Last time, Vi picked out a husband on the train ride. She got him out of an ancient copy of Time, an article about the one hundred biggest foreign policy blunders of the twentieth century. Today, when she boards her favorite car — third from the front — and counts her way to her customary window, she finds the current issue of Parenting waiting for her on the seat. A gift surely, a little something from that other universe where all her plans are made for her. Its meaning is plain. Vi needs a child to go with her husband.
A conductor comes by collecting tickets, but before he can reach her, Vi has dropped hers onto the empty seat next to her. The conductor is grieved by Vi’s breach of train etiquette, but he is fifty-seven now, old enough to hoard his anger for a fight he can win. Vi rides his route once a month, up and back every third Friday. He knows all about Vi: she is a woman who takes no prisoners. So he simply sighs when he picks the ticket up to punch it, unleashing a hot wind of garlic and sausage upon her, then moves on, letting the return ticket flutter to the sticky rubber mat as he goes.
Vi waits until he’s passed into the next car to retrieve it, then kisses the slip of paper up to heaven. She feels the germs floating away with her kiss, can see them if she squints, tiny black angels whirling up like ashes on a breeze, vanishing into the clattering ventilation fan in the ceiling. When the ticket is clean again, she tucks it into the white cotton glove on her left hand.
She closes her eyes and waits for a message to surface amongst the bright flotsam behind her lids — green paisley swirls and yellow check marks, rotating pink balls, pulsing electric blue eggs. The numbers rise from the dark like messages in an eight ball, pale as ghosts: four, fourteen.
Page four of Parenting is a diaper ad featuring a fat, white, two-toothed infant, smiling like a jack-o-lantern. The baby has a dimple in its chin that makes Vi think of Michael Douglas. She can’t abide Michael Douglas. Vi rolls her eyes sarcastically and hopes the spirit who sent her the number four is watching. She’s not some Westchester housewife for Christ’s sake.
Page fourteen is better. A skinny, raggedy girl looks out at her with orphan eyes. The kind of eyes you see in Japanese cartoons, the kind that get painted on black velvet. Vi can feel her heart cracking just looking at those eyes.
The only problem with page fourteen is that it’s one of those Save the Children ads. Vi believes that Save the Children is all a big fake, that if you actually send them twenty dollars a month, the Save the Children secretaries steal it. She believes the Save the Children secretaries are all from Jersey and have big hair even though it’s not in style now. She believes that they open the donation envelopes every afternoon at two and then cross the street to Starbucks, that they leave purple lipstick stains on their holiday flavored lattes, that they never tip the barista. She believes that the Save the Children secretaries sound like a hundred Tweety Birds when they talk.
Still, Vi is taken with those orphan eyes.
The train goes through a tunnel. Vi leans her forehead against the window glass and counts backward from one hundred. At twenty-seven, the train bursts, shrieking, into the light. That settles it. Dimple baby is out.
She peeks between the seats to see if anyone is sitting behind her. A man snoozes there, his head flopping a little from side to side as the train sways. Rubber neck. Bobble head. Dribble dog. She mouths the words at him, opening and closing her lips with such exaggeration that she splits open a barely healed cold sore.
The man opens his eyes and Vi smiles at him, touching a tissue to her mouth, then examines the drop of blood that blooms there like a tiny rose. He closes his eyes again and when she doesn’t catch him peeking for fifty-four seconds, she takes a tiny crane-shaped pair of scissors from her purse.
It takes seven snips to cut out the little girl, which is perfect. Seven snips means a change in her destiny. She is ready for a change.
Vi walks to the next car, drops the magazine onto an empty seat and continues on to the cafe to check the time. She does not believe in watches. She believes in clocks, especially clocks with Roman numerals. The clock in the cafe car is digital, which annoys her. Digital clocks always seem to be on the verge of lecturing you. A fat woman leaning upon the counter, her eyes hooded as a toad’s, asks Vi for her order. Vi would like tea, but she doesn’t say so. She just grabs the time and leaves the cafe before the clock can even say a word.
