When I woke up, I knew it was an emergency room. This was back in 1958, and it looked like scenes in Young Dr. Kildare on Million Dollar Movie.
“Take it easy, Kiddo,” I heard my father say, as I tried to sit up. He was hunched on a stool next to my bed, with an unlit cigarette clenched in the corner of his mouth.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, his voice shaky, “but you’ve got yourself a badge of honor there for a few days.” He pointed to my forehead. I reached up to feel something rough.
“I know you’re wondering about Mom,” he said, although it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder. “Well, she isn’t here right now, Maddy. They’ve got her on another floor. But they’re going to fix her up, don’t you worry.”
Usually, when my father said, “Don’t worry,” my mother said, “Who in this family will worry if I don’t?” So now I wondered—should I worry?
The night before, my parents and I had driven up the winding canyon road to the Feldmeiers’ house, for New Year’s Eve. I brought my books, as always, but in the den, where my mother settled me in and gave me a snack, there was also a TV. At home, she had rules: only one hour of TV each evening and only certain programs—Lassie or The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance. At the homes of my parents’ friends, though, I was free to improve my education with old movies: The Thief of Bagdad, National Velvet, Yankee Doodle Dandy. From them I learned that everything exciting had happened before I was born.
That New Year’s Eve, they were showing The Third Man. It felt as if I were inside one of my father’s spy novels, which with my urging he sometimes read aloud to me, but it was confusing and boring, and I fell asleep. When my father came in later to carry me to the car, I stirred enough to say, “Daddy, on TV, I saw ... I saw ...” but couldn’t remember what I wanted to tell him and fell back into sleep.
In the months before my ninth birthday, my preoccupation was running away from home. I reckoned the dangers of the world from the passenger seat of my mother’s Packard and weighed my fear of those dangers against their allure. I was tall enough, if I stretched, to peer out. I thought of the view as my private movie. What if I just pulled up on this handle and then pushed outward? The thought consumed me on trips to the grocery store, my grandparents’ house, or the library—where, on Saturday mornings, I would collect a stack of books for the week. My favorites were the Nancy Drews, but I was suspicious that they would not prepare me for grown-up life as my father’s darker books would.
My father was seldom home in the evening. He had business meetings, sales trips, the Masonic Lodge, and the Elks’ Club. When he was home, I would curl next to him in the big armchair as he read Desmond Cory, Helen MacInnes, Graham Greene. My mother would appear, dish towel in her hands, and say, “For Lord’s sake, that’s nothing to read to a child.”
My father would wink. “We skip a few parts.”
“But still,” my mother frowned.
“O, ye of no imagination!” My father grinned in his quirky, lopsided way. “She likes it.”
“I like it,” I echoed, drowsy and warm, my head nestled against his sweater.
Occasionally, he nudged me out of the chair and sent me to the big atlas. “Okay, Kiddo, give it a look. Show me_____.” Here he would insert the setting for the chapter we were reading—Shanghai or Vienna or Trieste. In this way, centers of Cold War intrigue came to play an outsized role in my understanding of world geography.
Trieste, I understood, was far away from our Los Angeles suburb. It had narrow, twisting alleyways with gargoyles looming overhead. Gargoyle was my favorite word the summer I turned eight. I repeated it over and over as I swung as high as I could on the swing set at Granada Elementary School, until the word was replaced in my affections by espionage.
Most of the time, it seemed to me, it was night in Trieste, or Shanghai, or Vienna—cities where you went to meet with someone you didn’t know who would give you important information. Such places, I understood, were dangerous, but my father said spies couldn’t worry about this. They had to focus on memorizing maps and learning languages. My father didn’t know other languages. He sold insurance. “That’s what becomes of people who don’t study maps and languages,” he said.
We didn’t have much about maps at Granada Elementary School, and foreign languages wouldn’t begin until junior high school, when, my father said, it would be too late. Nor was I learning to pick a lock, maneuver around a strange city at night when I had no money, use proper table manners in Zanzibar, leap from the roof of one building to another, or recognize the one person to trust in a smoky bar down a back alley in Trieste. As far as I could tell, my education was useless.
