Viv had skin as thin as tissue paper, she said, and it tore easily on thorns and the blade edge of tall grasses. But she was covered in mostly bruises. Said her skin succumbed easily to pressure and turned a palette of nightshade colors: eggplant and toadstool. It began after she delivered my mother, she said. A child will change you, she said.
And I believed her.
My mother’s skin was the color of bruises: mushroom and the split open scarlet of bittersweet. Milky tears wept from the drumtight skin stretched over her swollen ankles. Beneath her eyes glowed the purplish blooms of belladonna.
Each day would be the day I believed she would die. The sky would crack open and light splinter down to take her body away from here, away from this darkened room, her mumbling nightmares, her forgetting who I was.
Viv came to bring me home on the day my class was having a corroboree in honor of Aboriginal life. Our teacher brought food she called tucker and carried it in dilly bags and coolamons. We ate honey ants. Witchetty grubs. Strips of lizard meat. Wild berries. Flour cakes. Yams. We ground grass seeds with blunt stones to the resonance of clapping sticks and the hum of the didgeridoo.
And we learned that when someone dies, the ghost of her father summons and she climbs the silken rope of his beard into the sky and takes her place there, next to him, as a star. But, still, this didn’t seem right.
When the sun slipped under the far side of the bay, the sky lit up like cherry blossoms. And Viv broke into vaudeville.
When it’s cherry blossom time in Orange, New Jersey,
we’ll have a peach of a pear.
I know you cantaloupe
so, honeydew be mine.
Oh, yeah, that’s my girl.
She held my hand as we climbed the stairs to the wrap around porch. All the windows were reflecting the sunset, now a deep plum glow. Most houses we dared approach were not this grand and gleaming white. Most were not at the end of a long winding driveway that said “private road” at the wrought iron entrance gates swung open between gaslit stone pillars. Most did not have this unobstructed view of the bay with its cat-eye spume and sailboats being blown to the ends of their moorings.
“Did you see the detail on that turret?” She whispered.
“Like fish skin,” I said.
She squeezed my hand. “I bet they have original wainscoting in the dining room,” she said. “Maybe there’s some stain glass windows around back, or an oculus in the foyer. All these places have foyers.”
“There’s probably a secret room in the attic,” I said.
Viv dropped my hand and reached out to the door. “Or a dovecote. And a servant’s entrance around back.”
We stood at the edge of a plain woven grass doormat, which did not have images of squirrels eating acorns or say Welcome to the Nut House like ours in the dark carpeted hallway at home. I wondered how Viv would introduce us this time. What would our names be today? Who would appear at such a grand door? I wanted to step forward to pull Viv back, but my legs grew strangely hollow just as she lifted the brass pineapple to knock.
Mom said our apartment building had a servants’ entrance, too, like any old mansion. It was in the basement, lit with a red EXIT sign above the heavy metal door. But she said I wasn’t allowed to go out that way because it opened onto the gravel lot where the Mexican boys sat and smoked and called each other names like tinche cabrone. Autumn said she used it and she’d take me with her sometime. She lived across the hall with her mom in an apartment that was exactly the same as ours—except everything was backwards.
When they first moved in, Autumn called me a fat fuck and a fat shit. She screamed oink oink oink like she was crying Fire! And then hung her head and said, look I’m really sorry, Ava, FUCK YOU!
She couldn’t help it—poor Autumn—there was something wrong with her brain and it made her say things that made people feel bad. But, sometimes it was funny, too, because, really, you’re not allowed to say such bad things.
One time mom pulled the sheets back and patted the mattress with her hand so wasted. Her nails were clipped short and the moons a dull blue, like fog. I climbed up and curled my back into the hollow of her stomach and her ribs rose and fell against my spine. Her breath brushed through the fine hairs at the base of my cheek. It was warm and soft like ashes and her wrist was sweet with the jasmine oil Viv dabbed there. It was too hot in the room and airless. The sheets felt damp so I asked her if she was okay. This is what she said:
You never loved yourself.
“What Mommy?” I whispered, but she was too deep in dreaming.
“Little girl, do you live with your Grandma?” The woman with sweatpants and pearls was leaning out of her front door, but her barefeet were firmly rooted to the marble floor of the foyer.
