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Authors: Francine Prose

My New American Life (9 page)

BOOK: My New American Life
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The postcard was addressed to Mr. Ezekiel Larch. Lula knew she should leave it for Zeke. But postcards weren't like letters or e-mail. Postcards dared you not to read them.

Written in brown fountain-pen ink and chicken-scratch handwriting, it said: “My dearest darling Zeke, I hear you're almost headed for college. There are some Great places out here where the air is clean and the magic isn't sick and filthy and Polluted. Or anyway, not Yet. Come here for school? College? Kindergarten? Seems like Yesterday. Keep in touch. Love, Mom.”

There was no return address, the smudged postmark was illegible, and the capitalization was quirky, to put it mildly.

Lula put the card on the counter where Zeke couldn't miss it, then returned upstairs to resume her vigil, watching and not watching for the black SUV until she heard Zeke's footsteps.

By the time Lula got downstairs, Zeke was reading the postcard. She shouldn't have left it out. She should have put it somewhere he would find it after he'd fortified himself with juice and a snack.

Zeke said, “College between two penis rocks? I'd rather stay home. Forever.”

“I don't think that's an option,” said Lula. “Staying home forever.”

Zeke said, “Dad would like that.”

“Untrue,” said Lula, reflexively, though maybe Zeke was right. Albanian eagle parents pushed their offspring out of the nest as soon as they could fly, but maybe that was just to make sure they flew back after their divorces. Lula had no nest to return to. Problems or no problems, Zeke was a lucky baby bird.

Lula said, “Are you looking forward to the college trip with your dad?”

Zeke said, “You're joking. Dad and I saw this
episode before you got here. Mom hated me and Dad watching it, but it was almost the only thing Dad insisted on. Tony killed this guy while Meadow was at an interview on her college tour. Something like that would be cool.”

Lula said, “Something like that would not be cool. Come on. You get time off from school. I get out of the house. We both get a change of scenery. It's a win-win situation.”

Zeke said, “You've never traveled with my dad.” Staring into the refrigerator, he asked, “Do you want to hear about the worst summer of my life?” Lula's dad used to talk like that, addressing himself to the icebox. So did Mister Stanley. It was strange how men preferred deep conversation with a kitchen appliance.

Zeke said, “This was after eighth grade. We took a family cross-country road trip. From New York to Chicago Mom and Dad fought about the air conditioner. Dad said it couldn't be fixed, and Mom said that was Dad in a nutshell: Nothing could be fixed. Dad wouldn't let Mom drive, he did the crawly speed limit. We were in Nebraska for like twenty years. We only stopped to sleep or eat or piss until we got to the West, and then we'd stop at every national park, and I'd get out and kick some pebbles, and my mom would cluck her tongue and say weird spiritual shit about nature, and Dad would give me a lecture full of fascinating facts he'd learned in college geology, and Mom would look like she wanted to kill him. Then I took pictures of Dad and Mom against the natural wonders, and my dad took pictures of Mom and me. Then we'd get back in the car and drive fifteen hours to the next national park.”

“That was your worst summer ever?” Lula said. “Everywhere in the world kids are being kidnapped and drafted as child soldiers. Or blown up in munitions plants. I'll bet when Don Settebello starts going down to Guantánamo, he meets kids—prisoners!—not much older than you.”

Zeke said, “Don should stay home and take care of Abigail. Are you trying to guilt me or what?”

Lula said, “Okay. Sorry for the lecture. So is that why your mom left? Boredom?”

In all of Lula's time here, she had never asked Zeke directly about his mother's departure, and he'd never volunteered. It wasn't that she didn't care or wasn't curious, but she was afraid that Zeke would hate her if he told her. Men were like that, even young ones. Her first boyfriend in Tirana told her his uncle used to sneak into his bed and fondle him, and the next night he broke up with her. Another guy to whom she'd practically been engaged told her he'd stolen from the church when he was an altar boy, and then he left her too.

,” said Zeke. “To say you're bored in this house is like saying the sun rises in the east. It
the east, right?”

Lula remembered a grade-school play about valiant Chinese people all working together to feed their population. She'd played the wife of a rice farmer, and in the end they all sang a Chinese song, translated into Albanian, about the sunrise.