In the car, I tried to imagine what I would do, what would happen, if I suddenly found myself out there—a spy transported to Trieste. I had no idea why this might occur, but spies, like scouts, needed to be prepared.
I constructed a hierarchy of scenarios and a plan for each. If I suddenly found myself alone, at the corner where the crossing guard helped us on our way to school, I would run fast, my lungs aching, the five blocks to our house, before any monsters or evil people could catch me, and bound up the back steps into our kitchen.
If I were suddenly left in the parking lot of Down’s Market, across from the Devonshire Downs Fairgrounds, I would go inside, to the meat counter, where Mr. Plotnik would phone my mother and give me a slice of liverwurst on waxed paper (“liverbest,” he called it) as we waited for her.
If I were really far from home—in those vast open fields on the drive to the airport where we picked up Auntie Mimi the summer I turned five—I would go to the flower stand where we had stopped that day. Mother rang a bell, and a whole flock of dark-haired children came running, laughing, from among rows of gladioli, to sell us a bouquet for Auntie Mimi. In the car, the bouquet on my lap, I asked my mother who those children were. Japanese, she said. I had never seen a Japanese person before. This was a revelation to me, that out in the world was a group of children caught up in a swirl of red, yellow, purple, pink—children who were always happy.
“I want to be Japanese, too,” I told her somberly.
She sighed. “Don’t count on it.”
I knew she must be right because she never lied to me, but I didn’t like knowing the truth. I stared out the window and for the first time hated my mother.
When I went anywhere with both of my parents, my view of the outside world was from the back seat of the car. My father was always the one who drove, although my mother told him he was reckless and drove too fast. And sometimes we got lost.
“Don’t worry, Toots,” he would say to my mother. “I have an infallible sense of direction.”
“Right,” she always said, but her voice didn’t sound like she was agreeing with him.
“A little adventure is what this family needs. Right, Kiddo?” he said over his shoulder.
“Right,” I would say, and I meant it.
When my parents went to play bridge or to a party at their friends’ houses and couldn’t find a babysitter, they brought me along because my mother wouldn’t let me stay at my grandparents’ ranch up on Shoshone Avenue, no matter how much I begged and promised not to be a pest.
“But why not?” I would ask.
“That’s just the way things are,” my mother would answer. “We can’t have every little thing we want. Stop whining.”
“I’m not whining,” I said. “I’m asking. I never get to spend enough time with Gran.”
“Now you’re pouting,” she said. “We visit the ranch every week.”
“Yes, but you and Daddy are always there, too. You talk about grown-up things,” I said. “It’s boring.”
“Don’t be silly. You have the whole ranch to yourself.”
It was true. Whenever I got tired of the adults’ conversation, I could wander off along the network of paths that crisscrossed the ranch, through fields of foxtails that came up to my waist and wild mustard as tall as I was. I could run through the lime groves or explore abandoned stables or climb the hill behind the house for a view of the whole valley.
“But I want to play with Gran,” I said. “Just Gran and me.”
“What games do you want to play?” my mother asked one time, as she was brushing my hair.
“Not games.” The word seemed an insult. “Gran says we’ll paint my toenails red, like hers, and we’ll go to Fiji and walk in the ocean where little fish will come and nibble our toes.”
My mother pulled my hair into a tight ponytail.
“Nobody’s going to Fiji,” she said, “at least not anytime soon.”
I twisted around to look at her.
“But someday, right?”
My mother sighed. “You’re so much like her—and so much like your father.”
“Yes, Sister, you are.” She nodded, sadly, as if this weren’t a good thing. “It must be in the blood.”
My mother called me Sister. Only when she was angry did she call me Madeleine Marie. Back East, in New Hampshire, where we once spent a month with her parents, her mother had called her Sister, too. At Community Church, all the ladies called all the girls and each other Sister. I didn’t know anybody in California who did that.
At Show and Tell, I pulled back my bangs to display eleven stitches and told my classmates about the car accident I didn’t remember. I parroted as much as my father and grandparents had told me.
