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By John E. Keegan
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2001 John E. Keegan
All rights reserved.
The night of my first period I remembered sitting with Mom on the back porch steps. The sun was flaming out behind the garage and we were admiring the bamboo teepees of snap beans and the pink-veined patches of rhubarb in her garden. Her hands were caked with dirt from weeding the beds and I could smell the guano. I was waiting for the big sex talk, but instead she told me about the journey.
"You're just starting it, Piper." She took my hands between hers and I could feel the crust of the loam crumbling between our fingers as she pressed me. "You're going to sprout wings and dazzle some man with your wizardry." There was a glisten of tears in her eyes and the prospect of it all frankly overwhelmed me, but she laughed. "Don't worry. You'll be bathed in light like Aphrodite."
At the time, I didn't have the presence of mind to ask her the details of her own journey. She'd told me about meeting Dad and how he'd fawned over her and coddled her back to health in Chicago when he was at Loyola and she was in art school. They eventually married and moved to Stampede, a small town north of Seattle where Dad ran the newspaper owned by John Carlisle. Mom mainly did her art, but she probably kept up with as much of the goings on in Stampede as Dad did cooped up in the offices of the Herald.
I couldn't tell if she disliked Stampede or it just amused her. "The Cold War's over and people here are still building air raid shelters," she told me once. "We're in a time warp, honey."
She wasn't just my mom, she was my sail, the source of my energy. She pushed me as I slouched through the awkwardness of high school. Then the summer before my senior year her hair became enmeshed in the drain of the Jacuzzi at John Carlisle's house and held her under until she'd drowned.
I was devastated. I wished I'd never been born. The bottom had fallen out of all those mother and daughter intimacies. But I refused to believe what everyone else was thinking about her.
I was home alone when the call came from the hospital. The fact it wasn't Dad who'd called should have been a warning. I'd just seen her that morning dancing around barefoot in one of his old dress shirts, watering the house plants with the pink plastic can while I ate my granola. She often danced with herself. Sometimes she'd put on a flowing skirt just to feel it swish and move with her to the salsa and tango music on the CD player.
Dad was in a small crowd outside the double doors that led to the emergency room. Father Tombari, our pastor, was propping him up on one side and John Carlisle paced the floor nearby in a sport jacket and red vest chewing his fingernails.
"What happened?" I asked.
John Carlisle put his hand on my shoulder, and I was glad for his company. He was the closest thing Stampede had to a redeemer. His family had always been generous with its money. I knew the doctors wouldn't screw up if a Carlisle was watching. People in green gowns were going in and out of the swinging doors and each time the doors opened I tried to see inside.
Dad's thick eyelashes were matted with tears. When he tried to say something, his face contorted in the shapes of sounds, nothing coming out. I tried to wrap my arms around him, but touching him only made it worse as he shuddered and hid his face. I was petrified. I'd never seen him so inconsolable. A dull roar was building from somewhere deep inside my head and my eyes were going blurry.
When I started for the double doors, Carlisle grabbed me. "You can't go in!"
I fought to pull my arms free and became entangled in his pukka shell necklace, which broke and fell to the floor. His stomach was soft and his breath potatoish. I was standing on the toes of his boots, trying to gain some leverage. At the time, I didn't even know it had happened at his house.
Dad finally pulled me off. "She's gone, Piper." The fact he didn't say dead left room for hope, but my body must have known otherwise because it went limp. I was empty. I wanted to gorge myself on all the things I still didn't know about her. She'd never refused me anything, but it never felt as if she needed me the way I needed her. I'd always tried to impress her by being as self-sufficient and engaged as she was, hoping she'd invite me along to share more, but because I was adopted I'd never felt qualified to press her. She told me when I was five, before I started school and someone else did. "Don't worry," she said. "Lots of famous people are adopted."
From then on, I'd imagined myself as an orphaned piece of driftwood that looked intriguing on the beach, but never quite fit in with anything at home. And part of me was afraid to find out more about Mom. There was a veil over part of her life, the mystery that gave her strength.
The days that followed were a blur, interrupted by the jangle in my memory of John Carlisle in his red vest and the Frye boots with the Carlisle medallion, hovering beside us like some mockery of the Grim Reaper. People came by the house to mumble their respects — staff from the newspaper, merchants, members of the city council, teachers, policemen, service station attendants in their uniforms. Grandpa Willard, Mom's father, joined us in the living room where we sat around and talked about everything except how it had happened. They scrupulously avoided the details in my presence. It was some kind of accident.
"Don't upset your dad by asking about it," they said.
