The fish scales had been designed to protect fish from predators but to Valerie they were constant reminders that beasts of prey were ubiquitous. Thin and curved in clear plastic boxes, they lined the walls, topped the tables, and stuffed the closets. Their presence made her aware of her powerlessness against the good intentions of Pru Damphouse. Even at night, lying on her side on the floor, when sleep should have brought comfort, the fish scales violated her from the containers at her head, while the glow of the nightlight sank the room into a kind of vague stillness that made her days and nights run seamlessly together, and the best she could manage was to imagine a life in the ocean, weightless and unbound.
She’d barely closed her eyes when Pru Damphouse began retching on the bed. She scrambled onto the mattress. The old woman’s skin was sallow, her cheekbones drawn, like something dead washed ashore.
Exhausted, her body slackened, her head listed, and she listened to the breathy sounds of Pru Damphouse, who was still asleep, her lips parted; she seemed to be sipping nutrients from the air. Every so often she mumbled incoherently in their native tongue. Then she would lapse into silence, or subtle twitching.
Nightly, two or three times, Pru Damphouse would erupt in torment and between the demands of caring for her and the work in her uncle’s bar Valerie had not glued the hours of a good night’s sleep together since she’d arrived in the States.
She tried to guess the reason for Pru Damphouse’s agitation. Cancer was the obvious explanation, but lately she made out a different sound, a lament or sorrow so sad it seemed to extend into her other lives, as if she were a free-roaming tiger shackled by a curse. She’d once asked about it. The old woman told her to mind her own business.
Pru Damphouse absently petted her shoulder. Her dark, driftwood fingers skated with buoyancy, as if floating in saline. She became absorbed in watching them, wondering where this tenderness had come from, for Pru Damphouse spoke only with bitterness and seemed always to be fighting against herself. The hand fell off her shoulder and lay limp against her breast, and she moaned, oy, and went silent.
She took up where Pru Damphouse left off, wishing to prolong whatever pleasure the old woman had found in the dark crumbling landscape of her dreams. She was aware only of the warm glissade of her fingers and a draggy hypnotic presence. Afterimages sparkled beneath the lids of her eyes. Outlines of Pru Damphouse’s shoulders, as clear as if she had not closed her eyes at all.
The old woman’s skin gave off a stale odor, a scent of love letters stored for decades in an attic. The surface fascinated her, as if the only part of Pru Damphouse that was real was what lay beneath the tips of her fingers. This barrier like the fish scales appeared impenetrable, but something had slipped in and was eating her inside out.
Her head jerked with nods of sleep. Had she flinched at the thought of the terrible fish scales, or feared that something might work through her own protective armor?
She drifted across continents and oceans into the arms of her mother. A stroll through the vibrant flower market at the mouth of the canal, a meal of spicy street food in Bangrak, the sweltering midnights of summer on the terrace beneath pink and white orchids.
There was always an edge of sadness in her mother’s manner. She’d never remarried after her father had died. Memories of him merged too easily with childhood fantasy and very little remained. She was certain it was her father who took her and her younger sisters to the tailor once a year to have them fitted for school clothes. Other memories seemed impossible, yet felt as real as the touch of his fingers to her face.
They lived in the city of Chiang Mai, and she ran away from home when she was five years old. A rooster crowed across a rice field. A distant echoing chant from a Muslim prayer tower lured the morning light. She was tiny enough to slip through the gate bars of the concrete wall surrounding their home. The street dust had settled during the night, and the sky was clear. She went up a lane and past the market where vendors were setting up foods and wares. She crossed the highway at a sprint and ran along twisting streets with dogs barking and house lights glowing. Looming ahead was Doi Suthep, a mountain on fire. She ran fast and fearless, her eye on the hazy mountain and the orange glow of the fires. She was irresistibly drawn toward it. No one stopped her. No one asked where she was going. Even the wild dogs left her alone. She was invisible and kicked barefoot along a dusty dirt byway, past a farmhouse, and onto the road that snaked up the mountain. The scent of the smoke was a blend of bamboo, jackfruit, and pine. The road wound upward and switched back and everything was dark except for the distant fire, and even that disappeared into the gray darkness imposed by the forest. A truck rumbled up the mountain. The truck did not stop, and she ran on. Two hikers plodded ahead. A man and a woman, laden with backpacks, walking sticks in hand. The man wore a broad-brimmed hat. The woman a checkered-scarf. She ran on, and they did not see her. The lower compound of the temple was wide and rich with red and yellow sunlight. A woman swept a stall. A man arranged long-stemmed lotus buds in trays. Others unlocked and prepared their kiosks for the tourists who would soon arrive. She stood at the bottom of the three hundred steps to the temple. The Naga serpent stretched upward the entire length on both sides. Each had four heads and open mouths with long sharp teeth. A fierce pointed horn rose from each skull. Flowers hung from their necks, and their sleek bodies went up and down like the waves of the Mekong River where it lived. The serpent did not see her, and she ran up the steps to the temple. The tiled floor cooled her feet. First to the Buddha, she sat, legs behind, palms pressed together, and paid respects as she had been taught to do. Then past the white elephant, a golden pagoda firm on its back. Monks in robes the color of the mountain fires drifted in and out of view. She watched, expecting to be asked what she was doing there, but they did not see her. She rang large bells hanging in rows and laughed when the clappers struck the rims. At the edge of the mountain, she stood on a railing. A sky the color of wet oysters. Chiang Mai below, flat and shiny as a silver coin dropped in the grass. Rice fields and forests spread outward in smudges of gray and green. And farther on, though she could not see it, the ocean swelled white and blue and vast. She had never been there. Never sniffed the brine in her nose. Never tasted foam from the lip of a breaking wave. Never shoveled her toes in the sand.
Her father had gone and said it was there. He spoke with a wanderlust gaze. She asked how it had gotten there. He told her that the ocean was made in the ancient times from the tears of a giant who had fallen in love with a prince. The giant was afraid that the prince would never love her. Was she ugly? No, Yam, she was not ugly, but she was not pretty, either. She was a giant, and princes and giants can’t be together. The prince was known for his travels and for his love of music. What kind of music? All kinds. He traveled among the people in search of heartful sounds. Think of silk cooling the cheek. Or a fine morning mist. The small shapes of birds on a wire. This music, he would know it at once, it would transport his soul to the plains, the mountains, on up to the heavens. He would become transfixed—What does that mean? He would fall asleep while he was awake, Yam, and he would dream while the music soothed him like a warm blanket. The prince was traveling near the edge of the country, back when there was no ocean, only sand like a desert, and he spied a girl giant sitting on a rock. He was afraid and snuck away before the giant saw him. He didn’t know that she had already seen him coming up the road and had sat on the rock to get his attention. Did she know he would not love her? Not then, Yam. She found out because he ran away. But she was a smart giant and had magic. She ran very fast to the north and made herself into an upcountry girl and waited for the prince to come. How did she know the prince would go north? She had very good ears and heard him tell his servants that they would go as far away from the giant as possible. She sat in a rice field and waited for him to come. Did it take long? A few months. She was a very patient giant and when you are in love time vanishes. The prince stopped at the village and saw the upcountry girl (which was really the giant) sitting in the rice field. He’d never seen anyone more beautiful. He asked the villagers who she was. The villagers said she was the daughter of a man from the mountain. The prince asked if she played music. The villagers said that she sang like a magpie. He sat next to her in the field and bid her sing for him. Did she sing? She sang like a magpie, and he fell in love. What did she sing? She sang: I am a country girl who eats hot sauce and rice and that’s what makes me pretty. That’s a funny song, Pa, not a beautiful song. I am not a magpie. When the giant sang it, it was very beautiful and the prince fell asleep and began to dream. While he was sleeping the giant lay on top of the prince. Why did she do that? He was handsome and she was sleepy and the ground was hard. So, like a pillow. But during night the magic wore off and she turned back into a giant. When he woke up, the prince screamed and ran off in fright. Heartbroken, the giant returned to the rocks above the desert and began to sob. She had never in her life cried or felt the swallow of deep sadness. She wept all afternoon and into the night and all the next day. And the next and the next and the next. This is a sad story, Pa. It has a happy ending. It does? Yes. The giant cried until one day a sweet stirring arose in her belly. What was it? It was a baby. A baby? How did it get there? The mermaids put it there. The giant’s tears were so heavy and so much like a monsoon rain that all the desert became filled with her tears. The mermaids had been buried beneath the sand long before humans existed. What were they doing there? They were sleeping—I’ll tell you that story another time. The giant’s tears made all the oceans and the mermaids woke up. With magic they kept inside rice baskets the mermaids gave the giant a present for releasing them from the sand. The baby? Yes, a baby girl. And inside the baby girl they put patience, intelligence, and respect for elders, so she would grow up to be admired and loved and happy. When the giant felt the baby move in her belly she stopped crying. She named the baby Anchaleeporn Kadesadayurat—That’s my name! So it is, Yam. And her father tucked her in for the night.
