Wild Mustard, VI

Liv has missed you. And I know  your life has not been complete without hearing from her since–GASP!–April. So, to the latest installment of my award-winning baby manuscript:

Prologue

I

II  III   IV   V

After breakfast I went home and logged onto my computer. I didn’t know what I was searching for—just looking, I told myself—though I’d typed “Summer Henty” into four search engines and scanned all the sports photos from Santa Barbara high school’s web sites. I had to see another picture of her. Had to see her. Had to find that inlet of memory and follow it to the source.

So somehow, I clicked and navigated and Googled and clicked and a chugged a bottle of wine and ended up at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations website.

When the page loaded, the sight of it made me wince. Though half-squinted eyes, I watched the faces of “California’s Most Wanted” scroll across the screen. I forced myself to tap my cheek instead of bite my nails. They were down to nubs, anyway, the lavender polish cracked and chipped like a broken window.

The menu on the left had links: victims, visitors, offenders. I clicked on the visitor’s section, where more information spewed forth than I knew what to do with. It dawned on me that I didn’t know what prison Donna was in. How would I find her in this mess? The only thing I knew for certain was that the familiar rush of rage I always associated with Donna Henty had still not poked its head from the murky waters of my insides. Since I’d delivered my parents’ ashes, that feeling had muted? Died? Outside seagulls called atop the bay-side palms. It was Summer, not Donna I needed. I left the window open and spent another bottle of wine looking for the blonde in gingham, plus eight years. It was like she didn’t exist. Not possible. I had to find her.

My eyes, blurry with chardonnay, wandered through pages and pages, and then I found an “Identification Unit/Inmate Locator” link. Clicked. The page gave me a number to call and the information I would need to find out where Donna was held: full name and complete birth date. How would I get that? Further down it said that the phone line was only open Monday through Friday until 5:00 p.m. It was Sunday morning. Couldn’t do anything even if I wanted to. All this to find a girl. To scavenge a memory.

Still, I rifled through the pages of the Internet, learning that I would need Donna to fill out and send me a questionnaire that I would then have to complete and return before I could visit. There’s no way I could do that; I couldn’t even find what prison the woman was in. Plus, I didn’t want visit the woman. Couldn’t I just call her or something? Find out where Summer was? But she’d need to know that I wanted to call also. What if I ended up not doing anything? What if this was one of those fanciful whims that snaked its way up my sleeve, and slithered out the very next morning?

But the next morning, I called my Aunt Karen.

“Tell me about Costa Rica,” she said.

I ran through the necessary details.

“And everything went…okay? With the ashes?”

“Yeah. I freaked out a bit, but when it happened, it just worked, you know?” I sat at the kitchen table, yellow legal pad and pen ready to take notes. I drew circles, a pyramid of them in the far corner of the paper. Turtle eggs? “So I got the letter.”

“Huh?”

“The letter. It came a couple hours after you left. Before I left.”

“Oh, gosh, Liv. That was supposed to arrive when you got home. I’m sorry. I hope you just tossed it. I would, you know, but they’re not mine to toss. Oh, sweetie, I should have waited.”

I looked up from my drawing across the room to the door, where I could see the bay. Blue, blue. “I opened it.” A boat across the bay. “I might go see her.”

“What?” Her voice cracked. I imagined her red curls splitting at their ends, her green eyes popping out her head at the thought of me visiting Donna Henty.

“Go see her. In prison.” I drew curved lines off to the side of my pyramid of circles. Waves? Drew the patchworked shell of a turtle.

“See Donna Henty?” She paused long enough for me to draw another set of turtle eggs. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

When I had moved to San Diego six years earlier, Karen had allowed herself, for the first time, to have a life outside of me and her third grade classroom. Despite her husband and eighteen month old, Sophia, and despite the fact that I was twenty-three, Karen still channeled my mother, still spread her wings and squawked loudly when a predator circled.

“Idea? Yes. A good one? I don’t know.” I couldn’t possibly tell her about Summer. She would flip.

“It just seems like you’ve finally moved on, the ashes and Pete and all. I’d hate for you to open a new can—

“Just thinking about it. Didn’t say I was going tomorrow.”