While I was in the bathroom off the kitchen, I heard someone say, "At least Kathryn wasn't her real mother," as if that somehow made it easier.
I had to read the Friday Herald Stampede to find out what had really happened, a front-page story under my dad's byline with the understated headline "Citizens Mourn Death of Local." I fell into our sagging sofa, shaking my head in disbelief. Dad had published in ten-pitch font what nobody could tell me in person. He must have written it the day after she died and I was dumbfounded at how he could have managed the equilibrium, the dispassion, the sanity to organize this catastrophe into grammatically correct paragraphs.
"Her hobbies included popular music and art," the article said, not mentioning the fact that one of her paintings had hung in a Santa Fe gallery next to Georgia O'Keeffe's. I couldn't help but think Mom would have been disappointed. How many people got up at dawn to paint the four seasons of the sunrise or stopped strangers on the street to snap close-up photos of their faces or dragged portable generators into construction sites and abandoned buildings at night to run strobe lights for photos that she could paint from and called it a hobby? Dad had sublimated his anger into an indictment of the recreational tub industry, railing against their failure to require double drains and automatic shutoffs. He'd obviously done his research.
There was only one paragraph in the story that cut through all the formalities:
Kathryn Scanlon drowned when her hair became enmeshed in the drain of the Jacuzzi at the residence of John Carlisle. The force was powerful enough to hold her in place until it had picked her body of its last breath. "Pulled an eyeball right out of its socket," the sheriff's report said. "Judging from the patches of hair ripped out by the roots, she didn't give up without a struggle."
Each time I read it I found myself holding my breath and I had to close my eyes and turn away from the article to breathe again.
There was no indication of who was present and no quote from John Carlisle. The answers were hidden by the veil.
Dad retreated into his journalistic tent after her death, spending inordinately long hours at the paper, but I couldn't really blame him. After all, he was the one who had to be most hurt and double-crossed by the whole thing. While John Carlisle was off studying dance at the Sorbonne, Dad had nursemaided the Herald into one of the best small town papers on the west coast.
I remembered how Dad and Mom used to write notes for each other, his words, her sketches, in a hardbound journal with a cord marker they left on the kitchen counter. Dad's notes were sometimes accompanied by a single tulip. Although the frequency of the notes eventually tailed off, Dad had taken her to Seattle for a Rolling Stones concert only last year, and they stayed overnight at the Sorrento Hotel and Mom said they breakfasted in bed even though it was the day before printing.
I suppose I should have blamed Mom as much as John Carlisle for what had happened. They were both adults. She didn't have to be there. But I couldn't blame her any more than I could blame Dad, which left Carlisle.
I grew increasingly angry and wanted Dad to get mad with me, to tear apart that pretentious, nebbish of a man, but Dad never publicly uttered a harsh word against him. I suspected he was holding back because John Carlisle was his boss and, as sorry as I was to admit it, Dad's image as the scrappy, incorrigible editor of the town's paper suffered in my heart as a result.
I knew the very room in which it had happened, the greenhouse where John Carlisle's mother used to grow orchids and tropical plants. He had converted it into a spa or bagnio or whatever else it was he called it the night our family had dinner with him to celebrate his fortieth birthday.
"I'm afraid we didn't bring suits," Dad said when Carlisle asked us to take a tub with him, and I cheered Dad under my breath.
"No problem," Carlisle said, and he walked over to an antique wardrobe and snapped open the doors. On hooks like tie racks there was a selection of men's and women's bathing suits: Speedos, boxers, bikinis, one-piecers.
"Come on, Tom, it'll be good for you," Mom said. "Piper, you too."
Much to Mom's dismay, I left the room while the three of them had their tub. It wasn't out of any forethought of the impending doom or even to scrag John Carlisle. I just didn't want anyone to see me in a bathing suit.
Mom was such a believer in the peaceful resolution of conflict that it wasn't fair she'd be confronted in the end with a violent adversary. It was more probable that her death would have come from a poisonous mushroom she'd picked on one of her painting jaunts, overexposure to the sun, or sheer grief at the indifference of the world to true, unmanufactured beauty.
I had to admit I was proud she'd fought back when the Jacuzzi was trying to pull her through the drain. And I could only hope that somewhere in the pandemonium she realized how much I wanted her to survive.
