Whenever love made a Babel of our lives, my mother practiced what she termed cosmology. She'd rent a space in a cheap building and set up shop and line a mirrored counter with tinctures and lotions and homemade concoctions which smelled loudly of makeovers and dilettante chemistry. A beautician by trade, she was a master of appearances. The sign painter she hired at a six-pack's price had lettered HAW RIVER COSMOLOGY on her shop's shingle, so she presented herself as a cosmologist, rather than a cosmetologist. When I confronted her with proof of the discrepancy, she slammed shut the dictionary with a whoof that parted her bangs. She claimed the misnomer suited her better--as if little difference existed between setting perms and ordering the universe.
"Besides." She rearranged a display of skin-care products which promised to rejuvenate, and dusted the shelf with poison to kill the unending string of ants which plagued her parlor. "No one who comes into this one-chair shop will know the difference." They didn't. "They have no class or ambition--just like your gambling father."
Most of my parents' marital battles were waged over my mother's concept of station and my father's misinterpretation of it. As a judge's daughter, she considered herself scissored from a more refined bolt of cloth than the corduroy manufactured in Haw River's one mill. And they fought over money; my father couldn't bring home enough. He had a temperament too generous for his occupation as our county's leading piker (my mother insisted to her clients he was a speculator, not a gambler). Whenever a wagerer lost more than he could afford, my father accepted substitute payment. While my mother thought it was romantic to be married to an outlaw who orchestrated local poker games, screaming matches erupted when my father allowed people to welsh on bets or when he returned home early mornings with a whole side of frozen beef instead of the hundred bucks some butcher didn't have. My father had exchanged a car title for a year's supply of fresh eggs and free moonshine (the backseat had been removed to run liquor, so it was useless as a family car, he'd protested) and a gold wedding band (how could I send him home without that, my father had yelled) for a dozen live chinchillas which he promised to turn into a full-length fur coat once the investment matured. My mother called this his Jack and the Beanstalk mentality. That summer, during the trial separation when they tug-of-warred through me, my father had won a cow pasture complete with a rangy herd of dairy cattle which grazed within earshot of the bulldozers completing the new interstate.
"I'm not going to be a goddamned milkmaid." My mother had spent the morning boxing his belongings in cartons marked SHIPPING DAMAGE. My father had suggested we sell the cows' milk for a profit.
"You don't exchange husbands like merchandise," my father had screamed. "This isn't mail order."
"If it were, I would have ordered from a better catalog."
"That property's got potential. It could be a driving range. Or something bigger."
"I'm pregnant, and you bring us home milk cows."
"Hey," my father had said. "It's even got a new double-wide trailer on it with a good septic tank."
"Then you won't drown in your own shit when you live there." That was the fight that sent her searching for a lawyer.
"How's the big land developer?" my mother asked now, as she swept hair trimmings from an earlier appointment into a careful heap which I would later burn like telltale evidence or hopeful offerings--I could never decide which. The kaleidoscope of local wisdom included the superstition that such offal could be used to cast spells. "You would think there's lost Confederate gold buried in that pasture. Does your father have his country club built yet?"
"It's a driving range, and we'll even have putting greens." Weekends, I stayed with my father and helped him convert the pasture into a property that would impress my mother with its real value. "In fact, we're both learning all about golf." My father had charged a set of clubs endorsed by Ted Williams, the most expensive listed in the Sears catalog. This was North Carolina in the sixties, when everything--my underwear, the bedroom suites, our lives--seemed purchased on the installment plan from a catalog which promised happiness and order if we made sensible purchases. My mother preferred Spiegel's to the Wish Book because it presented a more eloquent scheme for our unkempt cosmos.
I described the state-of-the-art clubs and exaggerated our progress in transforming the pasture into a golf emporium. My mother lit a Viceroy and exhaled a smoky, theatrical sigh which would have caused my father to hurry to her side in comfort. Since her role as Blanche DuBois in the community productionof the play, she had seemed to be practicing for a starring role in a damaged life. She had also developed other staged habits, such as standing before the mirror with a fist clenched to her lips while testing aloud lines from a script for some imagined rehearsal. Her favorite was "How does I do become Damn you?"
She studied the mostly blank pages of her appointment book, as if a crowded day awaited. When I mentioned pregnant women shouldn't smoke, she ground out the cigarette on the floor with the half-dozen others and laid claim to only two a day. A tallying passed between us, and she signaled me to her side for inspection. She scraped dirt from the soft places behind my earlobes and dabbed with a tissue at the lunch left in the corners of my mouth.