“I was joking,” Zeke said. “About the sun. My mom went kind of nuts. One day, I was riding the school bus home, I saw her standing on the corner. From her expression I thought she'd come to tell me Dad was dead. She said she needed to ask me something private. She said, ‘Zeke, pretend I'm a stranger, and you're walking home, and you see me. What do I look like?' ”

“What did she look like?” said Lula.

“Like a bag lady,” Zeke said. “But I couldn't say that.”

“Good boy,” said Lula. “Smart boy.”

Zeke said, “Hey, are you wearing makeup?”

“Not really,” said Lula. “Go on.”

“After that she turned into a clean freak. She burned through two washing machines in a year. They were still under warranty, they just gave us new ones. I had to hide my T-shirts. She shrunk them into doll clothes. She started making Estrelia wear fluffy slippers when she cleaned the house.”

“Poor Estrelia,” said Lula.

“Poor me,” said Zeke. “Poor Dad.”

“Poor everybody,” said Lula. No wonder Mister Stanley had hired her. They were lucky to get someone sane.

“Dirt and filth and pollution were all my mom ever talked about. Her face would get twisted up—” Zeke attempted to demonstrate. He got as far as clenching his teeth and narrowing his eyes until a shudder shook his features back into slacker default mode.

“She wouldn't like Albania,” Lula said, just to say something. “For them a garbage dump is a clear mountain stream or the side of a country road.”

“Not here,” said Zeke. “Here you have to be a corporation to get away with that. Anyway, my mom stopped leaving the house except to go to this support group in the Lutheran church basement. Tree-hugging twelve-step crap. That's when she started talking about working her way back to cleanness.”

“Didn't your dad make her see a doctor?”

“He did. She hated the guy. He put her on meds she refused to take. Finally one evening Mom sent us to the store for dishwashing detergent and laundry soap, and when we got back she was gone. I'm pretty sure she knew The Good Earth would be closed on Christmas Eve. We had to drive to the Shopwell, which was closed too, by the way. It gave her more time to escape. She took her passport and a big suitcase. Maybe she was nuts, but she was sane enough to write herself a huge check from my parents' joint account. Christmas Eve, did I say that?”

“You did,” Lula said. “How do you know about the check?”

“I heard Dad telling Don,” said Zeke. “Christmas Eve. Really nice. I wanted to call the cops, but Dad said give it a week. He said that's what the police would say. Sure enough, a week later, we got that postcard of glaciers in Norway.”

Lula asked, “Do you miss her?”

“I think I miss a feeling from before she got sick. Dad says she has an illness.”

“Sounds like one,” Lula said. She tried to recall the message on the card Zeke was holding. Pollution had been capitalized, she was fairly certain. “Do you think she's happier now than before she left? Or less angry, like your dad says?”

“I think she's pretty cracked.”

“Cracks get mended,” said Lula.

“Some do, some don't,” Zeke said.

“Now you sound like me,” Lula said.

That night, when Mister Stanley asked how Zeke was, Lula told him he'd gotten a postcard from his mother.

“What did it say?”

“It said maybe Zeke would go to college out West, where she is.”

“That's not going to happen,” said Mister Stanley.

“That's what Zeke said,” said Lula.

“Good.” Without turning to face Lula, Mister Stanley glided from the refrigerator to the window and stared into the darkness.

After a while he said, “You know, there are some pictures one really wishes did not exist in one's head. The problem is, they crowd out all the other pictures, the good pictures, the memories from when one was young and happy. Or anyway, from when one was young. So one must have been happy. Do you know that Ginger taught second grade and, though I begged her not to, she quit to take care of Zeke? Do you know that Ginger used to be a beautiful, caring person?”

Lula shook her head. She didn't ask what Mister Stanley's mental pictures were, the good ones or the bad. She thought of Zeke's lip quivering when he'd tried to look like his mother, and of him saying he missed a feeling from before his mother got sick.

She said, “Young doesn't always mean happy.”

Mister Stanley said, “One forgets sometimes. Thank you. Good night, Lula.”

he next morning, the black Lexus pulled up to the curb. Partly from nervousness and partly from superstition, Lula ran through a series of disappointing scenarios, beginning with it being some
Lexus—unlikely!—and progressing through the scene in which Alvo waited in the car while Hoodie and Leather Jacket, Guri and Genti, came in and retrieved the gun.