“Do you have amnesia?” Billy Cunningham asked during Question Time. Amnesia was a vocabulary word.
“No,” I said. “I don’t remember because I was asleep in the back seat. I woke up at the hospital.”
“Is your mom gonna die?” Frankie LaCosta asked.
The question startled me. Of course she wasn’t going to die. They were fixing her up, weren’t they? But could she die? No, I couldn’t imagine it. Without her, what would I be? I searched my memory for models to follow: Anne of Green Gables, of course, and Pip, all those Lost Boys, Pollyanna, and a girl named Midge from a few nights ago on Wagon Train, who stowed away on a trip west. Was there such a thing as a half orphan? I looked down at my feet. It must be wrong, to feel such a thrill at this possibility.
Miss Emerson gave Frankie a disapproving click of her tongue and answered for me, speaking to the cluster of students. “Madeleine’s mother,” she said, “will be coming home from the hospital in a week. Or maybe two.”
Ah. So that was it. I would have a week, or maybe two, to be free of her, to have an adventure.
For the rest of the day, I was the star of the class. Cynthia Watson sat next to me during Art. Sally Ann Fenwick and Laurel Brooks chose me for their team at recess. Frankie LaCosta even stopped aiming wet missiles of wadded-up tissue paper at me from the back of the classroom.
For that one week, or maybe two, my father and I were staying with my grandparents, so they could look after me while he was at work. It was better than Christmas, better than running away from home. It felt daring, doing something my mother would have forbidden.
My father had driven me up to the ranch from the hospital early that first morning, and we climbed the three concrete steps to the porch. My grandfather motioned me over to his chair. He took me by the shoulders and at eye level inspected the bandage on my forehead.
“Quite a bump,” he said.
He was the oldest person I had ever known, and much older than my grandmother. His eyes were milky blue. Tufts of white hair grew from his ears. He had a dark mole the size of a quarter on his temple. My eyes must have strayed to it.
“You know how I got this?” he said, pointing to the mole.
I shook my head.
“Deep in the Yucatán,” he said, “a big lizard jumped up and bit me right there!” He demonstrated with a quick jab that made me blink. Then he laughed his little “heh, heh, heh.”
I thought about the lizards I saw all the time on the ranch, sunning themselves on a rock or skittering across a dirt path into the underbrush. I wondered if these creatures were big enough to attack me.
My grandfather pursed his lips in the direction of my bandage. “Hurts like the dickens right now, I’m guessing.”
“But in a few days, you’ll want to scratch it.”
I couldn’t imagine wanting to scratch it.
“Don’t,” he advised.
Later that first morning, my grandmother emerged from her bedroom in her silk wrapper.
“Darling!” she said to me, and leaned down to hug me. In a graceful hand, with her little finger raised, she held her cigarette away from us both. Its holder elongated her arm so that she looked like a ballet dancer. She was the only person I knew in real life who sounded like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. My father said it was because she came from New York. Everyone from New York talked like that, he said.
Common family lore had it that when my grandmother was a girl, her family had been one of the richest on the East Coast. Then at the turn of the century, they had a “reversal of fortunes,” my father called it, and after a few years, she married my grandfather, who “had no fortunes to reverse.” My mother translated. She said it meant that Gran’s family suddenly lost all their money and her father shot himself, and Gran and her mother went to live in a boarding house, where she met Gramp.
“Your grandfather was resourceful,” my mother said. “That means he knew how to do things, like buying this ranch. They were poor as church mice, the pair of them, but they bought this place for a song. Can you guess how?”
I shook my head.
“Well, Gramp persuaded the owner that the house had ghosts in it and that nobody else would ever buy it.”
“Does it have ghosts?”
“Of course not. There is no such thing.”
The house had not been the main building on the larger, original Sunshine Ranch of the past century. That had disappeared long before. Theirs was the bunkhouse for the cowboys. It was long and narrow and had peeling gray paint that used to be white. The entire front was a porch enclosed by dusty, rusting screens, torn in places. From it—and the corresponding back porch—opened the many bedrooms, enough that each family member and any friend who might stay overnight was able to have his or her own room.
