Outside or in, her father says.
It is raining and cold, the sky an iron lid so low she can almost touch the droplets of water where they cling, bleed them into one. She leans, just a little, against the open storm door, and breathes.
I said, outside or in. Then, a second later: Close the damn door.
Even he won't golf in this. He announced as much at lunch, disgusted. And so he has pulled out his putting machine and plugged it in and set it up in the middle of the living room so that now she can't walk past to the kitchen without disturbing him. One room gives way to the next in their house, without corridor or mediation. There are five people—four, now that her sister Louise has left for college—but there is only one path.
You're messing up my lie, he says as she picks her way across with her big feet. The gold plush is cropped close, though not as close as a green. She wonders if that's why he chose the carpet in the first place. She can just see him brushing his big callused hands over the nap, gauging the putter's clearance. Yes. Yes, this will do.
Stay out of the kitchen, he says now. What? she says and stops. He doesn't answer because he's sizing up his putt. She waits as he looks, settles his feet, looks again, adjusts his stance, and putts. The ball travels true, riding the slight bumps and channels confidently. There is a satisfying pwock and the ball shoots back.
What did you say? she repeats as the ball is rolling. But he's silent. He does this when he's eating, too, it drives them all crazy. If the food is on his fork, he will not answer until he's raised it to his mouth, chewed twenty times in his measured fashion, and swallowed. Until he's run his tongue across his teeth.
I said stay out of the kitchen. You're constantly eating.
I wasn't going to eat anything. She tries to believe this herself.
Her mother comes up behind her and stands in the threshold with a basket of clean laundry in her arms. Now there are two of them crowded together, waiting as he completes the careful ritual of his putt. Where's Robin? her mother asks the room, but everyone knows it is Jane who will answer: In our room playing Matchbox cars.
The knock immobilizes them. Jane has learned to start at this sound, the sound of people. Who is it? her mother whispers. Well, for heaven's sakes, her father says, scowling. Whoever it is, they've no doubt already seen them through the front door's three oblong windows.
Where are you going, Tom? her mother hisses, but he keeps on walking past her through the kitchen and down to the basement. He is no use with people.
Her mother straightens up and walks to the door, peers out. Oh no, she says, It's Reva Lyons and Naomi. She gathers her white blouse in a knot at her stomach. Reva Lyons and I'm not even wearing a bra.
They won't notice, Mom. But even at eleven, Jane knows that Mrs. Lyons will notice. Just as she will notice the Sunday Post-Dispatch strewn over every available surface and the ashtray full of lipsticked butts and the putting machine abandoned in the middle of the floor.
Mrs. Lyons is wearing a fitted cobalt blue suit with brushed gold buttons and a scarf of flowers the colors of blood. She takes dainty steps, daughter Naomi pressing close behind. The damp air comes with them, Jane feels it on her bare forearms as she stands there—stupidly, she thinks—shifting her weight from one foot to the other in her parents' house. Naomi is six, big for her age and with her father's dark coloring. Jane's mother would never in a million years let her have a dress like that. It is a mass of flowers with a contrasting sash and a ruffle at the hem. And those white patent leather shoes? Please.
We missed you at church today, Mrs. Lyons is saying.
Oh, her mother says carefully. Yes. She has shepherded Mrs. Lyons to the brown recliner and has positioned herself on the part of the couch that sags. Jane isn't sure whether this is so Mrs. Lyons will be more comfortable or so she won't discover that they have a couch that sags. At any rate, Jane can see that the whole situation—the sudden appearance of the preacher's wife, her bralessness, the listing couch—is throwing her mother off balance. Her mother's awkward attempt to shield her breasts with the laundry basket isn't working; it keeps slipping sideways off her lap, threatening to send their underwear and towels tumbling to the floor. The thought of her stained underpants on the carpet at Mrs. Lyons' buff leather feet is too much for Jane to bear.
We've missed seeing you, Maxine. It's been a long time.
There is nothing to say to this and Jane knows it. Her mother decides on Yes! How are you? How is Rebecca? Rebecca is Naomi's older sister. She is Robin's age, in Robin's class at Sunday School, when her parents make them go. Which reminds Jane: Where is Robin? She listens hard but hears nothing from the bedrooms. Her father and Robin are silent, invisible. Jane wonders again—she wonders this constantly—how they manage it. To get out of things. To disappear.
It turns out that Rebecca is visiting the old and the sick with her father. There are so many, Mrs. Shover. So many shut-ins. We just decided to split up, Mrs. Lyons says. Shut-ins. Huh. Jane turns the word over in her mind. She likes the sound of it, yet distrusts Mrs. Lyons somehow for using it. We're not shut-ins, she thinks.
They don't go to church very often now. Her parents have never gone, but for a long time they allowed her grandma take them for Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, and even, once, to a Revival. It was on a Wednesday night. It sounded exciting and Jane wanted to go in the worst way, even though she could tell her father took a dim view. Robin, who was five then, fainted during one of the long prayers. Her legs just turned to spaghetti and she slithered under the pew. So it did turn out to be exciting, kind of.
