The unforgettable characters of Babe in Paradisean aging stunt man, a chauffeur, and a voice-over actor among themlive on the periphery of Los Angeles's allure, outside its glamour and success. Marisa Silver's singular voice makes us care deeply about their everyday desperations and hard-won hopes.
|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
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BABE IN PARADISE
The hills were on fire. Babe stood high up on a ladder andflung a bucket of water across the shingles of her roof. Shehanded the pail down to Delia, her mother, who stood belowon the ground. The night was dark. No stars shone throughthe thick layer of blackness. The only illumination came fromthe flashlight Delia trained on the roof, its orb bobbingunsteadily under her nervous guidance. The beam of light sliddown off the house and traveled across the lawn with Delia asshe moved to fill the pail from the outside spigot. Then sheslowly made her way back to the ladder, her thin flame listingwith the load. She rested the bucket on the ground andlooked up at her daughter. Babe tried to ignore the anxious setof her mother's face and the way Delia repeatedly bit into herlower lip. Carefully, she climbed down the ladder to retrievethe water.
Babe felt the tight grab of her new green army jacket underher arms as she descended. It was not her jacket, really, but oneshe had stolen from the Goodwill truck that morning. Beforethat, it belonged to someone named Thompson or Thomas;the big black letters read "Thom," but the rest had beenscraped away by nervous fingers or too many washings. Babethought about this Thompson/Thomas, whether he was fat orthin, long-haired or short. She inhaled the material to see ifshe could detect the scent of another body, but all she smelledwas the musky odor of smoke. In the distance, a black ball, likea roll of dirty cotton, hung in the sky.
"There have always been fires and there will always befires," Delia announcedfrantically, drawing her wet fingersthrough her hair. "People survive them. Most people do."
"The fire is nowhere near us," Babe said, climbing up theladder with the full bucket. "On TV they said it won't evenjump the break."
"Unless the winds change. We should have started hoursago."
"We don't even own this dump," Babe said wearily. "Whyare we trying to save it?"
"We've got first and last and a deposit in it. This house isour bank account, Baby. This is all we've got."
Babe heaved the bucket onto the roof. Water splashed overher, raining down on the ground below. Her mother shriekedand lifted her flowered skirt high above her knees. Deep purpleveins traveled up and down her dark thighs, varicosereminders of her age and her pregnancy, sixteen years before.Still, her body moved like a dancer's, with a fluency thateluded Babe's own rounded, ungraceful figure. People oftencommented on Delia's fragile beautylike a flower, they said,or a china doll. Unable to find her imprint in her mother'sface or body, Babe imagined she must resemble her father, butshe would never know this for sure; he'd left before Babe wasborn. She collected photographs of every place she and hermother had lived in, keeping them in an antique boxtheonly thing of real value they owned. But there were no photographsof this man.
Babe tilted the nearly empty bucket over her head, rubbingthe remaining water on her face and smearing her red lipstickonto her hands. She had spent her first few teenage years hidingher outsized mouth and full lips behind her hand or bykeeping her shoulders hunched and her head down. But sincemoving to Los Angeles, where beauty assaulted her everywhereshe looked, she had decided to wear only the boldestcolors she could find on discount. Her skin was pale, andwhen she rimmed her eyes with dark kohl, and wore her redor purple or sometimes even black lipsticks, her uglinessbecame a challenge. Kids kept their distance. This was the wayshe liked it.
Dripping with water, she pulled her damp shirt away fromher chest. She smelled of the mingled odors of sex, Rockport'sskin, and his Goodwill truck she'd been in only hours earlier,straddling his skinny, naked body. She'd worn the army jacketand nothing else.
* * *
He'd said "I love you" which only meant he was done. SoBabe rolled off him onto a mound of mildewed clothes. Hetried to finish her off with his hand while she stared into thegunmetal-gray truck ceiling. First and second period wereover and if she came quickly, she could sneak into study hallwithout anybody noticing she was late. But even though shetried thinking about climbing a mountain, then about a sleazyfilm she'd seen on late-night cable, nothing happened.
"Forget it," she said, slipping out from beneath him. Hisconcave chest and narrow hips accentuated her own broadness,although she was the healthier-looking of the two. Hisskin was tinged with gray. She often wondered if he ever lefthis truck at all. She knew nothing about him except that hewas thirty-two years old, her mother's age. She didn't evenknow his whole name.
"I gotta get out of here," she announced. "Give me a rag orsomething. Something clean."
He pulled a plaid cotton shirt from the bed of clothesbeneath him and held it up to her. "There's a secret history tothis shirt" he mused. "Think of its life, what it's seen."
"It's a fucking shirt," she snapped, grabbing it from him andpushing it between her legs. "Are you a freak?" she added."Am I fucking a retard?"
