WHAT SHE HAS
after Lucia Berlin
SATURDAY, THE SUN STILL RISING. I drove through the neighborhood, slowly, scanning doors of sleeping houses. I was always lost, something I could and did accept. I would tell it to any travel companion—I’m bad with directions, terrible, the worst you’ve met—and they’d smile and would assume, I assume, a great deal more about me.
I’m bad with directions, maybe the worst you’ve met. When I reached the address I’d written on the back of an all-night deli receipt, I parked at the end of a long driveway and turned off the engine. I was early, seventy-five minutes, with no coffee, no phone. All the houses quiet. The one I’d come to had steep steps that led to a screen door with a patched-up hole in its center. Now a small girl opened the door and leapt outside. A bright teal leotard, white tights and sandals too big for her. Dangling around one of her arms was a candy cane striped hula hoop, almost taller than she was. She hopped down the stairs, each wobbling beneath her, and walked herself in a straight line up to my window. Talking before I could even roll it down.
“…on Barry Street, west of Manship, east of Desert Springs,” she was saying. “Do you know where you are?”
“Ted’s house?” I said. “I’m meeting Ted. Are you related to him?”
“Marla,” she said, adjusting the tight black bun atop her head. “This is the house of Lane and Marla. I’m Lane,” she said, holding out her hand.
“No Ted here?” I said, not taking it.
“So you’re lost,” she said, with frankness. Putting her hula hoop in front of her face and staring at me through the circle. “That’s okay, you know.”
She had the long, drawn eyelashes I’d wanted as a child. I’d wanted, not just a horse, but a horse’s eyelashes. When she blinked, I thought I could hear those lashes tap the skin beneath her eyes. “How old are you?” she said. She took out an invisible badge from inside her invisible jacket and held the badge just in front of my face. I was thirty-seven and would not tell her. “License and registration, ma’am,” she said. “Awful early for you to be out on the road, don’t you think?”
“Marla,” I said. “From HR?”
Yes, she told me, her mother Marla worked in HR. Lane said the name of the same small company where I was, where Ted was. It was Ted I was supposed to have breakfast with, go out early in the bronze morning to fish for carp. I must have written down the wrong address from the company directory, and here I was. Marla’s place. I said some of this aloud and Lane said: “That’s alright, little lady. Step out of the car, ma’am.”
I waited. She brought out the hula hoop in front of her and pressed her forehead against the plastic circle. “Hellooooo in there,” she said to me through the hoop. “You can come inside.”
“Oh no, no,” I said. “Your mom’s asleep, I’m sure.”
“She’s making biscuits and watching her shows,” Lane explained. “It’s Saturday. It’s what we do.” She took a step back from the car, popped the hula hoop over her head, gave it one twirl around her hips, then let it drop to the concrete. Clack-clack like a firecracker. She looked down at the hoop. “I think I was supposed to enjoy that.”
Marla was dark-haired and tall and in fact making biscuits and eggs when I walked through the delicate screen door and into the kitchen, a small TV playing in the corner. She did not look the way I looked in the morning, when I was not quite ready for the world. She was fully dressed, an ecru silk scarf hanging around her neck, ready for the thick of life. “I know you,” she said. “You’re Grace.”
“She’s here for breakfast,” said Lane. “This is our kitchen, and these are our barstools. This is our very best pan, this is our spatula, and this is my mother.” Lane swung herself up on a barstool. “Eggs Eggs Eggs Eggs. Life is but a dream,” she sang.
I explained to Marla. It was a mistake. I’d meant to see Ted. Yes, that Ted. The one she knew from work. I was sorry to bother them. I was terrible with directions, one of the worst people you’ve ever met. And I didn’t even have a phone.
“But we’re happy to have you,” said Marla. “Stay. Stay and sit down. Look—it was meant to be. I was cooking too much food. It’s like I knew you were coming.”
I couldn’t. No, I shouldn’t. I should drive to Ted’s.
“Oh, I’ve been to Ted’s,” said Marla.
“Grace Grace Grace Grace. Life is but a dreeeeam,” sang Lane, swinging her legs, happy and swinging.
“Several of us have been to Ted’s,” said Marla.
“Several of you?” I said.
“At work,” said Marla. She looked at me. “Several of us.”
“Ted Ted Ted Ted. He sounds like a crooook,” sang Lane.
“You don’t need to go to Ted’s,” said Marla. “Sit down.” She went to the window above the sink. The sun came in richly. It was like another body in the room with us, sitting between us there, coming up through our bodies. Up through and in mine. It was the middle of September, and I felt summer ending the way I did when I was a child.
“My car is so old,” I said to Marla. “I’ve been trying to get a new one. I try to look every weekend, though. Was going to look this weekend.”
“Honey,” said Marla, turning back toward me. I felt I was in trouble, her eyes like that, grinding into mine.
“Sit down and have a biscuit,” said Marla.
“Have all the biscuits!” sang Lane.
I spent the whole day there, the evening, too. We played Parcheesi, sat in the garden, ate Swiss and rye sandwiches, played ping-pong outside in the grass by the garage, ate homemade strawberry ice cream. I showed Lane how to hula-hoop. Is this better than fishing with Ted, asked Lane. Is it, asked Marla, when we were on the porch, Lane asleep in her lap, Marla and I drinking martinis with misshapen blackberries from the garden. It is, I told Lane. It is, I told Marla. It was one-thirty in the morning when I drove home. I’d probably sleep late the next day, and there was so much to do. It had been such a fine day, one of those important days when you feel you belong somewhere. I wouldn’t have time to lose the whole day again, and the next morning after that. Not any time soon.