Drifting in half-sleep she watched Pru Damphouse through a veil of lashes. The old woman exhaled like a murky outgoing tide. Her bluster was gone. All you had to do was touch the burlap skin or massage the knotty spine bones sneaking up into the glabrescent skull and the woman’s frailty pushed to the surface. She was breakable after all. And yet she took pains to disguise the vulnerability. Fronting strength had become her daily pursuit.
Pru Damphouse stirred and swatted the air. While waiting for her to sink back into sleep, Valerie studied a black and white photo on the dresser of two young figures posed in front of the ruins of Sukhothai. The man wore a short-sleeve shirt of silk. His hands were long and beautiful and hung gracefully at his sides. Next to him the girl—it must have been Pru Damphouse—wore a plain blouse with a hint of flowery stitching along the slit neckline and dark pants that fell just above her ankles. Her eyes were black and wide open in astonishment or intense joy. Her cheeks were tender and radiant, and the sunlight lingered at the edges of the long dark locks of her hair. The vibrant impulse of this image was nothing like the gnarled bones of the woman now writhing on the bed.
Pru Damphouse’s eyes snapped open.
“What are you doing?”
The old woman’s arms flew out of the blankets, claws raised for an attacker.
“What are you doing here, Valerie?”
She froze, wondering whether she had been spoken to or had only dreamed it.
Horrible, red-rimmed eyes glowered at her. Her hands retreated to her breasts, and afraid to reply, afraid she would be talking only to herself, she kept quiet.
Pru Damphouse rose swiftly from the covers to a rickety elbow, to a brittle hand, and shook Valerie’s arm. “Wake up! Tell me what you are doing here?”
“You cried out, Miss Pru. I came to help.”
“I don’t need help.” She sat up in bed with her knees tenting the blankets.
She waited. Pru Damphouse seemed to recover and shifted to her favorite topic.
“Your time is almost up. Have you got a man?”
She shook her head.
“I gave you Tad Fickes, a fine dentist.” She smacked Valerie’s arm. “What did you do? You came in after dinner pouting like a little girl. And Philip Matson? Not just a lawyer but my late husband’s partner. Did you notice him? Was something wrong with him? Nothing. But he called me and said you didn’t say a word. You hung your head all night like you had no sense and pretended you weren’t interested in him. How could you be so stupid, when he—and I could name you five more—could provide for you?”
The window blinds dartled with orangey morning light. She ran her hand down Pru Damphouse’s covered leg, following the taper to her toes.
Pru Damphouse pulled away. “Stop that! You don’t know what pain you cause me.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Pru.” She rested her hands on top of her thighs. “I meant to make you feel better.”
“Take an interest in the man I give you, and I’ll feel better. I will have to tell your uncle how you disappoint me. He will tell your mother how you waste your time.”
“Yes, Miss Pru. I will do better. Please let me check your bag.”
With a huff, Pru Damphouse swung her arm across her chest.
She switched on the table lamp, pulled down the covers, and lifted the old woman’s nightshirt. The bag was fat with greenish-yellow excretion. “Let me change it.”
“Do what you have to do,” Pru Damphouse said. “Someone must look after you. You won’t do it yourself. More time is what you need. You don’t understand what the American man wants and you must learn. They will trick you because you are stupid. And nothing but misery after that.”
The pouch released from the slick wafer on Pru Damphouse’s abdomen. Valerie held the bag to the light. “It’s not dark green. That’s good.”
“You should care for your future more than the color of my shit,” said Pru Damphouse.
“I will clean it.”
“You need a student visa. Philip can take care of it. Change from visitor to student. You’d like that. Never mind, you can repay him. Or, if you are nice to him. He said he liked you even if you were snobbish. I promised that next time you would behave better.”
She hastened to the bathroom with the colostomy bag. The feces in its chunky colloidal state slid out easily and suffused the room with an odor that reminded her of a cobra that her mother had once killed. They’d lived in an upcountry village at the time. Her mother discovered the cobra under a bench and went after it with a broom. The wounded cobra slipped into the wall and not long after the house began to stink. Unable to reach it her mother diluted the stench by burning incense. The only other thing she remembered about that time was her mother laughing and saying, “The hen sees the snake’s feet. The snake sees the hen’s nipples.” Valerie laughed very hard. “Silly, Ma. Snake doesn’t have feet.” Her mother gazed outside the door, looking at something horrible in the garden, perhaps an infestation of whitefly ruining the garden she’d carefully cultivated. She spoke with an admonishing smile. “You’ll find out.”
She recalled being terrified by what her mother had said but she was also very young and maybe her mother hadn’t said anything.
In the afternoon while she was folding Pru Damphouse’s clothing, she beheld the sparkling light of the sun on the bayou through the sliding glass door. The sunny brilliance reflected her intense joy of returning to school. Was it possible? She held the prospect with a certain amount of distrust. She wanted it to be true. But hadn’t she come to Florida on the invitation of her uncle, on the promise of opportunity, and now felt betrayed, working in his bar after all she had accomplished? Nearly forty! Steady nurse work at Praram 9 Hospital—wasn’t that good enough? In Thailand, she had friends and a newly purchased home that she shared with her mother. She’d been to Japan and to Hong Kong several times. Why did I come? She told herself that it would be a nice break and a chance to see something new. A chance to make money, she saw that, too, but she understood they meant she could nab a husband. And this made the decision harder. A vacation, a chance to earn money, this was tolerable. But they went on about it, as if she would let them down if she did not go. And the more they held out the promise of a rich husband the more she began to feel the misgivings of an Isan girl being sent to Bangkok on a similar promise.
She’d arrived in April, just before midnight, and had anticipated a long rest after the twenty-four-hour flight. Her uncle drove straight to the bar he owned near an Air Force base and gave her a tray to carry drinks to the military men. It was daylight before she was shown a bed, and she was too exhausted to sleep. Her days and nights soon ran together.
After a month, she told her uncle she’d had enough and no matter how hard he pressed she would not be persuaded. One night after the bar closed, she informed him that she was going home.
“How much will you have,” he said, “after you’ve paid me back?”
She saw how it was. He’d given her passage, and now he wanted the money returned. She had sent most of it to her mother and would not have enough. She began to cry.
“Don’t make me out heartless,” said her uncle.
She wiped her eyes, unable to think of another way.
“I spoke with my sister about this before you came,” he said. “You work hard to support her. You are a good daughter. We decided that if you can meet a nice man who isn’t doing too bad, it helps everyone.”
“Don’t think I am ungrateful.”
“O.K. So, you don’t like to work in the bar.”
The house light was pale yellow, the dance floor smoky and quiet, as if they’d stumbled into a sulfuric cave. She could barely move, and her attention fell upon a chair that had not been set square to a table from the night before. A sting ran round her eyes, and it was only when he spoke that she dared return her focus to him.
He clasped his hands behind his back, a posture similar to her mother’s when she strolled the night markets, one that conveyed her determination to shop without buying.
“I know someone who needs assistance.” Her uncle’s voice rode on top of the drifting smoke. “You have a nursing skill, so you can help her. If she agrees, you will stay with her, prepare her meals, and keep her place clean. She will help you get a driver’s license and introduce you to men of high quality. You must promise to try.”
She wiped her eyes.
“And if I need you at the bar, you will come. Agreed?”
“If it is not too much.”
He nodded. “Be good to her. The water’s high; if you hurry you can catch some.”
A few days later, they arrived at the home of Pru Damphouse. The fish scales were stacked in the foyer, where they removed their shoes. Valerie looked wide-eyed at the vast number of boxes and wondered where they would sit.
Pru Damphouse wore a gray sweat suit and large fluffy slippers. A drab olive wool cap adorned her head. She reminded Valerie of a stuffed squirrel.
Her uncle bowed and said, “My niece, Anchaleeporn Kadesadayurat.”
Pru Damphouse squawked. “That won’t do, that godawful name. Well, come in, sit down.”
Her uncle moved the boxes so they could see each other.
Valerie sat curled like a shrimp while her uncle told Pru Damphouse that she’d been a nurse in Thailand. While he spoke Pru Damphouse examined her with a cold eye.
“She just sits there. Does she speak English?”
“She learned at McCormick Payap University.”
The old woman stared. “She’ll need it if she wants to find a man.” Her lips twisted across her ravaged face. “We’ll call her Valerie. That’s a nice name. Do you like that name?”
She felt naked, stripped of her name and given one she struggled to pronounce.
“Well?” Pru Damphouse tapped the table and glared. “You speak, don’t you? Say something.”
“She’s a very hard worker,” said her uncle. “You don’t have to worry.”