Jane doesn't really like church anymore. The thing is, she finds herself talking back to the preacher inside her head. Everything he says, she weighs and finds wanting. She can't stop. How do you know she thinks. What exactly do you mean by that? She can't stop, although it makes her feel bad. Part of her wishes she was like her grandma, listening intently, nodding every now and then. Lately, she's even begun talking back to her, though silently. How do you know, Grandma?
There is not a nice tone to that voice in her head.
As if drawn by Jane's heretical turn of mind, Mrs. Lyons leans toward her. And how about you, dear? We haven't seen you much since you were saved—when was it now, last year?
Saved. Jane remembers Reverend Lyons' brown suit, its bermed shoulders sown with dandruff. She remembers the smell of cut grass and chemicals drifting in through the open windows of the Sunday School classroom. Which of you children want to come to Jesus? he had asked. Which of you are ready to accept the Lord as your own personal savior?
She smiles and nods now, trying to think of something to say. What does this woman want from her?
His lap was warm. And yet, as soon as she was there, encircled in his arms, she wanted out. It was not even nearly special enough, all the other children having answered the call and crossed the linoleum with her, the stupid ones, too, the ones who couldn't memorize John 3:16 or the books of the Bible. She had made a mistake that she could not get out of.
And so, in due time, she was pulled roughly back and under, the green water burning her nose as he held her there, as he prayed over her. And as she came up, crying and coughing, her skirt a white flower on the surface of the water, she saw the wet whorls of hair on the backs of his hands like those of a dentist scrubbed to extract a tooth.
Like a dentist who asks you things you cannot answer with his hands in your mouth.
Her legs were shaking as she climbed the steps, dripping wet, and reentered the little room where her Sunday School teacher waited to help her into dry clothes. You're shivering, Mrs. Knight said. That's the Holy Spirit inside you.
Mrs. Lyons, thankfully, has moved on and is inquiring after her older sister Louise, the one who left for college (just the word makes Jane tremble with anticipation: college. College, college, college! Now that, she thinks, that must be bliss.)
She likes the University, Jane's mother says. There's so much to do, you know. So many opportunities.
Mrs. Lyons purses her lips slightly. Oh, I'm sure. It's such a big place, though. I confess it would scare the living daylights out of me to have a daughter of mine off on her own, especially at a school that size.
Jane can feel a shift in the air, a current reversing itself. Really. Why? her mother asks. Jane looks over at Naomi, who is sitting on the piano bench, swinging her legs. Her legs slow down and stop; she looks up and then Jane wonders if she feels it, too.
Well, it's just that so much can happen to a young lady. There are so many different kinds of people. You know.
I wonder what you mean by "people", her mother says. Jane can feel the wind, the cold wind in her voice. Oh, she thinks.
And then, of course, there's the drugs. Mrs. Lyons doesn't feel it, Jane can tell. She has no idea.
Louise is very responsible, Mrs. Lyons.
I'm sure she is, Maxine. I'm just saying be careful. You wouldn't want her mixed up with the wrong sort. With those demonstrations or anything. Naomi, please act like a lady. Naomi, who's begun swinging her legs again, stops immediately. Her legs don't reach the floor and so they hang there like the stuffed limbs of a Halloween scarecrow.
As a matter of fact, as a matter of fact she did participate in a demonstration. Her mother is sitting up straight now, though one arm is still arranged unnaturally across her chest, fingers splayed on the opposing arm. Last year, to protest Cambodia. The invasion.
Yes. She called me from the dormitory, she was crying. She felt betrayed.
Well, Mrs. Lyons said. Well, I have never understood—
I was very proud of her for that.
I have just, just never understood why we don't go in and bomb them.
Just bomb all those people out of there. We have the—the capability, don't we? I don't know what we're waiting for.
Her mother looks at Mrs. Lyons. Jane looks at Mrs. Lyons. Jane looks at her mother looking at Mrs. Lyons. Mrs. Lyons has on gloves, Jane notices, white gloves.
Mrs. Lyons, her mother begins. Mrs. Lyons has hair like Ladybird's. It is the hair of someone on display, someone who can't afford to be seen brushing it. Mrs. Lyons' hair is a helmet of Adorn. Mrs. Lyons, I think you should leave now, her mother says and stands up. The basket of laundry slides to the floor.
Jane stands up, too.
I don't believe I understand.
Leave. You should leave. And the current is strong, it is carrying her mother to the door and Mrs. Lyons can't fight it, it's too strong for her; without quite knowing why she is swept out, her daughter after her, the two of them like leaves rushing to the gutter; there is another gust of air as they stand there, Mrs. Lyons turning back one last time to say Pardon me for saying so but—and then the door closes and her mother is leaning against it, breathing hard, eyes glittering.
Is she crying? Jane has never seen her cry. Not when they killed off Little Joe's wife in childbirth. She just shook her head and said Figures. Not even when Grandpa died, though that was a long time ago and Jane barely remembers it. But no, there are no tears in her. Now I've done it, she says.
