Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2006

BECOMING Illustration

Becoming

by Rae Dawn Carson

 

West Los Angeles, California; 2005

 

She was a shriveled crescent of a woman, wrapped in fabric stiffer than burlap, and she did not know the value of her name.

Her leathery face was the exact gray of the hulking pillar she huddled against, and she had a way of looking at me sideways when I passed. She reminded me of someone I used to know, so I walked every day through the cement supports of the 405 overpass just to drop a coin into her lap.

After the first week, I asked her name. Laura Mitchell, she mumbled. A nice, feminine name. I practiced it all the way to work, hummed it while I sorted mail at the post office. Laura Mitchell, Laura Mitchell, Laura Mitchell. I’d been Mary twice, Jean, Angela and the abominable Billie, but never Laura.

A few weeks later, I gave her one of my life stories in exchange for a diatribe about her no-good kids and her no-good convict husband and the dumb things she’d done with hypodermic needles that ended her up in this place. She also told me her age. I skipped to work that morning, not believing my luck. She’d seemed forty years old or older, with that smoker skin and brittle hair, but she was only twenty-five. Twenty-five! I could be Laura Mitchell for ten glorious years and no one would be the wiser.

Later, she told me what she did with the coins I gave her, as if I didn’t know. “I ain’t drug free, Billie, and that’s God’s honest truth.” I couldn’t tell if she confessed out of guilt–she never looked straight on at things, least of all at me–but her voice had a hard stubbornness. I gave her a whole handful of change.

The day of my ninetieth birthday, Laura looked me in the eye for the first time and told me she wanted to die. My eyes teared up, because I hate death more than anything. She said she didn’t have money to buy the end she wanted, a hot, happy, heroin death that would take her far away from screeching horns and make her forget how cold she got at night. I crouched down and got close enough to smell the rot in her mouth, to see the skin crevices spidering away from her eyes, decades premature.

“I can help you,” I whispered. Hands shaking, I paid her two hundred dollars for her social security number, her mother’s maiden name, and her date and place of birth.

I couldn’t bring myself to go to work that day. Instead, I went home to my dingy apartment and celebrated becoming Laura Mitchell by drinking two-dollar chardonnay until I passed out.

 

Hourglass

McDowell County, West Virginia; 1977

 

It was a three mile hike out of the holler to see the doc. I didn’t mind, even with the baby, because the mountains were so beautiful. They stretched forever, splotched with yellow and orange and red bright as birthing blood. I breathed deep as I climbed, glad the scorched, summer smell was gone, replaced by the musty damp of fallen leaves that shimmered like coal as they rotted in the shade.

The baby girl–Ember’s baby–wriggled against me in the sling and made snorty, congested noises. It hadn’t been easy, convincing my friend her baby needed to see the doc; she’d birthed six boys just fine in their tiny shack, and almost all of them had lived.

“No, Ember, it’s not about sickness or death or anything,” I’d explained. “She’s gotta see the doc to get a birth certificate and social security number.”

She’d looked up from sweeping the chinking; it had crumbled to the floor leaving gaps in the wall-seams. Ember had a square man’s face and a thick man’s neck, but her brown cow eyes were never hard or glassy, no matter how hungry the boys got. She read deep inside me with that soft gaze, like she knew I was up to something.

But she trusted me. There is no greater bond between women than the one formed in the birthing room. “Then ya take her,” she said. “But don’t be long. She’ll fuss terrible if she goes more’n a few hours without the tit.”

I gathered sling and baby, quick before Ember could change her mind. I pulled back the gingham blanket covering the doorway before I thought to ask, “What do you want me to name her?”

Ember shrugged. “I dunno. Bubsy, or Billie, or…”

“Or what?”

Ember grinned. She still had pretty teeth. “Name her Mary. After ya.”

I rushed back in and hugged her. She felt good in my arms, sturdy and solid. A friend you could depend on. “That’s quite an honor, Ember.”

“Well, ya been kind.”

The whole way to town, winding through thick forest and thinking of Ember, I marveled at this place of brutality and simple sweetness. A little, knowing knot formed just below my ribcage. Only a year or two more until whispers and wariness forced me to leave. I wondered what my dearest friend would think of me then. At least she wouldn’t know how to search for me. As Jean, I’d run for years.

Doc was happy to see me and the baby. “Mary! I didn’t know you were expecting.” He had one of those long, floaty moustaches that swished every time he smiled.

“Well, I ain’t seen you in nearly a year.”

“How long ago did you give birth?”

“‘Bout a week.” I pretended to be fascinated by the peeling wallpaper–tiny blue rattles and pink pacifiers against a yellowing backdrop.

“Want me to take a look at you?”

“Naw, I’m fine. Just the baby.”

While he weighed and measured her, bald Mary squealed like the horn of a coal train. He listened to her heartbeat and grappled with her tiny, skinny limbs. Except for a bit of a snotty nose, Doc pronounced her a picture of health.