“No. She lives with me and my mother.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “Wait here,” and she trotted off into the house. When she came back she pressed a folded piece of paper into the palm of my hand and closed my fingers over it. “Ask your mommy to call me when you get home, okay?”
In the car, Viv put out her hand. “Give it here.”
“She said it’s for mom.”
“Now, bub.” Viv ripped up the note and smashed it into the ashtray. “We just have to keep it simple next time. When you give them too many details, they get suspicious.”
“She thinks you’re crazy, you know. Old and crazy.”
“Well, let her think it.” Viv waved both hands around her head like she was shooing a bee and I caught the steering wheel to keep it straight. “Woo woo woo, I’m a loony,” she cried and pushed my hand away. “It’s just you never know with the people out here, bub. Some have lived in these places for generations. Some families even built the damn house or had it built. We’ll just have to keep it simple next time. Just let them think we know there’s a possibility we’ve been mistaken. Let’s go all the way to Rhode Island, next time. You know, The Breakers.”
“I don’t want to do it anymore,” I said and picked at a hole in the seat vinyl by my thigh.
“What? You love this.” Viv looked over at me and moved my hand to my lap.
“It’s boring,” I said and crossed my arms. “Everyone had these frail antiques and the chairs are scratchy and you can’t touch anything. It always smells like mothballs and there are never any secret rooms or dovecotes. And why do people always think kids like raisins? Raisins taste like houseflies.”
“Since when do you eat houseflies?” Viv laughed, but I wasn’t having any of it. “All right, all right, I hear you. What else are we going to do?”
“Other kids’ grandmothers take their grandkids shopping and out to eat,” I mumbled.
“I just took you out to eat.”
“Like . . . to a restaurant.”
“Is that what you want? You want me to take you to the mall like all the other kids?”
“No.” I rolled down my window because I could feel my cheeks burning. The salty breeze dried my eyes and I squinted as we passed the beach road and turned away from the bay onto a wooded lane. I kept squinting as the road opened into the little town with the corner butcher and wound around again onto the highway. The skin between my eyes ached by the time we exited near the supersized Walmart where Viv used to pick up mom’s prescriptions and fill the trunk with double sets of Vaseline and tissues and cases of Enfamil. When we rumbled over the second set of train tracks and turned onto our road, I had perfected my new look of bright hate. And then it just slipped away.
“Grandma.” I said.
“I know why you do it.”
“’Cause you still have dreams.”
Autumn’s mom was in chef school—the kind where they cook for people with problems. She was always bringing over creamed soups. I’d never seen so many colors of soups: canary yellow and blood orange and a moss green one with stringy seaweed she said had healing mucilaginous properties. Autumn named that one snot soup. And then all day long she couldn’t stop making that spitting sound Viv called a raspberry. Even though I threatened I’d go home if she didn’t quit, she blew raspberries all through Little House up until Falcon Crest. Then I couldn’t help but yell right into her raspberry spraying face, “Shut the hell up, Autumn!”
“Fuck you, fat fuck!”
“Double fuck you, skinny fuck fuckhead!” Then my hand clapped over my mouth and I held my breath waiting for her mother to come through the door with a big wooden soupspoon.
Autumn just leaned back quietly and we watched the rest of Falcon Crest to the new soundtrack of her knuckles cracking.
My mother called off her engagement to my father after she read an article about a woman who died on her honeymoon. She drowned herself in the champagne glass Jacuzzi at Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos after her husband said he was going out for cigarettes and never came back. They said she was stewing in there so long they had to extract the body with a strainer as if she were a blanched tomato. Called her a basket case. Folks who die like that, the skin just slips off their bones.
My father brought an exotic bird all the way from Australia for Christmas the year I turned six. It had been summer there, across the world, and after passing through eight time zones and three seasons, it froze to death in cargo. There was a blown fuse for the heating system and two cats and a husky died as well. My father thawed the bird in our kitchen sink and stretched its green wings full. He ran his fingers up through the feathers and separated them. “Look here, Mate,” he said, “How do they do it? How do they fly?” Then he folded the wings down against the body again, placed the bird in a shoebox and cleared a spot in the back of the freezer. I named our new pet Yoodalong, because that’s the prettiest Aboriginal name for girls I’d ever read about.