That was so cool, Mom. You were great!
Her mother doesn't seem to hear her. She gathers up the spilled clothes and walks out of the room. Jane hears the door to her bedroom close. The carpet, a touch too high, prevents it from slamming, muffling any further statement she might wish to make.
Later, Jane listens to her parents arguing in the living room, where her father is watching a golf match. She is standing in the kitchen settling the orange halves her mother said she could have into the bowl of sugar she did not. She will press each half into the dish, wait until the white granules turn thick and wet, then suck the syrup off. Over and over, she will turn a good thing bad.
So self-righteous, she hears her mother saying.
She's entitled to her opinion, Maxine.
Is she entitled to barge in here without even calling first? Oh, I know, I know, Tom—why don't you just say it: You agree with her. About the bombing, I mean. About bombing the whole lot of them—
Her mother's voice bubbles up from her chest like oil, like Texas tea, Jane thinks, but she is too distracted to take pleasure in her observation. As she stands on the top step, she hears the intimate British stage whisper of her father's favorite commentator fill the room and knows that golf, once more, has intervened.
They are busy, they are all busy, she thinks as she hurries downstairs. She has been waiting all day for this. The basement is dark, the way she likes it, and when she turns on the television, Gladiator Theater has already started.
She knows at once which one it is. There's this guy, Demetrius, who's the underdog hero, but it's the subplot she's interested in, and she watches closely, every cell alert and swimming to the surface of her skin. There is a battle scene, much whipping of horses and clanking of shields (all right, all right, she thinks, let's get on with it) and then—yes, here we go. The evil Sirius has come to see the conquered women, whom his men have captured and chained cruelly to the stone walls of some sort of cave or dungeon. The very walls drip.
He walks before them slowly, openly appraising them. Then he stops. This one is quite beautiful. Such a shame, he says as he runs one finger along her jaw. She stares back defiantly and pulls away from his assessing caress. Her wrists are like two swans fixed above her head and her gown is streaked with dust and blood and hanging on, oh, just barely, by one shoulder.
She's too proud, he says, and slaps her. It is just as well. Let the gods take her.
Jane pulls the brown corduroy pillow close, hugging it, her knees drawn up. The tension is a living thing; it crawls all over her.
They are more real with her eyes shut tight, those girls, their flesh her flesh, Albacore white. But when she closes her eyes, other images come to her, too. They crowd, they blur together. The preacher above her, saying Use me, O Lord, in the service of thy will. His hands at her waist, tipping her back, back, off-balance— That painting in American Heritage of the Indian woman at the crest of the falls, eyes cast upward, resigned, it seems, to ecstasy— The photograph she saw in the paper, the one that made her mother fold it carefully and look away, of the young Vietnamese girl running naked down the street, terror contorting her face—
Even this, she thinks, recoiling with the sliver of brain available, even this she can use.
She allows herself to look and sees that the scene has changed. Now the beautiful girl is being led into a sumptuous room, all marble and heavy drapes and men, many men ranged in a semi-circle around a kind of large well made of stone and tile: the pit. And now one of the functionaries is releasing her chains and lifting the girl lightly in his muscled arms, which strain against their metal bands, and she is struggling—look how she is kicking and arching away from him as he moves forward!—doesn't she know it's no use? But of course this writhing, this thrashing, this weeping in the face of an inhuman god is the engine that drives the movie forward, that drives the men to murmur and tighten their circle, that drives Jane forward, one step, yes— oh, God: One step at a time.
He's doing it now, she can't quite believe it— he's holding the girl up above the pit, her hair streaming, her gown in ribbons—and then he's casting her into the flames, which leap higher, which dart their hungry tongues as if they can never, ever get enough, and the pillow is clenched tight between Jane's legs as she rocks forward (did she go limp in his arms right before the end?) pressing herself forward (her body reduced to a pool of honey?).
Dear God, use me—
She hopes, each time, to avoid the dark tide that rushes in, after. But never does. Never does. And now she is crashing, she is remembering vows to herself to stop, to stop this. She throws the pillow aside and turns the TV off, the sight of their sandals, their bulging thighs and hairy arms making her sick inside. What's wrong with me she thinks. Her legs feel weak. She sits there in the dark until she is calm again and sure that no one saw her, no one on this earth, no human being.
She wants her family, then. She wants the smells of an early supper, the hamburgers and the tomato soup; she wants to play Matchbox cars with Robin, who is always asking and whom she is always refusing; she wants the lights on early, the heavy curtains drawn so only a slice of purple dusk is visible, a glimpse of the darkness that only makes her more grateful for the warmth, the golden light.
She runs upstairs, hard, thumping her feet, making as much noise as possible, but her father doesn't yell. In fact, the living room is deserted, the television a frame in which she sees herself distorted, the laundry folded but the basket on the couch where her mother left it. In the hallway, she stands between the two cracked doors listening to her parents breathe. They are in separate rooms, but after all these years, they sleep the same way—not flung wide, as she sleeps, one arm dangling—but with their bodies curled as if hoarding dreams, slack faces to the wall.