He helped me fill out the declaration form. Under “name,” I wrote Billie Firth. Billie was a dumb name, but it’s what he’d expect, me having been with a Billy and all, and I didn’t want to be Mary for the third time. Doc said the birth certificate would come to his office within a month or two, and I fled the brick clinic before he could ask more questions.

The downhill hike into the holler was a lot easier, and the walking motion put little Mary right to sleep. I gave her over to her eager momma with apologies.

“I’m so sorry, Ember. They couldn’t order a birth certificate without your signature.”

Saying nothing, Ember pulled down the shoulder of her dress to expose a swollen nipple, leaking milk.

“I’ll write something up for you,” I said. “I’ll show you how to sign it. We’ll just try again, alright?”

Baby Mary sucked noisily as two of her filthy brothers chased each other, weaving around us in the tiny, tilting room. Ember just nodded.

She would change her mind. The baby named after me would never have a birth certificate. Instead, I would stash her bogus documentation in a safety deposit box, so that in about twenty years, I could become Billie Firth.

I went home to my cabin–a marvel of windproof uprightness–and stared at the fireplace for a long time.

 

Hourglass

New York City, New York; September 26, 1957

 

During intermission, Artie pulled me under the West Side Story banner and kissed me hard, like we were kids again and just married. Grinning at my blush, he caressed my jaw line and bottom lip with his thumb. I loved the way the right side of his mouth curved a little higher, the tiny freckle that disappeared into a smile line. I even loved the gray at his temples and the way his eyebrows had thickened over the years.

“You’re so beautiful, Jean,” he breathed, leaning close to my lips again. “As beautiful as the day I married you.”

He stepped to the side and put a companionable arm across my shoulders. I squeezed him around the waist, taking comfort in the solid feel of him, in the routine of fitting the back of my head against his shoulder.

But my tongue and lips were dry, and my fingers ached from clutching the bead purse so tightly. Just last week, he’d bragged that the boys at the office called him “lucky,” to have such a swell, young wife. How old is Jean? they’d asked. Can’t be more than twenty-five.

Aw, fellas, I can’t tell you my lady’s age! he’d retorted, and I remember the way he beamed with the retelling.

How long until the pride turned to distrust? How long until our lovemaking became tainted with awkward, unspoken questions?

His hand pressed against the small of my back as he guided me toward my seat. Number 102E, mezzanine. Nothing but the best for our anniversary. We settled in just as the lights dimmed and the orchestra burst into the prelude. While Maria sang among a gaggle of girlfriends about feeling pretty, Artie clutched my hand, alternately squeezing it and bringing it to his lips. Such a romantic, my husband. I leaned against his shoulder, wanting the musical to last forever, loving the darkness that made equals of the gray-haired and the blond, of the young and the wrinkled.

I will remember this moment forever, I thought. This precious moment.

But the next song changed my mind about remembering, a beautiful song of time and hope that made my heart hurt. I had to close my eyes so Artie wouldn’t see how much.

Someday…

I sat like a stone in my velvet chair fingering my pearls with my free hand, unable to feel the one in Artie’s. The orchestra, the singing, it was all a cacophony of false hope and manufactured sorrow, and I couldn’t wait for it to end, to leave the Winter Garden Theater and get back onto the wet streets of New York City where life was real. I wanted the decadence of our hotel room, the sweet silk of my husband’s thighs against mine. I needed to hear him tell me these last ten years were the best of his life and he’d do them over and over again, no matter what.

Artie didn’t understand my urgency that night, but he was glad enough for it. Early in the morning, I stepped naked from the bed. I wrapped myself in a thick, terry bathrobe, then pulled $100 from Artie’s billfold. I smiled down at my sleeping husband, memorizing the way his jaw lay slack against the pillow, the way the sheets tangled around his hips. I leaned over and kissed his cheek, already rough with stubble.

“I’m going to get some coffee,” I whispered shakily.

“Mmmm,” he said.

I didn’t even leave a note.

 

Hourglass

Modesto, California; 1935

 

I was twenty years old, really twenty, when our pickup hobbled into the San Joaquin Valley. I hated the place, all lush with peaches and almonds and golden grass that rippled like velvet on a windy day. It wasn’t right, these Californians having such a paradise. They were demon-people, spitting on us and calling us Okies even though we were from Kansas, and they paid us pennies for doing work that make our hands crack.

My daddy and my brothers and I found work in a strawberry field. Momma stayed in the tent, pregnant again. I don’t think her back hurt near as bad as mine though, with all the bending and the heat. But I worked hard and was grateful for it.

There was a young man who supervised us all, a rich boy with soot-black hair and a girlish, pouty mouth. Every day he tickled my ear with dry grass stalks as I worked, or whistled at me as he strutted by. Momma said it was because he thought I was pretty. I wasn’t so sure, but she insisted I never tell about our Choctaw blood, just in case a man like him was thinking on giving me a better life.

