My mom got the mink from a woman who used to be a man. It was a long thick coat that came almost to her knees, and when she wore it she looked half her usual size and not her age, like a little girl wearing something her parents said she’d grow into. Its fur was white and shot with umber streaks. The streaks turned lighter at their edges, broken up with white like streaks of dry-brushed watercolor. Then, I knew all about dry-brush watercolor because I was into Andrew Wyeth. I’d committed acts of passion while staring at a book of The Helga Pictures, which I’d had to steal from the library because I was sixteen and lonely, and all the desire and shame and the layers of desire, of which I’ve only recently become aware — Wyeth’s desire for Helga, my desire for Helga, my desire for Wyeth’s desire for Helga — had warped my brain, so that my imagination tried to turn half the things I saw into his paintings. But this is beside the point. This time, the coat really did look like that.
And my mom was already thirty-five and wouldn’t grow into anything, which made the coat look sad rather than hopeful. But I grew all the time, so much that sometimes I couldn’t remember what I’d looked like the month before. Walking with her, thinking this, I didn’t even notice the guy coming towards us until he darted past me. He wore ratty clothes, like a bum, but had the clean young face of a college student. Before I could figure out what was happening he threw a cup of soda at her. “Death is not fashion,” he yelled, and ran through the leafless clusters of elms and across the long stretch of grass towards the road. I yelled out, “Fuck you,” and my mom acted more upset about this than his throwing the drink. She said, “Why do you have to use that kind of language?” And I said, “It’s just a word.” Just a word, she said in her ironic voice. She flipped up the edge of her mink, the part stained with soda, and gave this trembling frown, like she was trying not to cry.
“Take it off and take mine,” I said. “It looks weird on you anyway and the spot’s gonna make you crazy.”
What I meant was that she had OCD and usually couldn’t stand wearing clothes with even the smallest stain on them. But she just wrapped the mink tighter around her waist and glared at me.
To soften her, I said, “You look nice,” which must have sounded stupid coming from me because I never said things like that to my mother. But she did look nice, if you didn’t count the fur. Beneath it she wore a fitted black dress, and her hair, usually pulled back in a ponytail, hung in dark waves around her face. She looked better than most women her age, like one of those thirty-five-year old women who look like only slightly rumpled versions of their twenty-five-year-old selves. The guys on my soccer team said, “How can you stand your mom looking so hot?” And I said, “The way you stand looking at your ass-face in the mirror.” Inside I felt proud and sick at the same time.
* * *
We were in Connecticut, walking through this big green square in the middle of the town Charlene had moved to, going to the church where Charlene’s funeral would be held. We had come all the way from South Carolina, even though Mom hadn’t talked to Charlene in nearly a year. In addition to paying her respects, Mom also meant to represent Charlene’s great uncle, a sickly old guy from our church, who couldn’t travel. My father was an elder at the church and got out of going because this other elder was in critical condition at the hospital. So I had to go so my mom wouldn’t be alone.
The sky was dirty white with only a tinge of blue. As we walked, I could see my breath in the air and feel the frosted-over grass crunch beneath my feet whenever I wandered off the pavement. Earlier that morning, while I was waiting in the lobby for my mom to finish getting ready, I’d read the front of the paper in the paper-box and saw something up in the corner about an animal rights protest today, on the green. And there they were: way far in the distance a group of people carrying huge signs with pictures of cows and chickens and rabbits that read “Compassion,” and buzzing with words I couldn’t make out. They faced the other direction and the whole time we walked by I prayed in my head that none of them would turn, or stray from the group like their friend had, and see my mom’s coat, the soda-stained fur of which had already begun to smell doggish. I put my arm in hers to hurry her along and she gave me this startled look, probably thinking I’d decided to be a gentleman. As we walked she went limp and leaned into my shoulder. She let me lead her along until her heel got caught in a ridge in the sidewalk, and then she pulled away and wiggled her tiny foot back in her shoe. She looked up at me like I’d tripped her and made a sour face. “You’re not wearing a tie,” she snapped. I hadn’t been wearing it the whole time – not since the cab or the hotel – but she hadn’t said a word about it.
“You didn’t say to wear it.”
“I didn’t say to wear your loafers, Conner. I didn’t say to brush your teeth or put on your deodorant. It’s a funeral.”
“I didn’t. I didn’t put on my deodorant.”
Then we walked not touching. The church was in the center of the green. It had a huge steeple that climbed far above all of the tree tops, long white columns, and carvings around a pair of doors more than twice my height. Inside, organ pipes ran all along the top of the rear wall. There were two chandeliers, one of them dripping with crystals, and stained glassed windows with pictures of pilgrim-looking people in blue and purple and gold robes, their faces pale with light. The pews didn’t look full, but they didn’t look empty either. We sat in the middle, where you could just see the top of the closed casket and the violet and white flowers spilling over it. My mom draped her mink over the top of our pew so that the stained part faced the opposite direction, and stroked a clean patch of its fur, like it was still alive. When the organ started up I felt the vibrations of its notes through my feet and I saw that my mom had changed – that the skin beneath her eyes looked papery, with nets of purple veins stretching just beneath the surface. A shiver went up my spine and I felt all spiritual and corny. Sweat began to trickle down my armpits and I wished I hadn’t forgotten the deodorant.
