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.
Some men carry jail on their backs. They hunker down, hunched over under the weight of it, their shoulders drooping, their heads dropping into their chests. Shenandoah Manson was such a man. Oh, he talked a lot at first, but as we got closer to town his words slacked off, his back bowed even more, eventually he fell silent, his lowered eyes staring at his upturned hands, which rested a handcuff's width apart on the creases ironed into his jeans. The drive took nearly two hours, and during the ride his head sank lower and lower as his spine curved under his invisible burden. He didn't look up until we were a few blocks from my house, and then his head jerked up, he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and looked out the windows, and then, with an almost audible gulp, he pushed his chin back into his chest. I thought about putting my hand on his knee then, telling him that I carried the same weight on my back: we all do. One of the things we learn in Group, one of the few things I have no trouble believing, is that no one's innocent after a crime. No one's free. And then I did put my hand on his knee, and Shenandoah Manson gulped again, and the muscles of his thigh were so taut it seemed I could feel his constricting throat under my fingers.
"My parents were never married," I said. "My grandma says my dad was a deadbeat, and she had plans. My mom had plans. She was working as a broker even before she got pregnant with me, and by the time--by that time she had a pretty good business, and she owned two houses in this neighborhood." Only then did I pat his knee, remove my hand. "So no."
Shenandoah Manson rubbed his knee as if checking for an injury. "No?"
"No, it's not the same house. My dad sold that one."
Shenandoah Manson looked again at the silvered wood of shingled roofs, at Bermuda grass and purple impatiens and the open-fan leaves of the spindly ginkgoes which had replaced the elms that had succumbed to blight a few years after he'd been convicted of murder, and then he said, "It was a nice house?"
"I guess. Kind of small I guess. A cottage really. My mom turned the attic into a second story, so we could have separate bedrooms." I tried to dam it, but the word poured out of me anyway. "Ironic, huh?"
"I mean, if she'd never put in the second story, there never would've been a staircase for her to fall down."
"Oh," Shenandoah Manson said. "Ironic."
When we got to my house Shenandoah Manson opened his car door well enough; he stood up, even managed to hoist his pack onto his shoulders. Then he just stood there in the afternoon sunlight, blinking, watching me through his glasses, and I was caught for a moment by the sight of the man who had killed my mother, standing on a mowed green square of suburban lawn. With his right hand, he fingered the spot over his heart where for nineteen years an ID number had been sewn into his shirts, but, finding nothing there, his fingers dug through the fabric into his skin. His foot scraped the dirt a little; other than that he didn't move except to blink repeatedly, whether at me or the unbarred sun I couldn't tell.
I shook my head then, straightened my spine. "C'mon. You're a free man. Act like one."
For the first time his smile didn't seem forced. "Your front door locked?"
"Well, seeing as my housebreaking days are behind me, there's not much for me to do till you unlock it."
He laughed a little, and I looked at him while he laughed, and when he was done I said, "Touché."
Inside, I said, "As you can see, it's way too big for one person. Too big for two really, that's why my mom rented this one out. There are four bedrooms upstairs, two bathrooms, down here there's a den, a screened-in porch, even a little maid's room off the kitchen."
"You sound like you a got a bit of the broker in you too."
"Must run in the family."
We walked from room to room. The next thing Shenandoah Manson said was, "So, um, you got a girlfriend or anything?"
"I'm single," I said.
"And besides, I'm gay."
"That a problem?"
He shrugged. "Guess not. Guess I'd've thought you'd've mentioned it by now, is all."
"It never came up."
Shenandoah Manson cleared his throat. "Look," he said, "I don't wanna be a imposition."
"Shen," I said. "Can I call you Shen? Shen, this is the opposite of an imposition. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"That sounds like something you heard in Group."
"If it wasn't for Group we wouldn't know each other. You'd be sleeping on some cold sidewalk right now."
"It's noon," Shen said. "It's June."
"Things change. Especially the weather."