I was half way down the hall when I heard her even though she was whispering.
“Unlike you, I don’t really have any more chances to be a better mom. I’ll never see her through the hard times in high school or talk about first love. It’s just I don’t have enough time left and I am so…bitter about that. Mother, you know I tried everything to get healthy. Everything. So now I’m left thinking that maybe I can’t be one of those remission success stories because I just don’t have it in me to be so damn peppy about the gift of being sick like it’s the ultimate opportunity for growth. I guess I’m just not that strong or positive or close to divinity to get past this. And that’s just one more thing to hate about myself on the way out.”
There was a ladybug on the window sill near the bathroom with two black spots on her wings of red. I lifted the screen window. “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,” I sang, “Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” But when I blew her over she was just an empty shell.
Viv was only as tall as a mop on its stick end with feet as flat as spatulas. Mornings, you could hear her barefoot in the kitchen. Flap flap flap against the linoleum as she went from fridge to stove, table to sink. My mother slept through it all and came to for a few dutiful swallows of cream of rice and then slipped back into her unfamiliar dreams.
I dressed myself and slid into the empty kitchen in hot pink knee socks and poured a thick layer of sugar into my bowl before the Sugar Smacks. When Viv came back in, I poured the milk and reached again for the sugar bowl.
“Eh eh eh,” she clucked and took it away. “It’s already loaded with sugar and besides, you need to watch your tummy, bub.”
“Ava, the truth is—you’re getting a little round.”
I looked down at my stomach and poked at the swelling, picked up my spoon and dredged the bowl for sweetness.
Mom was yelling all morning like Autumn, but it wasn’t just words and the sounds ran together with her tears like a thunderstorm. It lasted for almost an hour and I got the rash on my wrists and hands Viv calls eczema. When Mom was quiet again, I showed her how I’d scratched the red welts open and bloody.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said, “please don’t do that to yourself.” She kissed both my hands and held them to her chest and I could feel her heart beating fast beneath them. “Sometimes I feel like someone else is talking from my mouth, you know. It’s just not like me.”
Viv sat down on the edge of the bed. “The doctor said it could be dehydration, not just the medication. It can make a person so edgy, thirst.”
“Yeah, I guess I need a little something.” Mom poked at the side of her mouth with her tongue and laughed. “It’s funny today. I just feel all stirred up somehow. I’ve been thinking about this place. I’ve lived here since Ava was a baby and we really only know Terri and Autumn and, well, Devorah when she has to come up and fix the faucet. It’s like we all live in our little holes and fly in and out to work or the store on our own little paths and all we give each other is an occasional nod in passing. This would be a different place if someone started going around and saying hi, I’m so and so and this is . . . you know? We should have thrown a block party—or a barbeque in the lot.”
“Well, someone’s in high spirits today,” Viv said and winked at me.
“It’s true. Today I have something in me. Like a fire. It’s funny, I never thought I’d feel like this again—being so sick, looking like I do—I just want to, you know, be with someone again. It’s just about feeling that whole and beautiful. Being in that moment when you just absolutely cherish the feelings in your body.”
Viv stood and picked up the water pitcher on my mother’s nightstand and handed it to me even though it was already half full. “Go get your mom some fresh water, bub,” she said and followed me to the door, closing it after I left.
I pressed my ear against the cool wood and listened to my mother’s strong voice. “Call her Ava once in a while. I don’t want her growing up thinking she’s bub or mate or whatever. Her name’s Ava. I gave her that name because I wanted her to be free—like a bird.”
Autumn couldn’t lie. She could try, but she’d already told me to look for the signs. She scratched her back, reached her hand right up under her shirt and scratched, she said, three times and then stopped. And she coughed. It was a fake cough that sounded like she had lint in her throat. Her mom had taught her how to do it. Told her it was better than the yelling. But Autumn still yelled.
“We’re going to work on smiling next,” she said. “People will think I’m just really friendly.” Autumn started to cough. Then she smiled.
“That sounds good.” I said and looked at the ground, but my face got all hot anyway.
“You’re mother’s not gonna die,” Autumn said and then reached up her shirt to scratch her back.