In the hotel my mom had told me that Charlene attended this church. But this church looked nothing like the church she went to with us in South Carolina. There, we sat in foldout chairs, in a messy circle. We didn’t have a preacher because it was a liberal kind of church my father founded. Everyone just stood up and said things or read things from the Bible, whatever they wanted. No organ. No stained glass. No chandeliers. No robes like the preacher who now fumbled at the altar with his papers wore, because my Dad thought fancy churches and organs and robes tricked people. “Pretentious ceremonial garb,” he called it.
I kept looking around me, trying to find the other people pretending to be a sex they weren’t. Imagining them everywhere, men trying to trick me into thinking they were women, and women pretending to be men, I hadn’t even been able to sleep on the plane. But the people around us looked normal enough, just somber looking people in funeral clothes. “Does Charlene stand for Charles?” I asked Mom.
“That’s a very rude question.”
“This is one of my closest friends, do you understand?” She kept changing on me. Now pink rimmed her eyes and her pale skin looked drained to the color of bone. Andrew Wyeth could have really made something of her.
“You haven’t even talked to her in forever.”
No answer. The organ paused and started up again. The sound went up inside of me and I tried to push it out but I couldn’t and I thought that my father was right: I was being tricked into something. Was the Charlene wearing a suit or dress inside her coffin? When I whispered this to my mom, she asked if I’d please wait for her outside. It wasn’t really a question, though I think she’d have let me stay if I promised to behave. But I wanted to smoke anyway, so I just did what she said. I figured I’d make it up to her later.
Outside I stood on the cement steps and lit a clove. I’d bought them from one of the church kids who had his own car. My mom hated that I smoked, but she couldn’t do much about it except put pamphlets with pictures of black abscessed lungs on my desk and throw my packs away if she found them in my pockets when she did the laundry. Holding a clove, I felt philosophical. The trail of smoke resembled the life process. It started very small, just like humans started, and then it got fatter and less defined, like most of my older relatives, and then it just disappeared. Poof. Of course Charlene had not gotten fatter and less defined but thinner. She was anorexic. It had something to do with her dying. Maybe because she was so tall, plus really a man, she could only get smaller like a woman by narrowing herself.
Standing there, the cement was freezing my feet but also stimulating my thoughts. I thought how warm and beautiful and perfect it was in Charlene’s church and wondered how it must have felt to go there every Sunday and feel the vibrations of the music against the soles of your feet. I could go back in but what was the point? At home I’d have to keep going to my parents’ church, where I always felt edgy or confused or just bored.
Even though no one could hear me I used some profanity and pictured my mother, how much it would piss her off.
* * *
Even before she moved, Charlene had stopped coming to our house because of how I glared at her. When she and my mom sat at the dinner table sipping coffee, I brought my schoolwork into the living room — just outside the line where the living room stopped and the dining room began — so I could lie on the floor and stare until she looked over. When she did, I glared at her. She would start stirring her coffee and moving her hands faster than usual, feathering her crunchy blonde hair. She would cross and uncross her legs, which bugged me because they looked like a real woman’s legs, and made an excuse to go. My Mom never noticed me glaring because talking to Charlene made her all dreamy and reflective; she thought everything Charlene said was wise. Like when my Mom got mad at me for swearing, Charlene would say, It’s OK, June, it’s just an assertion of his masculinity, and smile in this knowing way that made my Mom laugh.
The last time she came over I followed her to the bathroom. In the hall, I said, “I saw you in my Mom’s room that time. Messing with her stuff.” What she knew I meant was that I’d once seen her try on one of my mother’s dresses when she thought she had my mother’s room to herself. It was during a dinner party. Her gaunt face, all broad bones and deep hollows and wide raisin-colored lips, fell in on itself, and just as quickly turned up into this tight smile. She said, “How?” And I said, “How what?” And she said if what I said actually happened, then how did I see it?
“Through the window.” Not quite the truth.
“Oh, I see. This is your idea of a joke, Conner? Because the party didn’t start until seven-thirty. Your mother would have closed the blinds by then.” This was true. The blinds went up at seven every morning, and down at seven in the evening, no matter the season, or what it looked like outside. I was screwed – I didn’t want to explain how I’d really seen her – and I didn’t know what else to say. I just stood there. She raised her eyebrows like she’d said something smart and slammed the bathroom door behind her.
The smell of her perfume stayed in the hall. She wore White Shoulders, like my great-aunt Martha, who’s about a hundred years old and wears her overcoat inside, even in the middle of summer.
* * *
I don’t know when exactly she gave my mom the mink, but I can guess. Mom went out twice, alone, the week before Charlene moved, and then, a few days later, I heard my dad complaining in my parents’ bedroom, “It takes up half the closet, June.” When I wandered in he was standing in his boxers and glaring into the closet, at the mink wrapped in plastic. My mom sat at the dresser brushing her hair. “Don’t you see how my suits are getting mussed by it, June? Will you just turn around for a minute?”
* * *
Probably Charlene died thinking I was a jerk, but she did creep me out, and I did have a lot going on then. For example, I had hard-ons ten or twelve times a day. I’d either just jerked off or needed to jerk off, or hoped at least a few hours would pass before I had to jerk off again. I disgusted myself. Yet being me had become significantly more interesting. Where I once sat in my room bored, playing computer games or drawing, I could now look at a picture of Helga and fell entertained.