My creaky bedroom at the ranch frightened me. The first night I stayed there, I lay awake a long time and repeated to myself what Gran had told me as she tucked me in—that everything in the dark was the same as in the light, so there was nothing to be afraid of.
“Are there monsters under your bed in the daytime?” she asked.
“Well, they aren’t there at night, either.”
In the morning, my father and I ate cornflakes, and he had coffee. Over his coffee, as always, he chewed on a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, although he didn’t light it these days.
My grandfather did five minutes of calisthenics on the back porch. Then he took his lunch in a crumpled paper bag and walked to the far corner of the ranch, where an oil company had sunk a well the year before, to explore the world under the ranch. My father said the old man sat there every day, where he waited for “new fortunes to gush forth.”
My grandmother didn’t get up before 11:00 because anything earlier wasn’t civilized.
After cornflakes, my father drove me to school, which was too far from the ranch for me to walk to, and in the afternoon, Sally Ann Fenwick’s mother took me home to the ranch.
As Mrs. Fenwick’s car backed down the gravel driveway the second day of school, and I climbed the steps to the porch, I thought of my mother. For the first time in my life, she wasn’t there to listen to every detail of my day at school as I had a glass of milk and she finished the ironing. She may have lacked imagination, but she was a good listener.
I would have liked to tell her the highlights of that day. We had all lined up for our polio shots, and when my turn came, I didn’t cry, as some of the kids did. “Of course you didn’t,” she would have said, and I’d say, “But the important part! You know what the secret is? You have to look away and pretend you’re floating up to the sky.” And she would have said, “Well, that’s good to keep in mind.” Then I would give a dramatic recitation of the story Laurel Brooks had told at recess, of how her aunt with polio had to live in a big metal box called an iron lung, and she couldn’t go outside or dance or go swimming. Ever.
I sensed, without knowing how I knew, that nobody else—not my father or grandfather or even my grandmother—would show much interest in the account of my day at school. But half-orphanhood required sacrifices, I supposed, and this ritual must be one of them.
In the late afternoon, I got to help my grandmother in the kitchen. We cooked foods we never had at my house: ratatouille, shepherd’s pie, Welsh rarebit (no, she promised, not rabbit). She said we were a pair of “scullery maids.” I didn’t understand that, but it sounded like a good thing to be. From the living room, my grandfather would sometimes roar a threat to come in there and show her how to cook real food—stewed tripe or pigs’ feet, Spanish style.
“Pay no attention to him,” my grandmother said.
After dinner the first few nights, she brought out a box of first-aid supplies. She tilted my face up into the light above the kitchen table, removed my bandage, washed the wound, painted a new layer of iodine over the stitches, and taped on a new bandage. Then we had a cup of cocoa. I began to associate wound care with chocolate.
The room was large, dominated by the wooden table with its red and white oilcloth. A French door with peeling green paint opened from the kitchen to the back porch, in the far corner of which was the only bathroom in the house, with a pedestal washbasin, a claw-foot bathtub, and the toilet on which Auntie Mimi was once sitting when she looked down to see a rattlesnake coiled around the base. My grandfather liked to tell that story. On the floor of the porch nearest the kitchen, Gran kept a saucer of cream. She said it was for Mr. King, although there was no cat of that name, or any other, in the house.
On our second Sunday afternoon at the ranch, I was helping her shell beans for supper when I looked down to see a snake, banded dark brown and white, emerge from a gap in the floorboards on the back porch and slither into the kitchen. I pulled back with a start. My grandmother set down her bowl of beans and gestured for me to do the same. She took my hand, and we began a slow, deliberate procession through the house, following the creature from room to room.
“You must always respect Mr. King,” she said. “He hunts for rattlesnakes, outside and inside. He keeps us safe.”
After Sunday supper, my father took his coat from the hook by the door and headed out to visit my mother, as he did daily.