"I don't understand--" Shen began, but I spoke over him. "Listen to me, Shen. I don't understand either, but I know that this is something we need. Both of us need this, if we're ever going to move on."
But he just blinked his eyes. "I don't understand," he said again. "What do we need?"
We were in the kitchen when he said that. Shen had carried his bag from room to room, and now I said, "You wanna put that down? It looks heavy."
He laughed a little. Disjointed words dribbled from his lips, one at a time. "Oh... yeah... sure... I..." He caught sight of the maid's room through an open door, and he pantomimed the fact that he was going to put his bag in there before he actually put it in there. When he came back, I had a bottle of whiskey in my hand, the glasses were already on the table, and Shen looked at the bottle and at me, and then his face broke into a grin.
"Welcome home," I said. "Welcome back."
I poured us each a shot and we touched glasses, but neither of us drank. Shen's hand slowly fell to the table, like a man losing an arm-wrestling match. He exchanged his drink for the car keys, which I'd tossed on the table when we came in.
For the first time he perked up. "No shit. I knew it, man. She's cherry." Then smile faded again. "I went to jail in '76."
That seemed to me to be beside the point, but all I said was, "Last of the big Monte Carlos. Last, biggest, and best," and even before I finished Shen was shaking his head.
"Naw, man. Best was '72. Half Caddy, half tank, half wolverine. Climbing into that car was about as good as climbing into pussy."
Now I put my glass down. Behind his glasses, Shen's eyes closed.
"Aw man. Nineteen years. Aw man. The thought of pussy is like God, man. There was times I'd reach up outta my bunk and touch that shit like it was right there man, pussy like the size of a grizzly bear waiting to work me over. My cellie used to say, hey everybody, Shen's having the pussy dream again. I like to kill that nigger when he do that. I mean, I don't give a shit what nobody thinks about me but he woke me up, you know what I'm saying, and when that pussy was gone there was no getting it back until it came back. Nineteen years I been having that dream, and I swear to Christ that pussy got bigger every year. Big enough to open wide and swallow me whole, big enough to take me right back where I started from. Nineteen years. Aw man."
When he was done I said, "She's yours if you want her."
"The car, Shen. The car."
A new expression crossed his face, something that wasn't quite suspicion, and then Shen let go of the keys and picked up his glass and touched it to mine where it sat on the table. His eyes squinted shut as soon as the whiskey hit his throat, and he slipped the thumb and index finger of his free hand under his glasses to wipe a tear from beneath tightly squeezed lids; on the table, his hand pawed the formica, and I suddenly thought of a dog my father got me soon after I went to live with him. The dog had spent its life in a kennel, six or seven years, and when it was first set loose in the wide-open space of my father's yard the animal refused to run, to walk around even. It took just a few steps, wobbling like a newborn fawn, then turned and retraced its path, and then, eventually, turned again. It was months before the animal seemed to realize it was no longer in a cage, and as soon as it did it ran away and was never seen again.
I wondered if Shenandoah Manson would realize he was free. I wondered if--when--he'd run away from me, but when he spoke his voice was hoarse and dry. "Aw man."
That night I dreamed about Shenandoah Manson. I dreamed I measured every single part of his body with a tailor's tape, chest and waist, wrists and ankles, fingers and toes even, and then I sewed him a new suit of skin, this one fresh and white, clean of tattoos and history. He'd grinned sheepishly when I asked about the tattoos. They used to steal his glasses, he said, and they wouldn't give them back until he submitted one more time. Dumb asses could draw okay but they sure couldn't spell. He held out his arm: Jezus.