As I said, I do not approve of stealing. It’s just that my mom took me to the library sometimes, and while she looked for biographies I looked at art books. You see a lot of naked women in the art books, but none of them look quite like Helga. There’s this one picture where she’s got her arms folded beneath her breasts and one breast hangs over her hand while the nipple of the other presses into the other hand; and you don’t get this — this sense of the weight of it, the breast, I mean — in most of the other art books. And then, because there are all these watercolors and sketches that Wyeth did of her before the major paintings, you’ve got this ghost Helga. The ghost Helga is slippery, like maybe she’s lying in space with nothing beneath her, or maybe she disappears halfway across the page, into a patch of fleshy watercolor; but too there’s her breasts with the shadows beneath them, and her belly poking out, round and smooth.
You can almost feel it, the weight of that breast on her hand.
In one painting there is only Helga’s body in a field of soft black. Her hair is golden, her body all white, as if glowing from the inside, the faintest blush on her lips and cheeks. Her hair curls against her bare shoulder. Her face is turned away from you. Around her neck she wears a cord of black velvet that disappears into the black around her. Also you can see her pubes.
And so I put it in my satchel, the book. We walked out of the library and the alarm went off, but the library clerk figured she hadn’t desensitized my mom’s books correctly. If I’d have gotten caught I had an excuse planned: one of the weird unemployed overweight bald guys in the magazine section had put the book in my bag. My mom would believe this. “Stay away from those men,” she always said to me.
But I didn’t get caught. I didn’t even feel that bad, honestly. Honestly I blamed Mom for my stealing Helga. Half of me wanted that alarm to go off, just to see her face when they took the book out of my bag. Just to see her flip through the pages.
Understand that because she home-schooled me, my exposure to real women was seriously limited. I saw women only at church. Though, like I said, we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked. You couldn’t imagine any of them going off with Andrew Wyeth, alone into the woods. You couldn’t even imagine wanting to take one into the woods. But there were exceptions, which only created more problems for me: Mrs. Kapawski, Ally Kapawski, and Charlene (if you consider her a woman). Mrs. Kapawski was all blonde and powdery and flushed pink in her cheeks. She had big breasts that kind of bounced when she walked and I wondered if Ally would grow them too. Ally looked like her except thin, fourteen, with darker blonde hair the color of Helga’s and eyes almost always dilated like someone was shining a flashlight in her face. The face itself looked perpetually snobby, bored. Looking at it made me wild with desire, almost as much as looking at Helga did.
I watched Ally all during service, the congregation’s words just noise, my heart racing almost as fast as it did at soccer practice. Sometimes I even tried to draw her on my devotional pamphlet, though the drawing never looked right, with the top of her head always trailing off the page. Afterwards, while the adults had their coffee, I ran around with the other boys, in and out of the building around the parking lot. We ran and yelled like the whole place was a soccer field, but I never forgot she might be watching. Out on the lawn, she had her own thing going on. She made up plays for the other girls to act in. If you went close enough to hear the basic plot, you’d hear something about a suicide, or an affair. Apparently Mrs. Kapawski watched the soaps. Anyway, Ally did most of the acting, throwing out her arms and fake weeping (it was the only time she looked fully awake) and the other girls circled around her, pretending to be sisters and maids, whatever. I made a habit of charging through the circle of girls whenever I saw a gap. Just running through to whoosh right past Ally while she acted. Running so close that the breeze I made ruffled her blonde hair. The other girls yelled at me. But except for flinching, Ally didn’t even acknowledge me. Probably she didn’t even like it.
But like I said, I was home-schooled. Home-schooling elevated my maturity in some ways, like making me read above the level of most kids my age, but it also made me socially retarded. For example, one Sunday, when Ally looked really pretty in this mint-green sundress, I said, “Kind of stupid to wear a dress like that today, huh?” Because it was forty degrees outside and on the cusp of fall. “I mean, you must have wanted to wear it really badly to wear it today?” She rolled her eyes at me. Right after, Mrs. Kapawski came up beside her. She said she needed Ally to get her hand lotion from the car. I figured I’d follow her. I didn’t have anything else to do anyway.
It was cloudy and gray that morning, but also gold. The gold shot through the gray and then it went away, reappeared in another part of the sky. This hill rose up against one side of the parking lot and from where I stood it framed Ally. The grass was dying, so the hill had different shades of brown and yellow in it, with a few bits of green. It could’ve been a Wyeth, except for all the stupid SUVs, and that Ally’s dress looked too bright and new for a woman’s in a Wyeth painting. I caught up to her; she cocked her head to look up at me, and then just faced straight ahead, like she didn’t care. I followed her to her family’s car where she rifled through a bunch of junk in the back seat – who’d have thought Mrs. Kapawski, her hair always in place and her outfits so smooth and clean – would turn out such a slob with empty drink cans and dirty sweaters and wrappers all over her floorboard? When Ally leaned into the passenger seat I pressed my side against hers and edged her in further and she just let me, though she gave me this What the hell are you doing? look. I sat there for a minute staring straight ahead and said, “I wish we could just stay in here.”
