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Chapter 16

Walking around the bed in Mariette’s bedroom brought you in contact with other furniture. Things swished, discarded sweaters fell off of wicker chairs.

Jude lay on his stomach on the bed. It was Friday, he wasn’t presenting till Tuesday. He had the temporary leisure of time, although the world remained how it had lately felt to him: stuck. “This enterprise is getting to feel like Dangerous Liaisons.”

“What enterprise?” Mariette asked from the bathroom. “Fucking me?”

“No. I mean Hap.”

She came out fluffing her hair with a towel. “So I’m like that bitch Glenn Close?”

He rolled over onto his stomach. “There are a lot of versions of the novel. You could be like that bitch Jeanne Moreau, which would be much better.”

She threw the towel at him and went for the dryer resting on the dresser. “Is this all from Daria? The innocent enters the temple?”

“It was happening before. I think the thrill is gone. I said that to Ted and he got upset.”

“So it has to be thrilling to you, every damned minute?”

“Anik thinks I’m a coward.”

“Of course she does,” she said, pointing the dryer like a gun at his exposed back. “You follow her around like a puppy dog.”

“A coward for playing out this lie.”

She went back to blowing her hair in all directions. “Well, I have a lot of anger, and I need to release it somewhere.”

“You’d think you’d have a lot of guilt.”

“What?”

He had to shout. “But I’m the one with the guilt.”

She turned off the dryer. “Over what?”

He didn’t answer.

“Your mother, still?”

He still didn’t answer.

“It was Ted, wasn’t it? Showing that idiotic video of his drunk mother. Why does he have to drag us into his problems?”

Now the dryer was back on. Jude turned to look at the bizarre image of her flying hair and then turned his head away. He knew he’d have to raise his voice for her to hear him, and he didn’t want to do that. Still, he couldn’t stop talking. “I was always joking about her husband who had a heart attack and died while people were watching.”

“The Confederate.”

“Damned right,” he mumbled into a pillow. “He deserved to die.”

“What?” she yelled.

“He deserved to die!”

She turned off the dryer and yanked the plug. “No one deserves to die.”

“Why did I even say that?”

“Because you’re a heartless shit fifty-one percent of the time.”

“I bid on e-Bay for the electrolysis treatments for a woman who died. That was just asking the Fates for something.”

She shrugged as she pulled at her damp hair. “She wanted those treatments. I’d take them. Why aren’t you buying hair removal for my birthday?”

“I feel like what Ted said about his mother—boy’s best friend.”

“Norman Bates?”

“Only Norman Bates times two—my mother and a woman who could be my mother. Anik doesn’t even want me around. But my mother was my best friend in so many ways. She was a flawed person, but she was a good person. She always made me laugh.”

Mariette slammed the dresser drawer. “Good for you, white boy. You thinking of stabbing me in the shower?”

He turned over and propped himself up on his elbows. “Too messy.”

“Why don’t you try being human for twenty-one days?’

“I always get to twenty and choke.”

She pulled her hair tight while twisting a band. Then she sang loudly: “I try to walk away and I choke.

He stared at her. “Why do you do that, pull it so tight?”

“Why don’t you just fuck Anik?”

“I did that. It’s not reciprocal.”

“Then just forget Anik.”

“I try to walk away and I choke.”

“You’re a masochist. That’s why you introduced her to Hap.”

“He didn’t fuck her either.”

“Well that’s at least one thing you two have in common.”

“Did he ever fuck you?”

“You think I’d tell you?”

“I told you the thrill was gone.”

“So you’re turning into John Malka-shit, being mean to everybody now?”

“I’m not a bad person, Mariette.”

“Why don’t you play a good version of Dangerous Liaisons and try to be matchmaker with Hap and Anik?”

He shook his head. “They’re both diva loners.”

She laughed. “We’re both diva loners.”

“Anik is happy at least. She doesn’t need anyone. She has that Tilda Swinton quality that attracts everyone.”

“The Tilda Swinton quality doesn’t attract everyone. It attracts lesbians and young guys.”

“Don’t be a bitch.”

“You’re such a miserable person.”

“Said the pot to the kettle.”

“Jude, what’s wrong with us really?”

He got up off the bed and hunted for his clothes. “I don’t know.”

An hour later, Mariette presented him as a curiosity item for her standing calendar engagement, coffee with Brother Frank, occurring every Friday morning rain or shine. Today’s meet-up was at the Astro Diner on Sixth. Frank was delighted to see Jude.

