My mother's killer was named Manson. The morning he was released from prison was sharp and hazy, a spring morning with a scattering of leftover clouds that dotted the sky like shredded bits of tissue paper floating in water. Everything seemed overdetermined that morning, all the details right out of that scene in the movie where The Killer Is Released. The shapeless clouds, the crisp diamond lattice of the chain-link fence through which I saw them, the fat gate guard, his uniform stretched so taut across the gelid curves of his body that it seemed to cry out for the pierce of bullet or knife. Black eye-shaped puddles reflected the limestone walls of the prison and rendered them hollow, insubstantial, penetrable, until a car traveling the length of the parking lot spat grit into them, causing the walls to disappear momentarily. Then the water stilled, revealing the image of Shenandoah Manson. He was dressed in stiff jeans and a chambray shirt faded nearly white, the sleeves rolled up over arms nearly as faded, and etched by pale blue veins and razor-blade-and-Bic-ink tattoos of Jesus, Mary, and a snarling Ford pickup. Over one shoulder hung the slack green lozenge of an army-issue duffel bag, and this bag slapped audibly against Shenandoah Manson's backside as he walked resolutely toward the open gate. Between the gate's pillars he paused, as the freed do. He took a deep breath. He smiled at the security guard, and then he squinted through the thick-lensed black-framed glasses that covered his eyes like a bandit's mask--a new pair since the last time I'd seen him--then started forward again, the slap-a-dap slap of the duffel bag coming at a slightly faster rhythm. As he reached my car I pressed a button which rolled down the passenger side window with a loud squeal. Shenandoah Manson started; nineteen years in prison hadn't made him any less jumpy. He leaned down and peered at me through his glasses, and the cut planes of his freshly shaved face filled the empty window. A thin line of light brown stubble traced the subcutaneous arc of his right jawbone. It was so close to my eyes that had I wanted to I could have counted the individual hairs.
I counted; there were sixteen, seven of which were gray. I smiled.
"Want a ride?"
On the morning after Shenandoah Manson killed my mother the sky was suitably gray, the clouds thick and portentous as a roll of toilet paper knocked in the bowl. They were just squeezing out their first drops as my father let me off at the edge of our yard, and I ran up the sidewalk and ducked into the house and even as I lifted my head to call her name I saw her on the floor at the foot of the stairs. The only blood on her body was a tiny spot below her left nostril. It was the size of the eraser on a new pencil, and it had bubbled up like yeasted bread before hardening into a brown scab. In the six or so hours since her death the rest of her body had stiffened too--not the skin, which had a Play-Dohy pliability, nor the bones, which seemed if anything to have softened, but something between the two. The first thing I tried to do was raise her head but her neck wouldn't bend. Then I tried to pull her hand to mine but it wouldn't come away from her body. It was only after I saw a strange pair of black glasses lying a few feet away that I ran outside to see if my father was still there, but he'd already gone back to his house. The rain seemed to have solidified in the air, and it fell without making any noise on the lawn.
Twenty years ago, Kansas: five-year-old boys weren't taught 911. Five-year-olds were taught their names and addresses and phone numbers, they were taught If I'm not here turn the TV on and wait for me to come home and only one pop before supper. I went inside and shut the door. I didn't turn the television on but I did drink a can of pop even though it was only seven in the morning, and by the time the can was empty my mother's arm had softened up enough for me to pull her still-stiff fingers into my lap. The sleeve of her black plastic raincoat rustled when I moved her arm, and I didn't like the feel of it in my hands. I thought of taking it off but I only got as far as unzipping it. Underneath my mother wore her favorite pale pink dress, still belted at the waist with a thin gold buckle but ripped open at the throat where two buttons had popped off during her fall down the stairs, and atop her breastbone, twisted into a lazy figure eight, was a thin string of pearls. It was the pearls that stopped me. Their double loop--one curled around her neck, the other framing a patch of fading summer tan--seemed too delicate to disturb, and I forgot about removing the raincoat and reached instead for my pop. But it was empty save for a single tangy drop, and when it fell on my tongue I nearly gasped, and I held it there for a long time before swallowing. Held it until I could shake the idea it was one of my mother's pearls I was swallowing.
