Authors: David Vann
alen waited under the fig tree for his mother. He read
for the hundredth time, the young Buddha gazing into the river. He felt the enormous presence of the fig tree above him, listened for the no wind, for the stillness. Summer heat pressing down, flattening the earth. Sweat in a film covering most his body, a slick.
This old house, the trees ancient. The grass, grown long, making his legs itch. But he tried to concentrate. Hear the no wind. Focus on breath. Let the no self go by.
Galen, his mother called from inside, Galen.
He breathed more deeply, tried to let his mother go by.
Oh, there you are, she said. Ready for tea?
He didn't answer. Focused on his breath, hoped she would go away. But of course he was waiting here for her, waiting for tea.
Help me bring out the tray, she said, so he sighed and put down his book and got up, his legs cramped from being crossed.
There you are, she said as he stepped into the kitchen. Old wood bending beneath his bare feet. A roughness from varnish flaking off. He took the tray, the old silver, heavy, the ornate silver teapot, the white china cups, everything that depressed him, and while his hands were full she leaned in from behind and gave him a kiss, her lips on his neck and the little snuffling sound she did to be cute, which made him flinch and want to scream. But he didn't drop the tray. He carried it out to the cast-iron table under the shade of the fig, close against the wall of the farm shed with its small apartment above. He was considering moving out here, to get away from her, away from the main house.
His mother beside him now with the finger sandwiches, cucumber and watercress. They weren't in England. This wasn't England. They were in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento, California, in the Central Valley, a long, hot trough of crass, as far from England as one could be, but every afternoon they had high tea. They weren't even English. His grandmother from Iceland, grandfather from Germany. Nothing about their lives would ever make any sense.
Sit, his mother said. Enjoying your book?
She poured him a cup of tea. She wore white. A summery white blouse and long skirt, all white, with sandals. Thighs flaring, the bottom half of her growing faster than the top half.
Have a sandwich, she said. You need to eat.
The finger sandwiches with crusts cut off. Cucumber and cream cheese. Even if he had felt any appetite, this food would have been near the bottom of the list of all foods in the world.
You look emaciated, she said.
What he returned to was breath. Whenever she spoke, he returned to his breathing, the exhale, letting all attachment to the world slip away. He counted ten exhales, and then he sipped his tea, hot and minty and sweet.
Your cheeks are all sucked in, and it looks like you have bones in the front of your neck.
There are no bones in the front of my neck.
But it looks like there are. You need to eat. And you need to take a shower and shave. You're so handsome when you put in a little effort.
His breath coming faster now, anger always a flaring upward, a sense of broadening at his neck and shoulders, the top of his head gone. He could say anything in these moments, but he tried to say nothing.
It's just food, Galen. For chrissakes, there's nothing special about it. Watch me. And she raised a cucumber finger sandwich slowly in the air, a small square, and slowly pushed it into her mouth.
Galen looked down at his teacup, the tea a kind of stain in the water, darker toward the bottom. Wilted green leaves of mint, rough with tiny bumps. The world a great flood in which nothing would ever stop. It could not be controlled, it could not be held back. It was rising and compacting, pressurizing. School starts in a month, he said. I should be going to college. I shouldn't be spending another fucking year having high tea.
Well you're free to go.
We don't have any money. Remember?
Well, that's not my fault. We make do with what we have. And we live in this beautiful place, all to ourselves.
I'd rather live anywhere else.
His mother lifted her tiny spoon and swirled her tea, and Galen waited. Why do you want to hurt me? she asked.
The air was not breathable. So hot his throat a dried-out tunnel, his lungs thinned like paper and unable to expand, and he didn't know why he couldn't just leave. She had made him into a kind of husband, her own son. She'd kicked out her mother and sister and niece and made it just the two of them, and every day he felt he couldn't stand it even one more day but every day he stayed.
fter tea, Galen went up to his room. The master bedroom, because his mother slept in her old bedroom from childhood. So he slept where his grandparents had, a long open room of dark wood, the floorboards oiled and worn. Wood up the walls forming a ledge at chest level. Old fabric above that, French with fleur-de-lis patterns in dark blue set in panels three feet wide, separated by dark beams that went all the way to the ceiling. And the ceiling a series of boxes in more dark wood, with a carved area above the chandelier. A place ornate and heavy, too grand for his insubstantial life, something from another time.
Galen's bed frame was made of walnut from this orchard. That was one thing that fit. He could go out and sit on the stump. But beyond that, he didn't know how anything had come to be or who he was supposed to become.
He walked downstairs to wait for his mother at the car. A circular drive in front of the house, attached to a long lane of hedge, overgrown now. Flowers in the middle of the circle, also overgrown. Thistle and high grasses gone brown in the sun. There had been a gardener, and there was still a weekly fund paid out for a gardener, but the fund was what Galen and his mother lived on. That and the fund for weekly maid service.
The car twelve years old now, a Buick Century 1973, with a long sweep back from the headlights. A boat. Painted metallic orange, a new paint job from a year ago, Galen's mother throwing away money. Let's do it, she'd said. Let's just do it.
The metallic paint a giant reflector, cooking Galen as he stood there without a hat or sunglasses, his skin gone dark and ragged. A few hundred feet away, a giant oak and cool shade, a wooden love seat, but Galen remained. Kept his eyes open as wide as possible in the glare.
Galen could feel the earth leaning closer to the sun, could feel the land shouldering its way forward, pulling the hot sack of melt behind it.
And then his mother emerged. Sun hat and several small bags in her hands, fumbling with the keys, carrying sixteen things though they were driving only three miles. Every day after tea they drove to see his grandmother in the rest home. Everything a production, and of every production his mother the star.