Autumn was smiling. She only coughed a little, so it just sounded like she wanted attention from the two boys who were glancing at us from the sides of their eyes. One boy tossed a folded newspaper to his friend who sat on a pile of splintery wooden pallets stacked against the crumbling brick wall of our building.
“No hay nada. Nada,” he shook his head and squinted at the sun.
The seated boy opened the paper with Classifieds in big black letters across the top. Then, without looking at what he was doing, he mouthed a cigarette from a soft red package and clicked a flame out of a plastic lighter. Autumn pinched me on the arm, hard, and strolled toward the boys.
“I want a cigarette,” Autumn said a little too loudly, but she was still smiling.
The boy put down the Classifieds. “What do I get for it?” He asked and extracted a fresh cigarette, waving it around in front of Autumn. When she snatched it out of his fingers like a cat, he made a low whistle from the side of his mouth. Then he pulled his white shirt over his head with one hand, mopped his face, and draped it over the paper. I could read a hand-sewn label, just like the ones my mother used to sew in my underwear, on the back of the neck: T. Navarro.
“You gonna light it?” Autumn asked with the cigarette clenched between her smiling teeth. She was scratching her back.
“Come here,” Navarro said. “Do it this way.” He sucked his cheeks in and made a pocking sound. I could see his little brown stomach roll over the belted waist of his jeans when he leaned down to Autumn. He touched the red-hot tip of his cigarette to hers and sucked. Autumn blushed. “FUCK,” she yelled, and the boys shrieked. “COCK,” she yelled, and they were slapping their stomachs and throwing themselves back against the brick wall.
“This bitch’s wack,” Navarro said, and Autumn couldn’t stop smiling.
The exit door creaked open and it was the apartment manager’s son, Howie, standing half in and half out.
“Hi Howie,” I said, “What’re you doing?” I asked because I know he’s not supposed to go anywhere without Devorah.
“I’m Howie,” he said.
“I know, Howie. Where’s your mom?” I asked while Autumn yelled RETARD and tried to blow smoke rings. I shot her a look.
“It was my birthday yesterday,” Howie said. “Thirteen,” he said and held up the fingers of both hands.
“Yeah, what’d you do?”
“RETARD RETARD,” Autumn yelled.
“Got a year older,” Howie said and smiled with his chin pulled into his neck.
“Well, that’s something,” I said.
“This is a freak show!” Navarro jeered and then Autumn yelled RETARD SPIC and the blood drained from her smiling face.
“What’d you say?” Navarro shoved himself off the pallets and stood squarely next to his friend.
“Sorry,” Autumn said, “COCKSUCKER!” Her cigarette dropped from her open mouth into the gravel and I knew we were in trouble.
His friend grabbed Navarro’s arm and held him back. “Olvídeselo hombre, ellos están locos,” he said, but Navarro broke free and snatched Autumn’s hair up into his fist. He pushed her down in front of him. He unhooked his belt. “Who’s a cocksucker?” He yelled.
“Uh-oh, uh-oh,” Howie said and shuffled back inside the door.
“MOTHERFUCKER!” Autumn screamed. She was coughing now. A lot.
“Let her go!” I yelled.
I’d never seen Autumn cry before. She was coughing and crying and scratching her back and smiling. And she was yelling SORRY SORRY MOTHERFUCKER COCKSUCKER ASSHOLE.
“Leave her alone,” I screamed. “Help!” but I didn’t know anyone who could’ve come out to help us.
“Ella es apenas una chica – con Esperanza!” Navarro’s friend sounded scared and then Navarro just dropped Autumn in the gravel and cupped his hands over her shoulders for a moment.
“Okay,” he said and touched her hair. “Okay, kid. Get up. Get up!” He cried, but Autumn was bent over her knees rocking, hard, like the old washer in the basement when all the sheets get wadded up on one side. It plowed across the cement floor until its cord was stretched tight and it finally unplugged. I closed my eyes for a moment and when I opened them again I was alone with Autumn on her knees in the lot. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t smiling. She didn’t even sniffle—Autumn—even though the tears streamed down her face and dripped off her nose. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t even looking.
When my mother died, my father sent a white dove in a cardboard box with holes in the sides and on the top. It was marked LIVE.
