Authors: Carol Anshaw
Tags: #Literary, #Fiction, #Family Life, #General
“It’s sad,” she said now.
“It’s so fucking sad,” Alice said.
The dark of the airless hallway held perfectly still. And then Alice whinnied. Carmen pawed at the ground with a hoof.
“We’re rotten,” Carmen said.
“No. We’ve earned our lousy jokes. They’re prepaid.”
They came up the stairs and into the apartment. Carmen went down the hall to check on Gabe, who was doing card tricks for his own small audience in the entertainment center. She came back into the living room and was beckoned over by her father, who was talking with Nick and Olivia, who had their coats on, but were being detained.
“They bought a little trailer,” Horace told her. “They’re going to see America.”
“The Teardrop,” Nick said. He was nervous, like an animal sensing the coming tsunami. He was never wrong about Horace, and so Carmen got nervous herself. As Olivia moved toward the door, Horace plucked the sleeve of her jacket.
“I’m coming down this week to collect my birthday present.” He turned to Carmen. “She’s going to give me a haircut and a blowjob.” And then he looked sideways just a little, to show the mistake was not innocent, not a confusion of blowjob and blow-dry. He got away with this sort of thing all the time. They all let him. Not this time, though. Olivia was not in on this policy. She hauled back and brought her hand forward with enough velocity that when her palm met the side of his smirk, it made a sound like a cap gun, and Horace tipped sideways and before he could right himself, fell into the bar table, knocking over several bottles and a few glasses. His expression—pure bewilderment—was so satisfying to see that Carmen didn’t make any move to help. A few partygoers rushed into this gap. Olivia took off, Nick behind her.
Alice said in a low voice to Carmen as she tugged her by the elbow, “Here’s the good news. I think the party might be over.”
On the drive home, Carmen and Gabe stopped at the Golden Nugget on Lincoln. One of the best things about not eating meat was that they were exempt from Loretta’s jailhouse chili. But this left them, at the moment, in need of some vegetarian junk food. Pancakes. They ate silently, steeped in their own separate thoughts. Gabe wrapped up a pancake in a paper napkin for Walter, who waited in the van. They could see him through the restaurant window; he was in the driver’s seat, looking back at them.
Carmen put the nightmare of Horace to the side for the moment. She had her own situation to take care of. She was going to have to get in gear soon; she’d have to talk with Nola Flanders, the lawyer connected to the shelter. She’d have to find a financial planner and go back to her old Jungian analyst. She was determined she would never be so unprepared again, for anything; she would keep a much sharper eye on the horizon from now on, and a suspicious nature approaching every corner, now that the future had turned out to be a perilous topography.
“Do you mind …” she asked Gabe while they stood at the cash register waiting to pay. He was still wearing the furry black glue-on
eyebrows and a matching bushy wig Alice gave him earlier tonight. “Do you mind if you live some of the time with me and some with your dad and Paula?”
“I think it’ll be okay.” He pinched his nose shut as he climbed back into the passenger seat and turned to unwrap the pancake and give it to Walter.
“I do, too.” She gave this an upbeat inflection.
“An adventure,” Gabe said.
They were trying to help each other out.
sous les pavés, la plage
“How come it smells fruity in here?” Jean asked, getting into the backseat of the van. “As opposed to hideous?”
“I did a giant cleaning on it. Gabe helped. We hosed out the back, used some spray foam stuff on the seats, then got some cherry air freshener at the car wash.” Carmen was driving, Alice riding shotgun.
“I don’t think they use real cherries,” she said.
Carmen did a lot of her political work on Saturdays while Gabe was over at Matt and Paula’s apartment. This would be one of his last nights over there. Matt and Paula were leaving soon for Nigeria. They would be Catholic missionaries for a year in a remote, barren, sun-parched village where, from the photos in the ministry’s brochure that Gabe had shown Carmen, everything—food, animals, eyes—was covered in bustling patches of flies. She enjoyed thinking of Matt and Paula swatting away a year’s worth of large African flies.
Carmen said, “Did you get to watch the hearings yesterday? I could only listen in bits on NPR.” They were all three caught up in the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas drama.