In the morning I knocked on the door to the maid's room before pushing it open. Shen slept through my knock, facedown on the little twin I'd bought a few weeks before he was paroled. He'd managed to undress before falling atop the sheets, and on his uncovered skin I could see more tattoos: a vine-wrapped cross on his calf, a snake's rattle-tail curled around his waist, and, on each shoulder blade, a little flightless wing. The rest of his skin was as pale and new as I'd dreamed it, save for a thin patch of hair above the label of his inside-out underwear (I could see him, glasses off, blurrily pulling them on at the sound of yesterday's reveille bell). The wings on Shen's shoulder blades flapped as he rubbed the hairs on the part of his back I was looking at, and then some prison sense must have told him he was being watched because his hand froze and his eyes sprang open. For a moment they were filled with fear and confusion, and even as he felt for his glasses on the floor I saw the two faded indentations high on his nose, and then his glasses were on his face and the confusion left his eyes, but not, immediately, the fear. He tried to smile, but it came off as a grimace, the grimace of a teenaged boy who looked incapable of killing a fly, let alone a woman.
"Aw, man. What'd you put in my drink?"
"You're out of practice. You'll get used to it."
Shen grimaced again. "Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead."
"I'm going to work. I thought you might like to go."
"To work. With me. I talked to my supervisor, he said he could probably get you something in the warehouse. You don't have anything else lined up, do you?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, no."
"Good. You can drive me. Better get a move on, we'll be late."
In the car he was a kid again, a cocky seventeen-year-old whose rap sheet was filled with nothing more serious than a string of B-and-E's. He tilted the seat back, rolled up his sleeve before letting his tattooed arm hang out the open window; if he could have seen the front of the car without them, I'm sure he would have taken off his glasses. "Damn," he said. "Wish I still smoked. Car like this deserves a cigarette." He gunned it, and the speedometer's upward surge was matched by the gas gauge's downward spiral. "Fuck you, OPEC." He looked at me. "Goddamn camel jockeys took the fun outta everything." Ten hours later we were back at the kitchen table. Empty plates were pushed to one side, drinks sat between us, just pop this time, cold cans perspiring in the warm air. The workday had lasted two decades: Shen's five-o'clock shadow was tinged with gray, and the hand he ran over his lined forehead revealed a receding hairline. His prison burden weighed heavy on his back tonight, and he slouched in his chair, occasionally stealing glances at me from the corner of his eye.
Finally I said, "Shoot."
Shen jumped. "Huh?"
"What's on your mind, Shen? You haven't said two words since we left work."
"Oh. It's just you said--" He pointed his finger at me, pulled the trigger, and then he looked a little shocked and he put his hand on his chair, under his leg. He was silent for another moment and then he said, "It's just--the house, the car, the job. It's a little much, especially on my first full day out. Don't get me wrong, man. It's not that I ain't grateful."
"One of the things they say in Group--"
I stopped because he was rolling his eyes.
"Hear me out, okay? One of the things they say in Group is that people spend their grief. They buy a bronze casket or a silver urn, they arrange to have roses put on the grave every month, every week even, every day. Okay? But other people invest it. My dad's one of those. He dropped the sixty-five grand he made off my mom's house into mutual funds. He made a couple of good guesses along the way, got lucky a few times, and here we are."
Shen just shrugged. "Whatever."
"What I'm trying to say, Shen, is that I can afford it. I'm saying it's worth it to me, whatever it costs."
"But what're you buying, man? Are you trying to buy me?"
I tried to laugh his fears away, but what could I say. The truth was I recognized his questions: I'd asked the same questions when I first went to Group, until I realized there was no answer to them: you had to learn to stop asking. I tried to explain it to him, told him I'd been doubtful too. I told him how I'd sat there dumbfounded as Raylene Cummings recounted the night Raymond Church had driven a knife into the meat of her right shoulder and then, with the knife still lodged in place, had raped her. Now, I told Shen, Raylene Cummings paid visits out to the penitentiary once a week. She baked Raymond Church a cake on his birthday and he knitted her loose cardigans with big wooden buttons which were easier for her to fasten with just her left hand: nerve damage had left her right arm numb and immobile, and it hung from her shoulder like a wet flag on a windless day. I told Shen how Karl Grable had come home and found his wife and son like that. Nearly twenty years afterward he still couldn't say what like that meant, but every other Sunday he took services out to the penitentiary with Brian Dawes, the one who'd left Karl Grable's wife and son like that, and he'd even bought Brian Dawes a white button-down shirt and tie so he wouldn't have to sit in the Lord's cinder-block chapel in his working clothes. And then I told Shen about Lucy Ames. Like me, Lucy Ames had lost a parent. Unlike me, nine-year-old Lucy had sat in a chair and watched as George Ferguson pistol-whipped her father in an attempt to beat the location of his wife's jewelry box out of him. Seven times he popped him, until on the seventh time the gun went off as it struck Mr. Ames's face and the back of his head sprayed across the living room wall in a wide arc like a rainbow where all the colors are red. Now Lucy Ames was married to George Ferguson and thanks to the grace of God and monthly nuptial visits out to the penitentiary she was expecting their second child.