Her words made me dream of it, even though the boy was stupid and cruel. I dreamed of wearing skirts without patches, of having skin that stayed young and unlined for years and years.

An old Indian woman made the days bearable. She worked next to me in the strawberry field, her gray and white braids swinging limply as she picked. She kept a treasure in her pocket–I’d seen her fist there plenty of times, grasping something that brought her comfort during the worst heat of the day.

I could always tell when she was getting too tired and hot by the way her bottom lip jutted out in concentration, the way the berries seemed to slip from her stiff fingers. I’d put a few extra in her basket then, so the stupid boy couldn’t see she wasn’t earning her pennies. Her name was Mahala, and she reminded me of my Choctaw grandma.

She listened well, and I told her about the baby coming and about my grandma who died after a dust storm. One hot day, I even told her my dream of wearing fine things, of becoming someone important.

She pinned me with a rheumy gaze and asked, “How?”

It was a silly question. No one asks “how” about dreams. It’s the improbability that makes them so wonderful to think on.

I shrugged and licked sweat from my upper lip. “I dunno. Momma says I should be nice and smile at the stupid boy.”

“You want to marry him?”

“No. No, I really don’t.”

“Then how?”

I resumed picking. My fingertips had become hard like tree bark and were stained from strawberry juice, dark red like dried blood. “Maybe I’ll pick forever and ever. Maybe I’ll pick a million dollars worth of strawberries.”

Mahala giggled, and I looked up. I loved to see her smile because it took up her whole face. “It would take a very long time to pick so much,” she said.

I grinned back. “A hundred years.” Then I checked to make sure the stupid boy wasn’t looking and popped a strawberry into my mouth.

The sun was so hot the next day that the boy brought a silly parasol. Mahala and I laughed like little girls together, until the moment her eyes popped and she clutched her shoulder.

“Mahala?”

She fell to her knees, then to her stomach, crushing strawberry plants.

“Mahala! What’s wrong? What is it?” I crouched beside her and fanned her face as her mouth opened and closed, like a great fish. My grandma had died like this, gasping in the dirt after a black blizzard layered the farm in choking dust. A huge lump like coal lodged in my stomach. “Mahala?” Please, no.

“Mary,” she mouthed into the soil. “Pocket.”

“We need to get you into the shade, get you some water.”

“No!” She coughed. “In my pocket.”

I yanked her skirt toward me, from under the bulk of her body, and reached inside. I felt something soft and supple, wrapped around a hard thing. I pulled out a tiny leather bag with leather ties. Inside was a crystal, rough and white, with a tiny green spark like a Christmas light pulsing at its center. For a reason I couldn’t explain, I shoved it back into the bag as quickly as I could.

“Totem,” she gasped. “I never put it on.” She seemed amazed, and I think she smiled. “You put it on, Mary. Become someone.”

She died the next instant; I knew it because the profound stillness of death is unmistakable. I stood and backed away, crying, the leather ties of her bag dangling from my red-stained fingers.

I didn’t understand what she meant until many years later. It wasn’t until momma asked if I’d made a deal with the devil that I realized I’d have to leave my family, realized I had all the time in the world.

 

Hourglass

Venice, California; 2005

 

I sat in a diner with glass windows that overlooked the beach. Methodically, I spooned strawberry cheesecake into my mouth but it tasted like sand. Two women jogged past, dressed in neon bikinis, breasts and cellulite bouncing. I wondered what it would be like, to beat my body into a semblance of youth instead of having it already stuck there, like a cold statue.

Laura Mitchell’s face, the real Laura Mitchell’s face, haunted me. I wondered if she’d found her fix yet, wondered if she was dead. If so, I had surely killed her.

I pulled Mahala’s leather bag out from under my tanktop. For seventy years, I’d worn it like a soldier wears dog tags. I loosened the straps–straps I’d replaced twice already–and dropped the crystal onto the plate next to my half-eaten cheesecake. The green light winked at me, like it was laughing. I glared back.

All the time in the world. Maybe I would live a thousand years. Maybe more. I imagined a millennium of going to funerals cloaked in sunglasses and ugly hats, hiding in the trees. Hundreds of identities and short-timer friends. It would be like dying every ten years.

Ten years is not enough time for anything.

I grabbed the crystal and slid from the booth. I dropped a ten dollar bill at the cash register and hurried out the glass door in search of a hammer.

 

Hourglass

Topeka, Kansas; 2015

 

My husband plays with my hair Saturday morning during our “sleeping-in time,” twirling it around his fingers, gently separating tangles. He finds a strand of gray hiding just behind the curve of my ear, tucked cleverly among all the brown ones. He doesn’t understand my happy tears or why I plead, no, no, please don’t pluck.

__________

Rae Dawn Carson lives in a tiny, antique house in a California orchard with a dog, two cats, and countless black widow spiders. A background in corporate sales uniquely qualifies her to create fiction. Her work has appeared in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine and Flash Me. Visit her at www.raedawncarson.comfor the latest news. 





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