectedly calm, more or less residential streets. As Alta approached them, the small changes jumped out at her. One house, formerly white, had been painted blue; a fence had been put up. A place soaks into you when you're young, a kid just walking around, not meaning to look, but seeing every leaf and every cracked foundation.
There was Jimmy Jimenez's house; and there Melissa Jefferies had had her infamous thirteenth-birthday party, when the kids broke into her father's liquor cabinet and got drunk on Irish Cream. Alta still couldn't even smell the stuff without feeling sick. There was the park where she had been the first girl allowed to play in the West Side Little League, and where years later she had told Shy she loved her and Shy had pretended not to hear.
When Alta turned onto her block, the reality of the street itselfthe oil stains, the lawns full of crabgrass where there were lawns at all, the Dumpster across the street from their houses, and the stucco walls where her mother still livedfrightened her. She wished then that she didn't have the girl with her, much as the girl's legs, pressed against her on the bike, pinned Alta to the present. She didn't want the girl to see and get hold of any part of herself she had done her best to leave behind.
On all these quasi-residential streets, and theirs was no exception, the houses varied wildly. Her family home was an ugly stucco thing, one story. Shaped like a kid's picture of a house and that color green, too. The Mallons' house, flush up against theirs, was layered in dark, soft shingles, the kind whose wedges can turn to splinters, but which can also be carved with initials by the press of a thumbnail, S + A, she used to indent when she sat waiting on the steps. Did she think no one would notice or understand? Or did she want somebody to guess? The house had always seemed vast to her and kind of grand, the three wide steps to the front door almost royal. As she swung by it and turned in the driveway, it seemed considerably smaller. Alta didn't come back oftenshe tried, with no luck, to get Mrs. Mallon to meet her somewhere elsebut every time she did return, her adult self was surprised that the sizes of the houses and streets fit her now.
After Mr. Mallon died, Alta had visited her mother; she had asked if she could come and see her. They hadn't seen each other on purpose in three years.
"I liked your hair long," Mrs. C. said when she first saw Alta, looking up for a moment at her shorn head, then glancing without pleasure at Alta's neatly creased black pants and the plaid shirt like one Mr. C. had owned.
Mrs. C. was decorating the living room, rehanging the pictures after her brother had painted the walls for her. Alta offered to help; Mrs. C. wouldn't let her. Alta sat, one hand on her motorcycle helmet, on the couch where she had lounged in front of the TV for so many years. Her old room was off the living room, and she noticed the door was ajar, but she stayed turned away from it just as her mother stayed turned away from her. Mrs. C. climbed up and down the three-rung stepladder, as if she'd forgotten Alta was in the room. Now and then she would glance at Alta as she turned to retrieve a picture. At first, moving around so much, she didn't seem any different to Alta.
"I forgot Saturday is the day to fix the house up," Alta said finally.
"I knew if I didn't hang the pictures as soon as the paint dried, they'd sit there for years."
Alta laughed a little, trying to force recognition into the laugh. "My apartment is the same way," she said, although in fact she had set everything in its place four years ago, and added to it meticulously from time to time.
"I'm so busy, working overtime for Dr. Gilbert, not to mention cooking dinner for the kids often as not." She worked in a dental office and helped out at church, and as far as Alta knew, since her husband died she had never even dated anyone.
Alta's uncle and his wife lived around the corner. They had two kids, boys who were cute now because they were young, and their lopsided teeth and close-together eyes still had puppyish appeal. When they'd been toddlers they'd followed her around, laughing and hanging on her legs, crying, "Alta, Alta." She hadn't seen them in years.
"How are the boys?"
"Coming on up." She chose a picture and leaned it on the ladder while she hammered a nail in. "They're good kids."
Alta stood and handed the picture to her. Her mother took it without saying anything, but handed Alta the hammer to hold. Alta hooked it over her wide leather belt so she could reach her hands to the bottom of the heavy frame in case it should fall. It was an over-colored copy of a painting of the Crucifixion.
Back in high school, Alta used to come home drunk and find her mother asleep on the couch below that picture, her face pale and blank in the green light of the television. If Alta was alone she would pull the afghan over her mother, turn the TV off. But if Shy was with her, they would tiptoe through, not wanting to risk waking her up. Shy liked to come to Alta's house, but something frightened Alta about having Shy in her own bed. In her house she wanted Shy too much, didn't wait as long for Shy to pretend to fall asleep; she would make Shy turn to her and she'd take her roughly, make her come fast, again and again. It was at Alta's house that she put her fingers inside Shy for the first time, lay pressed almost on top of her moving slowly in and out, wondering who had been there before her, feeling Shy rock against her hand. In her own house she required a lot to shut everything out; at Shy's house everything already was shut out.
"All right." Mrs. C. climbed down from the ladder and smoothed her slacks. She looked middle-aged, which surprised Alta. Her mother had always been the young widow, younger than the other mothers, younger especially than Mrs. Mallon. Her hair was the same almost-natural shade of deep blond, its curls just as tight around her head. But her skin was more papery now, her lips thinner and tighter. "Do you want a drink, something to eat?"
"No, thank you." She had never been this polite with her mother; they had never been polite at all. She took a breath. "I just want you to know that I'm happy with who I am. I have a good job and I work hard and there are girls who like me"
"Happy?" Her mother shook her head, then turned to reposition the ladder and pick up another frame. "Could you hand me the hammer again?"
Alta jumped up and handed it to her. Mrs. C. wouldn't look at her.
"I'm a body piercer."
"Does this look straight to you?" Mrs. C.'s arms were stretched apart holding the frame up.
"I went through a special training and I was the top of my group. I make pretty good money, too."
"Alta." She put the picture down and started to hammer a nail into the wall. "Why did you want to see me?"
Alta looked up at Mrs. C.'s back. "You're my mother," she said.
Mrs. C. turned, the nail sticking out of the wall behind her. "Do you think that makes me proud?"