And, I told Shen, it wasn't like these stories convinced me of anything, but curiosity outweighed skepticism. At first I told myself I was going back because I wanted to hear more of these fascinating tales, but eventually I realized I was curious about him. I realized I wanted to meet him.
I wanted to meet the man who killed my mother.
At some point while I spoke I'd picked up my empty pop can and used my dinner knife to cut it in half, lengthwise. I didn't really register the awful squeaking the dull blade made as it sawed through five inches of aluminum until the sound was gone, and then I looked up at Shen, who stared at the cut-open can in my hands with the look of a rabbit transfixed by a pair of oncoming headlights. I tried to grin, but even as my lips curved I was bringing one half of the can to my mouth, my nostrils flared at the long-ago scent, and then I stuck my tongue against the can's exposed inner surface. The taste was obscured by memory--rain, pearls, the fleeing genie of my mother's last, forced breath--and the only way I could share that with Shen was by holding the other half out to him. I waited to see what he would do, and after a long pause he pulled the twisted metal open like a halved fruit and raised it to his mouth. I watched his tongue flicker out and lick up the last few drops of pop. I think I was hoping he'd understand what I was trying to do because I needed him to explain it to me, but he was just as lost as I was, and just as caught up. Neither of us knew what we were working toward, but in the thin clink of metal against tabletop was the certainty that Shen would stick around, until I'd done it.
The Circle was small, usually just six or seven people, sometimes as many as a dozen, every once in a while just two or three. Even with my sporadic attendance it wasn't long before I'd heard everyone's story, the pain, the loss, the grief, the inevitable victory signified by their presence in Group. Participation was voluntary, but members were strongly encouraged to testify, to relate their Incident and to describe the aftermath and the recovery. You might recognize some of the words from one of those survivor groups, but in Group we're taught not to think of survivors, or victims, or perpetrators: everyone's a person, before and after the Incident, and the only thing Group does is remind us of that fact. I managed to worm my way out of testifying for a long time but finally no one would listen to my excuses anymore and so I took my place in the center of the Circle and told them what I knew, which wasn't much. An apparent robbery, my mother's return home, a push down the stairs, a broken neck. Rigor mortis and the can of pop and then my father. I left out the glasses and the pearls and the cloud of green gas that I'd pushed out of my mother's belly because that didn't seem relevant to Group, and when I'd finished telling the story Lucy Ferguson, gently rocking on her knee the eldest son of the man who had killed her father, said, Well, what does he have to say about it? I thought she meant my father, but she meant Shenandoah Manson, and when I told her I had no idea she said, Well then I think it's high time you found out, and Raylene Cummings said, High time is better than no time, and Janyne Watson led the chorus of Amens. The next day Lucy Ferguson picked me up when she went to visit her husband. Out to the penitentiary. I held George Jr. on my lap because Lucy Ferguson believed in God and she believed in Group but she didn't believe in child-safety seats. "Trap my baby boy in a hunk of burning metal?" she cooed. "How could I even think of such a thing?"