"You look like some orphan who's been living in a ditch. Climb into the chair and I'll give you a trim." She had only a handful of customers--mainly family members and the few friends she had not alienated--for a history of nervous breakdowns had blacklisted her. As she snipped, she hummed a few bars from "Camelot." Then she parted my hair and angled my bangs and combed them into a pompadour I would later muss. Instead of pomade she applied a salve my step-grandmother Eugena had brewed to cure the ringworm on my scalp.
My ringworm worried her more than the swarms of rumors the local gossips were stirring. Since my father's departure, old beaus, many of them married, had left calling cards on our doorstep. We'd return home to find a small Christmas of gifts on the porch. I lugged watermelons, a cooler of filleted bass, a battery recharger, and a battered set of The Golden Encyclopedia of Knowledge across the threshold. Male-order gifts, my mother called them, but you could tell the attention pleased the high-school beauty queen in her. The lighter freight included a certificate for a free tune-up, an electric blanket, and a glass eye boxed in a jewelry container which my mother threw away because it frightened her. Most were anonymous and designed to hint at the benefactor's past significance. The more blatant admirers left handwritten messages, such as I'll be seeing you (the glass eye) or No one misses a slice off a cut loaf (a set of knives purchased with S&W Green Stamps).
The most persistent and brazen suitor was Elver Talmadge Shatwell, who delivered his offerings in person. The old fiancé from whom my father had stolen my mother, he was equipped with a James Dean look and swagger. He was a weaving-room straw boss at the cotton mill--a job which had been offered to my father because my mother's family owned enough shares in Cone Mills to snag him a supervisory position. My father's refusal was one of the few marital battles he ever won, citing the dignity of entrepreneurship and reminding my mother that such people were mill grits and lint heads. He pointed out that Elver had to moonlight as a jackleg real-estate broker to make his mortgage payments and that his biggest sales involved funeral plots.
Elver had TALMADGE REALTY embossed on his wallet-sized business cards. He also had the type of tragedy under his belt that prompted speculation and that certain women found irresistible. The versions of his sorrow were as varied as any recipe for grief. In certain accounts, his new bride had had a heart attack while swimming (or stomach cramps) while in others a riptide snatched her. She washed up three days later at high tide, and a tourist hunting sand dollars found her. The funeral was closed casket. The more mean-spirited theorists believed he drowned her on their honeymoon for the insurance money.
"Those weren't jellyfish welts on that poor woman's neck," claimed my step-grandmother, Eugena. She was thrice widowed, and she claimed to possess the gift of augury. "It was handprints. He throttled her."
I heard these stories from the crawl space under the floor joist of the cosmology shop, where I practiced the espionage of childhood. In short order I learned that Hazel Woods, for the past fifteen years, had consented to her husband's advances only on religious holidays, with a flexible interpretation of days like Thanksgiving and Ash Wednesday; that Opal Ramsey and the choir director, a skinny tenor named Virgil, did more than practice organ music; that Buck Loftman loved his cousin Miranda too much; and that the Renfraw girl, Lucille, was not developing normally. One breast was larger than the other, so she performed one-armed Mark Eden bust-development exercises by night and by day resorted to wadded tissue. I learned that a case of the mumps which left the throat and "went down" could ruin the chances of fatherhood; that cold hands are a sure sign of a warm heart; and that Myra Bundy had been lacing her husband's supper for years with saltpeter--in increasing doses but with the opposite effect from the one home science predicted. World news often got seasoned with local myth. The Russians were launching satellites into space to spy on us and blight our corn. The chlorine in the tap water was a Red Plot to soften our brains, or the federal government's immunization scheme against atomic-bomb radiation-opinion was divided. The conversations made me understand that most everyone leads a double life. When one customer left, gossip about her started. Once, when my mother ran across the street to buy everyone Pepsi to encourage business, two customers started in on her.
"I hear they zapped her with electricity at that hospital," one of them said.
"They should have set the voltage dial higher," said another.
"What ails her?"
"Uppity-itus. She throwed away a good husband, even if he does have a weakness for cards. She wants to be Queen for a Day every day, and she gets pissed when it doesn't happen."
"There are some of us who know their origins, and some who don't."
"I hear that baby isn't..." one of them said, but she stopped when I clawed on the floor to make rodent noises. Rats, someone said; did she mean vermin, or damned--their fun was ended? The bell above the door dingled. They greeted my mother and thanked her graciously for the refreshments. I lay very still under the beauty shop, afraid that my exit would announce my presence. I felt like a thief in a house of stories who suddenly recognizes the sorrow of his heist.
My father had a wagerer's heart and a gambler's luck at love. Weeknights, I bicycled to his trailer to deliver the sacked supper my mother or Eugena had prepared. My father considered these meals as subpoenas for his love, and the messages my mother appended as something other than indictments.