But Marla called on Wednesday, and I drove over on Saturday, the sun barely up. I was thinking about my mother. She was seventy-one and out of state, in Massachusetts. Living alone, though the winters were starting to push against her. I hadn’t flown up last Christmas. She’d come to visit me in the summer, a full week. At work, I took part of my vacation. She’d be up at five, making coffee, dusting my thrift store lamps, alphabetizing the books in my particleboard shelves. She’d brought documents for me to sign—she knew people her age who were half dead, she said, and in case that should happen, sign here for me, Gracie. She bought me a fancy desk chair for my back. In the evenings we’d watch movies, sometimes three in a row. Eat pretzels. Sip brandy. On the morning she flew back, she took a shuttle van to the airport. She’d insisted. She waved to me from the very back seat, the other riders packed tight against her.
Marla had the biscuits ready and eggs in the pan. Lane played outside with her hoop and a neighbor’s dog, its body so round and fat it was almost square.
“Tell me more about her,” said Marla, after I’d mentioned my mother. And I did. I told her everything I could think of right then. What I knew of her before I’d been born. And after. And after.
“What about yours?” I asked her.
She talked the whole morning while we stood at the kitchen sink. Two hours. Her mother had been a minister. Her mother had loved parakeets and morning glories. Her mother had hated her. How those things went together Marla did not know. She left at sixteen. My feet ached from listening.
“And her father,” said Marla, looking out at Lane. “Her father was a Methodist. And his father was a minister. I mean”—she took a sip of her beer—“that says all kinds of things about me, doesn’t it? I’ve never been to therapy. But damn.”
“I’m really proud of you,” I said, because this was a thing I said to people when I thought they needed to hear it.
“For everything,” I said. “You seem to have your shit together.”
“Well, thanks. You know. It comes and goes.” Marla didn’t look at me but pulled out some of her hair that was tangled in that ecru scarf I’d come to know she loved. I suspected I’d told her something she didn’t hear often. “Thanks for saying that.”
We went outside and Marla sat in the grass. I gave Lane more lessons with her hoop. She could now do four full rotations, and when she was done she’d look up at me with great pride and esteem.
“What lashes you have,” I said. “I bet everyone tells you that.”
“Not everyone,” said Lane.
She explained to me the mechanics of what we were doing, the anatomy. Where the hoop needs to hit you on the hip, when and why. When you must move your hips, how you must think of it, pushing your feet into the ground. She loved to explain things to me, as though it was the first time. It was the first time. Maybe Marla had heard it before.
“How is she so smart?” I asked Marla.
“Didn’t get it from me,” Marla said.
I drove home late and slept most of Sunday and hated myself for it. I decided I would take Monday off to do my own work at home. It was the only way. But I felt I—how do I say it—was doing something important. They needed me there, each for her own reasons, and now we’d started what we’d started.
I went to Marla and Lane’s for that October of Saturdays. Each time for the length of the day. If I missed breakfast and did not stay for martinis, the ritual was not complete. I was losing the only day a week I had to myself, but I couldn’t stop what was happening. On the fourth Saturday there was a fair. We bought seeds for cucumbers, squash, and roses, and kettle popcorn, honey from local bees. Lane had her face painted and was given a rainbow pinwheel. On the way back, we opened all the windows of Marla’s car. Lane shouted, “Save the bees!” and Marla and I shouted “Save the bees!” and Lane explained everything there was to explain about the bees. And Lane explained everything there was to explain about the Spanish Sun rose.
She fell asleep in Marla’s lap while we had our martinis on the porch, and when Marla woke her to go inside and climb into her own bed, she said, “Love you,” and Marla and I said, “Love you too.”
“Oh god,” said Marla, with a grin, taking a big drink from her glass, “we’re really in it. We are in it. Aren’t we?” she said. “Yes, we are,” I said.
On Saturday I drove to Marla and Lane. I knew the way so well I could feel the turns before they came. I’d be thirty-eight next week. I missed my own house, my yard with the trembling swing and wild veronica. Even more, I missed the book I was writing. I hadn’t even told them about it. I was inching closer to an ending. Something taking shape in the pages that I persisted in. I missed it, yet drove away from it. There were many things to do on a Saturday, and here I was, choosing only one.
I was early. Ready to start the day early to end it early. Before I entered, I could hear them talking in the kitchen, through the screen door. I stopped on the steps.
“God, I’m tired,” said Marla. “These Saturdays.”
“Saturday Saturday Saturday,” sang Lane.
“And frankly I never want to eat biscuits again.”
“But you know her,” said Lane. “You know how she thinks of us.”
“Yes,” said Marla.
“We’re what she has. All she has,” said Lane.
“I know,” said Marla.
“I need to pick blackberries for tonight,” Marla said. “Let’s go outside. You can help me.”
But Lane went on, talking. Marla was asking again that Lane help her with the berries when I opened the screen door and walked in. Marla let out a little noise.
“Oh oh,” said Lane.
“It isn’t true,” I said.
Lane looked down at the floor and swiveled nervously in her barstool.
“I’m sorry,” said Marla. “God, I’m sorry.” She squeezed the dishtowel she had in her hands, then laid it down in the sink and looked at it. “We’re awful. I feel awful.”
“It isn’t even true,” I said. “You know that, don’t you?” I looked at Lane. “You know that?”
And I explained to them. I explained to them what I had. Lane did not pick up her hoop. Marla did not pick blackberries. I explained to them everything I had until it was early morning and time for me to drive home to all I had in the dark.
OLIVIA CLARE is the author of the short story collection, Disasters in the First World, from Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, and her novel is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. She is also the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day (New Issues). Her awards include a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award (in fiction), the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University (in poetry), a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a 2014 O. Henry Prize.