I don't know what I expected to happen when I confronted my mother's killer, but I certainly wasn't prepared for the sense of disappointment I felt when he shuffled into the room. The shuffling wasn't caused by leg irons or anything so dramatic: Shenandoah Manson was simply a man who shuffled, and stooped, and squinted behind silly Buddy Holly glasses held together at the bridge with a rolled-up Band-Aid. His skinny frame swam inside his orange jumpsuit. His hair was cut short, parted on the side, combed over neatly. He was thirty-two years old, but he looked and acted like a teenage refugee from some fifties sitcom, and I remember thinking that this wasn't the sort of man who could kill your mother. Shenandoah Manson's shuffling feet were loud on the concrete floor, the metal balls of his chair squeaked something awful when he pulled it away from the table to sit down, but after he'd slumped into his seat there was a long moment of silence between us, during which I heard Lucy Ferguson say, "Let's show Daddy our new tooth!" I considered opening lines: "I wish you were dead"; "You're a monster"; "I've dreamed of this day for years"; but none of these statements was true, not even the last, and in the end all I could come up with was "You're smaller than I expected." Shenandoah Manson blinked when I said that; I imagine he'd also expected something more dramatic. Behind his glasses his eyes flitted about, as if looking for something to say, and then he just said, "I, um, I'm five-foot-seven." He paused. "In my socks." Visiting sessions lasted an hour, and I had to wait another hour while Lucy Ferguson, after being thoroughly frisked, retired to a little tin trailer in the center of a chain-link cage in the prison yard. I held George Jr. in my lap and I silently repeated the words my mother's killer is five-foot-seven until Lucy Ferguson finally pushed open the trailer door and blew a kiss to her husband inside. Five-foot-seven, I told George Jr. In his socks.
After the first night I offered him an upstairs bedroom but Shen said maybe he was better where he was. A pattern developed: morning coffee, work, dinner, then story time. We talked for hours every night, sometimes while drinking, sometimes cold sober. I told Shen about Group and he told me about prison. Neither of us was telling the truth, really, by which I mean that neither of us was telling the other what he really wanted to know. Every night I started from the beginning, from my first appearance at a meeting, and worked forward; and every night Shen started at the end, from his long walk out those open gates, and worked backward, and both of our stories were bound by the same unmentioned end points: by my mother's death, and by our current cohabitation, and in some way these two things became conflated in my head, and, I think, in Shen's too, and our life together took on an inflection of punishment and penitence. Unbidden, he drove me to and from work, signed his paychecks over to me for rent and food, cooked and cleaned and mowed the lawn, and he did it all with the same meek acquiescence with which he'd licked the inside of the pop can I'd given him on our second evening together. Sometimes, when we'd been drinking, he'd slouch in his chair and stare at me through his glasses, and sometimes, when we'd had too much, he'd take his glasses off and his eyes would glaze over and I knew I was little more than a pale blur to him, but even though I wanted to I never reached over and put his glasses on my own nose, even though I knew he wouldn't protest if I did. In fact the only thing that ever got a rise out of him was when I asked him to come to Group.