“We can’t stay in here.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why I said wish.” For no reason I pushed down the headrest on the seat in front of me and it gave a loud click. “You never have any guys in your plays,” I said. “In a real play people have to kiss.” Why?, she said.
“Haven’t you read ‘Romeo and Juliet’?” It’s like, the most famous play ever, and all about kissing. They aren’t supposed to kiss, cause their families wouldn’t approve, but they sneak away where no one can see them and, you know–”
“–I saw the movie. It’s OK with me.”
“OK to play it. I’m Juliet and you’re–”
So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next (it was my first kiss, except for when my Mom made me kiss Aunt Martha on the cheek and she turned her head really quick to make me kiss her lips instead) and then I got out of the car. She followed. She forgot the lotion. Of course Mrs. Kapawski noticed this, and also the fact we’d come in from the parking lot together. After that, whenever I tried to be alone around Ally at church, Mrs. Kapawski came up and stood beside us. Her standing there made me feel like a creep, so that for a while I stopped hanging around Ally altogether.
Finally, one Sunday, the solution hit me. I walked over during one of Ally’s plays and asked to join. She shrugged and looked over at her Mom, standing in front of the building. Mrs. Kapawski was watching, but she didn’t seem to care, I guess because of all the other girls around us. That was how I met Charlene. None of the other adults came out on the lawn – so long as they could see us from the lobby windows they didn’t care what we did – but Charlene just wandered over that day and stood there.
Ally sat on the grass. In her hand she had an old film canister (probably from the pile of trash in her mother’s car’s floorboard), and pretended to pour pills out of it and lift them towards her mouth. I was the butler. This meant I got to stand close to her and pretend to be in her bedroom alone with her. I was supposed to interrupt her suicide to ask if she wanted tea. “Tea, ma’m?” I said. And Ally made a big show of hurriedly pouring the pills back into the canister. She put her fingers to her temples and grimaced. And then, in a calm polite voice, said, “Of course, Miles.”
That was the end of it. Charlene applauded, but Ally and the other girls didn’t notice because it wasn’t a real clap. Just Charlene’s two big hands fluttering quietly against one another. She’d come that morning with Mr. Harris, her great uncle, an old stooped guy who always kept singing hymns a line or two after the rest of the church had finished. During service he’d leaned over and shouted in her ear, “You brought my mints?” She was very tall, all lines and edges, and her face, with its rough skin and crow’s feet and dark-mooned eyes, looked worn. Kind of haggard. Her leather skirt and stilettos looked flashy compared to the other churchwomen’s clothes, but I figured she dressed like that to make up for her face, like some of the tiny wrinkled old ladies who wore new floral dresses each Sunday, or like the fat women who wore clunky jewelry and embroidered shirts.
She saw me notice her applauding, and winked. The girls had already started planning another play by the time she loped back towards the building.
So I had the problem of Ally – a girl I loved but could never be alone with – and then, for no reason, I ran into my room one day and tried to hurdle my desk chair. Instead of hurdling it, my legs got tangled in the top of it and I went down and fell on my knee this weird way, so it hurt whenever I bent it and the doctor said I had to sit out the season for soccer.
Then I didn’t even get to leave the house in the afternoon, unless I went with my mother to the Organic Foods store or Vitawise where she got all the chalky Green Tea and fish oil capsules she made me swallow in the morning. Or hung out with the other home-schooled kids in our network, who were socially retarded, with bad haircuts and board game obsessions. If my Mom saw me “just sitting around” she gave me housework, like re-papering all the drawers in the kitchen even though the old paper looked fine, and mixing vinegary homemade cleaning agents (which at least counted towards my Chemistry requirement). Sometimes, if my Dad stayed at work late, I just sat in the bathroom, on the rug, squishing bath beads over the shower drain and smelling the lavender. She hated me yelling stuff out about bodily functions – which I did if she came knocking- – so she usually left me alone. I started hiding Helga in the guest towels and spending a lot of time there. For any amount of time I could study her body white against the black. The weight of her breast against her hand. Her half-drawn and vanishing into the white of the paper. She looked more real than real life. Always alone but also not alone, because the pictures were so full of want. Sometimes I didn’t know where Wyeth’s want ended and mine began.
Then, one night, I walked by my Mom and Dad’s bedroom and heard my father tell my mother “For so long I’ve thought, I’ll go through the motions and the faith will return.” Pause. “But I don’t feel anything, Carol.” Then my mother said, “Conner is probably still up, Jim,” and they lowered their voices. Just the evening before, he’d led a prayer at church and I wondered if the prayer still counted for the rest of us if it didn’t count for him.
Next thing I knew my Dad was gone all the time helping poor people get their electricity turned back on, or visiting people in the hospital or working at the soup kitchen downtown. Which you’d think would be the opposite kind of behavior of someone who didn’t feel anything about God. Half the time he came home after Mom and I had eaten dinner, and she had to warm his plate. If I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom I found him asleep in front of the TV.
Around that time Charlene showed up. The more my dad stayed out the more she started coming over. At least when she came over my mom forgot about bothering me. Sometimes, from the kitchen, I watched them sitting there on the couch. Mostly they talked on and on, but once I found them just sitting there in silence, staring straight ahead, the afternoon light from the window flecking the mugs in their hands and their laps with gold. I didn’t get the point of them sitting quiet like that. They might as well have been alone.
