Storyglossia Issue 18, February 2007.

Anna in the Graveyard

by Caroline Lockwood Nelson


"Your love," Anna tells him, pistol against her temple, "is branded on my brain like a holocaust tattoo."

She floats on her belly through the water, tainted smoky green from the algae, wearing only SPF 4 and reading her brother's old RL Stine books, grubby horror novels with not many pages and all the same plots. Sometimes she drops them into the water and lets them dry on the edge of the pool because she likes the way the paper browns and wrinkles.

"Her mother did the same thing," her father explains to Eleanor at breakfast as Anna eats a Flintstones push-pop, and sticks her feet onto the table as Eleanor sugars her grapefruit and sighs into her yogurt smoothie. Anna drinks gin and tonics on the front porch with her father in the afternoons and they sit royal as the lawn tumbles down to the sidewalk and they watch men and women walk by, some talking to themselves, Anna thinks, as they jog by in velour sweats, but then she notices the headphones and realizes that they're on the phone, running as they catch up with mothers and fathers, check with the babysitter about the kids, plan lunches for the next day. Her father reads the Wall Street Journal and gets a little drunker as night falls and Eleanor steps outside in her blush and her hair bunned back, and he kisses Anna on the forehead as he follows Eleanor inside, through the house, to the garage, to the car, to dinner at some place where they run into the parents of the Anna's friends, some place where all the women look like Eleanor, and as he bends down to Anna, he whispers, "The king is dead. Long live the queen."

"Are you actress Anna Stone," asks the girl at Subway and on TV, all the girls who fix sandwiches are thin and farm-girl pretty, but this girl spreads tuna with knuckles wide as hips. "No," Anna answers, "No oil, thank you."

At her cousin's graduation, Anna and her brother Drake smoke a joint in the car while the headmaster passes out diplomas and he tells her that she looks really fucked up.

"Your hair looks like potato chips," he says, " all fried and white."

"It's for a role," Anna tells him. "I bleached it. I'm supposed to look punk rock."

"Yeah, well," he says and opens the car door, "Razor."

As a child, Anna climbed on the splintery swing set and the branches of the tangerine tree bent down to her fingers as she sat poised at the top of the slide and peeled and nibbled the juice out and sometimes at night, when she perched away from her shouting brother with his sticky, grabbing hands, hands that ripped and ruined and tossed baseballs too close to her head, at nights when her father wandered out for a cigar, he crouched at the bottom of the slide and waited for her. "You're no princess," he told her as she flew down to his arms, "you're the goddamn queen," and he carried her in his arms for too many years, until she was twelve or maybe thirteen even, and whenever they went out to dinner, she climbed into his lap and curled asleep when she was done eating. "My star babies," her father called them, her and her brother and he told them that they had no mother, that they were born in the heavens and tumbled down to him one night when shooting stars streaked across the sky and he reached up and caught them, just like a stray baseball at a Dodgers game, all nestled together, and they burned his palm, he said, with their comet-hot arms and legs, so he dropped them and there they were, hair thick as honey, and tempers like sparklers, and he would tell them this as the sun drizzled down, crisping their skin, and they licked cherry popsicles that bled their lips red and shoved ladders against the palm tree in the back yard, climbing up to search for coconuts and back then, they believed him.

"Anna," her third ex-husband says as he watches her place her wet hands on the side of the pool and study her prints as they shrivel dry. "You need to re-enter the world."

Her mother wanted to name her for the ocean, but Anna's daddy wanted to call her after his mother. Sometimes Anna steers the car to the beach and strolls along the boardwalk in a straw hat, buying cheap pink sunglasses and fake silver bracelets that rub green circles around her wrists and she tosses ten dollars to the fire-juggler and asks the fortune teller with the fog-colored curls to tell the story of the stars, but the woman promises her a tall dark man, with burning eyes. Anna says, "I've already had three of those," and lights a cigarette and she watches waves swallow more and more of the sand. When she was small, she used to build castles with buckets and search for the tiny sand crabs and stare at the surfer-girls, who smelled like Sun-In as they strutted across the beach in tall flip-flops, immune to the drag of the sand that stumbled everyone but them.

"Bury me standing," her brother Drake says when she pounds on his door to ask if he's sent their mother anything for mother's day, his voice yawning its way out of a druggy, desperate sleep, "cause I've been on my knees my whole goddamn life."

They sit together at the kitchen table and look through catalogs of painted pottery shaped like roosters and placemats woven neatly with silent colors.