“Can I come with you?” I asked this time. I wanted to tell her about the book report I was writing on Nancy Drew’s Secret of Red Gate Farm and about ratatouille and Mr. King.
He didn’t answer right away. “Well, Kiddo,” he finally said, “not just yet.”
“But you said a week. It’s been nine whole days. When is she coming home?”
“I said a week or two.”
“So tomorrow, can I visit?”
He shrugged into his coat and didn’t look at me. “I think maybe you have too much youthful energy for her right now, Maddy. She needs her rest.”
Before I could promise not to have so much energy, he was out the door.
In the evenings, as long as we were at the ranch, my father didn’t go to business meetings or the Masonic Lodge, but he didn’t read to me, either. As they did when we visited on Sundays, he and my grandfather sat by the Franklin stove in the living room. They watched Jack Benny on TV or listened to the ballgame on the radio. They didn’t talk much. Gramp had a bottle of beer, as usual, but these days, my father didn’t.
One night, on my way back to bed with a glass of water, I caught a glimpse of them from the doorway of the darkened kitchen. Mr. Eisenhower was talking on TV, with the sound low. They weren’t paying attention to him, and they didn’t notice me. My father sat slumped over, leaning on his knees, staring down at the floor. He sighed. “Damn tough.”
“I don’t know if we can get through this.”
“Just takes time.”
“Well, sure, the bones will heal ...”
“... but she won’t talk about it. I know she blames me.”
Gramp twisted the beer bottle around in his fingers. “Well, women do hang onto things.”
My father looked at him. “How could she not? I was pretty hammered, Pop. I gotta own up to it, gotta do things better.”
Gramp tipped his beer up, took the last swig, and made a small gesture with the bottle. “Is that why you’re not joining me?”
My father gave a sad, twisty, sideways grin. “I guess so. Penance.”
“Ah,” my grandfather nodded.
Penance? It must have been a grown-up joke. Did he mean Penzance, like the record in my mother’s collection? It didn’t make sense. What did singing pirates have to do with my father’s not drinking beer? My mother could explain it to me, but my mother wasn’t there.
I crawled back into bed and lay still, trying not to scratch my stitches that were itching like the dickens.
Late one night near the end of our second week, I heard yelling and footsteps along the porch. Drawn toward this noise by a fearful curiosity, I hugged my robe to me and crept to the door. Same as in the light, same as in the light.
I saw my father disappear into his father’s room, and I followed as far as the open doorway. My grandfather was sitting up in bed, his eyes wild and staring—at me, I thought at first, until I followed his gaze to some point outside on the porch. Nothing was there.
“No, no, no, no!” he was screaming. “You get out, Nellie! Get out! Leave us!”
I pulled back and clung to the doorjamb, confused. My father sat on the bed. He gripped my grandfather by the shoulders and eased him down to the pillow.
“It’s okay, Pop,” he said. “It’s okay. She’s gone. It’s just a nightmare. Go to sleep. It’s okay.”
My grandfather seemed to be released, to become himself again. His body relaxed. The wildness left his eyes, and they searched my father’s face.
“She was here,” he said.
“No, Pop. Just a bad dream. Go to sleep.”
Gramp sighed and closed his eyes. My father sat for a while, stroking the old man’s forehead. Then he stood and stretched. He saw me clutching the edge of the door.
“Go back to bed, Maddy,” he said.
“Who’s Nellie?” I whispered.
He scooped me up and carried me to my room.
“She was a lady who was very old. She died before you were born.”
“But who was she?”
“Someone who loved your gran very much. She was unforgiving of your grandfather, though.”
My father pulled the blanket up to my chin. “Go to sleep.”
“She’s a ghost? She’s here? Mom said ghosts don’t exist. She said Gramp’s story about the house is just a story.”
“It is. Ghosts don’t exist.”
“But he saw her!”
“No,” my father said, his voice tired. “He didn’t see anything. That’s just something called a personal demon. Nothing for you to worry about. Now go to sleep. Do you want me to leave the light on?”