* * *
It pissed me off that she thought she was wise. It’s OK, June. It’s just an assertion of his masculinity. Your husband isn’t avoiding you. He’s avoiding himself. No, I don’t think you should get layers; your hair is too fine-textured. When she first came to the house for coffee with my Mom, I lay by the fireplace with my drawing board propped against the ledge there. She kneeled down and said, “What are you drawing?” in a voice that reminded me of sandpaper. She wore a short plaid skirt that made her legs look too long and a shiny blouse that rustled a little when she moved her arm.
I told her I wasn’t drawing anything particular. Just moving my pencil around to see what happened. This seemed to make her happy.
“I do that too. I love to draw all the time.” She brushed some of the stiff blonde curls from her cheek the way normal women do. “But you know most people stop when they get older. So it’s important you continue to draw.”
“For how long?” I got her point; I just wanted to be a smart ass.
“Well. As long as you live.”
“What if my hands get mangled in an accident?”
She looked at me in this concerned way, like I might have mental problems. The negative effects of homeschooling.
Then Mom called her over into the dining room, where they had coffee and talked about how they were both reading the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. They said what a coincidence this was, as the book had been out for “quite sometime,” and they’d both started reading it on practically the same day. See, my mother read biographies all the time, and apparently Charlene did too (though you’d think a someone like her would have more exciting things to do, like go to transvestite clubs).
“Can you believe this part about her taking his material?” Mom said, putting finger quotes over “taking.”
“As if a shared experience could belong more to one person than another,” said Charlene, grinning. “It’s an adolescent viewpoint.”
“But I understand the financial aspect of the situation. In a way, his viewpoint was worth more than hers.”
“But I don’t think it was about the money, June. No one wants to see his subject walk over to the easel and take up the paints, if you know what I mean.”
Mom got all moon-eyed at this, like she thought Charlene spit diamonds. I thought I might throw up.
Then they started talking about their diaries. They called themselves “diarists.”
“I’ve never met another true diarist,” my mother said.
First I thought, WHAT IN THE WORLD did my mother have to put in a diary? All she did was give me assignments, wander around the house wiping things down, drink Green Tea, and go to stores. She never said anything to me about a diary; then Charlene’s here thirty minutes and my mom is Anne Frank.
The next time Charlene came and brought “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Before she put the DVD in the player, my mother said, “This is my favorite movie.” She’d never mentioned this before either. While they watched the movie and held their little bowls of popcorn I rifled through my mother’s bedside drawer and found the diary. It was a suede-covered book with unlined pages. Scared of what I might find, but also crazy with curiosity, I scanned the pages as fast as I could. But it didn’t say anything. Just her schedule. Walked this morning. Road wet from last night’s rain. Conner continuing to struggle with geometry. Mike at soup kitchen again after work. Salmon and almond rice for dinner. Phoned Aunt Martha. Finished Jimmy Carter book.
It went on like that for a bunch of pages. The most boring diary you could imagine. But then I saw her start saying C. instead of Conner. Then I realized C. didn’t stand for Conner.
…Had tea with C….
…Read the Hughes biography with C….
For her latest entry, she hadn’t written her schedule. She wrote only: C. says that to accept your own malleability is the beginning of faith.
There was nothing about me that day. Not even Dad. She’d kept up with our stupid schedules for months and months, and then stopped, just to put in some of Charlene’s bullshit.
It made me so mad I started shaking. I slammed it back in the drawer the wrong side up (which is probably why she ended up moving it somewhere else), and went to my room to find a clean notebook. I would start my own diary and not mention her once. “Snobby gray eyes,” I wrote. Crossed out. Then, “I hate Charlene.” Then “shit” twice. I couldn’t stand it. Suddenly I hated the whole idea of diaries and ripped up the page into tiny little pieces.
In the living room, they’d finished the movie. Charlene had my board with the sketch paper in her lap. She was showing off, drawing my mother. My mother sat very still and looked past Charlene, while Charlene’s eyes flicked over her face, down at the page, over her face again. She had big long hands and made short rapid strokes and I wondered what it would feel like to draw a person like that, like your hand knew without a doubt what to do. I walked past them without saying anything, and discreetly as possible glanced over to see my mother on the page, her slender nose and Chinese eyes and bangs falling over her forehead. Charlene’s big hand, with its French manicure, danced all over the page, all over my Mom’s face. I went on into the kitchen. In the kitchen I drank really fast from a can of root beer. Passing back through the living room, I let out a great loud burp. Both of them stared at me. My Mom glared but I pretended not to notice as I walked right through. “You’re no Helga,” I wanted to shout at her. But then I’d have had to explain myself.
* * *
How did I figure out Charlene was a man? It just hit me – that’s the funny thing. One day I saw her at our dining room table sipping her coffee in the little china cups my mom set out for them, and maybe the light hit her wrong, or maybe she put her makeup on wrong that day, or maybe it had to do with her sandpapery laugh or the way she touched my mother’s wrist when they talked about their book.
“She’s a man, isn’t she? Like a drag queen?” I asked my Mom that evening. We did, after all, have cable television.