“I know how hard all this is for you, sweetie, and you just got back from Costa Rica…”

She’d started calling me “sweetie” ever since she’d been pregnant. Usually, I could handle it. Today it made me want to throw the phone at her. “It’s different now.” My voice clipped. More waves on the page and now a dorsal fin peeking out. I cleared my throat, softened my voice. “It’s something I have to do.” I didn’t mention the picture, the dream. The scrap of memory. She wouldn’t understand. It wasn’t worth trying to explain.

***

The next day I sat down to write a letter to Donna Henty.

Donna,

Could you send me a visitor’s application form? I’d like to ask you a few questions.

Olivia Simpson

I folded and stuffed the sixth draft into an envelope. Walked it down to the blue mailbox, stood with the dark mouth open, let the letter fall in as I squeezed my eyes shut. Two steps away from the mailbox, I spun around. Shit! No taking it back, I realized, peering into the dark hole. The lid clanged shut. Palm trees swayed “no” in the August breeze. Life caterwauled on around me.

Nine days later I pulled out the familiar white envelope, two different kinds of handwriting on the outside. In addition to my forwarding address, Karen’s pen had scribbled: Call me!

Olivia,

Of course I’ll answer any questions you have. It’s the least I can do. It would mean so much to me if I could apologize in person after all these years. Here is the visitor’s form. I hope to see you soon. I understand if you can’t make it.

Sincerely,

Donna Henty

Enclosed was a questionnaire, complete with full name, social security number, driver’s license number and a litany of questions that implied I might be a convict too. I filled it out late one night after a half bottle of an ’01 Chianti. Drummed my fingers on my cheeks and fiddled with the glass vial around my neck. Ran it to the mailbox after downing the final splash of blood red liquid courage. I hated that I had to go through this circus to get to Summer, but I’d called the attorney who had prosecuted the case, and he said the only way to find out about the “other girl” was to go through Donna. “And that’s not the kind of information people give out very willingly, you ought to know.”  He acted like I was trying to revive my parents. Just a memory, I almost shouted into my cell; just looking for a god damn ounce of memory, you bastard. Acting like he couldn’t spare a second to answer my questions.

A month later, in early September, I received approval from the warden of California Institution for Women to visit Donna Henty, inmate number 16744578. Visiting hours were on Saturdays and Sundays, and I read through the long list of rules regarding what could be brought in: ten photos, ten diapers, one unopened box of tissues, one transparent pacifier.

I let the approval sit around for several weeks taped to my fridge.

“So, you’re really going?” Pete asked, grabbing a Pacifico from the fridge. Dirt was still under his nails from work. He had just finished telling me about the deck he built for a house out in Rancho Santa Fe. Not the kind of small job he normally did, but the money was good, and future jobs promised. “Nor Cal redwood all the way around,” he grinned, revealing his chipped tooth.

I could picture him out in the September sun, a glint of sweat along his forehead, his shoulders, his back.

But argh! Those fingers. “Your nails are so gross. Don’t you wash those things?” I teased. I snagged a swig of his Pacifico. “Maybe. Maybe I’m going. And hey,” I brought my hand to his face, “don’t get so much work that you don’t have time to work on our boat.”

“Our boat?”

“I like to think Boati’s ours.” I winked up at his almond shaped and colored eyes.

“I’ll go with you if you want.”

“Where? To the prison? Not with those nasty hands, you won’t. I won’t be caught in public with you and those dirty nails.”

“Seriously.”

“Seriously. I’m going on Saturday and you have that big house to finish.”

“Saturday? You’re going this Saturday? Don’t you have to teach?”

I shook my head. The new session of rowing classes had begun at Mission Bay Aquatic Center, but I’d rescheduled one of the classes. Grabbed his beer again. It was news to me too.

“Well, you know what Pema Chodron says, right?”

“No, Pete, I don’t know what Pema Chodron says? And who is he anyway?” Pete’s ability to pluck a quote from thin air always amazed me.

“She. She is a Buddhist nun and she says ‘The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.”

“How long have you had that rattling around up there,” I touseled his hair, “just waiting to use it on some poor, damaged girl?”

His crooked smile showed  his chipped front tooth. “Forever. Just make sure you look in her eyes.”

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Wild Mustard III

Need to catch up?

Prologue

I

II

“Read it.”