And he left the room. I lay there with a new concept to grasp. If Gramp had his own demon, did everyone have one? Did I have one? I had heard about demons, but Sunday School in New Hampshire hadn’t prepared me for this. I added it to my list of topics to talk to my mother about when she was fixed up and we’d all go home.
The next morning, it was as if nothing had happened. My grandfather looked the same as ever. He did his calisthenics, took his lunch in a paper bag, and banged the screen door on his way out.
Each night after that, I climbed in to sleep with my father in his room or my grandmother in hers, in case Gramp’s demon came to visit me. Except for that, life at the ranch went on as before, only I started to think maybe this was enough adventure.
Throughout the house, here and there, was evidence of my grandmother’s life from the time before her family lost everything. On the nightstand by her bed, next to her glass of water, was a small photograph of her as a young girl, with a parasol, and two ladies who didn’t have parasols. There was another photo of the entrance to her family’s home in New York. Ivy crept over the stone walls. In its vastness, it looked like a museum.
We sat on her bed one evening, well into my third week at the ranch, and she picked up this photo.
“Do you know what I used to do, when I was your age?” she said.
“In the evenings before my parents’ dinner parties, I used to crawl under the table and hide. The tablecloth came down to the floor, in those days, you know.”
I did know. I had seen Maytime on Million Dollar Movie.
She took a sip of water and continued. “I waited for everyone to be seated. I was very quiet. Then I would tickle the ladies’ ankles under their long, satin gowns!” She wiggled her fingertips in the air. “The ladies were too proper to say anything or even to move more than a few inches, so they had to endure!” She threw back her head and laughed.
It was beyond my ability to envision my parents having such a table. Our dinner parties were barbecues on the concrete patio of our small redwood house, where we wore shorts on hot summer nights and sat on plastic-webbed chairs that left a pattern of squares on the back of our thighs.
She nodded toward the other photo, with the parasol.
“Can you guess where this is?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“This is Paris. Do you know where that is?”
I nodded. Of course. That was easy.
She pointed one perfect, manicured nail to the shorter of the two women. “This was my Irish nurse.”
I looked at my grandmother.
“No, no, dear,” she said. “Not a nurse in a hospital. Like a nanny—a lady who takes care of children. Nellie took good care of me. She was very protective.”
“Oh, she was a fierce one.” My grandmother smiled at this memory. “She lived a long time—here, with us, until she died. She wouldn’t accept a penny, not that we had one to spare, anyway. But she considered herself a member of the family. She took care of your father, too, when he was your age. Did you know that?”
I shook my head.
Gran giggled. “She hated your grandfather. He promised to bring back things the way they used to be, before I met him. But, well ...” She made a gesture as if to encompass the ramshackle house and their lives within it. Then she pointed to the other woman in the photo. “And this was my governess.” She took a long drink of water, set the glass down, and dabbed at the corners of her lips with a delicate fingertip.
“I was a very willful child,” she said. I could tell she was pleased with herself. “I refused to learn French. Of course all proper young ladies had to speak French, so my parents sent me off to live in Paris with my nurse. Can you imagine?”
“Then they hired the governess, who spoke only French. I had no choice but to speak it, too!”
This seemed to me like something in a movie—Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl, maybe, only in France. I wished I could be rich, too, so that I could rebel against it, so that I would be sent to Paris as punishment.
“Gran, will you teach me French?” I asked.
“Mais oui!” she said.
“Yes?” I said, to make sure.
She leaned close, as if we were two conspirators, and tickled me in the ribs. “Yes,” she said. “Where do you think we should start?”
My father appeared at the bedroom door.
“Daddy! I’m going to learn French!”
But he wasn’t looking at me.
“Mama,” he said, in a low voice I had never heard, “let me see your eyes.”
She turned her head away.
My father stepped to the bed. He cupped her chin in his hand and turned her face up toward him.
“Goddammit, Mama, not again,” he whispered.
She twisted out of his grip.
He opened the drawer of her bedside table and took out a bottle of pills—then another, and another, and another.
My grandmother crumpled into her pillow in sobs.
My father opened each bottle and shook the contents onto the floor, one by one.