Drake yanks the edges of his nails off with his teeth and spits them onto the table as he rolls a joint. Anna wanders out to the guest house, where Eleanor leaves pink towels folded to hint to Anna that she might be happier away from the main house, a little out on her own, but whenever she opens her white wine lips to ask if Anna might not prefer a little privacy, Anna runs her fingers over the cranberry wallpaper and says that she remembers when every room in the house was blue and yellow, sea and sky because her mother missed her cottage in Maine.

"You know," Anna exhales smoke over morning coffee with Eleanor, "that really, you're my guest here."

"Anna," her father hushes her and shakes out the pages of his paper to hand her the entertainment section.

"It's true. This is my mother's house. And when she dies, you won't even be able to pretend that you're lady of the manor anymore."

"Anna," Eleanor insists with her tennis skirt wrapped snug around her waist. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Maybe I'll kick you out."

"Anna," her father's eyes ask for restraint, but she feels a little wild, a little too stoned to stay still as Eleanor chatters about new drapes.

"Even you."

Drake laughs in the doorway. "She does have a point, Dad."

"Why don't both of you go occupy yourselves somewhere else?"

Anna's belly pudges over the edge of her bikini and she thinks about how hard it is to stay svelte without a personal trainer demanding that she push herself just a little harder and she wonders if the neighbors will take pictures of her standing on her diving board and sell them as pregnant pictures to whatever weekly paper still cares about her and she raises her hands to the sky and tosses herself into the chlorine, tumbling down, her feet against the rough pavement cracking its way along the bottom of the pool and her ears snap at her as she tries to clutch the water over her head, to sink down to the cement bottom. She springs up and her brother sleeps on the patio. Anna remembers that as a baby, before her mother left, long before the pollution scarred her throat so raw that she smashed up all the light bulbs in the house because she wanted it dark to mirror the way Anna's father made her feel when he used her money to maintain his mistresses in adobe apartments that smelled like roses and sunshine, but back before she was gone, she pushed tiny Anna around the pool.

"You don't need those stupid water wings," her mother said. And she told Anna about the selkie king who would drag her down to his seaweed palace to be his bride if she weren't careful. "But you," her mother burbled kisses against Anna's cheeks, "I'll teach you swim so strong no man'll ever drown you."

And every summer after the divorce, Anna and her brother flew straight through the clouds to their mother who lifted them out of the sky with a laugh and walked with them on the beach and they tried to find blue sea-glass for her and they glued shells to driftwood for presents and learned to row through the tide-pools for crabs with their uncle, holding hot dogs on fishing rods to lure the crabs in close and some mornings, their mother's uncle would leave buckets of fresh shrimp on the front porch that he had caught before the sun even awoke to guide him, and on those days, their mother would set up a grill over the rocks by the sea and they would eat lemon-basted shrimp and make s'mores, only Anna always ate all the chocolate while everyone else was busy burning their marshmallows because they liked the way the skin crisped and blacked and peeled away to smushy softness.

"Do you ever miss Mom," she asks her brother now, as he scrapes avocado out of its shell.

"I haven't been there in about five years," he says as the green blobs cave in before his fork.

"I want to go," she tells him. "I want to see Mommy."

"Has it ever occurred to you," Drake says, salting his chips extra, "that we're too old for all of this?" He sweeps his arms around the kitchen.

She knows what Eleanor would say to that. Eleanor would quote Time Magazine and talk about grown twenty-something children who return home and what a stress it is on their parents. Eleanor always forgets that they never left, not really. Even when Anna was eighteen and married brief, she drove herself home at nights, piling her childhood covers on top of herself, snuggling close to the stuffed bunny she got one Easter. And she did the same for the two that followed, abandoning husbands in Hollywood houses to sleep at her father's house, instead. "Crown of the valley," her father calls this place, the place her mother bought, back when they were both young and thought the sunshine was forever. "Cannery money," her dad says whenever anyone asks about the children's mother, "old money." But they stayed with him, playing on their always green lawn, learning to drive in their dad's convertible, top rolled down in the dead of winter, the smiling stereotypes.

"When did you stop visiting Mom," Drake asks her now, as she sits in her bathrobe with her unbrushed hair, thinking about evolution.

"When I started acting." It was her father's idea, a producer friend placed in her in front of the camera. "She's so lovely, John," he said to her father. "Isn't she, though," Anna's daddy replied, "Helen of fucking Troy."

"I'll go with you," Anna's brother tells her now, leaning against their kitchen counter with guacamole coating his teeth. "I'll go back there with you."