“So you’ve said.” She turned and sniffed. Teeth like scrubbed tile. Valerie imagined gray twitching whiskers. “The work is unpleasant. You can do it?”
“Yes, Miss Pru.”
“There,” said her uncle. “You see? She will be good.”
“Oh! She speaks like a little girl.” She had a dismal smile. “You’re not a little girl, are you?”
“No, Miss Pru.”
The old woman made a noise. Noises were half her conversation. Exasperation, frustration, displeasure, incredulity, disgust—all gutterances that crawled with intense anger from her throat. The sounds attacked. They slapped indiscriminately whoever was nearby, and the look on her face suggested she already knew that her lash outs were wholly justified.
After the interview, her uncle said goodbye, and Valerie stood halfway between the kitchen and the living room. The furniture was rustic and worn. The walls dark with mahogany cabinets and thick shelves. Framed pictures, swirled glass vases, a smattering of crafted flowers on metal stands. A maroon three-paneled screen quartered a section of the room. Beyond the screen the darkness of the room was deepened by ripple-fold drapes that, on this day, were drawn open and tied with a sash. The glare was painful, but she went toward it to gaze at a bayou with coves shored by oaks, cedar, and pine. Pru Damphouse cut past her. “You’ll strain your eyes with all that light,” she said, and closed the curtains.
She wanted to cry, left alone with this old woman and her fish scales. Pru Damphouse tottered into the kitchen and boiled water. She kept up a constant chatter with herself, listing the duties and behavior she expected.
Valerie sat at the table embalmed by a thick sensation, both numbing and embarrassing, and slowly regained feeling and awareness. Soft cloud shapes of light spun off the ceiling fan. Copper pots and pans hung from hooks. The kitchen’s golden tile merged with the counter’s wood grain, and the floors alternated in a flaked pattern.
Small and gray, Pru Damphouse, whisked about in slippers, took down cups, opened a canister, and poured steaming water from a kettle. She carried a cup in each hand to the table.
She asked about her family, her upbringing, her home district, her career. Valerie offered modest answers. She disparaged every reply, and it wasn’t long before she understood that she wasn’t good enough for Pru Damphouse.
For the next three weeks, she settled into a mechanical rhythm of chores, errands, patient care, occasional nights at the bar, and prearranged dates with Pru Damphouse’s friends and acquaintances.
At night, she would lie awake on the floor where she slept on a thin mat and instead of wondering why she never complained and always did as she was told, she concluded that she must have been neglectful in another life. It was tempting to imagine that in this life she was paying off the sins of her past and the result would be a future of contentment, but the cautious words of her mother would show up and remind her that to do anything now to alter the future would “break the rules of the heaven.”
She was overjoyed when Pru Damphouse said she could return to school. Of course, a change in visa status was for Pru Damphouse’s benefit, a way to extend her services. All the same, in the hint of nighttime solitude that was hers, as she lay dreaming on the floor, she caressed a paring of hope beneath her breast that she would succeed at what she liked best. Some nights a powerful sweep of elation made her body lift trembling from the floor and at least for the moment she could envision an unburdened life.
Her date with Philip Matson fell through. He had briefs to prepare and would be at it all night. Pru Damphouse, unfazed, hung up and dialed Tad Fickes, who agreed to take Valerie to dinner.
“He’s a dentist,” Pru Damphouse said, clucking her tongue.
“I’ll brush my teeth,” Valerie said.
Pru Damphouse did not laugh. She opened a box of fish scales and set to work.
In the afternoon, she showered and dressed. Pru Damphouse frowned. “Are you going to the rodeo?”
She did not know the word rodeo and decided not to ask. “It is O.K.?”
“If you are going to wrestle pigs it is. Don’t you have a dress?”
She did not.
The old woman grunted and turned to the window. “He’s here.” She rummaged through a medical kit. “Maybe he will think you are cute. American men have no taste for clothing.” She pulled out a thin square package—round, ribbed, and squishy inside—and handed it over.
“What is this?”
Pru Damphouse moaned. “And you say you are a nurse.”
“I won’t need that.”
“You don’t know what you need. Take it and run on. He’s waiting.”
Hands in coat pockets, Tad Fickes stood against his blue sports car outside the black gate. Gold crowns visible at the edge of his smile. He opened her door. He adjusted the air vents. She had no preference for music, so he set the station to classical and said, “This piece has the quality of a saga with frequent melodic repetition.”
She smiled and said, “Hm.”
He asked about dental services in Thailand, and hyped about gold fillings—they don’t corrode, last ten to fifteen years longer than any other material, and they are more pleasing to the eye. “Don’t you think?”
He sent half-smiles, gold accents on the side nearest her. She saw pale pink lips and a shaving spot missed at the corner.
“Of course,” he said, “you have to be careful placing gold next to silver. Otherwise, you might get what we call a galvanic shock. Just means the interaction of the metals and saliva creates an electric current.”
“If I go into galvanic shocks,” she said, “you will know what to do.”
He laughed longer than necessary. “This must all be very new to you.”
Both hands on the wheel. The fingers slender. Tufts of black hair tightly curled over the knuckles. She imagined that it was easy for him to put them into someone’s mouth.
“It is new,” she said and gazed out the window. Office buildings were dark. Service stations were bright. The night was a dizzy and colorful mirage blinking with quick flights of fluorescent. “But in some ways it is the same.”
“Did Mrs. Damphouse speak of me?”
“She did not.”
He waited as if he expected her to react, but she did not know how to react, and said, “Oh.”
“Three beautiful children, who are with the ex, so I am by myself most of the time.”
The music floated upward from her feet. Gentle violins with elastic tempos. This sound was what it must be like to travel through time.
“We are almost there,” he said. “I picked this place, Sorrendino’s, because the atmosphere is subdued.”
Seated at a square table with a checkered cloth. A painting of green grapes against a light brown weave on the wall. A delicate flame wavered in a jar. A bread basket between them. She recognized the rhythmically deep sound of an accordion from a speaker hidden just beyond an exposed wooden beam.
He suggested pizza, and this came on a raised tray, which she admired for its efficiency. She sprinkled chili pepper flakes over her slice and requested ketchup. She poured the ketchup onto the pizza. He was watching and she knew she’d blundered. He was kind enough to look away and give her a chance to compose herself.
“You don’t eat with pizza?”
He shook his head. “No. But, really. If you like it.”
“I’m trying to fit in,” she said. “At least a little.”
She looked around. Couples leaned, eyes sticky and warm. Families spread out, a joyful zoo of activity, sounds of bird and buffalo. The blended glow of red, green, and yellow lights made her think of her mother’s chili peppers lining the concrete wall at the house in Bangkok. They hung like bright tear drops against dark green leaves. The image was so vivid it recalled the rest of the garden and made her faintly laugh when the numerous water bottles appeared in her mind.
Tad Fickes watched over a glass of wine. He seemed to be controlling his smile, making his cheeks push out just enough to avoid an appearance of disrespect.
“Did I say something? I should have been more thoughtful. There are a dozen other restaurants we could have gone to.”
“I was thinking of my mother. Her garden is lush inside the gate, and she has made it to grow outside on the sidewalk. All the plants are carefully potted and arranged. But what made me laugh was the soda bottles, very many of them, she sets along the wall. They are filled with water to keep away the flies.”
He put his hands together near his mouth. “You are fascinating.”
She was embarrassed to be fascinating. She toyed with a crust.
He watched her, and her focus narrowed intently, self-consciously, on the crust. She was afraid to shift her gaze because he might think she’d done this to avoid his eyes. Many events in her life were riddles like this.
“The food is bland,” she said. “Maybe I like my own food.”
“Of course.” He shook granular cheese from a glass container and piled it like ant hills on the saucy surface of his pie. “Let’s finish up. I want to show you something.”
The beach parking lot was nearly empty and slanted toward the main thoroughfare. Several cars were grouped like a swarm of bees converging on pollen. Girls sat on warm hoods. Boys held the hard tops of doors. Thrashing guitar music echoed against the concrete block restrooms.
He reached out for her hand but she angled off. The hand did not hang. It swept, as if that were its intention, toward the nearly black sky in the direction of the stone pavilions that tilted like ruins in the beach sand.
He stopped at a picnic bench and removed his shoes and socks. His feet were as white as the sand, and she turned quickly away, feeling herself short of breath, as if he’d dropped his pants. Each step over the sinking, ankle-turning surface increased her apprehension. She’d heard stories, and Pru Damphouse had given her a condom, as if she expected it to be used. Had Pru Damphouse assumed that, deep down, she was a bad girl? Or perhaps having lived so long in the United States, she knew what the American man expected and wanted her to be ready. She wasn’t ready. She was irritated.
They staggered up a path between dunes covered with switching sea oats. A warm breeze strung her hair across her face, and she shook her head as much to dislodge the hair as to relieve the increasing agitation in her mind.