The only thing that seemed to explain what I did after that was wait for me to come home, and I did, and it wasn't until late in the afternoon, when the school had called my father's house after calling my mother's several times, and whatever you do don't pick up the phone, that he came over and found us, her hand in mine, the empty can of pop, the eraser head of dried blood--and the black glasses, which I still don't remember putting on, dangling off the end of my nose. It may seem horrific and who knows, maybe it was, but nearly fifteen years of passive recollection and another five of active retelling at Group have changed these memories into little more than scenic details, stock phrases I choose whether or not to voice. That's what they teach us in Group: we can choose to tell or not tell our stories, we can impose our own meanings on them rather than letting them have power over us. In Group they teach us to love what we hate. They teach us that the only way to stop hating is to turn it into love, blame has nothing to do with it they teach us, and, like you, the first time I heard such absurdities I laughed. I couldn't help myself, and I tried to hide it behind my hand, but still I laughed.
The woman before me had been talking about her husband, whom she'd found in a pool of his own blood. She didn't call it a pool: she called it a gel. She'd told this story so often she'd had time to replace the word pool with gel and blood with essence, and the knife which she called a dagger was stuck in the nineteenth of thirty-three stab wounds that had left her husband's skin no more solid than the walls of Jericho come tumblingdown. Walter had told her that. Walter had told her it wasn't until the thirty-third thrust that he realized what he was doing, at which point he began reinserting the knife into each of the prior wounds as if blood-hot metal could sear what had been so violently rendered, and he was on what he thinks was the nineteenth hole when the police arrived. Nineteenth hole, someone said. Sounds like a golf course, and everyone laughed, Janyne Watson included, everyone laughed easily at Janyne Watson and what she had to say about Walter, the man who'd killed Janyne Watson's husband by stabbing him thirty-three, or, more accurately, forty-eight times. Janyne Watson said Walter told her this story during their most recent visit, three years of weekly trips out to the penitentiary and finally! and then Janyne Watson said Amen and a host of Amens came back at her. At the time I thought it strange that someone could laugh in the middle of a story like that and then wind it up with a word which means so be it, but even then I saw that the thing to do in Group is what everyone else does, so I said it too, or almost said it. I moved my lips but no sound passed them: Amen.
"So be it."
Shenandoah Manson jumped when I spoke, and I turned to him but didn't say anything. Behind his glasses his eyes were wide with confusion, but then he relaxed and chuckled and said, "Guess I'm a little jumpy, I guess," and I nodded but still didn't speak. My mouth was filled with an ancient flavor, that last drop of pop gone syrupy and metallic after hours lingering at the bottom of an open can, and even as Shenandoah Manson's window rolled down with a protesting squeal I remembered that one of the windows in the living room had been open that morning--the window which from the outside was hidden by a boxwood hedge--and the rain had come in steadily all day and rendered a patch of white carpeting a silvery gray the same color as the pearls on my mother's chest. Ahead of us a heat mirage wavered over the highway's arc of gray asphalt; next to me Shenandoah Manson exchanged a lungful of prison air for the windblown dust of his new condition, and then I remembered something else. I remembered touching my mother's belly. I'd just put my hand on it at first, but when nothing happened I pushed so hard a sigh was forced from her open mouth, and though what came out was, I do believe, invisible, still, I saw it, a cloud thick and pale green as a giant onion. It was nothing more than a blur, of course--everything seen through those glasses was no more frightening than a blur--but for a moment I caught a glimpse of that same cloud on the seat between me and Shenandoah Manson. When I turned I saw it was just his duffel bag. Nineteen years ago the mirage had also lasted only a moment: I'd reached a hand out to it and then, like my mother, like the apparition of water in the distance and like the hatred I'd once felt for Shenandoah Manson, it disappeared as soon as I got close.
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