“No!” my grandmother howled. She scrambled to the floor, her hands fluttering in a desperate attempt to retrieve pills disappearing in cracks between the floorboards—and to scoop up the powdered debris of others that my father was grinding underfoot as if they were cigarette butts on the street.
Ignoring her sobs, he picked up the glass of water, sniffed it, and took a sip. “Goddammit,” he said again. “And with Maddy in the house?” He flung the liquid across the room and put the glass back on the nightstand. A new stain bloomed on the yellowed wallpaper.
Bewildered, I stared first at her and then at him, feeling caught between the two of them. I had never seen him so angry.
“Go get your coat, Maddy.”
“No!” I dropped to the floor and threw my arms around my grandmother, but she wouldn’t look at me. She shoved me away, hard, and I fell back in an awkward heap.
“Get your coat,” he repeated and then more softly added, “do you want to go to the hospital, or not?”
Wrapped in my too-large winter coat, I pressed my forehead against the cold car window. My wound was now just a jagged scar that no longer itched. Three days before, my grandfather had waved me over to his chair and held out a small pair of scissors.
“Time for those to come out,” he said.
My hand flew instinctively to my forehead. I looked at the scissors and then at his face, searching for signs that this was a joke.
“It’ll hurt,” I protested.
“Nonsense.” He brushed my bangs aside, and I squeezed my eyes shut. “You’ve got yourself an expert stitch remover here.”
I tensed, feeling his rough hand and the pressure of cold scissors.
“Didn’t I ever tell you about the time I lived in a little village way up north in the Yukon?”
“Huh-uh.” I held my breath and tried not to flinch.
“I did the doctoring in that village for two years.”
“You were a doctor?” I waited for the pain.
“Sure was. Took care of our family dogs all my life. Got to the Yukon, and they needed a doctor. I figured if you could set a dog’s broken leg, you could set a person’s broken leg, right?”
I wasn’t sure about that. But then he said, “You’re all done,” even before I remembered to float up to the sky.
My father and I sat in silence as we drove past ranches and dark citrus groves, through neighborhoods of tract houses, and into the city. I had been to downtown Los Angeles only in the daytime, when I went with my mother to the big library.
I remembered another time in a car, driving home with her, when I was six and still had my two imaginary friends—Justine, an explorer in a safari suit and her sister Julia, in a wheelchair.
“Can Justine and Julia come to lunch today?” I asked my mother.
Already, at six, I knew enough to predict her answer. She would say, “Don’t be silly. You know they don’t exist,” and I would regret asking her.
But she didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, in the most astonishing moment of my life to that point, she said, “We have only one can of tuna.”
Thrilled, I said, “We won’t eat much. We’ll share.”
And she said, “Well, then, I guess it’s all right.”
At this memory, that night driving to the hospital, I felt shame for the times I hated my mother, and I wanted nothing more than to fling my arms around her waist.
We stopped at a traffic light.
“You know, Maddy,” my father sighed—the first time he had spoken since the ranch—“I’m not angry with you.”
I relaxed a little. I wanted to ask him why he was angry with my grandmother, but I was afraid maybe I already knew the answer. What I really wanted was for everything to go back to the way it had been before that evening, before we went to the ranch, before the accident. Most of all, I wanted to be with my mother, to talk with her, because nothing seemed real if I couldn’t tell her about it.
I stared at the city outside the car window, a new scene in the movie of my imagination: here, bright, flashing lights; there, a block of darkened buildings, a person slumped in a doorway. What if I were out there, alone? I wondered what I would do, what would happen. I had no plan for this.
The car slowed in traffic, and we passed an alleyway that stretched on a diagonal from the street. Dark figures clustered under weak light from a streetlamp, leaned against brick walls, squatted in circular groups. In the distance, people were silhouetted against a fire.
“Are we almost there?” I asked.
“The hospital? Yeah. It’s over there.” My father made a vague gesture as if in the direction of the alleyway. “I gotta tell you, though, they probably won’t let you in to visit Mom.”
I looked at him in alarm. “Why not?”