At the top of a mound of cool sand she stared down at the dim and gray expanse of beach that flattened toward the Gulf of Mexico. The whitecaps gently turned on the surface and spread like glass over the shore.
Tad Fickes had gone ahead and waited at the bottom of the dune. He motioned to come along. She sensed, more than saw, the ghost crabs scuttling out of her way. She could smell them, too, though, she realized, this was more likely her senses playing tricks. Some memory, perhaps of the time she and her mother had gone to the beach at Hua Hin and had eaten crab with chili paste and green onion. The broth from the bowl, she told her mother, was her favorite part. Her mother scoffed. All this food, she said, and you are satisfied with soup.
There was no explaining it to anyone. Not just broth, she had settled for many things she believed were good enough. She breathed in deeply. That was the smell now. Briny, with a fading prickle in her nose.
Down the hill, she stood arms’ distance from Tad Fickes and marveled at the lights over the water, far away, like fires on a mountain.
“Those are trawlers,” he said. “Sometimes a barge will pass by, or a cargo ship.”
Closer to the sea, the sound of waves, like night market murmurs. Now, from the dunes, more distinct, the groans and sighs of struggle.
They turned along the shore and walked as if balancing on the rails of a train track. When he moved toward her, whether he was avoiding a wash, incidentally veering off-course, or attempting to close the gap, she compensated with distancing steps to keep her sense of modesty intact.
They strolled a long time. Outlined in the distance a pier on concrete pylons extended far into the Gulf. She could easily imagine that it was a giant centipede coming ashore. Much of the time she pretended she was alone, although it was hard to maintain, for the shadowing physical presence of Tad Fickes always drew her back. He interrupted her solitude with odd questions. What’s your favorite color? Pink. What’s your favorite song? I don’t know. What’s your favorite food? Who is the cook?
He bent as he walked and picked up a shell. “You don’t say much,” he said, tossing the shell into the water.
She wanted to say a lot. But he was a friend of Pru Damphouse, and what could she say that would not find its way back to her? Whatever found its way back became another lash in her whip of criticism.
She made a sound she hoped would do for conversation and looked past him at the dark rolling water, out where the ships, lit and mute, twinkled like stars. If she were a fish, a sleek tubular shape, she would swim out there. But if she could do that, she would not swim to the ships. She would keep going.
Tad Fickes cried out and turned in wide circles. “Here, here. Come look, Valerie. This is what I wanted to show you.”
Hands on his knees, he stared at the sand where the water receded. “Can you see them?”
The sand was lit up fluorescent green. She crouched and waved a hand just above the sand. “What is it?”
“A kind of glowing worm.”
Each like the tip of a needle, a bright green dot of light.
“The females,” he said, “are signaling to the males.”
His manner was jocular, but what did he intend? Jokes puzzled her. A man at her uncle’s bar once told her she was hot. She told him she would check the temperature, and everyone laughed. Pru Damphouse told her what the man meant and dismissed her embarrassment as being overly coy. “That is the man’s way. You have to learn to like his joke.”
Tad Fickes went on in an even tone. “A swarming takes place. Sex cells break free and create a luminous secretion. That’s the glow. Some species do a nuptial dance. A sort of mating ritual.”
He’d brought her out here to show off the green lights and to speak of mating rituals. She wasn’t stupid. He was a dentist, not a biologist.
He stepped back, looking at her as if she were a child, as if he’d frightened her. They resumed their walk back toward the car.
“I thought you might be interested,” he said.
His tone was resigned. His pace picked up. He continued talking about the worms, how their swarming was correlated with moon phases, how they were tube builders. The shapes of their tubes, he said, could be straight, branched, spiraled, or u-shaped. He laughed, and this time she knew he wasn’t telling a joke. He must have sensed that he sounded ridiculous.
But she laughed with him, like it was a joke.
He opened the door to let her out in front of Pru Damphouse’s wrought-iron gate. Key from her pocket, she unlatched the gate. When she turned back, Tad Fickes fell over her as if he were about to perform a root canal. She twisted free, slipped inside the gate, and locked it. She was intensely irritated and ran fast down the path toward the house.
On the first day of class, she went out beneath a banded periwinkle sky to meet four other students and ride with them to the university. Pru Damphouse had arranged everything, including the carpool, a clutch of Asian youngsters, who actually had come to the United States seeking an education.
They made room for her and plied her, giggling, with questions. She watched the gate recede and felt an emotional release travel down her body. In no time, she was talking and laughing without a care in the world.
At the campus, the other students went off to their classes. Valerie ambled along a sidewalk to the building where she would study English for international students. She’d been told this was the springboard, and everything else would follow. She imagined that she would pick classes that would let her take a nursing exam and resume where she had left off in Thailand.
In the light air of morning, thick with the agreeable saunter of students, she inhaled deeply the fragrance of possibility. A large bag strapped on her shoulder held books, papers, and a pouch of pens. She slipped her hand inside the bag to grasp their potential.
She sat in the second row and liked Miss Brasher immediately. Her hair fell in chocolaty bands about her padded shoulders, and she seemed to move on tiptoes like a spider around the room. Her eyes were round as if in perpetual surprise. Her hands floated in half-clutches as she leaned with her unusually long torso over the students to help them with their work. She seemed to understand that this work of learning the subtleties, idioms, and exceptions of another language was impossibly cruel, and that it was her task to take them through the ordeal.
During a break Valerie sat on a long concrete bench and looked at clusters of oak at the edge of the campus. She’d hoped to keep the stillness of her mind intact.
She looked at her hands, loosely folded together between her thighs. They seemed detached from her arms, her arms from her body. The marvel of their position, the slanting angles and rounding curves, intrigued her. A soft current like a shallow river trickled over her bones, and she wanted it to stay just like this.
But the morning’s interrogation with Pru Damphouse elbowed to the front. She’d hoped to get out before Pru Damphouse woke, but the old woman needed vital information and chased her down as she was closing the garage door. She wanted to know how her date with Tad Fickes had gone. She said it was O.K. but she didn’t like it. Dissatisfied, Pru Damphouse said she would call Tad Fickes to find out, as if he knew better how the date had gone. Pru Damphouse had more to say but her ride had shown up and Valerie rushed out the door to catch it.
Tad Fickes, she imagined, was not a bad man. Fine in his own way. Polite. And he had money. Pru Damphouse never let her forget that. And who was she to complain? Forty years old, and never a sweetheart. She’d had crushes. A boy at a nearby school. She and her friends would sit on a hill overlooking his college and tease and pretend, but nothing ever came of it. There were others. Men that might have liked her, had she thought of it. With hindsight, she remembered they’d gone out of their way to spend time with her, and she’d enjoyed their company, but it had never occurred to her that they’d wanted anything more than friendship.
A moist breeze sailed across her face. She looked at her watch and had a few minutes left. Above the trees a plane climbed so high up it appeared to be suspended in midair.
Did she even want a man? Everyone else seemed to think so. With lights out, with sleepy voices, she and her roommate at McCormick would talk about the man they wanted to marry. Respectful, thoughtful, reliable. A good provider. Sweet, considerate. They had wanted the same man. Did he really exist? Her friend eventually married a decent man. But Valerie loved her work, took care of her mother, enjoyed her friends, and this all seemed good enough. She did not believe she had lived a miserable life because she had no man in it. But even her friends teased her, as if she were missing something better than the contentment she had, and having no experience, she could not know if what they had said was true or not. The pressure to marry was like a barking dog outside her window at night. She’d lived half her life with this pressure, hoping it might go away, and now she’d lost sight of her feelings and worried that if she found a man had she done so because everyone wanted her to or because she desired it. Telling the difference became impossible.
She sighed and scooped her hair above her neck to let the breeze cool it. A lesser worry helped her forget the pressure. She massaged this worry into optimism. Miss Brasher might be able to help her pronounce her new name. Like most Thai, she already had a nickname, Yam, but Pru Damphouse wouldn’t hear of it. “They’ll tease that you are a potato,” she’d said.
She did not, at that time, know the English name of the yellow tuber, and she could not hear in her own name, whose tone stretched into a long, soft closing of lips, the abruptness of this new word. Yam meant something. Paired with sun it made the salmon-slivers of dawn brighten the mountains. Paired with flower it made the petal of the lotus open like a sleepy eye. Or it was the thin, reluctant smile of shy girl. Her father made her aware that her name held emergent qualities, and for that reason hope would live always in her heart.
She was not concerned with the change. A Thai name might change many times, particularly when fortunetellers said it was necessary to avoid harm, or to improve luck. She did not believe in these superstitions and had never changed her name.
But the reason bothered her. Pru Damphouse changed it to make her more desirable. She told Pru Damphouse she didn’t want to be desirable, not in such a superficial way.