Vi calculates she has only one hour and seventeen minutes to recall how she happened to become the mother of the orphan-eyed girl. Taking off her gloves, she scavenges through her purse for the photo frame she bought the night before, one-seventy-nine at the Odd Lot on Columbus Avenue. It hides from her, beneath her wig-brush and mirror and lipstick — Revlon’s Cerise, the only color she ever wears — under the box of chocolate-flavored Ex-lax and the matched halves of a broken blue willow teapot.
The teapot nips her wrist as she rummages, so that a well of dark blood stands out against her skim milk skin. Holding her wrist to her mouth, she bites the place where the blood runs, until it ceases, leaving the tang of rusty nails on her tongue.
When Vi looks in her purse again, the teapot fragments are hiding. “Just as well for you,” she says, “because it would have been out into the snow.” She stands and makes a movement toward the train window to prove she’s not kidding. She knows the windows don’t open, but the teapot doesn’t. The man in the seat behind her opens his eyes. Vi sits down.
At last she finds the frame, still in its paper bag, still navy blue with white spots she notes with a satisfied smack of her lips. Last time the frame wasn’t at all the same by the time she got to the nursing home. Last time the frame had metamorphosed from flowered chintz fabric to hard, sleek stainless steel, leaving a mess of dried rose buds and bits of chrysalis all over the bottom of her purse.
But then last time, she had put the photo from Time into the frame, the picture of her new husband, Henry Kissinger. He was responsible for the alteration. The man had bombed Cambodia, after all. Henry doesn’t care for chintz.
An attendant is sent to fetch her mother and the nurse with the eyebrows asks her to wait in the conservatory. “Has it already been a month, Violet? Doesn’t time fly?” The nurse’s eyebrows join in the middle when she says “Violet,” like she is underlining the word, like it is more than just a name, like it’s a clue, or maybe a swear word.
Vi ignores the emphatic eyebrows, taking off her coat and draping it over the nursing station. She pulls a compact and her lipstick from her purse and puts the peaks back on her lips. She puts away the lipstick, straightening her wig with one hand and then using the rattail on her brush to fluff out its bangs. She picks up her coat, folds it over one arm and walks away down the hall toward the conservatory.
The nurse with the eyebrows does not allow Vi into her mother’s room anymore, since three visits ago and The Incident. Vi doesn’t mind, actually. She hated walking past all those bare-legged, skinny men drooling on their laps, tied to their wheelchairs, hated the woman like the Wicked Witch of the West who screamed as she passed, “I’ll get you! I’ll get you!”
She isn’t sorry anymore about The Incident, either. It has transformed her into Someone in the eyes of the staff, who now move fast when they see her coming, and whisper to one another, and watch the floor as she passes. There is a word for it; she can see the word in her mind’s eye and it looks like Joan Crawford. Notorious. That’s it.
Still, she hates waiting in the conservatory. Even the word “conservatory” is pretentious. All it means is there are windows there, pointing out at a bit of garden that looks like it has been spit out by the parking lot because it doesn’t taste good. There is a bench in the garden, guarded by a pair of rhododendrons, though it is far too sunny a spot for rhododendrons and so they languish and droop, their thick leaves hanging like hanks of greasy hair. Today, though, the shrubs and the bench are coated in seven inches of new, fluffy snow. Vi thinks it might feel like lying in a feather bed, to rest upon the bench, to lay her head back upon a rhododendron soft as a down pillow.
But there is no door from the conservatory into the garden, and though she has tried every time she’s been to visit, Vi cannot find the garden from outside the building. She’s walked all the way around the nursing home again, and again, but the bench and the rhododendrons only exist from inside the building.
Vi sits in an orange plastic chair and wonders idly exactly what is being conserved in the conservatory. There aren’t any plants in it, not even plastic ones. Vi suspects it’s got to do with the old people. She imagines that in the morning when the sun is strong, the nurses and attendants roll the residents out in their wheelchairs and line them up in the window to cook, so that their stinking cancers and rotting senilities just dry right up and they are left light and sweet and wrinkled, like a bunch of raisins.