Mom's father, Willard Cooper, was part of the reason Mom had stood out. Everyone in Stampede knew Willard. And why not? He'd probably once or twice put up their storm windows, climbed a ladder and cleaned the pine needles out of their rain gutters, or slid under their cars to drain oil from the pan. He was a fixer. Widowed for more than a decade, Willard just wanted something to take care of. If there was a bad storm, he was the one who'd show up on your porch with candles and a flashlight. Near Veterans Day, he'd never turn down an invitation to visit the grade schools in a sailor suit that still fit and tell about the war in the Pacific. Inevitably, his war stories would snowball into stories about his cutting asparagus and picking peas in the Yakima Valley and the knife fights over whose turn it was to drive the truck instead of hump the crates.
It seemed as if everything Grandpa Willard attempted turned into a hullabaloo, including the burial of his only child. Dad and I stood with him between us that day next to Mom's casket, which was suspended over the hole by a series of green web straps. Willard sobbed uncontrollably while Father Tombari walked around the hole rocking the incense burner on its chain. Dad had pulled some strings to make sure Mom received a Catholic burial, even though the baptism in the emergency room was technically too late. She was a Cooper and the Coopers were Protestant, bordering on agnostic. Willard never went to church, wore whatever he wanted to wear, and voted for any Libertarian who made it on the ballot. I pushed in against Willard to support him and I could feel Dad pushing back from the other side. It was a warm day and a few people brought along umbrellas, some wore sunglasses, and older ladies fanned themselves with programs from the church services. The combination of death and heat must have been too much for Willard because when people walked over and dropped their boutonnieres and rosaries on top of the casket, he bent over to kiss the casket right about where Mom's lips would have been, slipped on the plastic ground cover, and rolled down into the hole like an out of control window shade.
People screamed. The casket rocked on its webbing, and I thought it was going to plummet down on top of him. Father Tombari, who was so self-assured reciting his prayers, became helpless and gathered his vestments around his legs. Dad and I bent over and peered down into the hole, but it was so bright above ground that my pupils couldn't dilate wide enough to see anything.
I knew this was going to turn out to be another Willard story. People still talked about the time he'd broken up Grandma Carol's marriage to another man by firing a shotgun into the ceiling of a Lutheran Church over in the Okanogan Valley. The strategy worked because they locked up Willard, and Grandma Carol broke off the engagement and later married him. When she was in the hospital dying of emphysema he snuck in at night and got into bed with her under the oxygen tent. Willard had trouble with wrong endings.
The Coopers moved to Stampede after World War II, and Willard took over the Phillips 66 station that was later razed and never rebuilt. To Willard's regret, the site was now packed with rows of scrap metal, used rain gutters, towing chains, steel rods, rowboat bottoms, all inside a fence with a hand-painted sign that said "NX + MFT = LSD." Whoever ran it was never there.
"I don't know whether it's an outdoor hardware store or an indoor wrecking yard," Willard said.
It wasn't the big things as much as the little things that drew attention to Willard. He once showed up for a musical tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein at school in a Scottish plaid sportcoat and a pair of Vaudevillian blue-and-white striped pants with a big safety pin to hold the fly shut. Mom said his dress had deteriorated after Grandma Carol's death when he started buying his clothes at garage sales. Stampede was small enough that people recognized the clothes on Willard by their former owners.
The funeral director and the maintenance man at the cemetery finally had to take Mom's casket off the webbing and slide the support apparatus out from over the hole. With the help of a stepladder they managed to rescue diminutive Willard. There was a knob on his forehead, his tongue was cut where his teeth had clamped together when the chrome caught his chin, and the baggy navy blue suit that used to belong to the president of the local savings bank was dabbed with mud. But Willard was conscious and climbed the ladder on his own, mumbling something about the darn flowers.
Dad was the first person to him, grabbing him by one of his padded shoulders. "You stay right here with me," he said, and I thought I heard him add, "you old coot."
Willard just stood there at parade rest, licking his wounds for the remainder of the ceremony, while Father Tombari re-blessed the casket.
She died on August twenty-seventh, so I had about a week to decide whether to run away or go back to school. I dreaded going to school. There had always been this undercurrent of curiosity about my mother because she painted nudes and played billiards at the Comet and didn't make layer cakes for the bake sales. I had to admit she'd been a source of anxiety growing up, like when I found out she'd raised her hand at parents' night to ask whether the school was going to make condoms available for the students. But she always defended me. When I refused to wear gym shorts for PE and the school sent a note home, she called the principal and interrupted his dinner.
"Are you running a school or a chorus line?" she said. "You tell them to practice abstinence, then you make them run around half naked in PE. My daughter will undress when and for whom she chooses."
Excerpted from Piper by John E. Keegan. Copyright © 2001 John E. Keegan. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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