In my five years in Group only one member had ever brought in his Person. That's what we called them in Group: People. Not murderers or rapists or muggers or thugs. By calling them People we reminded ourselves that they were as human as we were. Clay Adams had run a pawnshop downtown for forty-six years, until the day Blake Moore came in and, in Blake's own words, went a little crazy in the head I guess. He hadn't brought a gun, he said, 'cause I was the kind of sonofabitch who'd've used it, but relied instead on a cattle prod, which in an attempt to torture the existence of a safe out of Clay Adams he'd applied to the soles of the old man's feet again and again till what they looked like, Blake Moore said, was Neapolitan ice cream, melted. As it turned out there was no safe, and all Blake Moore got for his troubles was $5.47 from the till, a ceramic statue of two black panthers,and eight years in jail. Clay Adams had recovered the statue, and the money too, but, old and diabetic, he'd lost first his feet and eventually both legs up to the knee, all told it took about a year and half, Clay Adams said. He was seventy-one years old when Blake Moore pushed him in his wheelchair into the center of the Circle and, eyes brimming with tears, presented Blake Moore with the statue he'd so coveted. He said, I just want to thank you, Blake Moore, before God and Group for allowing me to forgive you and forgive myself for what happened. Blake Moore had lost the tips of the fingers on his right hand beneath a metal press--yes ma'am, license plates--and with the smooth soft stumps he stroked the sleek black cats on his lap. After Blake Moore's trial the police had returned the statue to Clay Adams and he'd dashed the damned thing to the ground,but six years in Group and a lot of super glue had all but done the trick. One of the cats was missing an ear, but an ear ain't much, Clay Adams said, or a foot. Or fingers, Blake Moore added, not when you get right down to it. Not compared to bliss. And even at the time I knew there was something wrong with what they were saying, but the display was so compelling I was distracted. Not so long after that Clay Adams died of a stroke brought on by his diabetes, and about a year later Blake Moore went back to jail, this time for stealing cars, but the general consensus was that he'd been helped by his visit to us: at least he'd chosen a line of thievery which jeopardized no one's safety but his own.
But none of this impressed Shen. He shook his head and said:
"I don't like crowds."
"But that's the beauty of it. It's like the other people aren't there at all, and you can say the kinds of things you'd never say one on one, like this." I didn't look at Shen when I said that, because even though I knew what I was saying was true, I also knew that was the problem with Group. That feeling of superhuman isolation became all of you, obscuring everything else, and Shen seemed to sense this instinctively. In the end I struck a bargain with him: he could skip Group if he'd tell me something.
My mouth watered, and I blushed and swallowed and said, "Why our house?"
Shen squirmed in his chair.
I said, "It was a small house, and this is a prosperous neighborhood. Why ours?"
"Your mom," Shen said, and stopped. "Your mom was on a date with this guy I knew. That's how I knew she wouldn't be home."
"My mother was on a date?"
Shen shrugged and refused to meet my gaze. "She was twenty-six years old. Just because she had a kid didn't mean she was--" He shrugged again.
We left it at that, and I went to the meeting on my own. Every week I'd ask him to join me, and every week he refused. Sometimes I demanded a piece of information in exchange for letting him off the hook, but eventually I gave up that practice because I didn't like the things he told me. I didn't like the fact that my mother had gone on a date with a man who was friendly with a housebreaker, and I didn't like the fact that my mother had been humming "Afternoon Delight" when she entered her house at one in the morning, and I didn't like the fact that Shenandoah Manson called our house a slim haul--no silver, no cash, just a couple of rings and bracelets and shit, a pair of dinner-table candlesticks that were probably tin but just in case--and I especially didn't like the fact that it was the candlesticks my mother had tripped over. When he heard my mother come in--humming "Afternoon Delight"--Shenandoah Manson had tried hiding in the linen closet at the top of the stairs, but my mother had apparently decided to take a shower, or maybe she just wanted to dry her hair. At any rate she went straight to the closet for a towel without even bothering to unzip her raincoat, and when she'd pulled open the door he'd screamed; she'd screamed; he'd dropped his near-empty bag of booty and run and she'd run after him, only to trip on the candlesticks and send them both sprawling down the stairs. Somewhere in the fall he'd lost his glasses and she'd lost her life, and when he'd figured out the latter fact he'd stumbled half blind out into the night.
I told him I didn't believe him.
"Neither did the court."
"Why should I believe you?"
"Look. The reason why I went to jail is cause if I hadn't of been in that house your mother wouldn't've died. Everything else is just kind of incidental. If it makes you feel better to think I pushed your mom down the stairs, fine: I pushed your mom down the stairs."
I suppose I liked that fact least of all.