Alvo and the G-Men ambled up the path. Lula straightened her sweater and skirt. She'd been putting on makeup since the first time they came. She ran downstairs, then waited to open the door until they rang three times. Hoodie and Leather Jacket shook her hand. Alvo gave her a brotherly kiss on both cheeks. He smelled like smoke and beach sand.

She said, “Can I get you guys coffee?”

The other two watched Alvo nod.

“Please,” she said. “No smoking this time.”

“We just smoked in the car,” said Hoodie.

Lula took her time in the kitchen brewing the muddy coffee. They thanked her, then Leather Jacket said, “No one here smokes? No one in this house eats or sleeps or breathes or fucks? Or farts?”

Lula said, “They eat and sleep and breathe. No, wait. I don't know if the boss eats.”

“What's their problem?” asked Hoodie.

“Shell-shocked. Before she left, the mom tried to poison them.” Why had Lula said that? Because the true story of their loneliness, of Ginger's housewifely discontent shading into a mentally ill obsession with dirt, made the Larches seem even sadder and more pitiful than they were.

“No shit? What with?” asked Leather Jacket.

“Dishwashing liquid,” Lula improvised.

“Stomach ache,” Hoodie said. “Not fatal.”

Alvo regarded his cup. “Maybe we should feed the coffee to the dog first.”

“There is no dog,” said Lula.

“Is the dog dead too?” said Alvo.

“I don't think there was a dog,” said Lula.

“We know there's no dog,” said Alvo. Had he factored that information in when he'd sneaked into the house? Or was he simply remarking that he'd noticed there was no dog?

Lula said, “You guys want your gun back?”

Alvo said, “Little Sister, we are not here about the gun. The truth is, we worry that you don't get out of the house enough.”

Did she look pale? Tired? Sick? She needed to check herself out in the mirror.

Alvo said, “Because we are family, practically cousins of your Cousin George, we've come to take you for a ride, so you can breathe the fresh air.”

Lula loved how he talked.

Hoodie said, “The fresh New Jersey air. You're a comedian, boss.”

Lula said, “Is this the part where I wake up tomorrow morning in some sheik's harem in Dubai?” How could she joke about such things with Dunia out there, lost?

Ha ha, the three men laughed. Then Alvo asked Lula, “Is something wrong?”

Lula said, “I have this friend—”

“Those sheiks want twelve-year-old virgins,” said Hoodie. “Little Sister is overqualified.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Lula.

“Shut up, shithead,” Alvo said. “Come on, Lula. We've got errands. Business. Come for the ride.”

What girl wasn't a sucker for male business errands? Not the former little girl whose papa had taken her into the homes of tribal warlords up north from whom he'd bought vintage muskets. Not the former teenager whose boyfriend had brought her to pick up an ounce of dirt weed he cut with wild parsley to resell at the bunker-field raves. It was pleasant to tag along, hardly noticed but there, subtly raising the temperature with your female physical presence.

She said, “I need to be back before Zeke gets home.”

Hoodie looked exasperated. “You think we have all day for joyrides?”

They had places to go, people to see. Important things to do besides chauffeuring some loser Albanian nanny around northern New Jersey. But if they weren't kidnapping her, then what? That Alvo might want to spend time with her was too much to hope for.

“Let me get my coat,” she said.

“Don't leave any notes,” said Hoodie. “And we'll need to take your SIM card.”

Lula knew he was kidding. Still, closing the door to her room, she had the sickening feeling she would never see it again. When you prepare for a journey, her granny used to say, prepare for death. What gloomy people she came from! No wonder her glass was half empty. But what if Zeke and Mister Stanley came home to find her gone? They would think it was their special curse. Or just something women did. Maybe Lula too had vanished in search of greater whiteness. In this case, the white sands of the emirates.

Hoodie paced as she took the coffee cups into the kitchen and washed them. Another mistake. In hiding the traces of her secret life, she had destroyed precious DNA evidence that might help the authorities find her. Get a grip, Lula told herself. Three friends of her Cousin George's were taking her out in a Lexus.

BOOK: My New American Life
2.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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