"Do you think she'll still feed me if the divorce goes through?" he asked. "Let's see what today's fortune is." He lifted tomato slices and searched under slabs of ham. My mother often tucked little notes inside sandwiches or garnished plate lunches with them. The memos varied with her moods. The baby kicked last night, one said, while another time she claimed my father was the worst mistake she ever made. More than once, they were so hidden that my father got a mouthful of her crazy emotions. This wasn't considered too odd; Erbie Compton once bit down on a Trojan cooked into a meat loaf when his wife discovered the condom in his truck's glove compartment after her tubes had been tied. She baked it into the meat loaf, looped into a bow. The most unusual dispatch my father received was a supper which included a sachet of dried pinto beans and rocks wrapped in foil like baked potatoes. The only edible item was the usual seasoned fresh fruit. The note instructed that he make stone soup with the rocks and that he plant the beans in his pasture to see if a magic beanstalk grew. My father shrugged and ate the blackberries dusted with Eugena's concoction of powdered sugar and herbs.
"I guess I'm eating takeout tonight." He handed me some bills peeled from his poker stake. "Run to the burger joint and get enough cheeseburgers for the game."
Poker nights were Mondays and Wednesdays. My father wouldn't play every night, because losses and tempers must settle. Nor would he play on weekends, when drunken payday fights often erupted. My father ran the type of game the community tolerated. If a man was losing too much, my father would slip him a sip from the luck changer--a bottle of Crown Royal laced with a substance Eugena brewed which the local doctor claimed worked better than ether. The luck changer had saved mortgage payments and Christmas funds. It took smelling salts and strong coffee to sober someone from its spell.
"Never take a man for more than he can stand to lose." My father pointed to a man on the couch, out cold, who had wanted to bet his daughter's birthday pony. "That way, he'll always come back for more. It's the guy who's lost too much that gets you in trouble."
To stage a poker game with impunity, you need the high sheriff or his deputy at the table, a judge or an alderman or two, a reputation for clean dealing, and a trailer park down the road where prostitution can take place off premises. You give free shooters of moonshine, because selling it constitutes bootlegging. A church deacon prone to backsliding is a welcome addition, and an M.D. more skilled in general surgery than in cards (his hands twitch when he bluffs) will sweeten the pot. You set betting limits and follow poker protocol because men love the order inherent in games. An odd alchemy takes place once the cards are shuffled and cut. Chance and luck lose their random nature and transform into the belief that they are predictable. Things become other than what they seem. Twos are called deuces, kings become cowboys, queens become ladies.
I was allowed to observe the first hour or so of the Wednesday night games, so that my mother could enjoy some solitude and recuperate. I emptied ashtrays, fetched shots, and listened. The conversations ranged from locker-room burlesque to sexual speculation. I learned that women and cars must first be warmed up, and that a French tickler would turn a moaner into a screamer, capable of shaking family portraits from the walls. If you put a penny in a jar on the nightstand every time you made love the first year of marriage then took one out each time after that, you'd never empty the jar. The guy who invented Spanish fly had a heart attack shortly after he experimented with dosages by spiking his wife's wine. When you die like that--in the saddle--you're fortunate. Clever husbands knew to ask the obstetrician for a honeymoon stitch. These bon mots got jumbled with recent history and national news. After John Dillinger got shot, the FBI discovered he had the largest penis on record. They kept it pickled in a formaldehyde jar housed in a dusty room in the Smithsonian alongside the half-pig, half-human offspring of horny farm boys. I learned of women who had smothered infants with pillows or held them under in bathwater. The M.D. with the telltale hands cataloged suspicious deaths after his second drink. He had seen suicide wounds which probably weren't self-inflicted, tumbles from high places that might not have been accidents, known swimmers drown, and robust men succumb to coronaries which he suspected were arsenic-induced. On his third drink, he turned philosophical and postulated that love's darker nature was the real problem. Love can turn on you; that was why he had never married. As an intern, he had worked in a Raleigh emergency room. As luck would have it, he was on duty when his fiancée came in after a fatal car wreck. She took the steering wheel through her sternum, and her chest looked like a mangled bird cage. Though she was DOA, he had massaged her heart; he had held it in his hands and kneaded. A guy she had been seeing on the side--another intern--died with her. The M.D. said that holding her heart made him understand one thing: Here was a mass of muscle that never knew what it wanted. He told the story as if it explained the origins of sadness.
My father always used the doctor's tale to call for a break. I passed around cheeseburgers while players stretched. Men waiting for a seat in the game played craps in the kitchen. I collected the house's cut and set a sealed deck on the poker table.
