“I’d like you to explain this drawing to me, Mr. Elks,” Jane said. “And speak loudly enough so I can get this on tape to take to my lawyer.” Jane couldn’t afford a lawyer, but she nonetheless set the Sanyo on the table in front of her and pressed record.
A slightly shorter version of this story appeared in the HEEB “Kids” Issue.
Though Jane was far beyond the seventh grade, closer to middle age than to middle school, all that turmoil was coming back to her now, focused and refracted in her own offspring, the tentative first steps her awkward, skinny twelve-year-old daughter Aggie was taking into the battlefield.
Aggie clung to the doorway of Jane’s studio. “In gym class, they made us do a dance routine to a song that talked about sex,” she said.
“Really?” Jane said. She was up to her armpits in clay, trying to wrestle a lump of it into a sellable vase. She wished she could spare her daughter the indignities, but she knew seventh grade was the turning point, the place that, for better or worse, you personality was forged out of insults and horrific embarrassments.
“Yeah.” Aggie shuddered. “It was gross.”
“Could you hand me that scraping tool?”
“Aren’t you going to do something?”
“Like what, Aggie?”
“Like go talk to the teacher?”
“Listen, I’m sure it’s not that bad. Aren’t you supposed to have a normalized view of sex and relationships?”
“It is too that bad. I had to ask someone what a “bj” is.”
“What’s a bj?”
Sometimes, when Jane squinted in the right way, she could see remnants of Aggie’s father in her. He was a Mormon Jane knew in high school. A cool Mormon who wore custom-painted combat boots and sneaked the occasional cigarette, but a Mormon nonetheless. His feet and Jane’s feet were exactly the same size, and the trouble started when they swapped boots. Jane went to several international capitals and photographed herself against monuments of note. She imagined what a man in her shoes would do, and her fanciful photo collages on the subject were enough to earn her admission into a top arts school. She got mileage out of that story for years.
Jane told Aggie: “If it’s really as bad as you say, don’t you think that some other mother will go?”
“No, the other girls like it. They tell me about sex and offer me beers after school sometimes.”
Jane so wanted to be a cool mom, a mom that let her offspring choose her own path, but then again, what if that path was one step down the road to fascism? “What do you think I should do?” she asked Aggie, but her daughter just huffed and turned away.
At night, Jane went to work, handing Aggie off to Mrs. Elise who lived across the courtyard from their apartment. Her latest job involved cleaning out the place of an elderly film critic who had just been moved to a nursing home. The critic had books on every conceivable subject, and Jane noticed that she put friends next to each other, and divorced people on separate shelves. Every time Jane moved a book and put it into a box, a Hall’s menthol-lyptus fell out. It was what the critic marked the pages with. That and dot matrix tear sheets, on nearly every page, so many marks that it was rare that a page wasn’t marked.
Jane considered the lozenge. No drugs anymore, no drinking, certainly no sex, and cigarettes were passé. But maybe lozenges would be okay. She popped one into her mouth and got excited about the vapor action. She bounced around the room, listening to Blondie, finishing an hour before she thought she would. Back into the studio for a couple hours, a couple hours to sleep, and then off with Aggie to the bus stop.
“What is this?” Jane said, picking up a drawing that was under Aggie’s school books. “Your school reinstated the art program?”
“That’s for Life Science class,” Aggie said.
In the picture, a bearded man in robes stood amongst a group of dinosaurs. “This isn’t suppose to be–?” Jane’s heart stopped
“Evolution is just one theory,” Aggie said, and Jane wondered if she was faintly smiling her father’s smile.
The man in Jane’s shoes hadn’t strayed too far from the path that had been chosen for him. First of all, out of high school, he went on his Mission, but to nowhere exotic or interesting, instead to rural Pennsylvania, where the tobacco-farming Mennonites might have mistook him for their own in his carefully pressed suit. After that, Joe was off to mortuary school in Los Angeles, where he picked up work on the side as a professional “background artist” in the movies.