“The surface is all you get,” Pru Damphouse had said, and refused to discuss it any further, except to tell her not to bring shame to her mother by being rebellious. There was nothing else she could do; it was a small matter, though the crushing in her chest seemed unbearable at first.
She whispered her name, Valerie, on the way back to class, and practiced converting the w to v and the r to l and the l to r in the right sequence.
Everyone settled into their seats. Miss Brasher stood at a table at the front of the room. Her smile was warm and patient. Valerie absorbed the youth and vibrancy of the other students. They were infused with confidence that they would be successful in life. A murmur of laughter among them. She joined in, enjoying the lightness of their hope.
But as the room became quiet, as attention shifted to Miss Brasher, she noticed a flickering of sorrow in her heart. She was not so young anymore. The hen and the cobra are hiding inside. They see each other, and they know what they are going to do. She shuddered and couldn’t breathe.
She waved goodbye to her carpool friends and waited until they had disappeared around a curve before turning to the imposing black bars.
Through them, she saw the path declining toward the house. Short brick walls surrounded the path. Dense azaleas and boxwood grew up behind the brick walls. Spanish moss clung desperately to the rough muscled limbs of the oaks, whose elephantine arms hung over the dark walkway. Their leaves fell like cold black tears.
She unlocked the gate and went inside. The initial assault on her body was that of being swallowed down the wet throat of a beast. The house lay like an acidic stomach at the end. A change in skin temperature, the way a gratifying summer inevitably gave way to a listless rainy season, swept over her. Leaves crackled beneath her feet. Her mouth, only moments ago a playful sign of life, began to morph into the respectful countenance Pru Damphouse expected.
The door was ajar. She stood a moment, afraid to go inside, afraid that Pru Damphouse had succumbed to her illness, had tried to get help, and had collapsed somewhere, perhaps coiled around the rotting garden hose, slung face down beneath the hammock, or rigid with stiffening fingers by concrete garden urns. She was overcome with guilt; she’d been away when Pru Damphouse needed her most.
A light on in the kitchen. A pale orange glow on the floorboards, boxed in by shadows. She crossed the threshold into the light and felt confined by the gloom.
More light in the dining room. Fish scales on the table, on the floor. Paints, too. Smears of red, yellow, blue, and green. A bottle on its side and the elongated fingers of paint dripping from the edge. A sound around the corner, faint and vile like a roach scuttling through paper bags.
She set her books on a side table and went around the corner and found Pru Damphouse half-dressed in a smock with nothing underneath. She stared in bewilderment at wooden bowls on the counter. A pale hand stretched toward the bowls, as if she’d forgotten whether to get one or had just set one down.
She took Pru Damphouse’s arm to guide her to the couch. The old woman jerked her arm away and filled the room with a harrowing screech.
She glanced at the clock; she was five minutes early. “I’m not,” she said. “What has happened to you?”
She stood small and naked in her open smock, her face a wet ruin. Though bent and feeble, she sniffed forcefully, willing her posture upright. She began to recognize her location, her position in the room, her surroundings. Her voice took over with a snap. “Don’t stand there. Find my housecoat. Find my cap.”
She wrapped the housecoat around Pru Damphouse’s shoulders and settled the woolen cap on her head.
“I don’t want that. I want the other one.” Pru Damphouse pushed her away, the belt of her housecoat dragging like a tiger tail behind. “I’m paying for you to be here, and you treat me bad.” She wagged a yellow finger. “I’m going to tell your uncle how ungrateful you are.”
She wanted to smack the old woman. With effort she pruned her emotion into a flat, meek, hopeless utterance. “I am not late.”
Pru Damphouse came at her. Her form compact and coiled to strike. “And how you talk back to me. Get my food.”
Valerie cut pork onto a plate and prepared a small soup of tofu and onion. She carried it to the old woman who sat curved and grasping as a scorpion at the table.
After she finished the dishes and cleaned the paints and scooped the scattered fish scales back into the boxes, she went to Pru Damphouse, who was lounging on the sofa in front of the television and waited. Pru Damphouse ignored her. She was easily seen but did as little as possible to stir up more anger.
She coughed softly, a sound to inform the old woman that she was waiting.
Pru Damphouse turned as if affronted. “What? Why do you stand there?”
“Please, Miss Pru.” She clasped her hands to her chest. She sensed her frame folding in half. “If it is O.K., I wish to study.”
Pru Damphouse turned to the television. “You’re an adult, Valerie. You don’t need to ask me. You’re going to do what you want anyway.”
“Yes, Miss Pru.”
“Did you blow the leaves off the roof?”
“No, Miss Pru.”
She saw it was useless. She went up to the roof. Past the yard, she could see the bayou shining with red and yellow ribbons of light and beyond the bayou a bank of trees, black in the shade of evening.
At the crest, the blower vibrating her palms, a soft wind skated over her face and tickled her neck faintly in the way her mother massaged her when she’d come home late from the hospital too restless to sleep.
She aimed the tube at the gutter. Leaves leapt over the edge.
Would she be disappointed to learn that her daughter was cleaning a rooftop? Her mother was old and had no one to look after her. If something happened, who would be there for her? If something happened, what would she say, that she was blowing leaves for a woman who collected fish scales and made her go on dates?
But she also sensed that her mother would be disappointed and ashamed to learn that she had neglected Pru Damphouse.
She worked harder, directing the leaves over the crest of the roof and down the sides.
At the top, she gazed down, as if she could see through the roof, through the ceiling, and of all the things she could possibly envision, the item that stood out, that gave her a pang of hopelessness was her bookbag, lying abandoned against a box of fish scales.
Her uncle told her to drive to the bar. She had been carving a pumpkin, her first ever, and was as giddy as a third-grader popping candy corn.
“There’s a birthday party,” he said and hung up.
Pru Damphouse, who was gluing fish scales into the shapes of lilies and roses, flung her arm up. “Go on, then. Leave me here alone.”
“I want to stay here.”
“If you wouldn’t be so stubborn,” she said, “you could. Tad Fickes called again. At any rate, he called me back.”
She put on her coat. “I don’t have a feeling for him. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be silly. What’s all this about a feeling?”
She dropped the car keys into her pocket and felt for her woolen gloves. “I don’t know. But I want to have it, something that takes my breath away.”
“Feelings are for little girls,” Pru Damphouse said. “You’re old, Valerie. Who’s going to take care of you is what you should be thinking about. I do my best to help you. But you turn your nose up at everyone I give you.”
“Uncle says come now. Do you need anything else before I go?”
Pru Damphouse sat wrapped in a blanket on the couch, her work drying on the table. “Tea. Bring tea and another pillow. And change the bag.”
Valerie set the cup on the table. She removed the colostomy bag. The red stoma glistened on her abdomen like cold jelly. She was careful, worried about causing discomfort.
Pru Damphouse snapped. “Stop hesitating. Get on with it.”
“I don’t want to make you have pain.”
“You are useless. You might as well say you don’t want me to have a life.”
She opened her mouth to reply but her tongue lay paralyzed behind her teeth.
“Stop trembling and fix this,” said Pru Damphouse.
She arranged the pillows and pulled the blanket around. Hidden inside the old woman looked like a brown toad buried in mud.
“Get out,” Pru Damphouse said. “I can take care of myself.”
She drove slowly to extend the time between places of misery. If it were not for the stoplights, the turns, the corners, if only the road were straight she would know what to do. Drive until it disappeared into the sea.
She parked near a dumpster beneath a streetlamp. Pie-eyed men stood outside holding bottles and laughing in the fiery glow of a slaughtered pig. She dodged them, stared at the ground, and scampered through the glass door, where the smoke and lights jolted her senses.
At the counter, her uncle spoke to a man and a woman perched on bar stools. He shot her a look she wasn’t sure how to read and grabbed a tray from the counter and scanned the dark bobbing landscape.
Holly told her to work the area near the video screen where a man stood with his hand clasped to his head as if he might explode. He screamed into a microphone.
She moused among patrons with her palm-balanced tray. A table of gray-haired men with sun-darkened faces called for her. She arrived, always polite, always pleasant. Somehow her good manners were read as flirtatious. One grabbed her arm, tethering her to the table. Another, in a flower-print shirt, said something and they howled. She laughed too, wondering if they teased her, or if something else had happened that was funny. They ordered beer and buttery nipples. When they let her go she paused near two women she recognized from the temple.
“They want you to drink with them, baby,” the swaying one said.
“Don’t be a prude, honey,” the staggering one said.
She looked at the women and said, “I don’t like them.”
The staggering woman, pearls glistening on her neck, said, “Drink anyway, baby. They have money.”
“And very handsome,” said the swaying one. “Retired military man very good to you, honey.”
The men had ordered too many drinks. She apologized, prepared to leave, but they detained her. It’s for you, they kept saying, grinning, teasing.