The sun drunk drives over the lids of Anna's eyes as she leans against the windshield of Drake's car, Drake sitting elegant with a dancer's spine, dipping fries into his chocolate milkshake as Anna recites nursery rhymes and scorches her throat with Camels. The wind hurtles itself against the trees as Drake asks Anna if there'll be fireflies, he's never seen any.

"No," she says and wonders for a moment why she brought him. "No, there are no fireflies."

"I didn't remember. I thought maybe there were. Didn't we catch them in jars?"

"That's someone else's memory," she explains as they wind their way across the country to their mother.

Drake smells like second-hand smoke and sunscreen as Anna twists the peppermint-colored plastic straw into a jagged circle.

"Marry me," she laughs and spills coke-stained ice onto the faded swirls of Drake's jeans.

"Anna," he scolds and glances at his watch, at the map spread over his lap.

"You don't need that," she told him when they started. "I know the way."

"Sure," he said.

Her mother giggled girlish when Anna called to tell her that they were driving to her.

"Are you sure," Anna's father asked as he cradled her suitcases outside, "that you want to do this?"

"Of course she's sure." Eleanor politely contained her happiness at Anna's exit with a reluctant hug and a guidebook to New England five star restaurants. "Have fun, dear," she chirped as Anna's father reminded her that she hadn't really left the house in seven months, not even to walk to the video store five minutes away.

Drake pulls over to let her pee among the tall weeds, even though they're only an hour or two away. She stretches her arms and stops still, a standing summer snow-angel, summoning the summer sun as the grass around her nibbles her ankles. When she arrives tonight, she'll pour oatmeal in her bath and try to soak away her skin, but it will just wrinkle and crack dry and stay scratchy. Her mother will stand on the porch, looking disconcerted with a cigarette clutched soft between her fingers.

The world outside the car, caterpillar-green trees dipping their heads to bow as she passes, slides by and Anna's not sure if she recognizes the buildings and streets floating by her.

They built houses for the fairies in the woods behind her mother's cottage and they patted moss in place for roofs and speared twigs around the borders to keep the fairies safe from the racoons, who howled at night for the garbage locked away in the shed. Their mother laced ferns into the wooden walls of the tepee their uncle assembled for them and she lashed the tops of the giant leaning trees together with vines she turned into cords. She was a magic mamma, with her legs tall as giraffes, that's what they thought then, Anna and her brother, as they wove their arms around her, trying to tug her small, pull her close to them. But she stretched up and away, and combed her hair in front of her vanity with her silver and ivory antique brush and she sat there, sad in her slip, watching the soft boar teeth slice through her hair.

"I hope she rots in hell," their father wrenched their suitcases off the conveyer belt, banging them against old ladies as he shouted at Drake and Anna to quit horsing around.

"Anna," he slapped the bone of her cheek, "you can't climb on that." And he drove home violent, tossing the kazoos their mother gave them out the car window and he refused to stop at McDonalds, ordered them to shut up when they tried to tell him about their uncle's new motor boat and about how they made a beach-man out of buoys with a washed up lobster trap for a head.

"Mom has a new puppy named Jazz."

"Just stop it," he groaned and reached up to adjust the mirror again, trying to evaporate their heads from his view, because just for a moment when they arrive back, they smell like her.

"East versus West," her mother said over the phone, the first summer Anna called to say she couldn't come. "West always wins."

As Anna and her brother drive towards their mother, Anna thinks about all the months she's spent in bed. When she was first learning to sail, she capsized the little bathtub boat, chubby and leaky, with an ugly blue sail that never seemed to puff itself up proud with the wind, and she would lean to one side or tack too quickly because she liked being rescued. Over and over, she somersaulted into the water, laughing salt breaths, and she swished her feet and pretended that she was a fat little fish with a funny name, but eventually her uncle and cousins got tired of saving her and they left her alone in the water to flip back over the boat herself.

In her first movie ever, made when she was fifteen, she stared at the camera with a gun cold against her brain and recited the lines, "There's no end to the amount of damage someone can inflict. Love will only derail you," and they handed her lavish reviews that commented on the hollowness in her eyes, the sorrow in the way she tossed her head.

"Are you people kidding," she said as her dress dripped down her breasts and she raised her award for the cameras and they clapped for her irreverence. She rewinds herself sometimes, holding the remote, the volume down, staring for something familiar, but the girl on the videotape reminds her vaguely of some friend of a friend, some girl she met at a few parties, maybe. Some girl with a nice dress and okay shoes.

"Anna," her brother has lips like their father's, thin and venomous. "We're almost there."

She counts the graveyards that they pass and thinks about tomorrow.

Copyright©2007 Caroline Lockwood Nelson