"It's Shitwell time," said my father. Aside from being a straw boss and a real-estate broker, Elver Talmadge Shatwell ran a Saturday night poker game with no limits, in which out-of-town men with heavy rings--the kind designed to inflict brass-knuckled damage--gambled. Elver arrived punctually on Wednesdays at midgame, sniffed out the loser, bought his seat, and played for exactly an hour. He was known for three things: his ability to exploit misfortune, his luck with women, and the pride he took in his hair. He was the only male customer my mother had. My father and Elver took a rival's pleasure in each other's presence.
"Nice haircut," my father said. "Too bad your widow's peak still shows."
Elver Talmadge ignored him. "You're not running this place right," he said. "Let me buy in halves, and we'll triple the profits. A smart man could turn this into a real moneymaker."
"I get by," said my father.
"Tell you what. I'll buy the land, you keep the business."
"It isn't for sale."
"The driving range won't work." Elver shook his head. "Trailer-park poker. You've got no vision."
"I've got twenty-twenty. That's hindsight. That's eyes in the back of my head."
"Well, those eyes need glasses."
"Cut you for fifty," my father said.
If he wanted to, my father could palm an ace, deal a king from the deck's middle, deliver a straight flush, or keep you one card short of what was needed. He never cheated with anyone but Elver, and he let him win. Once, I asked my father why.
"Keeps him coming back."
"Why would you want him to keep coming back?"
"I like the look on his face when he understands I've got something he wants."
"I hear that guy sleeps in a hair net," I said to my father, relaying something I'd heard in my hideaway.
"So what. That's no odder than laying under a beauty shop." I had confessed my hideaway and a portion of what I'd heard to my father. His face weighed what I knew, then he allowed it to drop. "Get on home to your mother before she starts to worry."
When I got back, my mother was inspecting her old high-school album, trying to match faces with gifts. "Did your father like his meal?" she asked, and I couldn't tell if her concern was staged or real. I'd heard through shop talk that pregnant women did mysterious things--like eat wedges of red clay because they craved the minerals.
"He said the beans were a little raw, so we got cheeseburgers and he dug in. And he said thank you." The truth was that he'd misplaced his appetite lately, pushing the food around and complaining everything tasted strange, as if he had a new tongue. Heartburn and stomachaches were not cheery signs, he claimed.
Then my mother and I pieced together the new quilt she planned to sew for the baby. She talked as we worked. She asked did my father seem to miss her; did I understand the impending divorce had little to do with me; did I comprehend the desperation of her feelings? What were two people to do, she asked, when the spell of love wore off and they found themselves lost inside lives they never wanted?
I didn't know the answers, so I redirected her attention back to the quilt. A suitor had been leaving segments of cloth by the door--not remnants, but high-grade corduroy which in bolts would have fetched top dollar. The pieces had even been washed to ensure softness and to make their color fast. This suitor had cut the segments into a pattern, and nights before sleeping we tried to order them. It was like trying to fit together a puzzle depicting the night sky and constellations, with no celestial box picture for guidance.
My mother had decided to resort to black magic to purchase the life that she wanted. She consulted my step-grandmother Eugena, who could broker happiness or disaster into being. Eugena believed in the doctrine of intent, wherein the intentions of the spell caster worked in conjunction with the potion.
"Will this get me what I want?" my mother asked my step-grandmother. "Is this a love potion, or what?" They had decided my father was such a hardheaded case that they would lace his fresh fruit with a powder.
"It depends," said Eugena. "Be careful what you wish for--you just might get it."
With me her answers were more direct. "This squabbling is just in their blood." Eugena reduced love to conjury and the world to simple axioms which I often misinterpreted, for this was the summer of misnomers. I thought in their blood referred to the Rh factor which had caused my mother to miscarry a previous pregnancy. Now it caused them to battle. I heard chest of drawers as chester drawers, guessing that a guy named Chester held the patent on the design. They're like dogs in heat, my father said one Saturday when he came to get me and he saw gifts heaped by the door. I reasoned he meant dogs in August, huddled in shade under a porch.
Eugena was the local Merlin. She knew the names of plants and the words to incantations. She could home-remedy boils and nervous tics, talk the fire from a burn, or break the delirium of a child's fever with poultices. For Eugena, tea leaves and palms yielded the future, and babies in utero indicated their sex by the way a wedding band revolved when she dangled it on a string above a pregnant woman's great stomach. Peach branches divined water in her hands, which were as gnarled as cypress stumps and had delivered babies and stitched together the results of many Saturday nights. Witch hazel and rose water and eucalyptus were their smells, and mornings she soaked them in Epsom salts and massaged them with ointments like sick patients to get them going. Her ring finger was abbreviated at the knuckle from a mill accident so long ago that child labor hadn't been illegal. She had outlived and outsmarted the three husbands who had placed a band on that nub. Both index fingers had witch's nails for the puncturing of troublesome placentas.