He position himself on the ledge of the tub:

Olivia,

Eight years have passed since that awful day. What can I say that I haven’t before? I am so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t say it enough. I try to picture your grown up face and how Summer must look. What does Summer think of me? What have you girls grown up to be without your mamas around? What have you girls become? And Elias who he would have been right now? Where would we all be now if I hadn’t done that terrible thing? Can’t go back I know that but I’d give anything to see what you two girls grown up. You two are the only living. Life isn’t easy in here, but it helps to think of you and Summer. I hope it doesn’t hurt anymore. You must still be angry and confused and I don’t blame you. I know I was foolish. I wish I could take it all back. I pray to God Almighty everyday for your forgiveness.

Sincerely,

Donna Henty

“God, Liv. Want me to burn it now?” He placed a hand on my knee. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I didn’t mean to and I don’t—”

I snatched the page from him. Reread it. Pete was still saying something, and the swarm in my stomach hummed loudly. Same words as that first letter. But Summer, her daughter, the one she had been trying to save.

What have you girls become?

You two are the only living.

And then, as I cradled my head in my hands, I spotted it sticking out of the forgotten white envelope.

I pulled the white edge out: a Polaroid. A girl, three or four, stood between a row of Ford trucks. She wore a yellow gingham dress that looked two sizes too small and four years too old. Long blonde hair waterfalled past her shoulders.

I flipped it over. In that same slanted, block writing that matched the envelope: Summer, 1984. I examined the image again, held it up close. My brain spun back all those years ago to the Ventura County Fair. Nothing. Nothing as usual. Not a single shred of memory. No last giggle from my parents, no last picture-perfect image of the happy Simpson family. Despite years of therapy, I couldn’t fashion a thread—or even a frayed end—about the events of that day, my fifteenth birthday. What had Mom worn? Who paid to get into the fair? Had we driven or ridden bikes? How much cotton candy did Dad eat? Every last recollection had been killed with my parents.

I stared again at the girl in gingham. If the newspapers were right, she had been in front of me when Donna shot. With her dad. I tried to envision her, to see her all those years ago: there would have been dirt ground, neon lights and grinding gears of carnival rides, the hawking of barkers, the smell of corn dogs. My therapist had said if I wanted to, I could place myself there; create it and plop myself in the scene. If I wanted to, she’d said.

***

I fell asleep in the valley of Pete’s chest. Twice, I sat upright in the dark of my room, that girl’s face—Summer—her long blonde hair, floating in the dreamy ether. Both times, I searched the shapes on the dresser for the urns. Still there. I’d look at them for a while, desperate to see that day rewound. What had they last said to me? Did they whisper “I love you” in their final moments? Did I try to save them as I’d wished for so many years? Had I cried? What did I—then my eyelids grew heavy again.

The day opened her sleepy eyes to July twenty-sixth. Birds chirped outside my screened porch. I crawled out of bed, glanced at my backpack whose seams stretched, standing ready by the door. Pete had run out for bagels, and I took the opportunity to “pack” my parents. This was really happening. Not possible. My old mantra resurfaced.

The phrase was a leftover fragment from the first weeks, months, after my parents died. While Aunt Karen had spoken with lawyers, credit card companies and banks, I’d gone to the drugstore for a new Rand McNally atlas.  It only took me three afternoons to memorize all the countries and capitols in eastern Europe. Voila! Asia took a few hours. I’d dog-eared pages of places I’d convince Mom and Dad to write an article about next. I had learned how to sweep-row earlier that summer, so I’d ride my bike down to the boathouse, plant myself on the erg, pull on the long cord over and over and over until my hands cramped. My lower back, hands and brain grew numb and calloused. I did a mass cleaning of my room, tossed out my collection of twenty-two snow globes from around the world. “Good riddance” Mom would say when she got back. “Now you have room for real treasures,” she’d wink, one emerald eye dim for a half second. I talked about my parents as though they were coming home in three weeks instead of three lifetimes. The calendar sprouted black Sharpied numbers counting the days my parents had been gone: one, two, three, nine, twenty-six, thirty-two…surely they would be back before school began. They were always back before school began.

September marched in; school loomed around the corner. My parents did not. At night, lying in their handcrafted wood and wrought iron bed, I would let my mind fumble with the idea that they might not come home. Not possible, I’d chant.

Day thirty-six. The phyllo-layers of persistent thought that Ken and Joanne Simpson were coming home flaked off one by one. For ten minutes, then thirty and finally sixty minutes at a time, I would repeat my manta: not possible, not possible, not possible. But it did not lull me to sleep anymore, and Mom’s concealer would no longer shade the shadows burgeoning under my eyes. School started on Monday, and if they did not show up—not possible—then I would die—not possible—I would set the house on fire—not possible—I would blame Karen—not possible—I would take a bath and never lift my head from the murky water. Not possible.