The attendant appears, pushing Vi’s mother too briskly in her wheelchair, so that she clutches at the armrests and presses her head against the chair-back like an astronaut enduring massive g-forces. “Have fun,” the attendant says as he parks Vi’s mother and then chuckles grimly. He knows all about The Incident.
He goes off down the hallway singing, Smoke on the water, and fire in the sky, and Vi wants to throw something at the back of his fat head, to run up behind him with her mother in the wheelchair and ram him in the back of his fat knees. Be she doesn’t, because then they wouldn’t even let her into the conservatory anymore.
She imagines herself in the snowy parking lot, waving up at her mother’s window. It isn’t a bad thought, really. She could just mail her the magazine pictures, nestled in their frames, with sticky notes attached. She’d never have to actually talk to her. But then, the journey is the whole point of coming. Getting here. She likes the train.
Her mother blinks at her through the thick sunlight, like it is a shutter or a wall, something tangible obstructing her view. “Who’s that?” she says, sounding as grumpy as a person who’s been roused in the middle of the night by a wrong number.
“Mother.” Vi is talking in her Donna Reed voice, or maybe it’s her Nancy Reagan voice. She’s trying to sound Republican.
The old woman blinks a while behind her glasses. The lenses magnify her eyes to the size of small birds, so that when she moves her purple lids they look like the wings of a pigeon flapping up and down. She rubs one hand across a smooth, hairless red place on her forearm, trying to sense the feeling of her fingers on her skin.
Finally she sighs and looks around for the attendant who wheeled her in. He has disappeared. “Oh, it’s you,” she says, but she is looking over her shoulder when she says it, as if she’s located the attendant after all.
The eyebrow nurse leans out over the nursing station and waves at them from down the hall then pops back out of sight. “Let’s go where we can talk,” Vi says. “We have some news.”
She takes the handles of the wheelchair under her palms and as she moves thinks of the bicycle she owned when she was ten, a blue Schwinn with red streamers flying out from the handles. She thinks about giving the orphan-eyed girl such a bicycle and a bubble of happiness rises up in her chest, through her throat and bursts in her mouth. “Mother, we have great tidings,” she says.
“Vi. Don’t talk like the Bible at me.” The old woman cranes around to look her daughter in the face, trying to find her eyes beneath the stiff bangs of the wig. “Stop pushing me and sit down. I do not like you pushing me. I do not like you talking down on the top of my head. Your germs are getting all over my hair, and they do not wash it as often as I’d like.”
“Very well, Mother.”
They have come to a place in the corridor where plastic couches line the wall, one after another, after another, seven in all, as though this dim, linoleumed hall is a place that people sometimes crowd into, competing for a spot on the plastic couches.
At the other end of the corridor a man with Parkinson’s disease is trying to walk toward them. He is humming “The Tennessee Waltz” because the doctor has told him to pretend he is dancing when he wants to go somewhere, that this will trick his brain into lifting up his feet. The doctor says a Parkinson’s brain might not want to walk, but it doesn’t mind dancing, at least until you get to the part where you can’t get out of bed anymore.
He shuffles only inches at a time, but Vi can hear the slow rhythm of his step — one, two, three, one, two, three — and his strange hum, half croon, half keen. Vi can’t make out the tune, but the man makes her think of Patsy Cline and she doesn’t know why except that Patsy would be a good name for a little girl with a blue bicycle.
“And don’t call me Mother, Vi.” The old woman is scolding now, her eyelids flapping, blink, blink, blink. “You used to call me Mom. What’s wrong with Mom?”
Vi reaches into her purse for the photograph, but finds her white cotton gloves instead and puts them on. She looks at the broken teapot and wishes she could order tea — Earl Grey. But all they have on the floor is a soda machine because they don’t want the old folks burning themselves accidentally. That happens sometimes, that old folks burn themselves on coffee and even tea, even with someone helping. Especially with somebody helping. That is how her mother got the red spot on her arm – Vi helping too hard. They shouldn’t call it The Incident. It was more of an accident, but there you are. Vi wants Earl Grey very badly, but you have to go to the dining room for tea and she is not allowed in there anymore either.