“I dragged the little TV into my studio,” Alice said. “There are so many creepy details coming out.”
“The pubic hair on the Coke can,” Jean said.
“The porn movies? The Long Dong Silver thing. That much I heard.” Carmen tapped the horn to encourage the spaced-out driver in the car ahead to move forward through the newly changed light. “Ain’t gonna get any greener.”
“Worse than him, though,” Jean said, “was the Wall of Guys, the supposedly impartial senators but all they’re really doing is preserving their old boys’ club. And in the end, Anita Hill is probably going to be stoned in the town square while Thomas will get put on the Supreme Court. Where he’s going to be showing up for work every fucking day for the rest of our lives.”
Jean had some discouraging personal news, discouraging to her anyway.
“Tom’s wife is pregnant again.”
Alice, who made it no secret that she thought Tom was a waste of Jean’s time, said, “I wonder how that happened?”
“I thought he was trying to get out of his marriage?” Carmen said. “That it was a political thing, to get her citizenship and now he was working on getting out of it? Did that plan get lost along the way?”
Jean was silent for a while, then said, “Conversations about this are hard. I think maybe the problem is that I don’t know how to have the right conversations with him.”
They took the corner and suddenly they were in nearly stalled traffic and some guy just outside the window was holding up a glass jar of viscous red liquid with a naked rubber doll curled up inside.
“Well,” Carmen said. “Here we go.”
The action started out like all the others; the forces were assembling, getting louder. By now the rhythms were predictable. By now, they knew that what looked like total chaos was really only two oppositional, well-rehearsed pieces of political theater.
The three of them, in black pants, turtlenecks, and pea coats, like cat burglars, were on the side of women’s right to control their own
lives. The particular women they helped on these mornings were pregnant women wanting to be unpregnant women. The other side showed up to represent God, who they were certain wanted these women to have their babies, no matter what.
Over the past few years, Carmen and Jean had become old hands at this sort of thing. Their histories were dense with demos and actions and protests—for voting rights and in support of striking unions, against nuclear armament and poor treatment of women in prison. They figured they had nice, thick FBI files by now. They had linked arms in human chains surrounding military bases, at army recruiting offices, in front of the White House, on the National Mall. They were practiced at keeping their cool in the face of being called commies and Antichrists. Baby killers. Sisters of Satan. And dykes. They were always called dykes. Recently, Alice, the only actual dyke, started to join them on these excursions. Having painted through the night, Alice would rather have been in bed this morning, on her way to sleeping through the afternoon. Instead she was pushing against a wall of insults. She hadn’t been quick enough with an excuse to get out of this intervention. She should have been prepared with something ironclad. No prior engagement would have been enough. Surgery maybe, but nothing elective. Her sister was not someone on whom to try out a flimsy story.
Carmen saw the world in clear moral terms, held herself to high standards and expected the same of everyone else. Which on occasion made her a pain in the neck. But a tricky one. Never openly self-righteous, she traveled with an air of self-effacement (which subversively exuded self-righteousness). She never told anyone else what to do, but she would look a little too long at your honey, which was in a non-biodegradable plastic bottle instead of an old, endlessly reusable glass jar you could take down to the Bread Shop and fill from the honey vat. Or she might helpfully suggest you turn off the pilot light on your stove and save who-knew-how-much gas, by instead lighting the burner each time with a match.
“Sous les pavés, la plage,”
Carmen said now, as they surveyed the
scene. “You have to keep thinking everything is going to be a little better because we were here.” She could say stuff like this and not seem fatuous. The strength of Carmen’s belief in what could be accomplished on the streets had tugged Alice onto some pavement she would have otherwise avoided.
“I’m already beat just going into this,” Jean said. “I was up all night with the chain gang. Just getting them all to show up is exhausting.” She was recording an album of prison and chain-gang songs. This was turning out to be a difficult project. The old guys who had made up and sang these songs to pass hard time realized in principle that they held historical value. But emotions ran high in performing them. Singing them harked back to a past on which they had shut the door. Too often one or another of them didn’t show up for the session and Jean had to drive to the West Side to persuade him into her car and up to the studio.