He shrugged. “They’ve got some kind of rule. No kids under twelve.”
“We’ll tell them I’m twelve!” I said.
He looked down at me and formed a crooked smile around the cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“I don’t think they’ll fall for that one, Kiddo.”
I turned away from him.
We stopped at a corner. Only the car door separated me from these streets of shadows and neon. Anger and fear mingled with the fierce attraction of stepping into this movie. I felt the cool metal of the door handle, pulled up, and pushed outward.
I ran. The cold sidewalk slammed through the thin soles of my shoes. I kept my eyes on the broken pavement and caught blurred glimpses of figures around me as I turned into the alleyway, zigzagging around people. My heart pounded as if it might burst through the wall of my chest. I was a spy in Trieste, a spy with amnesia, no contact person, no assignment. In the distance was the flame I had seen from the car, and I ran toward it, fast and hard, with no plan other than to reach it.
I was almost there—I saw it now—a fire in a big metal can, with people huddled around it—when I crashed into legs that stepped in front of me.
“Whooooowiiii!” a man’s voice crowed above me. “What do we have here?”
I looked up, cautious, as if the narrow brim of my knit hat would offer protection.
The face that loomed over me was dirty and glistening. Oily blond hair hung limp. Pale blue eyes bulged. Gargoyle!
The face closed in on me, its mouth pulled back in a grin, missing teeth and smelling bad.
“White girl in the jungle!” he screeched in glee.
I went rigid.
Then a loud voice behind him said, “What you got there, Jimmy? You’re like to scare her to death.”
The face retreated, and the legs stepped aside to reveal a woman sitting by the fire, on a wooden crate like the ones my grandfather used for limes from his grove.
“Now how did you get yourself here, Sister?” the woman said. Her face was broad and dark and glowed in the firelight. Her eyes were sad. This was the person, I suddenly thought, who would give me the important information, the message in invisible ink, who would whisper the truth. She patted her knees. She wore gloves that didn’t have fingers.
My fear dissolved, and I started to walk toward her.
But then a hand grabbed my arm, hard, and yanked me away, back in the direction I had come from, like a movie rewinding, like a dream you wake from that recedes as you try to retrieve it. My arm hurt, and all I could do was stumble along, staring at my father’s shoes ahead of me.
In the car, he reached across me and pushed down the lock on the passenger door. He sat back. The car behind us honked, but my father didn’t move. It honked again. I kept my head down, looking at my lap. When I stole a sideways glance, he was just sitting there, looking straight ahead. He rolled down the window, threw out his cigarette, and rolled the window back up. He grasped the steering wheel with both hands.
“What were you thinking.” It didn’t sound like a question. His voice was so quiet I almost didn’t hear him, which was how I knew he was really angry. I knew enough not to answer. Besides, I didn’t have words to describe the tangle of emotions that had propelled me out of the car. He cleared his throat. “Okay. I’m going to pretend you’re more grown up than you are, despite this evidence to the contrary, and explain one thing. Your grandmother is”—here he seemed to search for the words—“sadder than most people. It’s like a sickness. Your mother knows how much you love your gran, and her fear is that you might catch this sadness from Gran. Do you understand?”
I didn’t, but I nodded automatically. This was new to me—that sadness could be contagious, like polio.
“Is she going to die?” I asked.
My father seemed startled. “Gran?”
“No, Mom. It’s been three weeks.”
“God, no. No.”
“You won’t let me see her.”
“Well, it’s taking longer than they thought. She was pretty busted up, Maddy. She didn’t want you to see her like that. She didn’t want you to be afraid and worried.”
For the second time that evening, I felt a flush of shame. My mother was busted up, and I hadn’t even worried. “But she’s better now, right?”
My father turned the key to start the engine.
“I’ll help her feel better,” I said, with sudden urgency. “When is she coming home?”
“A couple more days.”
I wondered at the truth of this. “I need to see her tonight.”
My father sighed. “The hospital really does have a rule.”
I looked at him. It took a long time before he said, “But we’ll tell them you’re small for your age.”