Sunday night I perched in their massive bed, knees pinned to my chest with my chin on top. Karen knocked on the door. “School tomorrow, honey. You gonna make it?” she asked through the door. Her voice, placating as usual. Day one of sophomore year at Santa Barbara High School.

Of course I would make it; why wouldn’t I? I didn’t answer, just flipped another page of Mom’s “Joberg” journal.

“Okay, well, let’s leave at 7:00. Do you need me to get you up?” I didn’t answer. She cracked the door.

“No thanks.”

Karen moved into the doorway, the light behind her emphasized her narrow frame. The hem of her purple robe gathered on the floor. She looked at the spread of the bed: sheets that had not been washed in over a month, calendar pages torn and circled, pictures strewn like wind-tossed hair.

She came to the bed and sat down beside me, picked up a picture of my parents and me in Bombay. Her hand touched the crown of my head. “You guys had some wonderful times. I was always envious of the life you led.”

I stared at the picture until the three of us blurred together.

And then, with an exhale, Karen said, “They’re not coming home, honey. And I’m really sorry.”

Her fingers moved in my hair—they felt like ants creeping down my neck. My body shivered. The three of us separated in the picture.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to go to school tomorrow.” Her hand slid down my head to my shoulder; she rose and left the room. As Karen walked down the hall, I heard her soft cry coupled with her bedroom door creaking shut. I had perched atop my clippings, pecking at my mantra—not possible—and Monday morning had flow through the window without a hint of my parents.

My parents. I went to them. Pack them. Take them to Costa Rica. Unleash them into the world again.

I could count the number of times I’d touched the urns. My eyes held the two golden orbs for a minute. I’d never taken the lids off, never seen the ashes inside. The closest I’d come to feeling them was leafing through the ashes of a seagull I’d burned when I was sixteen. I’d cried into that pile of ashes, looking for remnants of life, wondering if Mom and Dad had burned the same way. Pictured some old man with gold rings raking through their ashes, through their bones.

The copper was cool, as usual. I pinched the knobby top of the lid, pinched and pulled and wiggled the close fitting top from its home. In the cavernous mouth of the urn sat my dad. I looked down at the gray shavings. This is my father. Dad. His body. They ground his bones. My eyes searched the ceiling. Help me do this, help me do this…Not possible…Dad. I grabbed the plastic bag and pulled it out of the container. A whole life in this baggie. I set it on the dresser.

Then Mom. And when the lid was released and the smell of things blackened reached my nose, I felt cool wet glide down my face. They were so similar in this muted state: the same rain-cloud color, the same quietitude, same mountainess masses. Three or four pounds of grey gristle. Three or four pounds of Mom. Not possible. Her laugh alone weighed a ton. And I pulled her out, too.

I grabbed both bags, cradled them like newborns against my chest and walked to my bed, where I had laid out a small blue and brown duffel bag. The bag lay unzipped, ready to swallow my parents, but not just yet. The cotton sheet wrinkled beneath me as I crawled up onto the massive bed. I lay down, curled around the bags, clutched them to me. No tears. No words. Just the three of us, quite, a great felled family tree.

When my breathing slowed, I got up and walked over to the blue and brown duffle bag. I had padded the nest of the bag with towels to ensure Mom and Dad didn’t jostle around too much. I held my breath as the zipper mashed its teeth shut. I had purchased a tiny gold key lock, secured its neck around the loop of the zipper tags; clicked it shut. Downstairs, in the junk drawer, I found a long piece of red ribbon and laced it through the keyhole. I tied it around my neck, where it would stay until I found our beach.

I tossed my crisp blue passport on my bed. Unstamped. I had tossed my old passport not long after my parents’ death, sure that I would never have the courage to have the book stamped again. I took my ID, credit and ATM cards from my wallet, thumbed through the back for my emergency phone list.

And just after I finished a cinnamon raisin bagel with extra cream cheese, just after Pete asked, “Well, you ready, Camper?” Just after I made a pee stop and just before Pete tossed my pack in the bed of his truck, I ran upstairs. Swiped the picture of Summer off the bathroom floor, gingham and a grin, and shoved it in my wallet.