He smiled as he stood up to get his half-empty beer canfrom the back of the truck. His penis, long and half swollen,dangled between his legs. Babe turned away. The bodies ofmen embarrassed her, and she often rushed into sex to avoidhaving to look at them. With her eyes closed and her headburied in someone's neck, she could almost convince herselfshe was alone. She stood up and began to dress.
"You're beautiful," he said, coming towards her with hisbeer.
"Liar," she said, repulsed by the idea that she had, onceagain, allowed him inside her body. He lay back down on hismattress of discarded clothes, his head nested in his crossedarms. The sparse tufts of black hair in his armpits looked likeflowers after a nuclear holocaust. She sucked in her stomach inorder to button her tight jeans, then cinched her belt so herflesh plumped over the sides.
"I'm here all week," he said, smiling up at her. "Then I'm inSunland for I don't know how long."
"Then I probably won't see you. I have things to do" Sheenjoyed the look of uncertainty that flashed across his face buther pleasure quickly soured into disgust. His need repulsedher. She felt this conflict of desires too when he stroked herwith his long, lean fingers, as if she were something worthtouching. It made her want to scream.
"It's so easy to make boys love you," she said. "All you haveto do is spread your legs."
By the time Babe and her mother had circled the entire housewith the ladder and bucket, the section of roof they hadwatered first was nearly dry. This fact only encouraged Delia'sgrowing panic. Babe knew the fire was a confirmation ofeverything her mother feared: that the world was an unwelcomingplace, and that their life was barely hinged to itsperiphery. As far as Babe could tell, her mother lived tautly,waiting for the next deliverance of bad luck. When it arrived,she met it with equal degrees of astonishment and resignation.Delia had become obsessed by disaster, fearing the mud slides,quakes, and fires which afflicted the city like recurring diseases.She lived with the daily assumption that something terriblewould happen, an expectation so fierce it bordered onhope. Babe was surprised that her mother had chosen to moveto this city at all. But Delia was worn out from failing in somany cold and lightless midwestern cities. Los Angeles heldout the possibility of paradise.
"Can you smell it, Baby?" Delia called up the ladder, hervoice constricted by fear. "I'd rather die than wait like this. I'drather die and get it over with."
"I don't smell anything," Babe said evenly, although shedidthe air had filled up with the fire's sweet scent. Still, shehad to remain calm in the face of her mother's rising anxiety.She climbed down the ladder and repositioned it under thenext dry patch of roof. "Fill a bucket," she commanded.
"Twenty-five houses have been consumed. Think of thosepoor people, Baby. They have nothing left. Can you imagine?Baby, can you?"
"Don't freak out on me, Mother. I'm not kidding."
"I won't," Delia whimpered apologetically and carried thefull bucket back to the ladder. "Cross my heart."
"Let's keep going," Babe said, hoping that, if she could keepher mother focused, Delia might not have one of her fits.
Her mother called them "episodes," as if they were televisionshows, momentarily transfixing but instantly forgettable.Babe was unable to forget. First came a .low, wandering dronethat Babe almost always mistook for a hurt animal until shelocated it coming from deep within her mother's chest. Next,Delia's eyes would fasten on some nonspecific place in theroom, as if the world had consolidated into a fraction of air.Babe would call out, but her mother would not respond. IfBabe tried to bring Delia out of her trance by touching her,she'd get no reaction at all. She'd have to waitseconds, if thefit was mild; minutes, if it was not. Finally, the hum would subsideand Delia would fall into a deep, childlike sleep. Babewould stand vigil nearby, afraid to turn on the television forfear of waking her mother, scared her mother might not wakeat all. She'd make halfhearted attempts at cleaning the kitchenor straightening the living roomactivities she would normallyavoid. The rest of the time, she would sit on Delia's bedand watch the slow, twitching breaths quiver across hermother's chest.
Delia's fits were always followed by a state of temporaryamnesia. Waking, she would forget the fit, her name, even thename of her own daughter. It was up to Babe to remind hermother of their life. She would take old photographs out ofher box and describe the many places they had lived. But in allher recollections, she omitted the memories that haunted herdreams. She did not remind her mother of the apartment inSt. Louis where Babe, age eight, had waited alone each nightfor her mother to return from her job at a bar, her alertnessher only defense against the intruders she was certain lurkedoutside the door. Neither did she tell her mother that the manphotographed steadying Babe on a pony in Muncie was alsothe one who slipped into bed beside her one night, exploringher body until she bit him.
Instead, Babe told of their visit to a gem cave on the wayfrom Missouri to Ohio, or about the giant crab-shaped crabhouse somewhere in New England. Finally, Delia's face wouldbrighten with recognition. "You're an amazing girl," shewould say to Babe as she emerged from her oblivion, fresh andhopeful as a newborn. "You remember everything."