“Monsieur Elsevier, quelle surprise!”

Jude hugged Frank and kept slapping his back like he was beating a dirty rug hanging from a line. Mariette watched in amusement. Jude said he did that so that any winged vermin would fly away.

“I can’t stay,” said Jude, “but didn’t want to miss a chance to check out the old man.”

Frank’s jittery hand continued to pat Jude on the arm. “Don’t see much of you these days.”

Mariette rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t see much of anything these days. He spends his life looking down.”

Frank wrestled into play an “Ah!” expression with his eyes. “The phone.”

Jude did the same, only his attempt resembled a Charlie Chan impersonation capable of offending many.

“He has to comment on anything the world does,” said Mariette.

Frank laughed and gave Jude one final slap. “What say you?”

Jude shook his head. “She’s got me. Guilty of behaving like everyone else.”

After Jude left with his cup of coffee, the two settled into one of the booths whose seats descended far too low in the back. As a result, a fair number of patrons looked like kids waiting for their parents to come and pay the bill.

Within minutes, Mariette had found cause to perform a maneuver that had become classic for the window of a diner: staring into her coffee cup. Frank dropped his head as if to see up under. “You don’t look so great, lady.”

“It’s everything, Frank. But it’s also fucking Jude. He goes on about how his mother was his best friend and how she made him laugh. I can’t believe how insensitive he is. He has no feeling.”

“If you play the tough role, you have to bear the consequences.”

“Why is that too much to ask? Just don’t fucking talk about mothers, OK?”

He patted her hand. “The problem is that everyone has them, living or dead.”

She bit her lower lip, and then the gesture turned into a snarl. “What I’ve always hated about the Catholic Church is that you can do horrible things and then be forgiven if you are sorry.”

“Why do you hate that?”

“Because nothing is quantifiable.”

“Hap once said to me, ‘Sorry has a lot of bandwith.’”

“Do I have to keep being sorry?”

“You can be sorry about the situation that gave rise to events. You don’t have to be sorry for your actions.”

Mariette had lived with the guilt for eighteen years: the knowledge that, because she spent the better part of a minute seeing to her mother’s demise, she wasn’t using that minute to douse the flames in her brother’s crib. Chase got burned and suffered for eighteen years and counting.

“I am sorry for my actions.” She stopped because she heard herself sounding like someone she’d hate. “It’s just the way the past creeps into normal, everyday life. It makes nothing seem real.”

He had been studying her face carefully. “I’m seeing the struggles of a religious person.”

She shook her head. “I have the struggles of a religious person without the belief in God.”

“You believe in something.”

She shook her head more vehemently.

He reached his elbow across the table to give her hand a nudge, as if urging her to take a brownie.

“How do you do it, Frank?”

“Believe?”

“Yeah, that. And live with contingency.”

He put his wobbly fingers on the edge of the table and pushed himself back. “Even when I have given up on God—which I do quite often, you know—when I have decided that nothing matters because nothing means anything, that arbitrary laws determine the winners and losers, I am still seeking out revenge on this God who failed me by not being real.”

“You really put that bee in our bonnet—revenge.”

“I am perpetrating crimes to offend a watching body that does not exist. Who is the audience if there is no one watching me? I cannot live without that unspoken audience. This aloneness is horrifying. But myself and this imagined God plodding along together gets me nowhere in the visible world. As a team, we haven’t done so well. Still, I end up believing, because the aloneness is much worse.”

She felt frustration surge inside her like lava. “What I can’t believe is that I’m even here. How am I alive given my throwaway life? Is it because I’m pretty? Is it because I’m a good learner? How am I here? I don’t have anyone on my team, good or bad. It’s like every day I’m walking on ice. La Femme qui marche de la glace.”

That’s what the school system called her—a good learner. Never “bright” or “gifted,” but all ears. She had her father’s mother to take her in after it happened. There was always an ample supply of relatives to live with. She was a pretty girl, so people claimed her. When she got into Harvard she became the family jewel. She got a master’s in public service from NYU but felt pressured to sell out to Goldman Sachs. The family needed money. It was payback time. There was too much bad credit and too many debts to loan sharks in Yonkers. Aunts needed five grand to open a beauty salon or ten to buy a house in the DR. On her father’s side it was chronic but not hopeless. Even without money her uncles sat at the dominos tables on Broadway. Her brothers, however, were a different story.