This women’s clinic was in Rogers Park. The crowd they were pushing through was armed with placards—bad drawings of bloody fetuses, coat hangers dripping blood. They looked tired, worn out maybe from the hard work of interfering with other people’s lives. Most of the sign bearers were women, but the bullhorn shouters were guys. Guys with apocalyptic gazes, staring straight past Armageddon, through to the Rapture.
“I can get really afraid for the women whose lives are run by these lunatics,” Alice said.
“Did you ever notice how religions all have the same timeline?” Carmen said as they wove through the crowd to find their cohort. “First the people feel the need to worship something. The sun or the giant corn ear. That’s the first thing. Then the guys say okay, now that we’ve got the giant corn thing going, how can we use it to oppress women?”
Carmen had become scathing in her criticism of religion since the crumbling of her marriage. What she had thought was a common interest she and Matt shared in the social contract had turned out to be two very different impulses.
“Everything Matt’s doing now is through the Church. The missionary thing. And he coaches in a CYO basketball league on the South Side. He works with some young priest who’s supposedly great with kids. Charismatic priests make me queasy, how they’re always making you aware that they should be wearing a cassock instead of a rugby shirt, that you probably should be calling them Father Whoever, but that you’re an insider who gets to call them Joe or Bob.”
Alice didn’t think Matt was a jerk, exactly, but he did come out of the same hidebound family as Maude. Daddy owned the business, brought home the bacon. Marie stayed home with the kids, then with more kids, now with a couple of the grandkids. Carmen had shown her the file of recipes Marie had copied, organized in a decorative binder, and given to each of her daughters-in-law (although not, of course, to Alice). Marie liked to put herself out there as with-it, and so the cover design was Wonder Woman graphics, and there were goofy recipes for “Dishwasher Fish” and “Car Engine Meatloaf,” but that was just a gloss. The subtext was deep respect for the domestic.
Carmen had writhed within these strictures. Sharing a single credit card—in Matt’s name. Carmen had to call him before making any purchases on the card. Even for a sweater, she had to call. He also didn’t like Carmen going out at night on her own. Sometimes he pushed too hard and she balked. Early on, he told her he didn’t like leftovers and expected a fresh, home-cooked dinner every night. In that case, she told him, some of those dinners cooked in their home would have to be cooked by him. But the whole thing was an uphill battle. Now—as Alice saw it—Carmen was back on flat ground. From here, she could be who she actually was, instead of playing a role in an ill-fitting costume. But Alice also knew her sister thought the breakup was at least partly about Matt’s wanting to get away from the accident, to erase that blot on his permanent record. Maybe. But whatever it was that pulled him out of the marriage, Jean and Alice both thought Carmen was lucky he was gone, even if it would take her a little longer to see that.
The pregnant woman they were helping today was in her twenties. She looked very nervous. The protesters were hassling her, pleading for the life of her unborn child. Sometimes they managed to scare off the patient. They knew the pressure points.
“Let’s get this going!” Lenore Charles from the local NARAL chapter hustled the volunteers into a circle around the woman. Alice could see that Jean was getting antsy. Her presence at these actions was in part due to her social concerns, in part a way of letting off steam. She was basically a hooligan with a conscience. If she didn’t have a cause, she’d be out robbing banks.
“What I’d like to see right about now is some police presence.” Alice looked around for uniforms. “This goon squad is a little too fired up.” The pro-life women, as always, had distant gazes and wore pale-print dresses like farm wives. They chanted “Baby-killers. Baby-killers.” And “God loves the little children.”
“He might not be all that crazy about you, though,” Jean clipped the woman. “Just last night, Jesus came to me in a dream and he said, ‘Like I want to spend all eternity with these morons.’”
Lenore got in the way of a brawl starting up. “Ladies? Let’s move
The volunteers—they were ten in number this morning, a good-size crew—locked arms in a scrum around the skittish woman and made a slow, rolling charge toward the clinic door. They’d done this dozens of times. By now they were very efficient. Jean led the way as they approached the door of the clinic.