When not midwifing or dispensing astrological advice, she mixed medicines. As her understudy, I ground roots and made powders of dried leaves. Her clients paid mostly in produce and favors, and as a result, her window screens never had holes and her larder was stockpiled with canned delicacies. Meals at her house were like Thanksgiving every day. "Stay away from that old hag," my father had warned. He claimed she had taken my grandfather for a ride. An inheritance dispute and a belief that she had somehow hastened her husbands' deaths had soured my father's opinion of Eugena. And she dressed like a man, in brogans and overalls and sometimes mygrandfather's altered suits.
She took a potion maker's view of our lives. The old beaus were simply minor ingredients necessary to make major agents--my parents--act according to some grand design.
"When your parents understand that love is more crooked than straight, they'll settle down." Eugena was boiling a copper-colored liquid into a tincture for a woman wanting relief from hot flashes.
"But my mother kicked him out," I said.
"Every bed needs a good shaking." Her one concern was Elver Shatwell. "A man like that can set things off balance."
"They're already pretty wobbly, if you ask me," I said.
"What do you know?"
"Not very much."
"I bet you know more than you admit. Hand me that cane syrup. This batch smells bitter."
What I did know was speculative, at best. I kept a secret list of things I understood, in a ledger like a true scientist. When I felt at odds with myself, I recited the items--an incantation with no particular order. Buckhorn, dandelion, or rhubarb could serve as a laxative or purgative. Bloodroot and elder flowers could make you vomit. Chickweed and comfrey were two ingredients my grandmother cooked into the lotions my mother sold at the cosmology shop to soften old ladies' parchment skin. Chamomile tea soothed menstrual cramps; skullcap and valerian eased a case of the nerves. Ginseng and saw palmetto could muster sexual urges. Certain herbs had dual properties, and must be administered as carefully as the half-truths I heard from my hideaway. Squawvine and goldenseal could stimulate the contraction of the uterus during labor or end an unwanted pregnancy if taken early. When a woman came to my step-grandmother's house after dark with a kerchief over her head, she wanted squawvine's darker properties.
When you repeat something enough, like a spell, I wrote in my ledger, it takes on a life of its own. Stories had a self-engendering quality. Thursday nights, when I delivered medicines to Eugena's customers, I'd tell myself I was distributing the best love had to offer. I'd knock on the back doors of houses which smelled of supper lingering and the peculiar odor of desperate faith. I could read embarrassment in their faces as I handed them a concoction to remedy the parts of their lives they wished to keep hidden. When people connect you with their darker selves, they'll answer the door in their late evening disarray. I saw Marvin Craig in his wife's kimono and high heels, and the M.D. with gloved, bloody hands suturing the wrists of a judge who battled with depression.
"Keep your poker face on about this," he said to me. I handed him a vial of the luck changer. Did my deliveries cure or perpetuate such things?
You can't trust sounds, I also wrote in my ledger. Sometimes my mother spoke on the phone with a voice I thought she had reserved for my father. "Oh, you," she would say, then she hung up embarrassedly when I slammed the refrigerator door so she would know I was listening. Sometimes, noises reordered the roll call of my worldview. Once, I had been lying under the floor of the cosmology shop when I heard Elver Shatwell and my mother make love.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," my mother had said.
"Then watch yourself good in that mirror," said Elver. "When your divorce comes through, and you take him to the cleaners, we can do it in broad daylight in that goddamned cow pasture, if we want to."
"All you worry about is property that isn't even yours." When the barber chair above me swiveled, the bolts drilled through the floorboards creaked, and the loose washers made lazy little orbits. "Be gentle. Be careful."
"Careful didn't get you like this."
Then my mother made sharp gasps, as if hurt and pleasure were confused.
"Good?" Elver asked when they had finished.
"It was extraordinary," my mother said theatrically. "I think I felt the earth move."
"I can't tell when you're acting and when you're real."
"What, no marriage proposal?"
"If I married you, I'd be your husband. Why would I want to be in his shoes?"
"You bastard," my mother said.
"That's better. That's real." So were the sounds of her angry sobs when he left. This knowledge obtained from cosmology shops and from mixing potions made me feel like a ghost to myself. Why are all evidences of childhood spectral?
The only time that summer my father visited the cosmology shop, he stormed in waving preliminary copies of the divorce papers. I was sweeping up hair tufts and nail clippings from the morning's makeovers. He paced and raved for a while, claiming that the settlement was unreasonable. He screamed that my mother had to leave him with something. Two old-maid crones were his audience. He recounted to them the boy-meets-girl-and-falls-head-over-heels story of their marriage. His saga ended with him grabbing some ant poison from the counter and claiming my mother was killing everything their love had stood for.