The extra shot stood like a glass island in the brown sea of the tray. She shook her head, waved them off. They insisted. Moored to the table by a hairy, muscled grip. A probing hand just below her bottom. She searched for her uncle. He gestured from the counter, “Drink up! Drink up!” The stinging creamy liquid clogged her throat. She hugged the tray to her chest and wended quickly past patrons back to the counter.
Her uncle shouted over the crowd and a spotlight punched the dance floor. A torn chair set square in the middle, a crew-cut group ushered the birthday boy to it. A parade of strippers crossed the floor, converged on the man, sitting like a toddler, and teased him with willing fingers and plummy breasts. Colored lights spun in widening circles and tiny bits of shiny paper floated onto the hair of the strippers whose enthusiasm made their thighs look like honeyed hams hanging in rows.
She watched from behind the counter. With everyone’s attention on the strippers, she was freed from chore and duty and relished the lightness in her chest. The moment ended too soon. Someone was shaking her from a deep sleep.
A man waved. She set beer on a napkin. He said something. She couldn’t hear but pretended she had and laughed. He laughed back, and she was certain by his quizzical expression that he knew she had not understood what he had said. She looked to her area. All busy hollering at strippers.
The man at the bar, he seemed desperate. What did he want? What was he saying, doing? She should get back to her area, but her attention drifted back to the man, who appeared to be looking away to avoid making her uncomfortable. Or maybe he was now more interested in the strippers pushing down their straps.
The man was not handsome but rather plain. Unshaven. Casual in a green pullover. The column of his body, the confident way he sat on the stool, relaxed and patient, made her guess that he might be a nice man. His untroubled gaze was fixed upon her.
She couldn’t hear over the noise of the bar. He pointed. A napkin. She slid one over.
He took out a pen and scribbled fast, folded the napkin into a small square, and pushed it toward her.
Thinking it was trash, she wadded it into a ball and tossed it into the garbage bin.
Laughing, he waved his hands and pointed for another. Read the napkin, he mimed.
She unfolded the page and read, Can I see you later?
At first she thought it was a joke and glanced down the counter where her uncle stood facing the strippers and talking with several men. Beyond him three men and a woman with pool cues loitered around a table, the men intent on helping the woman make a corner pocket.
The man sat with his arms vagrantly atop the counter. Not exactly staring. His demeanor, casual. More like warm regard, a lazy sunny day look. She checked her wristwatch. Just after midnight. She wouldn’t be done until four. She stretched her hand out for the pen. Hoping to discourage him, she wrote, How long can you wait? beneath his question.
He didn’t hesitate but carved a large inky reply and pushed the paper back.
Before she could read it, her uncle yelled for her to get back on the floor. She shoved the napkin into her pocket and fought through the strippers who had finished dancing and were enjoying drinks paid for by sun-darkened ex-colonels in Hawaiian shirts and strapping lieutenants with fanned ears. The strippers glistened with oils. Their lips were pink. The men draped their arms around them, and they pretended to be lounge sofas, creamy comfort for aging flesh.
She clasped her tray of bottles and shots, watching just below for the languid foot, the accidental complication, the greatest fear she endured in her somnambulist state, of flying over bodies with drinks flinging beyond her control.
The men, with hungry looks, cheered her. One more baby. One more. The clear shot glass, red in hand, lips seeking the rim. Across the bright bending surface of glass, over the flat bristling heads of her debauchers, through their filthy howling, she saw the man at the end of the bar leaning on an open palm, serene in the golden glow of the track lights, serene like the sleeping Buddha at Wat Pho.
When the crowd thinned out she went to the girls’ room, pushed her pants to her knees, and sat on the seat. A breath shook out of her that seemed to have no end. Music thrummed quietly inside the walls. Something about a grapefruit moon. Her English was so poor she thought it must have been a song about lovers who had met too soon. In and out, women came to rouge a cheek, perk up a breast, or escape a lout. She waited, perched in silence like a Kinnaree. Half human, half bird.
When the stalls ceased opening and closing, when she was entombed within the cube, the music of the grapefruit moon sweet in her ear, she slid her fingers into her pocket, drew out the napkin, and unfolded it on her bare thigh.
Beneath her scrawl—How long can you wait?—she expected a time he must leave for home, imagined work in the morning, or a wife to return to in a house on a tidy residential street.
She moved the napkin, searched for clear light to make it out. She wasn’t sure what it meant. Beneath her writing all it said was Forever.
Bundled up against an early December chill, she wore a green stocking cap with a fuzzy ball on top. Pru Damphouse, saying she looked silly, told her to take it off.
She refused. “The cold hurts my ears.”
Pru Damphouse dropped it, and this surprised her very much. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the Sugarplum Marketplace or, more likely, the good sales Pru Damphouse had hoped to make.
They’d arrived in Florence, Alabama, on a chilly afternoon beneath a grape-shaded sky, a golden vine of sunlight disappearing beyond the tree line.
The next morning, Pru Damphouse charged into the place and dissatisfied with the location of her booth haggled for a better one.
Valerie straggled behind carrying the boxes, which kept her off-balance, and to lessen the discomfort in her arms, she leaned against tables and crouched with them tucked between her feet.
She’d brought along her bookbag, hoping to find time to study. She was pulled forward and backward under the weight.
Pru Damphouse kept saying, “Don’t be lazy. Stand up straight.”
Before she’d become sick, Pru Damphouse attended festivals and shows every weekend. Hours painting and pasting fish scales and attaching them to stems, making them into bouquets, complete with pins, hidden twine, and colored wire. She taught Valerie how to craft a rose one afternoon. Valerie agreed the creation was pretty, shiny, colorful, and without close inspection, realistic. But she was uneasy handling the fish scales. It was too full in her mind what they were. The refuse of dead fish. Pru Damphouse scoffed.
“Recyclables, dear. Makes a great selling point.”
She had to admit this. But the fish scales represented more. A stripped-off structure that had once been protective, a sort of humiliation inherent in the process.
Once, after sniffing a bouquet of pale-yellow sea bass, she observed that they smelled like the ocean.
Pru Damphouse spritzed them with scent. “Try it now.”
They smelled liked body spray.
Pru Damphouse set them with the others. “See? They look like flowers. That’s what matters.”
“But they are not flowers.”
“They are just as much flowers as flowers,” Pru Damphouse said. “You don’t know how to appreciate them. Hand me the blue ribbon.”
The crowded marketplace showroom swelled with migrating shoppers and noise. She sat on the floor with an open book but couldn’t focus. She asked if she could wander around.
“You’re not doing me any good, so go on,” Pru Damphouse said.
The old woman’s tone was a scaling knife stripping her of pleasure. In Bangkok, she and her mother would stroll for hours in the Jatujak market. She was never tired. But ten minutes with Pru Damphouse, and she was depleted.
Her mind began to drift as she drifted among the shoppers, a background of light banter beneath the arches of the gymnasium. At one end she found a small fir that had blue and white paper chains around it. Igloo cutouts and stars. The decorations were uneven, the work of school children, and she stood long, admiring the ungrasping joy that must have gone into its creation.
She wandered past a booth of jellies done up in clear jars with checkered cloth. She sampled apricot and told the man in the straw hat that it was very sweet. He explained his canning method. His tone was that of a lover to his object of love. She was lost in the description, the strange words, and all she could do was smile, sigh a little, and move on.
Near a table with brochures for saving lives she found an unoccupied folding chair that was far enough from the crowd to let her catch her breath. She thought of Ethan, the man who had given her the napkin at the bar. She’d learned his name from Holly after the bar had closed. “He comes now and then,” she’d said. “A few beers. Tips O.K.” Holly was certain he had no money and had no idea what he did for a living. “He’s been coming more often,” Holly said, the next time Valerie worked the bar. “He asks about you.”
One night she’d gone out to dump the trash and he followed. He wanted to see her. She told him she could not. Her answer confused him.
“I have too much to do,” she said. “The people who look after me, I don’t think they will like you.”
Pru Damphouse would not like him. He was not a man she’d picked out for her. If she did not approve, she would tell her uncle, who would also not approve, and the opinion would not take long to reach her mother.
Ethan could not understand how complicated a relationship with her would be, and she was unable to explain it. She liked that he didn’t argue with her. He kept showing up at the bar and sat in her area and in time and in secret, she began to see him.
To avoid being found out, she told Ethan to leave the bar early and wait. She would come after and pretend not to know him. They would drive separately and meet in deserted parking lots. Though inexperienced—she had never even kissed a man—she grasped immediately the intent of his accommodating posture, tame eyes, soft laughter, and careful speech. What he wanted—to hold her hand, to kiss her—was what she also wanted, what also stirred within her breast as she lay awake in Pru Damphouse’s room wondering whether she was really awake or dreaming in an unending sleep.