My father cleared his throat. “Well, not exactly,” he began. Though he didn’t see Charlene much, as she usually came in the late afternoon when he volunteered at places, I could tell he didn’t warm up to her like he warmed up to most people, patting their shoulders and grinning with his eyes lit up. “Well –” he started again. You never noticed how big he was until he started getting flustered and messing with his facial hair. “She’s in a transitional phase. Technically she’s –”
My Mom cut in, ” – You’re not to say anything like that around her, Conner. Understand?”
“I’m not an IDIOT. I know you don’t go up to some man dressed like a woman and ask ARE YOU A MAN? EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT.” She flinched, and I lowered my voice. “I just want to know if she’s a man.”
“Yes,” Dad said. “Don’t raise your voice at your mother.” He looked down and picked at his beard. We ate in silence like that for about five minutes, and then everyone began talking like normal again, each describing our boring days.
If my Mom knew what Charlene had done in her room — hold her earrings up to her ears, spray her perfume on her wrist, emerge from her closet wearing the lacey black dress she wore to holiday parties, and then gone back to the dining room like nothing had happened – would my mother be sitting in the church now, carrying around that stupid coat? Would I be standing in a strange town freezing my ass off? I’d thought about telling her a thousand times but the thought of saying the words made it seem more real, less like a bad dream.
The more I thought about it, the more impatient I got waiting for Charlene’s funeral to end. I decided to take a walk. I went down the steps and back onto the sidewalk. The animal rights people were still there, but further down the green, sitting on blankets while some guy paced and lectured. A couple of college-aged kids were in a park bench on the other side of the sidewalk, making out. But when the woman brought her face away from the man’s you could see they must have been almost fifty, just dressed like college kids with faded jeans and Birkenstocks clogs and J-Crew sweaters. At the end of the sidewalk, the main road. Buildings with columns and arches that looked hundreds of years old and nothing like the vinyl shacks that popped up over night in my town. Across the street I saw a string of shops with brick walls. A cafe. I wanted to go in the cafe and buy a frappuccino but didn’t know if I had time. Probably my Mom would get pissed if she came out of the funeral and didn’t see me, but so what.
* * *
When I opened the door to the coffee shop the warm air and smell of fried things made me feel sick, like someone breathing through his mouth in my face. The coffee shop wasn’t the kind of place that sold frappuccinos and had bands and poetry readings, but rather like an old person’s coffee shop, where people ate bacon. A foreign-looking middle-aged man sat on a stool behind the counter with a laptop computer. I fake-coughed so he’d look up.
“Yes?” He didn’t have an accent, which disappointed me. I asked him for a frappuccino, just to see if they had them after all. They didn’t, so I asked for a plain coffee.
“It’ll stunt your growth.” He laughed hard; I was already five ten.
“I’ll chance it.” It sounded like a pretty good comeback to me.
“Who died?” he said, raising his bushy eyebrows at my black blazer. He poured the coffee into a white mug that needed to go through the dishwasher again.
“My Mom’s friend Charlene. She was a guy who wanted to be a woman. Probably his name was Charles before he started dressing like a woman.”
The man frowned. “What?” I’d offered too much information too soon. The negative effects of homeschooling.
“Nevermind.” How come nobody else is here?”
The man shrugged his shoulders.
Windows made up one whole wall of the place, so I sat by that wall, facing the street. Cars zipped up and down the street, but there were no actual bodies – no one on either side of the sidewalk. It was like me and the restaurant man were entirely alone in the world. For a minute I imagined this scenario where we really had gotten separated from the rest of the world and could only communicate with it through the Internet on his laptop. He made me cook and clean the restaurant in exchange for Internet time.
He kept typing on his laptop, not looking up. He hadn’t charged me for the coffee. In my head I named him Archibald, and in my head we conversed. “You have a secret, don’t you?” Archibald said. I told him about Charlene in my mother’s room. Archibald was appalled. He rubbed his tan forehead and slammed down the screen of the laptop. “But why haven’t you told your mother all this time?” Archibald said. I drank some burnt coffee from my dirty mug and got reflective. I lit a clove even though I knew it wasn’t allowed. Archibald didn’t tell me to stop. It was really hot in the restaurant but my wet underarms definitely needed the cover of my jacket. “It’s complicated,” I told him. I started explaining about the dinner party my mom had had before Charlene left.
A lot of families from church came, including the Kapawskis and Charlene. It was only a month after I’d kissed Ally and acted in her play, and when I saw her walk through the door in this fuzzy white sweater I had to look away to make my heart stop rushing. Charlene came in behind her, wearing the fur coat my mother would three weeks later come in wearing, saying Charlene had to move for a job (“What job?” I’d ask Mom then. But she would change the subject). Mom and Mrs. Kapawski made a big deal over the coat, oohing and ahhing. They rubbed the fur on Charlene’s arm. “Is this real mink?” And blah blah blah. Charlene: “My mother bought me this coat before, she died. It’s my favorite. It’s just getting cold enough to wear it,” blah blah blah. In my head I got a picture of this shriveled old lady in a low-lit room smelling of death, in bed hugging a big wrapped box. “Go on, be a woman. I’m OK with it now,” she said and passed the box to Charlene.