“Mother,” Vi says again, and the old woman knows by the ringing in her voice that her daughter means it this time, that there is no question of being called Mom anymore, that Vi’s mind is made up on the matter. She looks past Vi’s head for the attendant or the nurse, hoping they haven’t been stupid enough to leave her alone with her daughter.
“Henry and I have adopted a little girl, Mother. Isn’t that marvelous?” She tugs at her gloves and straightens her skirt, picking at a clump of cornflakes stuck to the hem and wondering how they got there. She’d had eggs for breakfast, hadn’t she?
“She’s a four year old from Nicaragua.” Vi pronounces it Neecarrragwah, in a strange high-pitched voice, rolling the ‘r,’ closing her eyes so that she can see herself with a pineapple tied to her head with a ribbon. “Her name is Esmeralda, Mother, I know it’s a little vulgar, but her own mother named her that just before she was executed by the Sandanistas. It was her last request. Which of course Henry and I will honor, though we plan to call her Patsy around the house.”
She sucks in a deep breath, gasping as though she’s been underwater too long. She isn’t sure about the Sandanista part. The words sounded good, but factually it might have been a mistake. She hopes her mother doesn’t notice the error. Her mother surprises her sometimes.
The old woman takes the photograph from her daughter, lifting her glasses from her nose and peering so closely she appears to be sniffing it. “Nice frame, Vi,” she says at last.
“What else, Mother? What do you think of her?”
The old woman’s lips purse like someone has pulled them shut with a drawstring, like she is trying to keep the words from getting out, but Vi waits patiently. “Looks like,” the old woman says at last, “she’s got worms, maybe tape worms, maybe round worms. You ought get her wormed, Vi, before you let her in your house.” She wrinkles her nose like something smells bad.
The dancing man has by now reached the seventh couch. He begins to lower himself down but freezes halfway, his knees wobbling from side to side in a slow motion Charleston.
“Actually, Mother,” Vi says, they won’t let her into the country.” She pulls a lace edged handkerchief from her purse and dabs at her eyes. “She’s being held in quarantine in a tin shed outside the airport at Tegucigalpa. Henry’s flown down to be with her. He’s been gone ten days already and I’m a wreck. The tests aren’t all in yet, everything takes forever in that backward country even for a man like Henry, even if you’re prepared to pay. But, it looks like Patsy’s got HIV.”
The old woman squints behind her glasses, trying to find a clean spot to look through so she can see her daughter more clearly. “I thought you said Nicaragua, Vi.”
Vi blows her nose and adjusts her gloves, wishing again for a cup of tea.
“Vi,” the old woman says, massaging the red spot on her forearm, “Tegucigalpa is the capital of Honduras.”
“Of course a person can live for years these days with HIV, it’s all a matter of medication. By the time Patsy’s grown up, there could even be a cure. But the problem is they won’t let her into the United States. You know what that means, Mother.”
Vi’s mother was a substitute teacher. She knows her geography. Vi’s mother wants to explain that surely the tin shack and Henry and Patsy are in Managua, not Tegucigalpa, but she holds her tongue about it. “What does it mean, Vi?” is all she says.
“You may not see me for some time, is what it means. I’m leaving tomorrow for Nicaragua. I may not be back for weeks. Maybe months. Even years. I’ll stay as long as it takes. I’m a mother now. I have a responsibility to my little girl.”
A gentle rumble rises from the dancing man, who, exhausted with the effort of sitting down, has fallen asleep on the seventh plastic couch. In his dreams he is still waltzing; he snores in three-four time.
“I’ll miss you, honey,” Vi’s mother says. She likes the way the words sound, like something a good mother would say to a good daughter.
“I know,” says Vi. “I’ll write. They have beautiful stamps in Tegucigalpa. You can collect them until I get back.”