A doctor's diagnosis in St. Louis: panic disorder. The cure:tranquilizers Delia complained about and quickly lost. So thefits continued, each one signaling a time to move on. Soonafter one, they would pack their belongings, place the keyunder the doormat, avoiding landlords or unsatisfied lovers,and leave. "Forget everything that's ever happened to you,"Delia would tell Babe as they drove towards their next home."Your life begins now."
When Babe finished emptying the last bucket of water ontothe roof, she went inside the house. The television was on andDelia was pulling a large red suitcase down from the closetshelf.
"We're going to have to evacuate," Delia said, lowering thecase to the floor.
"Just look at the TV."
Babe watched the screen as a house crumbled underneaththe weight of flames. "Carbon Canyon," a newscaster's voiceintoned "Consumed."
"That's miles away," she sighed, sitting heavily on the worncouch.
The phone rang and Delia gasped as she answered, as ifexpecting the fire to announce itself on the other end of theline. But when her voice mellowed, Babe knew that one ofthe mothers was calling.
"Are you holding the baby in the football position?" Deliasaid slowly. "Did you ram his head onto your boob?" She listenedfor a few moments. Delia worked as a lactation consultant,renting breast pumps out of her car and administeringadvice to nursing mothers. Babe was astonished that hermother was trusted by people she hardly knew. "Keep trying,"Delia continued, gently. "Don't cry. Of course you're a goodmother."
As she listened to the soothing patter, Babe's neck and jawgrew tight. She had to suppress the urge to scream or grab thephone and fling it at her mother. She turned over on herstomach and found a pen buried between the cushions. Shewrote her name in small precise letters on the palm of herhand, pressing hard so that the skin became white and bloodless.She considered writing Rockport's name next to herown, maybe enclosing both within a heart. But she knew theemotions she had for him were not love, and that someonewho encouraged such feelings of disgust and petulant wantingdid not love her either.
She met Rockport six months earlier when she dropped itemsoff at his Goodwill truck. Her garbage bag was full of thingsDelia had not been able to sellsnow boots from St. Louis, anIndians hat from their months in Cleveland, a pair of blackpatent-leather Mary Janes with worn-down heels. Since theGoodwill truck was parked only a block from Babe's highschool, it had been up to her to drop off the bag. Her plan wasto deliver the bag, cut school, and patrol the mall until two-thirty.She'd thumb a ride up the canyon when it was time togo home.
When Rockport first appeared at the gate of the truck,Babe thought he was the ugliest man she'd ever seen. His facewas thin, his eyes watchful and untrusting. Acne scars randown each cheek, unpitying souvenirs of childhood.
"Anything edible?" he said, opening the trash bag.
She thought she had surprised a scavenger and looked at hishands, expecting them to be dirty and ravaged. Instead, his fingerswere long and delicate, his nails the color of chalk. "No,"she said, confused. "Are you hungry?"
He smiled knowingly, then upended the bag onto the bedof the truck. "Food carries bacteria. Bacteria makes disease.Goodwill is in the business of helping people, not sendingthem to their graves."
She watched, horrified, as a pair of her old cotton underpantsfell out last, a splotch of faded red hearts landing on topof the great polyglot pile.
"We're not picky at the Goodwill," he said, noticing thedirection of her gaze. "You think the people who get yourpanties care whose ass was in them first?"
She wanted to leave but he offered her a beer. She took hishand and climbed into the dark interior of the truck, where aradio, hot plate, mattress, and a green BarcaLounger combinedinto a makeshift home. The order of his belongings surprisedher. Shoes rested in boxes, shirts were folded neatly on top of amilk crate. When he turned away to get her drink, she lookedclosely at a pile of books stacked in the corner. She picked upa ragged paperback with a drawing of a heavily armored, big-bustedalien on its cover.
"I hate science fiction," she said, tossing the book onto themattress.
"The past and the future are the only places where your lifecan really happen," he said, handing her the beer.
"Bullshit. Your life can't happen in the past."
"This is where you're wrong. You can reinvent yourself inyour memories. You could say you were anyone. Who wouldknow?"
She eyed him warily. "You're not some crystal freak, areyou?" she asked.
He laughed, the creases on his face deepening. "No. I justhave a lot of time on my hands. It's good to have a visitor."
"I'm not a visitor. I don't even know you."
"Would you like to?"
"That's lame," she said, grinning despite herself.
"Well, would you?"
The first time they had sex, he did not have a rubber, so hepulled out of her. He asked her to finish him off with herhand, but she said no. What he wanted made her uncomfortableand required a kind of intimacy she could not bear. She'dbeen having sex for two years and had slept with four differentboys. They were often drunk and did not so much touch heras wash over her like indistinct waves. The sex was fast andpractical and the boys always seemed surprised when theyrealized it was over. Their astonishment gave Babe a sense ofpower: she could get a boy off and do it quickly. Sex was thevery first thing she was good at.