Like any other party, the kids finished eating my Mom’s lasagna in ten minutes, while the adults had only got started gorging themselves. Some of the teenagers played outside, at my basketball goal, and the Brenner twins let themselves into my room and started messing around with my computer. Everyone assumed Ally and I were playing with the others, but actually we went to my Mom and Dad’s room. My Mom already had the door shut so I knew no one would think anything about me taking her in and shutting the door behind us. I said, “Want to sit on the bed?” And she said, “I don’t care.” So we did. I’d rather have taken her to my own room, to show her this half-way decent picture I’d sketched of the back of her head during church, and maybe get her to pose for me. But, anyway, because I knew the Brenner twins would run to their Mom crying if I forced them out of my room, we had to hang out in my parents room with its beige walls, and beige bedspread, and pictures that didn’t jump out at you, like the kind you buy in department stores. At least it was perfectly clean. My room kind of smelled like feet.
When we sat on the bed, we could see ourselves in the dresser mirror. I’d have laughed at this but she stayed serious, with her face blank, her arms folded in her lap. In the mirror I looked like a freak: My arms and legs had suddenly shot out half a foot that year and my clothes didn’t fit right, no matter how often my Mom got me new ones. I had some hair on my face but it grew in a patchy way. Actually, I had patches of hair all over my body in new places, like on my toes and ankles, in other places too. Did I smell like my bedroom? Did she notice how gross I was? A hairy chronic masturbator.
Because she looked beautiful. She wore a fuzzy white sweater. Her pale hair that usually hung limp against her head had static in it, rising up like a halo, and when I put my sweater sleeve against it strands of it stuck to me. She didn’t seem to mind. I put my face close to hers and let my eyes flick over to the mirror to watch it happening. Her smooth pale skin looked brand new. You could see the little blue veins beneath her eyes. You could imagine all the blood rushing through them while she sat there still. Helga had nothing on Ally sitting on my parents’ bed with static in her hair.
She leaned away then, just a little (I saw it first in the mirror), and said, “You can’t kiss me for real unless we’re going to get married.” She said it nonchalantly, like she might need to go to the bathroom.
“You want me to play like we’re married?” She shook her head. “You mean, like, really married?” She nodded. “But people don’t get married just to kiss,” I said.
“If they want to kiss me they do.”
I watched us in the mirror, a snobby-faced girl in a white sweater with static hair. A dark gangly boy in navy blue wool. I thought of the movie I’d seen on cable last year, about a rich man always trying to impress his cold beautiful wife. Probably it would be like that for us. We’d marry and I’d sell all my nude drawings of her to buy her stables and a Jacuzzi, a big mansion. She’d just roll her eyes. I’d build her a big greenhouse in the yard with every kind of tropical flower in it, to burn-your-eyes orange, and blood red, and rich weepy blue with a bunch of workers tending the flowers, like a little city. A fountain that poured into a pool you could swim in. With fish if that didn’t gross her out. But her face would stay slack and indifferent. My beautiful frigid wife. Like the man in the movie, I’d keep trying to impress her while she kept being frigid. Secretly she would hate me because I couldn’t stand for her to kiss other men and wouldn’t let her be an actress. Then, just like the woman in the movie, she’d kill me by throwing a plugged-in toaster into our Jacuzzi while I lay in there asleep. “I never liked his drawings,” she’d say on TV, after my death.
“OK. I’ll marry you,” I told her.
“You’re not just saying it to kiss me?”
“No. I swear.” I leaned my shoulder against hers. “You smell like baby powder.”
“It’s not baby powder. It’s perfume that smells like baby powder.”
“That’s stupid.” I said, and was instantly sorry. Ally moved her shoulder away. We looked sadder in the mirror but I would not let the sadness have me. I threw my arms around her and she didn’t fight me. I put my tense lips on her soft calm ones. First I kept my eyes closed but then I opened them for a minute. She must’ve had hers open the whole time – snobby gray eyes wide and unseeing, like a blind person’s. Something was wrong with her, something I couldn’t put to words. I wanted to protect her from it.
Then I heard a warning sound: the loose floorboard in the hall that creaked when you walked across it. We got off the bed, me yanking her arm in the direction of the master bathroom. The doorknob rattled. When Charlene came in, Ally already sat against the wall, by the tub, not looking worried but simply waiting like you might wait in a dentist’s office. Maybe she made up plays all the time in her head when she wasn’t acting. But my heart was exploding. I was sweating, looking out from the crack in the door.
My parent’s room is shaped like an electrical cord socket, a big square that narrowly jutts out on one side, like a prong. My Mom and Dad’s closets are in the prong part, the bathroom on the opposite side, on the other side of the wall from the dresser. The bathroom’s French doors have little bumpers at the top and bottom so they don’t knock, which leaves a decent-sized gap running between them.
I saw Charlene from the side, staring at herself in the mirror because she stood far enough back from it. Most of her disappeared from view, then reappeared holding a dangly pair of my Mom’s earrings – frankly they looked like fish tackles – to her big man ears. Then she sprayed her wrists with my Mom’s perfume. She did it weirdly, by spraying the perfume into the air and then running her wrists through it. Then she went over, into the walk-in closet. Of course I couldn’t see into the closet; I saw only that she emerged from it in my Mom’s holiday dress. The lace pulled around her wide bony shoulders and the part of the dress that went out over my Mom’s hips bunched up around Charlene’s long waist. That dress made her look more like a man than the things she usually wore, but she seemed to think it looked great, what with the way she kept smoothing her lap and turning in front of the mirror. She even gave this little laugh. I wanted to stop it right then, come out of the bathroom and tell her how stupid she looked, but it would have felt like walking in on her naked and having a conversation. I couldn’t do it. I just stood there and tried to push her out with my mind. I looked back at Ally: she was messing with her cuticles. Did she even wonder why were hiding in the bathroom? Did she know that Charlene was a man? The only stuff she ever seemed interested in was the stuff she made up in her head.