She kept her distance. Afraid—she couldn’t even say for sure—of something her mother had once said or something she had done in a previous life that now prevented her from opening herself up. It went against her common sense to see him, and the ambivalence tortured her.
He gave her things, slid them across the counter or tucked them into the pocket of her coat. A peanut butter cup, a CD of songs, a broad sycamore leaf the size of her hand that he’d said had blown into his yard after a storm, a slice of pie so sweet she could not stop grinning. Everything in his hand became hers. Once, a poem in small letters about carrying her heart, about carrying her heart in his heart. The seasons turned on a cup of hot chocolate, a handful of candied corn, an ear of blue maize, and a reindeer with a tiny red blinking nose. One night, a cell phone.
“I don’t want it.”
They were parked in front of a musical instrument store.
“Keep it,” he said. “I won’t call you. Leave it off, hide it, and when you are free, call me, and I’ll come.”
She was tired and wet from work at the bar. An orange moon slipped behind a knot of pine trees.
“You won’t call me?”
“Miss Pru will not like it. My uncle will be angry if he finds out.”
He held the steering wheel and seemed to be looking at the tubas hanging from hooks in the display window.
“You’re a slave,” he said. “The way they treat you isn’t right.”
“I am no slave. I am very grateful for my uncle, and Pru Damphouse pays for my school, so I can not be disrespectful.”
“Never mind,” he said. “Call me.”
At first she did not believe him, but no matter what time she called he arrived within minutes. They met at box stores or the music shop a few blocks from her uncle’s bar. Sometimes they parked near a bridge. The icy north wind snipped at her ankles. A serene gander over a black murmuring bayou. She held his hand but avoided kissing him. He said he could wait, and she rested easy in his arms, charmed by his sincerity.
The marketplace’s chattering voice swelled. A shadow blanketed her hands. She looked up at a man in a black ball cap with gold pins affixed to the brim. The man cradled glossy flyers in his palm. The flyers had red crosses on them. Some had to do with choking victims. Some with tsunamis. The word relief was prominent.
She set the flyers in her lap and imagined a flyer about herself. Relief from Pru Damphouse. Relief from duty and obligation, the demands of culture.
Philip Matson had spoken about the demands of culture during their second date. He offered a sympathetic view of her plight. She was momentarily beguiled until she realized he was the sort of person who looked at the clock a little longer than necessary to read the time, as if he were regarding their conversation in billable hours. She looked at the table, at the huge bowl of mixed salad, wrinkled and green, between them. How could he understand? He spoke from the head, not from the heart.
“We want the good feeling for all people,” she told him. “It is in our language. You have one word for I and one for you. But we have seventeen words to say ‘I’ and nineteen to say ‘you.’ The meaning depends on many things, like politeness, intimacy, and status. We genuinely care for the other. We say nam jai or water of the heart to make it hard to see a stranger as threatening or suspicious. Here it is different, and many times I am afraid the person sees me as something to have or to take advantage of, like a trick.”
She excused herself. In the restroom, she adjusted the shoulders of her dress. Pru Damphouse had borrowed the floral print from a friend. “Almost your size.” Almost. A size too big, but the larger interest of Pru Damphouse had been served. She was self-conscious about leaning over and kept her hand pressed to her throat to keep the gap closed most of the evening. She tapped numbers on the cell phone, stopped, and turned it off. Everything felt hopeless, and she began to wipe the bathroom counters to stop thinking about her frustration.
Pru Damphouse was relentless in fixing her up. “You don’t have time to study,” she was always saying, and rushing her off to the next man. She went out with Tad Fickes again and a slim man named Soren. Pru Damphouse would be at the door when she arrived home. “Tell me all about it.” Her eyes leapt with the expectation that a match had finally been made.
But what could she say? The burdensome formality of the dates left her cold. They were all nice men, educated and settled. But how different time seemed when she was with Ethan. It didn’t zip like liquid through a cocktail straw but flattened out like a gentle wind on a blue lake. She meandered over its surface, as if freed from a locked room, released into sunshine. Sensations long dormant awakened in her breast, and with them a newfound ability to see.
In spite of Ethan’s unaffected exterior, the hunger beneath his skin longed for release. She saw it in the way his hands quivered when they held hers, the way his eyes entreated her, sending signals she could not completely decipher. As she studied his forbearing face, she sensed the struggle inside and felt sad that she was the cause of this turmoil.
If he could only be satisfied with their secret meetings, then nothing could disturb her. Contentment, she was certain, would linger forever.
She feared what she saw awakening inside him, and he would not be able to contain it. Like everyone else, wanting something from her she did not desire. Eventually, he would do anything to have what he wanted, and it would spoil her feeling for him.
Abandoning the flyers on the metal chair, she meandered among the booths. One had red-headed dolls in overalls. Button eyes, stringy mouths. A stuffed look of satisfaction, as if they were imagining a future in which they were loved without expectation.
Down an empty hallway she slipped the thin phone from a tight pocket.
“I miss you,” Ethan said.
“We’re driving home tonight.”
“I want to see you.”
“I will call.”
She turned off the phone.
Near midnight, Valerie settled into a drowsy drive, south down I-65. The road defined her. She obeyed, stayed within its limits of speed and position, and succumbed to its tidy incantation.
Pru Damphouse dozed in the corner of the front seat. Her cap-covered head slumped on her chest. She dreamed of Ethan but also quivered with fear. The nosy old woman, could she read her thoughts? Would she strike her for the insolence of her dreams? How careful she’d been not to shame anyone, not to disappoint. She dreaded to think about being caught. That fear, hidden away, came out at moments like this when she longed to hold Ethan full in her mind. It emerged like the fin of a shark on the surface of a black sea, the terrifying sensation that Pru Damphouse was scavenging around inside.
White lines rushed by. She barely breathed, afraid of waking Pru Damphouse, and longing to resume the sleepy dream of Ethan. The road went on into a darkness blacker than her disquiet, broken occasionally by the headlights of semis coming in the opposite direction.
Pru Damphouse, obscure inside the black wool coat, stretched even darker than the road. She pictured the old woman marked For Sale at the marketplace, an unwanted item among Christmas crafts, next to tables of blown glass and shelves of sourdough bread. The image brought a smile to her face and she checked to see if Pru Damphouse had noticed.
Ethan had driven her to a shoreline park after she’d arranged to leave the bar early one night. He waited by a tree near her car and emerged from the shadows. The roads were deserted, the neighborhood quiet, the sky cloudless. The park sloped down toward a bayou. Light glimmered on the opposite shore. They’d gone down past tranquil swings to a breakwater of rocks. He told her they were slippery and to be careful. Perched like brown noddies on the jagged stone, they sat long in silence. A breeze blew from the south. Light sparkled on the water like floating musical notes. She leaned warm and sleepy against him, a safe ride on the back of an unstoppable beast, a slick whale in the depths of a green sea.
He took her hand. No, don’t move, she wished and closed her eyes. She wished hard against the great, unstoppable beast. He spoke of his life, now that he’d met her, now that he knew what he needed. She stared at the water, at ripples of something dark and portentous. Oh, let it be, she willed his stillness into existence. Please, don’t move.
But he had taken her hand, and he was driven by an impetus she could not control. He drew up a picture of their life together. He spoke of gardens and small rooms, of shoes stacked in a floor cabinet, of modest meals and candlelight comfort, and a warm bed, snug and impenetrable. They would have all they wanted.
Please, please, stop talking.
He had more to say. He drew it out wide and long and deep over the distance of decades. He spoke of marriage.
She sighed and looked over the water at the ripples, at the floating musical notes.
She measured out her words and saw right off that because she did not smile and did not jump to say “Yes!” that he was disappointed. And, she thought, that’s just as well. She’d come to America at the urge of someone else’s dream, and it had not been as promised. He, too, had nothing more substantial than a dream to offer, and she’d grown weary of the dreams of others.
She curtailed her response, said only what her mother had once said to her: “The hen sees the snake’s feet. The snake sees the hen’s nipples.”
He was amused. Bewildered and amused. He would not have understood, even if she had tried.
“You’re cute,” he said.
She was exhausted and did not want to be cute. An hour remained before she would catch her ride to school. She asked him to drive her home.
The white lines of the interstate flew just under her vision. She cried out when Pru Damphouse shook her arm.
Sharply, loudly, Pru Damphouse said, “Did I tell you of my marriage?”
She felt invaded, as if even her own thoughts were on display like the fish flowers. She’d been careful, but what other meaning could it have that Pru Damphouse now wished to speak of marriage?
She drove silently, hoping she would return to sleep.
“Wake up! Wake up!” Pru Damphouse shook her hard; she peered from the darkness. “You will kill us driving asleep like that.”
“I am awake, Miss Pru.”
A fog rose up from the fields.