"Poisoning it!" he yelled. The two customers fled, one with curlers bouncing in her hair. Then my father seemed to understand he was acting crazy. When I left the shop to flee the argument, my father followed me like an embarrassed potion buyer. I dumped the debris into the trash barrel, crammed in some newspaper, and set it on fire. Then my father picked up a stick and poked, and whole constellations of sparks rose and scattered.
According to Eugena, the dog days of August were scrambling normal cosmology. She explained that our house fit inside a larger cathedral of shadowy patterns. Our broken home was somehow sheltered by this spacious and more patient zodiac, whose cornerstones were the planets and whose walls were their alignments. During the dog days, the dog star, Sirius, rose with the sun--a conjunction in heaven's floor joist which influenced animal and human behavior. Dogs were believed to be particularly susceptible to rabies during this period, and any unchained mutt which threatened to bite could be shot with impunity. Normally timid king and garden snakes turned feisty. They would chase children picking butter beans, and big brothers hacked them with hoes into small pieces. Squirrels abandoned pecan trees to scrap with house cats over a bowl of left-out water. Drapes were tied open at night and drawn shut during the day's heat. Hens became unpredictable in their laying and setting habits, and crayfish left cracked creekbeds in desperate migrations. Roosters forgot when to crow, and rabbits had warbles which made them unfit for the table. Uncle Weenie Collins, the local exhibitionist, stayed locked in his cellar for most of the month, guarded in shifts by embarrassed relatives.
So given the season and the climate of his predicament, my father seemed nearly normal when he spent whole nights letting the poker game run itself while he cut the cow pasture by floodlight on his riding lawn mower, though in the drought such lawn care was not necessary. His midnight rides became the object of much speculation, and opinion at the cosmology shop varied. In the kinder versions, he had gone crazy over love. The two hard-of-hearing old crones who had witnessed his tirade swore my father said he was being poisoned. The oddest rumor was that lost Confederate gold was buried in the pasture, and my mother wanted it. My mother basked in her new roles.
"It's your father who's crazy now," she told me. "Let's see how he wears that hat." Then she confessed she liked the idea of being the center ofa local scandal.
"I'm a femme fatale now. People make appointments to snoop on me and to be here if your father comes back in and yells. Business has never been better."
"Just think of what we're giving your daddy as something like the luck changer," Eugena said when I asked were we hurting him. I felt as guilty for my complicity in the dusted fruit as I did for withholding the nuts-and-bolts knowledge I'd acquired under the cosmology shop. "But remember, love does have its own regretful properties."
Weekends that pregnant summer my father and I speculated over what he called the real estate of our future. He'd point to the cow pasture as if it were the promised land, and say we could make or name it anything we wanted. If I mentioned the impending divorce, he'd make the joke about the fat lady in church not having sung yet. I didn't mention to my father that our lives seemed more like a tabloid than a hymn. It was as if we were engaged in an odd alchemy which gave real events a makeover. My father called his trailer his Casa Grande, his separation a little misunderstanding, and when he argued with my mother by phone and she hung up, it was a bad connection. He called his cow pasture a golfing emporium; I had helped him reinvent the name from Earl's Driving Range to lift his spirits.
"Emporium sounds bigger and better," he said. "Nice work."
The first few weekends I stayed with him, I believed in the Emporium. Nights after clearing brambles and shoveling cow manure into boxed areas which, if fertilized, might become putting greens, we turned on the floodlights he'd installed and surveyed the future from lawnchairs. Over there would sit a concession stand where we'd sell beer, for golfing was a thirsty enterprise. Fathers and sons could relax here and practice their swings until midnight. We would reinvest the profits and expand. Who knew--this place could be a country club. He reminded me that Pepsi had started at a soda fountain in New Bern, North Carolina. The famous recipe was the result of a slow day, when a thirsty pharmacist had few prescriptions to fill. I'd look out where the lights ended and the night sky began and believe in his conjurer's dreams.
Gradually, the Emporium became a house of cards. The Saturday before the trial separation was to end--and papers would get signed or shredded--my father failed to pick me up. I bicycled to his trailer, where he was mowing burnt grass. A few oaks cast puddles of shade in which some cows crowded. My father drove around them in circles like a roughrider. He had spent the night stenciling big plywood signs denoting driving-range yardage, and they were scattered against the sides of the trailer haphazardly, like debris from a windblown disaster. The confused cows mooed in a sad reminder of the life together we had traded. For the first time, I noticed the floodlights were fastened to cedar posts lashed together. My father got off the lawn mower and began chattering about his grand opening next Saturday. He rubbed a three-day stubble.