When I looked back, Charlene had already gone back to the closet. She came out in her own mini-skirt and silk blouse. She left. It was like a dream. I couldn’t kiss Ally now; I felt sick. I told her we needed to go outside to play with the other kids. “I don’t care,” she said. Outside I darted away from her. I went into the cluster of magnolias in our back yard and puked up my lasagna all over the dead magnolia leaves. I sat there on the ground until the sickness went away. I found Ally by the basketball goal, sitting with Han, the only Korean girl at our church. She was telling Han that she had a part for her. Something about an affair between a husband and his family’s exchange student. The other kids were running and screaming around our driveway, throwing a basketball back and forth, but she didn’t notice. When the ball bounced right over her head, she didn’t even bother to look up.
“She was in this Jacuzzi and her husband threw a toaster in it.”
“Really?” he said. I nodded and looked sad. He actually seemed to believe me. He mumbled sorry and went back to typing on his laptop.
* * *
It couldn’t have been past four, but it looked much later with the sky turning gray and some of the cars’ headlights flicking on as they rolled down the street. The wind cut right through my jacket. I had sad thoughts: About how Ally had suddenly gotten acne all-over, and oily hair, and how her snobby eyes made me feel sorry for her instead of turned-on. About how my mom looked so bored when one of the churchwomen came over to have coffee with her like Charlene had, and how she’d sometimes ask the women the same questions, like “What are the kids up to today?” two or three times without remembering she’d already said it.
On the sidewalk running back through the green, groups of people in dark clothes strolled by. Probably they’d come from the funeral. Which meant the funeral had ended and my Mom had probably started looking for me. I pictured her standing there in front of the church in her puffy coat, glaring and waiting. Maybe about to call the police.
But as I neared the church – which was lit up now – its windowpanes glowing in the grayness – I saw that she was talking to a group of people at the far side of the building, not even watching for me. Their clothes looked too bright for funeral clothes. Closer, I saw a few animal rights signs lying on the grass, two thin women with huge woven purses and a guy in a green hoody. One of the women gestured at my Mom.
“ – a symbol of violence,” she was saying to my Mom. “How can you wear a symbol of violence and murder and not think about it?”
My Mom had her arms folded around her, hugging herself.
“It was a gift –”
“A gift is given freely, not stolen,” the woman said. “Those animals lives were stolen.”
“Do you know how mink fur is processed?” The man cut in. “They shove the minks into little cages, where they can barely move around. They can’t get out of their cages so they start biting themselves. Farmers try to kill them with hot engine exhaust, but it doesn’t always work. Some of them wake up while they’re being skinned.” He pushed off his hood and stepped closer to my Mom, so that his curly hair spilled over his collar. There was less than a foot between them and the clouds of their breath merged into one another. “It’s easy: Take it off and take a stand.”
My Mom didn’t even see me. She just stood there holding herself and looking down at the ground like she was waiting for them to go away. I looked around for help, but there was no one there. We were off to the side of the building and if I went around the front, inside the church to get someone, I’d have to leave her alone.
“It was a gift. If the person who’d given it to me had known –” her voice trailed off into silence. She fingered the place where the coat cinched at her waist.
“Be honest with yourself,” he was almost shouting. He leaned forward and waved his hand at her. “There’s no justification for–”
Then I was in the middle of them, up in his face, shoving him. He was a little shorter than me, but bigger around the chest and shoulders. Still he went back pretty far and almost lost his balance. He shoved me back, but not hard enough to knock me down. Mom was yelling something but I ignored her and came at him again, my shoulder slamming into his chest, so that even through the padding of clothing and skin I could feel our bones collide. He slipped and fell on the sidewalk, his glasses falling off into the grass, the women instantly kneeling down beside him. “IT’S A GIFT FROM MY MOM’S DEAD BEST FRIEND,” I screamed down at him. “CAN’T YOU TELL SHE JUST CAME FROM A FUNERAL? HER BEST FRIEND IS DEAD.” I couldn’t stop myself. A salty taste filled my mouth, but I didn’t feel like I was crying. Paper rustled beneath my feet. I kept screaming the same words, over and over, until I felt her hand press against my arm.
“Stop it, Conner. Please stop it,” she said.
“He was going to hurt you.”
I looked down at his bent figure, at the paper spread on the grass around him.
“No. He was trying to make me take one of his fliers.”
The man looked up at me, his eyes small and blinking. The girls looked at me too. All of their faces showed more confusion than anger. The rain had just begun to fall, and the wind rippled through the fliers, their white flashing beneath the light from the streetlamps.
“See, Conner?” Her eyes caught mine and held them. The wind lifted her hair from her face. “I’m OK now. I’m OK.”