CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The woman is awake now. She opens her purse.
The road over-easy, or easy enough. Fork. A knife. Elaina—her name, the fact of herself, is stuck in her with consciousness, a vengeance. Caffeine. “Warm you up?” the server says. The cream is artificial.
Elaina, like any good mother, is fully and dutifully absorbed in a spill. “After a certain age,” she says.
“What age?” the child, who is all too abundantly clearly hers—her flesh and blood, etcetera—says. Licked cloth, a scabbed knee; a hair, black, genetically impertinent, a fait accompli: split-end in the eye.
“Jerome, look,” Elaina says. “Sometimes a bird flies into the glass.”
“What on earth?” Jerome says.
The server is waiting, obtrusively. A smear is on the window.
Aggressively ribby—the shirt Jerome wears. Wherever it came from, she did not buy it—a gift, perhaps, or hand-me-down. A shade of blue. So much he will own, will bear about his person, that she will not choose.
Jerome appears to be bigger to her than the last time she looked, as well as, quite possibly, thinner. He is opening sugar, ripping up packets and pouring the contents into his mouth.
“Stop it,” she says. Her stimulant is dripping. The car is on asphalt, gathering heat. She knows she doesn’t mean it. Let him, she thinks.
Money on the table, a mint in the hand. “You’ll rot your teeth.”
“What about the bird?” Jerome says.
“Chest-deep exhausted,” Elaina says. She is turning the wheel. The year is half over. Children in doorways, a bike in a yard—banana seat—rooms and rooms within each house. Somebody old is out on a lawn—a woman to judge by the shape of the body, but this is a guess. Elaina will not look like that! A wind is up. An orange ball has been abandoned in a driveway. Here is the world as driven past: a hospital, school.
“Will you stop asking questions?” Elaina says.
Jerome says, “What?”—which means, she thinks, “Now ask me something else.”
“The bird,” he says.
“Ah, yes,” she says. He is kicking the dashboard, unsafely in the front. “I ought to know better,” Elaina says.
Jerome is seven and a quarter or a third. Closer to a third. He is belted at least; at least there’s that. Elaina does not look her age, not all of the time, or some of the time, she tells herself, as if, she tells herself, this were of comfort, this time.
A house they pass is gingerbread. The lake is high. Hansel and the other one: Eat you up! She taught him that. Lilacs are blooming. Here it is—Gretel! Another of her stories: His father groomed lilacs, and hasn’t he, Jerome, heard? She pinned them, or she thinks she did, coiled in her hair, a petal to a curl. She will have to cut her hair. Of course, there is also a tale about that. Rapunzel or Samson. Drive, she thinks. A girl with a basket.
Nothing in the glove, a pill or three. Her child’s breath: baby. A scent she is fond of, from a memory or dream.
“Mom?” he says. “Mom?”
It is somebody’s birthday, the road sign says, revisably, in plastic.
“Where is the freeway?” Elaina says.
The sign is on wheels. It is raining, a bit. There is bile in her throat.
“Happy …” he says.
She swallows, again.
“Get that up,” Elaina says. Spilt grape on plastic. “Money on trees.” Last stop for miles and miles, forever. A Slurpee, no less.
She ought to teach manners, but who has time?
Tissue and napkins, so flimsy what she gives him—a kiss. Another kiss, pulled over to a shoulder.
She ought to enforce better hygiene, she thinks.
“Sorry,” he says.
A ruffle of hair, and reacceleration.
Jerome is reading the names on signs. “Oconomowac.” She taught him that. “Muckwanago.” A sticky touch. “Sacre Koor,” Elaina says. Midwesternized. Bastardized. Directions too, Jerome knows. “Over the river and through the woods …” She taught him that. “Left to Chicago.” “One, two, buckle my shoe …” She taught him that. “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly …”
Perhaps she’ll stop.
Two in the morning or four or worse. It’s a brilliant motel, though, at least on the outside.
Jerome is rightly sleeping. The room smells of breath, and of yesterday’s thow-offs. Where is that shirt? Elaina thinks. And why can’t she take charge of her possessions? She kisses him, her son, and walks away.
Back and forth and back and forth and back and back and back she goes, a sheet to the breast. There’s a flicker in the bathroom.
The past never changes materially—visit and visit, Elaina thinks. Her head is in the basin. The dead are still dead. She splashes the water onto her face; she towels—absorption.