"Babe!" Delia cried, waking Babe, who sat up on the couchgroggily, surprised that she had drifted off. Her mother staredat the television, holding a hand over her mouth. A womanreporter in a yellow slicker gesticulated wildly in front of a ballof fire which twisted on the ground like a whirl of leaves.When Babe looked closely, the fire turned out to be a burningdog. The animal performed a frenzied dance as it attempted toknock off the cape of flames. Finally, a fireman threw himselfon top of the animal until the fire was extinguished. The doglay, charred and motionless, on the ground.
"It's dead," Delia whimpered. Her eyes dropped from thescreen until they fixed on the carpet below.
"Let's check the roof," Babe said automatically, trying tokeep her mother from slipping into the vortex of her fears."Get the flashlight. Mom, can you hear me?"
"Yes," her mother answered faintly.
"In the closet, Mom. Go. Now."
Outside, Delia tried to light Babe's way to the roof, but heranxiety made her inattentive. Babe climbed the ladder, searchingfor rungs in the dark. Reaching the top, she found the shingleswere dry. The smoky hot air entered her nostrils, constrictingher throat and chest. She realized the fire was close, and that herefforts were useless now. She looked out across the canyon. Adusty haze obscured the new moon, leaving not darkness, but avacancy of light. The trees stood still in the windless air.
Suddenly a dull, dense sound of encroaching thunder roseup out of the woods and converged on the yard. The noisebecame deafening when a herd of deer, barely visible in thedarkness, burst out of the trees and raced across the lawn. Theirmovement created a wind so strong that the ladder swayedunderneath Babe. She hugged the shingles and felt the vibrationof hooves penetrate her chest. Delia's flashlight gleamedover the animals' dark bodies. Babe could see the shiny wetnessof their eyes, and how they moved with a mindless will, asthough someone had given them the signal to run, but hadnot told them where to, or why.
The silence that followed the animals' disappearance wasexpectant and dangerous. Somewhere inside its vastness roseDelia's wandering hum.
Babe worked quickly. She sat her mother in the Toyota,then ran back into the house, where she threw clothes into asuitcase, grabbed the box of photos and her mother's purse,and dragged everything back outside. The news reports hadwarned of looters roaming the abandoned hills, so she left thelights and TV on. She piled everything into the trunk of thecar and started to drive.
Once off their small street, they joined the slow line ofvehicles moving down the main road of the canyon. Motorcyclesdarted in and out between cars, stealing ahead in line andcausing anxious drivers to honk their horns. Dogs rodeunchained in the beds of trucks, trapped between suitcases andboxes overflowing with hastily collected possessions. Sirenswailed, signaling the imminent approach of fire engines, butwhen they appeared, they inched their way up the crowded,winding road, slow as toys.
"On the news, they're going to be talking about how manypeople died," Delia said, bunching and unbunching the materialof her dress. "They're going to be saying 'Twenty peopledied,' or 'Fifty people died.'"
"Calm down, Mom," Babe said, her stomach tightening asshe noticed the work of her mother's hands.
"Let's sing," Delia said. She tapped her foot quickly on thefloorboards. "Something we both know. Think, Baby. I can'tremember a thing."
"A, my name is Alice ..." Babe began, recalling the endlesschant that had eased the boredom of their cross-countrydrives, "... and my husband's name is"
"We live in Albany, and we sell"
Babe drove carefully around a stopped car which had beendriven partway off the road and abandoned. A hundred feetahead, a family walked down the canyon road. The parents carriedsuitcases. The children, wearing their colorful schoolbackpacks, clasped stuffed animals and blankets to their chests.When an emergency worker in an orange vest tried to directthe family back to its forsaken car, the father pushed him awaywith such violence that the man fell onto the pavement.
"B, my name is"
"Bonnie!" Delia said, pounding out the beat of the rhymeon the dashboard with her fist.
Forty-five minutes later, they reached the bottom of thecanyon. The road was a fairground of flashing red and yellowemergency lights. People ran in all directions, shouting ordersinto the night. The northbound side of the street was blockedoff, so Babe followed the line of cars going the other direction.Twenty minutes later, they arrived in the parking lot ofher school.
They parked and entered the gym, which was set up as atemporary shelter. Delia clutched her purse and the box ofphotographs, Babe carried the suitcase and a breast pump,which, in her haste, she had pulled from the trunk of the car.
"This is where you play your sports?" Delia said distractedly.She had only been to the registration office at the schoolonce in order to sign Babe's transfer forms.
Excerpted from BABE IN PARADISE by MARISA SILVER. Copyright © 2001 by Marisa Silver. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.