Chase’s burns meant a life on Medicaid. Tyrese was the official crack baby. One of his social workers said she wished she could put his adorable face on postage stamps. He had ADHD and a slew of behavioral problems. Then it was Levon, the high jumper who disappeared into the background wherever he was. Shawn was the real trouble with multiple arrests. Last she heard he was going by some single name because he thought he was a poet, like her she supposed.

At least Chase and Ty, the ones who needed medical help, had the grandmothers. Shawn and Levon had no one but failing foster connections and her, and they didn’t want any part of her except for money later on. Shawn was out on the street somewhere when it happened. Ty was in the playpen, still with a pacifier. Levon was there, disappearing into the background. He never forgot and he never forgave.

Frank put his jittery hand atop hers. “And every day God sees to it that the ice doesn’t break.”

“Not for long,” she protested, pulling back from his pulsating hold. “My number’s coming up; I know it.”

“But if you stop walking out on the frozen pond, it won’t for a while.”

She never even tried to understand her mother. How could a child do that? Her mother’s parents immigrated to Montreal in the sixties. When the girl turned eighteen, they sent her off to be married to a guy in Staten Island, sight unseen. He kicked her out when he found her looking at black guys. She waited tables at a supper club in Flatbush, did some dancing, hooked up with Mariette’s father, got into serious drugs with Shawn’s father, and from there commenced the heavy downward spiral. She had at least four miscarriages. She shoplifted and was arrested for assault. At thirty she looked like fifty. Mariette and her brothers were in and out of foster care even before her mother died. Mariette could have gone with her grandmother, but her grandmother and the Dominicans would not take the boys. With foster care there was at least the chance that they’d be together in some combination.

By age ten Mariette was the official housekeeper whether she wanted the role or not. Her mother called it “babylady,” what Mariette did to keep the children alive beyond lugging cartons of formula up seven flights of stairs every week. The places they lived were always a horror, but Mariette’s mother mostly did her messy stuff elsewhere. That’s what she called it: “mumma’s messy stuff.” She’d hurt her ankle while staggering across the East 174th Bridge one night in the icy snow. She ended up passing out there and almost dying. After two and a half weeks in the hospital, she was sent home with a single crutch. She was supposed to be going to a methadone clinic daily, but she and the crutch merely stumbled back into the old ways. She was a lot meaner after the hospital. Mariette felt a tension building.

The night it happened Mariette’s mother came hobbling into the apartment in a stupor and a rage, if such a mix were possible. The TV was on but she stuffed a tape into the boombox and cranked the volume sky high. It was Tupac saying “I give a holler to my sisters on welfare.”

“Hear that?” she shouted to Mariette and Levon somewhere in the darkness. “He’s talkin’ ’bout me, the mamma, and not you fucking roaches hanging around the stove grease always lookin’ for somethin’ free!”

She got up and stumbled around the place with a lighter in her hand, knocking everything that wasn’t already a heap on the floor onto the floor. “Where’s the fucking shit? Where’s the fucking shit?” Finally she staggered into the kids’ room—there was just the one for the four boys. Mariette heard her say, “I’ll show your daddy.” And that’s the last part of it that seemed real to her. She rushed in the room to see her mother lighting the curtains near the crib with the baby screaming from inside. Her mother pointed the lighter at Mariette. “Don’t fucking come near me!”

Mariette could never say what told her, and told her instantaneously, what precise weapon to select from the hovel in which they lived. But she was back in a flash holding it like a bazooka under her arm, the crutch. Before her mother could even laugh at the spectacle, Mariette lunged, jabbing and jabbing the rubber-capped tip at any part of her mother that would make her back away from the crib. She was surprised her mother didn’t fall to the floor immediately given the wreck of a body she unleashed onto the world. But the rage that fueled the fire must have made her stand her ground, because her expression was that of an animal that could make its face go all teeth.

The moment of clear sight came the second Mariette’s mother had moved in front of the murky light. Both halves of that window had been broken since the day they moved in; the landlord had simply taped layer upon dingy layer of used clear plastic. They came to think of it as not a window. But the insight come of being a good learner told Mariette that, yes, it was indeed a window, and that the window to the future meant choosing between two options: You could solve your problem a little, or you could solve your problem a lot. This was not a difficult choice. Mariette jabbed and jabbed the crutch so that her mother’s path was limited to one direction. There was the sound of duct tape giving at different points, and then there was Mariette’s mother cupped in the dingy plastic like it was a suspended cradle. Before Mariette could even make the choice of one more jab, there was the smooth sound of “flumfth.” And then everywhere, there was light.

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