“It’s not a pet, Ava. It’s for you to let go,” he said through the phone. His voice sounded thick and scratchy like he just woke up. After a long silence he said, “I’m tired, mate. I’m very tired. Put Viv on, okay.”
That afternoon, the cemetery looked lonely without all the people standing there. Just some cut flowers strewn around, their blooms trod into the loose dirt. Sometimes you can see the moon even before the sun goes down. It can look as burnt as the leaves in fall or as bright and puckered as a plastic lemon, but it’s always washed with white. Even though people think they see a man’s face in the moon, the moon is really a woman. I could see the moon then. La luna.
“If I had a dove of my own, I would call her Luna. Ms. Blanca de Luna,” I said.
“Don’t name her, bub. Just say goodbye.” Viv rubbed my back right between the two bones my mother used to call angel wings.
“If we keep her, then we can have our very own dovecote,” I said.
“We don’t have the kind of place that has a dovecote.”
“What about a birdcage?” I said.
“Bub, there’s nothing worse than a bird in a cage. It’s not natural. Even though you clip their wings they still try to fly. I once saw a parrot grab onto a rope and beat its wings so hard it started to spin around in a circle. Birds are supposed to be free. It’s best you let it go now.”
I looked at Viv. She had the same gray eyes as my mother, laced with bits of blue. But Viv had a ring of blonde-brown lashes, too.
“We wouldn’t have to clip her wings,” I said.
I worked the box top off slowly and the light poured in. She was whiter than the moon: Ms. Blanca de Luna, a luminous dove of peace, cowering in a cardboard box and looking up at me with her eyes of black pearls.
“Shake it,” Viv said. “Turn it over.”
I shook, I turned. I heard wire thin nails skitter across the cardboard. I heard the flump of a dove drop to the grass by my feet. Ms. Blanca de Luna wasn’t going to fly away.
Our apartment building was old. Viv called it prewar. There was a small circular hole with a hatch door in the kitchen where a fan used to be. We left it open and that was where Luna came and went. Sometimes she left for a few days and I thought I may never see her again. That was when I felt there was a wasp trapped in the hollows of my heart again, buzzing around and stinging me from the inside. I’d scratch at it, but it never came free. Viv told me I’d learn we can call nothing our own, but I had a few things I knew were mine and even though dad said she was for letting go, my dove came in the box addressed to me. I named her Luna.
Viv was licking envelopes at the kitchen table, sending invitations to all the neighbors for a barbeque in the lot. Autumn would be there, but she would not be allowed to eat hotdogs because of the nitrates. I never asked her what she would do if Navarro showed up, too.
I bet Viv a hot fudge sundae that Luna would come back when we were in Rhode Island, so we counted all the seeds in her food dish twice and wrote three hundred and fifty seven on the notepad by the telephone. Then we wound our pinky fingers around one another to make it official.
The Breakers is really a museum house where we had to stand on line and pay an admission price with everyone else. The tour guide laughed at me and said, sure, of course there’s a secret room in the attic but it’s closed to visitors today. Then he winked at Viv as if I didn’t know what that meant. The house was all right, but there were velvet ropes everywhere and no place to sit down—scratchy or smooth—and I could smell the tour guide’s breath of rotten shellfish all the way from the other side of any room. When Viv saw the little boxes of raisins for sale in the gift shop, she couldn’t stop laughing a laugh I hadn’t heard for weeks. A laugh with nothing pinned beneath it.
We stopped at a lobster shack as the sun was spreading pinks and purples all across the ocean. A few seagulls strutted close to our table, eyeing the rocks which held our placemats and napkins from blowing away in the evening breeze. “This is a good day,” I said to Viv. “Don’t you think this is a good day?”
That was when Viv looked out over the ocean and said, “You’ve got to know who you are, bub. You can think you know someone your whole life and then when she’s gone realize you hardly understood the first thing of who she was about. You only really know yourself. And it could take you a lifetime, Ava, but you’ve got to know who you are.”
Ava. I turned the name over and over in my mouth like a seed. Ava means a bird.
© Victoria Forester
Victoria Forester’s fiction and poetry have been published in literary magazines, including Washington Square, The Worcester Review, and 580 Split. Recently, she completed a middle grade novel as well as a memoir, titled Soul Cat.