"This place is looking good, isn't it?" he asked. "Don't worry about the cows--they're a special attraction. We'll paint bull's-eyes on them, and if a customer hits one, he'll get a free bucket of balls."
"Sounds good to me,"I lied.
My father inspected the breakfast sack my mother had sent. He swallowed a small bite of an egg sandwich with difficulty.
"There's coffee too." I handed him the unscrewed thermos. He sniffed deeply, gulped once, then poured out the rest.
"This is the only thing that tastes right." He pulled a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the cooler.
"You been sleeping much?" I asked.
"Too hot to sleep." He drank deeply from the beer, his head tilted back so far that his shirt rose to expose his navel and his lost weight. I found myself pitying my father, as if I had suddenly seen him through my mother's eyes. My father seemed to understand what I was thinking, and he shrugged. "You'll probably hear about this sooner or later. I went over to Shitwell's last night and played a little poker. It seems we own a realty company that specializes in graveyard plots. And whatever you hear, I didn't cheat, and the gun I carried was an old Civil War relic I thought I could hock if my luck went south. By the way, what do you know about perpetual care?"
Accounts of what transpired would get reshuffled into the stuff of stories told in beauty shops or commented upon over supper tables. One version had my father pistol-whipping Elver Talmadge within an inch of his life. In this account, the M.D. my father carried along as money holder and confidant had to pull my father off and resuscitate Elver. The oddest version had my father visiting Eugena before the game. He threatened to kill her if she didn't call upon the devil and fix the game. This was Haw River, where myth commingled with whispered plots. How had our lives gotten stitched into such a patchwork cosmology?
My father had become suddenly dangerous, and this pleased my mother. She made me burn the inedible gifts in the trash barrel behind the cosmology shop. Evidences must be burned,I wrote in my ledger.
All through the next week, I had to coax my mother to open the shop and keep her appointments. A vandal had broken in and smashed some bottles. There was no real damage; it was more like the work of an angry child.
"Do you think he'll hurt us if I sign those divorce papers?" We were cleaning the mess. My mother sat down heavily in the barber chair and visibly worried. "All this is upsetting the baby--she's kicking." Eugena had predicted a girl. My mother propped her feet on the footrest and asked would I rub them, because the pregnancy made them swell and throb. She said my father had massaged them when she was carrying me. She closed her eyes and remembered.
"Did he really pull out a gun and pistol-whip that scoundrel?" She had gone to that place where drama governed.
"He brandished that pistol. He couldn't help himself. He said to me that things had gotten out of control."
"God, don't I know that feeling," said my mother.
Childhood is a spell, and spells are meant to be broken. On the Saturday the separation period was over, my father called to admit he was ready for a settlement and to insist my mother and I both visit Casa Grande with the final papers. He said that we'd have a little Last Supper.
"He is going to drug us," my mother said theatrically to Eugena. "Then he'll cut us up into itty-bitty pieces and bury us in that cow pasture."
Eugena was flipping tarot cards intently while I used a broom to harvest spiders' webs--in exchange for allowance--from forgotten corners of my mother's kitchen. Eugena paid more for webs gleaned from the beauty shop, because they were woven in a room storied with secrets.
"What do the cards say?" my mother asked.
"Wear your shopping clothes," Eugena said.
"What does that mean?"
"You're in a buyer's market."
The latest local intelligence reports informed us that my father had suddenly quit his midnight mowing, and he now spent his off-nights drinking beer and watching TV like a normal person. Wives of his poker pals reported he had begun shaving again. They said the oddest thing he did was whack a few golf balls out into the pasture under the floodlights afterthe game was over.
"What if he clubs us to death?" my mother asked as she and I drove over. Then she switched to her beautician's frequency. "Do I look all right?" She wore my father's anniversary gift of pearls, and she carried the divorce papers inside her Italian leather pocketbook. When I rummaged through her purse for some Dentine--she wanted her breath to smell sweet--I found a vial.
"What's this?" I asked.
"A placebo." She had never used a word before that I didn't understand. "That means it's what your father thinks it is." She patted her hair. "Do I look all right?"
"You look fine. Turn here."
My father greeted us warmly that evening, as if we were honored guests and not members of a family in the middle of a disaster. The driving range was coming along, he told my mother, things would get better. Inside the trailer, we nibbled on a cheese tray my father had prepared. He had even bought caviar--black lumpfish--and we ate it with saltine crackers. The sagging sofa where we sat bumping knees had a makeshift coverlet stitched of high-grade swatches of corduroy. I didn't know my father could sew.