Jane picked up all of this when she ran into Joe at a natural foods mart in Santa Monica; he invited her to a get-together of his actor friends. As he sipped his Seven-up, Jane tossed back Sierras and listened to the actors with the rapt fascination of an anthropologist sent to study a foreign tribe. A guy at the party claimed to have grown rich after playing shadowy killers in dramatizations news magazine shows. “Doesn’t that mean you’re less an actor,” Jane said, woozily, “than a re-enactor?” He showed her his SAG card, he asked her if she thought a re-enactor could buy a Suzuki Samurai outright, no financing?
In Joe’s car, later that night, she told him: “You can have your boots back now.” There was something about him she wanted so badly, not another substance, a real shot of the pure stuff.
She always thought of pregnant women as organic and earthy. In theory, she believed that babies should always be wanted, and thus fully supported a women’s right to terminate, but she also lacked resolve. Once Aggie started forming inside of her, she thought of her as simply another thing of Joe’s she’d be carrying around for a while. She wished for a transparent window over her belly so everyone could see in. So that she could charge admission. Joe was easy to avoid, and if his family knew, he would be disowned. When Aggie asked Jane what he was like, she told her: He’s a rodeo clown. Or, he works on an oil rig in the Aegean Sea. That’s why we named you Aggie. She shuddered a little when she said “we.”
But mom, if he was colorblind, how could he could he be a famous fashion designer? Aggie’d ask these kinds of question all the time, the whole ruse just on the edge of her consciousness. But mom, but mom, the permutations were endless.
What are you supposed to tell them—the truth? Charging up the steps of Aggie’s school after the kids had left for the day, Jane wondered were she’d gone wrong. She wondered where she’d gone right.
Jane studied the face of David Elks for traces of religious fervor. She expected someone a little more buttoned up, or perhaps a barely literate jock who was doing double-duty in the science department so that he could coach the women’s volleyball team to the state championships. Instead the man before he was too slight to spike a ball. He looked a little feline, and though she felt like if she ran into him in a dark alley, he would dart away, right now, in the fading light of late afternoon, here on his turf, he was free to stare at her with naked, inscrutable curiosity.
“I’d like you to explain this drawing to me, Mr. Elks,” she said. “And speak loudly enough so I can get this on tape to take to my lawyer.” Jane couldn’t afford a lawyer, but she nonetheless set the Sanyo on the table in front of her and pressed record.
“Please call me David.” Mr. Elks pressed stop on the recorder. “And let me assure you that I had no choice in the matter. The whole school boards gone fundamentalist.”
“You can’t tell me that you aren’t appalled by this, then.”
Elks held his hands in front of him. “Listen—the germ theory of disease has been around for a hundred years and yet plenty of educated people still think that cold weather causes illness.”
“I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”
“People will believe whatever they want, regardless of the science. Be honest here, can you explain the process of natural selection?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t have to explain it, you do.”
“People say that the world is ending, kids today don’t know about the theory of evolution.”
“If my kid comes home with a picture of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus riding a triceratops, then I know the world is ending.”
“Aggie’s father—is he in the picture?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Jane looked down at the conservative outfit she had assembled for the occasion, an old blouse of her mother’s salvaged from the back of the closet, a sensible pair of shoes. “Are you saying I’m a bad mother?”
“No, it’s not that—”
Jane would do anything for Aggie, wear clothing she would never wear, lean over her as she slept and murmur: don’t be someone who worries about the national debt, pretend you’re not his daughter. And now, sitting in front of this wiry, not altogether unappealing science teacher in corduroy, Jane abruptly burst into tears. “I’m not much of a mother.”
“I’m not much of a science teacher, if it makes you feel any better,” he said, a warm smile playing on his lips. But it wasn’t the same, and she couldn’t stop crying.
He took her too a Western-themed restaurant, the Silver Dollar. They were seated in a rough-hewed pine booth in the back, where she’d be mercifully shielded from prying eyes if the urge to cry hit her again. Really, it was easy enough to imagine that they were on a wagon train, out of the dust bowl and towards the optimistic Western frontier, except for when the waitress came by with Diet Cokes in mason jars. Jane wet her palate by sucking the bubbly through a straw.
“If I knew any better, I should’ve moved us back to L.A., when I had the chance,” Jane said.
“Why did you stay here?” he asked, and Jane wondered if he was just showing polite interest.
“Why did you?” she said.
“I grew up here,” he said.
“I did, too,” she said.