Slippers, a headache, ever so slight. The cells that must wriggle and wriggle and wriggle inside her. “One, two …”
A seed, a buckled pellet.
She smells Jerome’s skin as she lies down beside him, divided, awake, and wonders, will she miss him?
“What?” Jerome says.
They are in the museum regarding bones. Under a limb: Jerome says he’s thirsty. So much in the world! (“The Great Lake—look! Look, the Windy City!”) The body is always insisting on something. This, that; more, yes. Forever the expense of it!
Gum she has to quench his need, excuses, postponement. “See,” she says, “the size of this.” A knuckle. The room. The thrill of extinction.
“See how enormous,” Elaina says. “Consider the enormity.”
Jerome is not stupid, Elaina thinks.
Elaina says, “Weather.”
Another wobbled table. Special of the day. The beef is “with oh juice,” the server says.
“I am lonely,” Jerome says.
Shake of the month. Precipitation in a tumbler.
“Wipe your mouth,” Elaina says. “And how can you be lonely when I love you so much?”
“Mom,” Jerome says—a word that means anything and everything and nothing, a holder of space, Elaina thinks, a consonant receptacle. “Who said I was scared?”
“Ala mode,” the server says.
Jerome has dessert. He has crackers in wrappers after dessert.
The windshield is salted with droppings and grit.
“I am not afraid,” Jerome says. Things are underneath their feet, despite her imprecations—rigid, articulated figures with what would appear to be lethal capability. Blade upon glass. “Rain, rain, go away.” Jerome, at least, is singing. The pterodactyl jacket: She gave him that, didn’t she?
They’re entering an artery, a heart of a city.
Elaina is singing along: “… away.”
He is looking, she is thinking, at a woman getting drenched. “Why not go home?” Jerome says.
“Don’t touch,” she says. She is teaching him something. Showing him something: a woman who lived.
He is bunching her dress. So chilly in the gallery! Pulling her handbag, he leaves an impression: jelly on a palm.
“The artist is famous for painting,” she says. “But see how he sculpted, molded out of metal.” The dancers’ arms are open, uncorrodable. The mutinous body is captured, whole.
“Watch him,” the guard says.
“Drafty in the dressing rooms,” Elaina says, “a life of no comfort, no money, disease—and yet,” she says, “the beauty.”
Fingers to anatomy. A glare in the eye. You, you, you: The guard’s eyes hold accusation, she thinks. “Miss,” he says. “Missus.”
Jerome is spinning, in a flighty pirouette.
“Watch he doesn’t hurt himself.”
“What do you say we go?” she says.
She is alert, alert, aroil in the night, and in the morning again, in fact, and still, and in need of a tonic or another cup of hot.
“Five, six, pick up sticks …” She taught him that. “Seven, eight …”she taught him that. “Little robin redbreast flew up to a wall …” “Five, six, seven, eight …” And why can’t she concentrate?
Elaina tucks him in again.
So many things she cannot be shut of, or not so fast, at least not yet.
There once was a lady who swallowed a substance, or lived in a shoe, or did not know what to do. She looks at him. “Perhaps,” she says, believing he’s sleeping, “the bird will do anything to get at something sweet.”
“Here is where you rest your chin. Hold still,” she tells him. A long line of children synthetically dressed is stretched out behind them.
Science and industry. Science and technology, hands-on, the flyer said, but everything is virtual, incorporeal, here. There is a fast game of ball in which there is no ball. No net in the court. No messy abandon.
Here is a landscape that never existed, a digital myth, or a past made of light.
You can turn to the future, for a fee. A snap of your offspring years from now—inevitable jowl, longer teeth, a mole.
Reliable, certainly: the weight that comes of living, with margin for error, or possibly grief.
“See how Jerome will look as a man!” Elaina says, prodding. So long they have stood here!
“Mom, I don’t want to.” She feels the body stiffen, changeable as that.
“Now,” she says, “or never.”
“Please,” she says.
Then, “As you wish. Maybe there’s a gift shop.”
“What if they left it open?” he says.
Twin beds turned down, a drip in the tap. “Left what?” Elaina says. “What if who left what?”
“All of them,” Jerome says. “They could open the windows all over the world.”
He lies alongside her. “Happy,” he says. So high the boy’s voice! She narrows her eyes the better to see him—palpable body, the face as it is—and all she says is, “Wait.” She says, “Wait.”