When my mother used the excuse of going to the bathroom so she could peek in his bedroom and inspect his life without her, my father shrugged and slapped his pockets for cigarettes, but he had none. Out of habit, he went into her purse to find one. He pulled out the papers and a vial. It was bottled in a used container with a skull-and-crossbones warning label. "No wonder I've not been hungry and I'm losing weight." He placed the divorce papers and the vial on the coffee table.
"Your bedroom's a mess," my mother said when she came back into the room.
"I'll need a big drink to sign these. Please mix us a bourbon."
"I shouldn't." My mother patted her stomach. "But a small one for me wouldn't hurt." Ice cracked after she went into the kitchen. Dishes rattled, and she returned with the drinks on a dinner plate as she could find no serving tray.
"What's this?" My father held up the vial.
"It's nothing. It's something Eugena gave me to calm your nerves."
"I knew you wanted me out of your life, and I knew Shitwell was a part of this, but I never thought you'd poison me."
"You're talking nonsense like those old hags in my shop." She poured a portion of the contents into her drink, then the rest into my father's. She took a big swallow, and smiled. "Would I hurt our baby?" she asked.
"This is Shitwell's doings." My father was so angry he poked the softness where my mother's sternum gave way to the new life growing inside her. "What's all this about?" He threw down the divorce papers he was rattling and yanked the handiest thing--a deer head hunting trophy--from the wall. He tested its heft and swing. Those antlers could have done real damage; my father was that close to violence. My mother usually slapped faces and hurled pictures. "All this over a sorry-assed bunch of cows and a pasture. He just wanted this property."
"I just wanted to make you jealous. I cut his hair, that's all."
"What have you been slipping me?" My father held up the drink with the placebo.
"It's a love potion," my mother said. "Have you gone so crazy you can't understand that?"
"Did he tell you what this place was worth?" my father yelled. He kept waving the drink with the elixir wildly. "Did he tell you what would replace those cows?"
"I just cut his hair," my mother said again. "That's all."
And then my father did something miraculous; he pitched back his drink and swallowed what he knew. I'm not sure what that instant meant to him, but my father must have suspected that nothing was certain anymore. He probably wondered if the baby was even his. This was before DNA testing, when all we had for confirmation was blood types. For me, it was the end of a Sears Roebuck view of things--where happiness was ordered--and the beginning of a cosmology in which love accepts the prospects of deceit.
My father took a new deck of cards from the mantel and placed them on the coffee table. He made a production of shuffling the deck. "Cut you for our future," he said. "Winner take all." He didn't palm the ace and took his luck straight on. He flipped over a sorry six. My mother drew her card and sighed and gave him her best Giaconda smile.
"You win." She quickly hid her card deep in the deck. Here was true witchcraft. My mother tore up the divorce papers and asked my father how he planned to take care of the new addition to our family. He said not to worry--it was taken care of. The Emporium had been leased, and on it would sit the first shopping center in Haw River. Later, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, we would be among the first to rush inside and fill our carts. In the years to come, a movie theater would be added, and as a teenager I would grope at love in the back row under a silver-screen promise of romance.
"Why did you let me think you were building a driving range?" asked my mother.
"So the property would have to be zoned commercial." My father smiled. "The fact that a city councilman lost his socks to me didn't hurt, either." My father walked over to his golf bag propped in the corner and inspected his clubs. "Leave it to me to buy mail order clubs." My mother laughed and took a big drink and said that golf was as dumb an idea as cosmology. Together they laughed the way two people do when what they know about each other settles into the safe place where we keep secrets. My father went into his bedroom and brought out his stash of golf hats with tassels. We each wore one as he led us outside and lit his Emporium. He sat a box of balls by our feet.
I'd like to say that my parents whacked golf balls like pros that night or that their marriage in the years to come wasn't messy. They sliced more than they drove, and several times they missed so completely that the air from the ill-aimed swing blew the ball feebly off the tee. They gave me a putter--who cared if it was the wrong club--and told me to drive a few to heaven. A curious neighbor driving either to his home or to a quick dalliance with love slowed and honked. He paused briefly at the strange sight of a family dressed in silly hats, struggling with a game we would never fully master. He watched my father hook one, shook his head, then sped away. His moving headlights caught us against the backdrop of the starkly lit cow pasture, and for an instant we had two shadows. It was as if a sorcerer's lantern had cast our lives upon a screen. I wondered what that neighbor thought of the quick moment the swing was true, and sound uttered was as solidly satisfying as the swack on a baby's butt after a particularly troublesome delivery. Could he feel the difference between a hook and a slice, had he ever played night golf and lost sight of the ball, did he recognize our love as kin to his own as we struggled to upgrade the real estate of our hearts?