“We’re old enough to remember when before they churned up all the orange groves into tract homes,” he said. “Or am I being too presumptuous?”
“That’s a very big word,” she said, “presumptuous.” Her desire for a drink—a real drink—rose up like a prehistoric impulse, a remnant of her less evolved self.
“What were your folks like?” he asked her.
She thought of her parents like the plastic man and woman on a wedding cake, always perfect, always full of possibility. Only instead of surveying a wedding banquet hall from atop a five-tiered cake, she saw them in the front seat of a Mustang, plunging off a cliff together. Leaving her behind with the cake and the clean-up.
“You know,” she said, shrugging. “Regular,”
The conversation fizzled a bit between them as they ate their bacon cheeseburgers. Jane wondered if she’d given up too much, in her usual way. Since Joe, she had pretty much banned romance, put her heart on deep freeze, because love invariably made her crazy and capable of property damage. Not wanting Aggie to end up like her, she let her romantic leanings atrophy, like her other desires for anything crazy, except art. But now, across from this mediocre science teacher, the bubbling longing she kept under cover reached a roiling boil.
“Listen, Aggie’s father, well, he was a Mormon,” Jane finally said, as though that explained it all.
Jane suppressed a smile at the memory. “I was wild in my younger days. I had done the drunken falling into bed with a hot musician thing too many times. Turns out that the Mormon was the charm.”
“Where is he now?”
“How should I know?” she said. “I’m so busy making up stories about who he was that I have no energy to think about where he might be. Anyway, it was a mistake. A twelve-year-old mis—”
“Surely you don’t think of Aggie that way.”
“I love her with everything I have,” Jane said. “I want her to be her own person, but I’m afraid I don’t like the person she’s becoming.”
“Because her values aren’t the same as yours?”
“I was raised by fundamentalists, myself,” Jane said. Elks looked at her as though she had said she had been abused as a child. “They used to say: we love everybody, even though we can hate what they do. So we love old Mrs. Jenkins with the thousand cats, but we hate that she is more than probably indulging in lesbian tendencies. We love your mother but we hate that she has decided to become a drug-using Jezebel.”
“I know it sounds like a sob story; it’s not,” Jane said. “I’m just trying to illustrate a point about these people, they say they love, but what they do is so insidious. They love the sinner, not the sin, and then they judge you.”
“Yes, but how do you know that Aggie’s father would be that way?”
“I don’t,” she said. “I don’t know.”
Later on, Elks drove her back to the school parking lot, where her car sat alone under the orange glow of the streetlights. Before she got out, he said: “Stay there, don’t move.”
She wondered if she had a wasp on her. He reached out his hand, brushed some hair away from her cheek and then pulled his hand back. She thought he might kiss her—she wished he would kiss her—but at least he had made and effort and that had to count for something.
When she saw Joe’s friend the re-enactor on a newsmagazine program, he was playing the CEO of a crooked company, stealing the pensions of his hard-working employees, she took it as a sign. She wrote down the production company information and within a dozen calls, she had Joe’s address and phone number. The re-enactor didn’t remember Jane, but he remembered Joe, and had a current address and phone number.
Cleaning houses, Jane got a feel for putting people’s things in place. Joe’s address in her pocket, counting the minutes until she’d be done, Jane tried to imagine what sort of life was behind the clean lines of the apartment she found herself in. Straight after finishing, Jane drove to Oxnard, tingling with the knowledge that he had been so close by all along.
She parked the car outside and called David. Since they had been out on a few dates, she gave him speed dial number two on her cell phone.
“I’m here,” she said. “Joe the Mormon.”
“You’re with him?” David said.
“I’m right outside his house,” she said. “That I need to know his blood type, does that sound like a good reason to you?”
“Jane, calm down,” David said, so sensible. “What are you doing?”
“I’m seeing a family,” she whispered. “Through the window. Looks like he’s got a daughter of his own, a little younger.”
“Jane—you ought to think about this, first, before you do something to this man—”
“I know, I know.” Jane was laughing to herself. “What do I want to do? Hurt him or something? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Do you want me to come out there?” he asked.
She looked inside the warmly lit house, at the father of her child, and said: “No.” It looked so good and wholesome, that she couldn’t bear to disturb it, and instead just looked.