“When I was a young girl,” Pru Damphouse said, “I was engaged to a very famous man. Does it shock you? He was the Elvis Presley of Thailand. You know who I speak of?”
“But you don’t believe me.”
“I believe you.”
“Well, don’t be surprised. I was once very pretty. We met at a party. I wore a golden silk dress, and I was beautiful. Everyone said so. The evening was warm with a breeze, and I could have had any man I wanted, but I wanted him, only him, and I stole his heart. He was mine, and he loved me.”
The fog had gathered in the road; she turned on the wipers.
“His family was worried that he would make a bad match and watched him all the time. He kept me a secret while he warmed them up to make me acceptable to them.”
Oncoming vehicles dumped flickers of light and shadow into their laps. She saw in one wide plash of light a wistful smile raised like a welt on Pru Damphouse’s face.
“I could tell from his eyes, the way he touched me, that he loved me very much. And did I love him? There was no one else, or ever would be.”
She pictured the instruments in the music shop.
Pru Damphouse’s voice turned sour. “And do you know what happened?”
She was dreaming of holding hands with Ethan.
“He sent me a short letter. His family would never accept me. I was a poor girl. Simple as that. The note said something else. But I knew what it meant. Can you imagine my shame?”
She shrank behind the wheel, hating the candor in Pru Damphouse’s voice.
“You may as well know, Valerie, that you are never free to have what you want. Everyone has a claim on your life.”
She violently clamped her hand around Valerie’s forearm. “I’m telling you this, girl, so you will forget about the man you met at the bar.”
Valerie shrieked like a seagull. She had tried so hard, had desired only the thinnest cutting from the rose. A day—she would settle for a twinkling—of solace from the chafing chains. That rotten woman, capped, coiled, and dark in the corner of the truck, she’d torn it away, brutally plucked it from her breast with an icy-cold claw. The sea filled her eyes, swells deep in the lungs, and there was nothing to say, and she closed her mouth.
“You think I didn’t know,” Pru Damphouse said, “but your uncle tells me everything. Girls gossip. Holly and the rest, they go on and on about you and that man. They think it’s cute that you act like no one knows. But everyone knows. It’s what you don’t know that’s shameful. They say he is poor and has no chance to earn a decent living. He’s not like Philip Matson or Tad Fickes. Either one would give you a good life. Your uncle has checked around. He is not good. He fills your head with useless dreams. And you are so innocent—and at your age—to be taken in by him. This makes me sad after all I’ve done for you.”
She stared over the wheel, her sight fixed on the broken streaks of white in the dead-center heart of the highway. How could she know anything? Not this feeling. Her fingers floated over the wheel. The fog, weeping on the windshield, blinded her.
Pru Damphouse released her grip. “I never loved a man again,” she said. “Not even the man I married. But I am no longer a poor girl. In this life, you must be practical.”
The speed of the truck. Her thighs shifting on the seat. Darkness broken by flutters of light from farmhouses. She wiped her eyes; nothing would make her cry in front of Pru Damphouse.
“Find a place to pull over. The bag is full.”
She went into the restroom on the side of the service station. The floor was littered with cigarette butts and soggy paper towels. Her shoe slid over the tile, awash with the grimy dampness of indifferent travelers. She didn’t know where to begin. Not just someone but many someones had come into this small space and emptied the contents of their bags and escaped believing that what they had left behind would have no effect on anyone else.
She rinsed and dried the bag and set it on top of the towel dispenser. With wadded paper—it was a reflex—she cleaned the sink and the faucet. She gazed at the wall where the mirror should have been. A fine quiver in the body. A paralyzing chill sneaking over the skin. Bent, she cried into the sink.
The lights of the Christmas tree were still glowing red and white when she left the bar. The party had lasted past closing time. In two hours she would meet the students for their final class before winter break. Ethan stood shivering by his car. She nodded and drove away in her truck. Every now and then she glanced in the rearview and hoped she had lost him. Like two eyes, his headlights stalked her. Resigned, she breathed slowly. She wanted to be quick about it.
She parked near the bridge. His vehicle pulled next to hers with a long hush. She darted to the passenger’s side and climbed inside without offering her hand.
The bayou rocked gently. One leg under the other, she faced him, she hoped, for the last time. One hand held the wheel tight. The other folded limp in his lap. The assured way he looked built her confidence; he would accept what she had to say. But she was also afraid. He’d been honest. She might shock him or provoke his anger.
“It’s nothing to do with you,” she said delicately, as she twisted her fingers in the clumsy way that always let her mother know she was lying. “You’ve been very kind.” She searched for changes in the composure of his face. “My mother is ill, so I must return.”
Shade from a palm frond blocked a street lamp. A shadow licked his face. He stared over the water. She watched closely, reading the shape of his lips.
Without looking at her, without shifting from the endless bayou, he said, “Is there someone else?”
“There is no one.”
He seemed to be deciding something.
Would he? Would he say something bold—a thing to make a difference? She made a sound, a noise of encouragement.
Please, demand an explanation. Refute the assertions of her uncle. Repudiate the charges of that hateful old woman who had nothing left in her hissing heart but the spreading of misery. A word of hope or defiance. It will do. Speak it.
But the bayou muttered more than the man. Her mind raced, to fathom his heart. He could go with her, forsake his life here, be with her while she cared for her mother. He could at least say that he loved her. Her heart pleaded until it hurt.
He turned abruptly toward her. “Baby.” His tone, whispery and wet. “Honey.” He inserted a forked hand between her legs.
In a yawning blue space, her mother appeared by her side, as if she’d surfaced from the floorboards, and seemed to be waiting for her to capitulate. Her eyes urged, Let it happen. Yet her manner was tender and prepared, as if she knew the aftermath would leave her permanently damaged.
“Be sweet to me before you leave.”
Images split and blurred. He smothered her in a tangle of cloth, an unwilling button, a tug of twisted elastic. The cold nails of his fingers gnawed her thigh. She searched from the mist of her eyes for her mother.
Rag in hand, narrow in a loose sarong, her mother stood where the snake had disappeared into the hole. The cobra stepped across the floor toward the hen, whose astonished expression gave way to shame as it covered its nipples.
Instead of fighting against the snake, as she had done long ago, her mother gazed sadly upon the hen, stroked it lovingly, and whispered in its ear, “Now you know each other’s tricks.”
She fiercely beat on the man. Beat until he fell away, moody and disconsolate. She stared out the front window and buttoned her buttons and fastened her catches, but unable to catch her breath, her tears fell freely.
Daylight broke over the silvery water. She drove home to meet the other students. As she stood waiting outside, her cell phone vibrated. The message asked her to meet at the gate at nine. She deleted the message.
In the afternoon, she waved goodbye to the students for the last time. She unlocked the gate and wandered among the oaks before going inside to fold clothes and prepare a meal for Pru Damphouse.
Just before nine o’clock she put a sweater on over her flannel nightgown and told Pru Damphouse she wanted to check if she had turned off the water outside.
“Water? What water?
“For the plants,” she said. “I might have left it running. I just remembered.”
“How will you ever get a husband,” Pru Damphouse said, “if you continue to be so thoughtless?”
Through the garage, she wondered if he would show up, wondered what he wanted. As upset as she felt, she still hoped he’d come to apologize and do something to take her away from Pru Damphouse.
Bundling her sweater across her chest, she went up the driveway to the wrought-iron gate.
He waited with a package balanced on his palm.
“Can you come out?”
“She keeps the key.”
He pushed the package forward, which she now saw was a flimsy paper plate covered with a paper towel.
“It’s pie,” he said. “It was hot when I took it. But now it’s cold.”
“A piece.” He offered the plate. His eyes glistened from the cold.
“Do you joke at me?”
“It’s all I had. Take it.”
She took the plate through the cold black bars. He stood looking at her with little expression.
He wished to know, “And now, what happens?”
She said neither one thing nor the other but looked at his hands and saw that they were now empty. As he went away she clung to the iron bars. She would always wonder what he had meant by Forever.
The taillights of his car receded into the darkness. She held the pie to her nose and sniffed: a berry flavor, so sweet she would never taste it.
The house was dark save a golden glow in the kitchen. Pru Damphouse would be waiting, ready to scold her for taking so long. She should have gone inside. Instead, she set the pie on the ground, removed her sweater, and folded it next to the pie.
She pulled herself up the iron bars. The cold abrasive metal stung her hands. From the top she dropped onto the sidewalk on the other side and scampered away, her slippers slapping the cement. The emergence of unfettered joy spurred her into a gallop past the landscaped lawns. Past the glittering hydrants. Past the SUVs lined up in prim driveways. Past the porch lights promising safety. She tore at the nightgown as she ran and left it like a molted skin on the sidewalk behind her. Her chest heaved. Her thighs released their fire. She ran on, naked into the night.
She was running to the sea.