She smiled as she walked toward him, a wide, lovely smile, her best feature. A long walk from the door to the drive, a path bordered by lawn, some of it still green. The water bill for the sprinklers paid directly from the trust.
Here you are, she said. Shall we go?
For his mother, no bad moment had ever existed. They had not fought at tea. They had never fought. Nothing unpleasant had ever happened in her entire life. Galen never knew what to say. So he gazed at the hood, a blinding sun, and tried to stretch his eyes.
Galen, his mother said. Open your door and get in. Legs go first. It's not tough, and it really doesn't mean anything.
So Galen opened his door and put one leg in, then decided to put the other leg in without using his arms. He fell over with a hard
onto the gravel, let his shoulder take the damage. His legs twisted over the doorframe.
For chrissakes, his mother said. I really don't have time for this today, Galen. She came around the car and lifted him up by his armpits, stuffed him into his seat, and closed the door, without slamming it.
You think you're cute, she said as she ducked into the driver seat. She closed her own door and they were off, crunching gravel down the hedge lane.
They have wonderful pumpkin pies at Bel-Air, he said as they passed the shopping center.
Stop, his mother said.
They really do have lovely pies, he said. It was what his grandmother had said repetitively every day before his mother stuffed her in the rest home.
His mother was trying to ignore him, something she was not always good at. The pumpkin especially, he said.
His mother believed she was a good mother and a good daughter and a good person, so she would hold back from saying anything ugly. She looked bruised, her face gone dark, the smile no longer there.
If only I weren't locked away in the rest home, he said. Then I might taste pumpkin pie again.
alen's grandmother was in perfect health with the exception of her memory. Suzie-Q, she said when Galen's mother walked in. They had a hug, and then it was Galen's turn.
Galen didn't like to be hugged. His family was all women, and they were always hugging him, many times every day. He would have preferred never to be hugged again for the rest of his life.
Look at you, she said. My handsome grandson. Are you getting ready for school in the fall?
Galen's upper arms were pinned in her hands. He tried to let his arms relax, as if they were someone else's arms. But she wasn't letting go. Her face was very close. A different face now than a few months ago. New dentures, and somehow they had entirely changed her face, made rounder and softer and foreign. As if it had never been his grandmother but always someone else hiding in there.
Not this fall, he finally said. I'll be deferring a year.
She looked at him closely, examining his face and eyes, trying to remember, perhaps. What she couldn't remember was that this was now his fifth year of deferral. Yes, she said. Yes, of course, some time before you start. We talked about that. Always a good idea. Maybe travel a bit, see the world first.
The imagined year abroad in Europe, the well-off young man carrying a small suitcase and boarding ocean liners and trains, throwing open the shutters in a hundred old rooms to look out over spires and stone. Wearing a linen suit, drinking in cafÃ©s, chatting in half a dozen languages. What made Galen angry was the fact that it could have happened. If he'd had a father and a normal mother, parents with jobs, and a grandmother who hadn't lost her memory, the extra money from his grandmother could have made this happen. Instead it was paying for the rest home, metallic orange paint jobs, and a mother who would never work.
Mom, you're going to tear Galen's arms off.
Yes, well, his grandmother said, letting go. You know you're my favorite grandchild?
White hair curving down in a bob, blue eyes bright still. Favoritism wasn't very nice, really, but he did love his grandmother. He'd always liked her better than anyone else.
Thank you, Grandma, he said. You're my favorite grandma.
Mm, she said, and hugged him again.
The room was very small, shared by an older woman confined to bed. Her eyes were always wet, and she was smiling at Galen now, looking like she was crying.
Maybe we should go for a walk, Galen said. He had to leave this room. Linoleum floors and plain white walls, sliding plastic curtains around the beds. A place to die, but his grandmother was well. A shared room because his mother wanted to preserve as much of the trust as possible and it wasn't clear his grandmother remembered she had money.
That sounds nice, his mother said. We'll go for a walk in the garden.
Last one there is a rotten egg, his grandmother said.
So they made a little game of racing out to the garden. Waving to the nurses in the hallway as if they were going away for good. Galen's mother smiling because they were being special. Specialness was her favorite thing.
Ah, she breathed out when they hit the garden and stopped racing. She grabbed her mother's arm and leaned in close. That was fun, wasn't it?
The garden a cement courtyard with planter boxes on wheels. They could be moved all around, so it was never the same garden twice. None of the plants reached higher than five feet, and there was no shade.
Galen's grandmother gave him a big smile. He tried to return it, what felt like a lopsided little grin with his mouth closed, a bit of skin stretching. Maybe he had different cheek muscles. They wouldn't pull upward on their own.
Look at all the flowers, his mother said, and it was true there were flowers everywhere. They pulled up to a trough of petunias, white and pink and purple in the sun. Like little faces, his mother said.
What time is it? Galen's grandmother asked.
Oh, look over here, Mom, some lovely roses.
They walked over to the roses, red and loose and thorny. Galen leaned in close to smell. He liked the smell of red roses.
Like Ferdinand the Bull, his mother said.
Thanks, Galen said.
You remember Ferdinand the Bull, Mom?
But Galen's grandmother was looking around now, worried. What time is it? she repeated.
He's the bull who won't do anything except lie around and smell flowers.
Maybe we should go, Galen's grandmother said. It's getting late. We should go home.
Look over here, Galen's mother said. They have nasturtiums.
We should go home now.
Galen tried to focus on his exhales.
Which way is out? his grandmother asked, looking around. Sweat on her face from this heat, her shirt going dark. There was no shade. I can never remember which way is out.
This way, Mom. We'll go back to your room.
We need to go home.
Maybe we can play cards, Galen said, trying to be helpful. He couldn't bear any of this.
That's a wonderful idea, his mother said. Let's play a hand of cards, Mom.
I want to go home. Why won't you take me home?