Mead Pritchard was the one person nobody ever talked about in Group, Mead Pritchard and Howard Firth. Howard Firth had served seven years for shooting Mead Pritchard in the stomach during the course of a liquor store holdup, and when he was released Mead Pritchard had staked out Howard Firth's front porch for several weeks in an effort to befriend him, and then he'd disappeared, later to be found at the bottom of Pleasant Pond with an unopened sack of cement tied to his scarred belly. In the absence of Mead Pritchard, Howard Firth's name never came up, but when Mead's did people tended to say he did what he had to do, and I wondered if they would say that about me, but I doubted it.
I sensed my interest in Group waning after Shen finally told me how my mother died, but for some reason my interest in him seemed to grow; though I continued to go to meetings, I'd sometimes sneak out during a coffee break. I'd drive home and park down the block, and then I'd stand outside the windows spying on Shen as he watched TV with the lights off or slept with the lights on, until the night I came home and saw neither lamplight nor the TV's flickering glow. And I admit: the first emotion I felt was relief, but it was almost immediately blotted out by loss. I thought Shen had finally left me, but something, either nineteen years in prison or the few months we'd spent together, had skewed his sense of priorities. Shenandoah Manson could have gotten away if he'd wanted, but he chose to get laid first.
My first thought was that the woman in Shen's bed looked like the kind of woman who might sleep with a man even if she knew he was a paroled murderer: too tan, too plump, too thirty-nine. When I snapped on the light she reacted calmly, lazily pulling the sheet over her body, but it took me a moment to realize Shen was calm too. He hadn't jumped when I came into the room, only lain on his back with his uncovered eyes pointed at the ceiling. I told myself it was the woman who angered me, her lack of shame, and it was her I lashed at first.
"Don't you know what he did?" I said to her. "He killed my mother." And then I added, "Not yours."
I clocked her reaction on her face: oh-my-God, oh-you're-joking, oh-my-God-you're-not-joking. Before I left the room I picked up Shen's glasses from the floor. I waited in the hallway, and after I heard the front door close I went back to the maid's room. Shen was still on the bed, his face still pointed at the ceiling, and I went over and sat on the edge of the little twin mattress. They hadn't gotten very far. At any rate Shen's underwear was still on, right side out this time, and the bed was so narrow that my hip pressed against the thin fabric.
"Can I have my glasses back."
Shen's voice was not quite flat when he spoke. There was an edge of steel to his words, and I wondered if I should be afraid of Shenandoah Manson. But the truth is I wasn't afraid. The truth is it was hard for me to believe Shenandoah Manson had killed my mother, let alone that he could kill me.
Aloud, I said: "I used to wonder if you'd saved me. If she would've married some jerk who would've beat the shit out of me. Who knows, maybe you even saved her. He could've beat her, taken everything she worked so hard for. But that was before I met you."
"Can I have my glasses back."
"It was only after I met you that I realized I'd been deprived of something. I'm sure I felt it before, that's why I went to Group, but it was only as I got to know you and realized you were a real person that I began to realize my mother had been a person too, although what kind of person I'll never know."
"I want my glasses back."
"You probably never saw her, did you? With your glasses, I mean. She was pretty. A lot prettier than that woman you just had in here."
He rolled over then. I don't know if he did it out of disgust or shame or if he simply didn't want to be touching me anymore, but he rolled over onto his stomach and as soon as he had he froze. The little wing on his left shoulder blade fluttered as a muscle underneath it twitched, but it became nothing more than a shadow after I put on his glasses, and my hand became a pale triangle at the end of my arm as it reached toward the shadow on his back. It seemed to me that the tattoo was colder than the rest of his skin, but that was probably just my imagination. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as my hand slipped down the length of Shen's spine, until it came to rest on the rattlesnake's tail poking toward the thin nest of hair in the small of his back. I wondered if this is what Shen had felt like when he pried open our window that night, this inexorable pull into the near future. It was then that I understood that ignorance really is bliss, not knowledge, because once you start learning you can't stop until you know everything.
"Shen," I said now, but he didn't answer me. He didn't move either, and I squeezed onto the bed until my lips were right next to his ear. "I'll trade you," I said. "For your glasses."