The old woman’s bathrobe has come apart at her bony knees. They remind Vi of little bird knees, ridged and oddly thick skinned over the knobby cartilage. They make her remember her mother will die soon. She reaches out and gently adjusts the terrycloth to cover them. Is there a Day of the Dead in Nicaragua? She once had a tiny pair of bride and groom skeletons, a gift from her super’s Mexican wife, but they ran off.
“I liked you better when you were married to Sonny Bono,” Vi’s mother says. “You used to sing a lot back then. What happened to that happy Vi?”
“Sonny died,” says Vi. She can see the photo of Sonny in her mind’s eye, a little ragged where Vi had cut away Cher, but still, the way Sonny smiled a person got optimistic and warm-hearted just looking at him. Sonny was the best husband she ever had.
Tears push against the back of her eyeballs, a whole mob of them, a dangerous mob carrying sticks and rocks. She wills her eyeballs to cordon them off, to spray them with mace, to hit them with batons. But a few of the mob make a break for it, rushing down her cheeks, plunging off her chin, and then there is nothing to be done. Violet sits on the floor, puts her head on her mother’s lap and allows the tears to flood forth, a riot of sobs.
Vi’s mother waits, embarrassed, worried that the sleeping man will wake. Still, she strokes her daughter’s toppled red wig, the strands coarse as fake fur, like the hair of an expensive Small World doll the girl Violet once washed and curled and trimmed and ruined forever. The old woman coaxes a strand of Vi’s real hair from beneath the wig. It is gray now, but still thick and strong and glossy. Vi always had such lovely hair.
“Did you know Henry can’t go to Belgium?” Violet is looking up at her mother now, her eye sockets so mascara-smeared they look like two deep wells. “He’d be arrested as a war criminal.” One last sob creeps from her throat and leaps off of her lips.
“Yoo-hoo!” Eyebrows is waving at them from down the hall. “I have a treat for you ladies.” She holds out a cafeteria tray burdened with plates and cups. “I’m pouring tea in the conservatory. Earl Grey, Violet. I know it’s your favorite.”
She vanishes through the conservatory door, but Vi sees the nurse’s spirit linger in the hall behind her, exactly like the nurse except that she has no eyebrows. Sunlight spills from the conservatory so brilliantly that Vi can see every dancing dust mote in the air. After a moment, the spirit turns into the conservatory and there is a sound like a bell as she rejoins the nurse.
And through the ringing of the bell Vi thinks she hears her mother say, “Don’t go, honey. Tegucigalpa is too far away.”
The sleeping man stirs and mutters, subsides again into sleep.
“Fix your face, Vi,” the old woman says, and Vi obediently opens her purse. The blue willow teapot rests on top, its two halves nestled so snugly together that Vi can’t even see the crack. Gorilla Glue would mend it. An easy repair.
The old woman hands Vi the photo of the orphan-eyed girl, face down so only the hanging hardware shows on the back of the frame. “Next time, bring me a picture of a puppy,” the old woman says. “Or a fat old cat from an SPCA flyer. Maybe one with diabetes that needs a special diet and what-not. A cat like that would keep you out of trouble.”
The man with Parkinson’s disease is awake again, trying to dance himself off of the couch, only now he’s singing Fats Domino. I’m walking, yes indeed, and I’m talking, about you and me…, but all Vi can make out is a hoarse whisper.
“Pardon me?” she asks, lipstick poised at her lips.
I’m hoping, the man is trying to say, that you’ll come back to me.
“Tea,” Vi’s mother shouts toward him. “Tea time, Bob!”
He smiles to show he still can, and salutes them with two fingers, then sets off dancing down the hall, slow as a glacier and just as sure. Vi tucks her hair back under her wig as she watches him go, counting out a slow jitterbug for him, knowing as long as she counts he will not fall down. She is exhausted with the effort of keeping him upright. By the time Eyebrows emerges from the conservatory to take his arm, a sweat has broken out upon her brow.
“C’mon, Vi.” the old woman admonishes. “Finish up there and let’s go get some cookies.”
Vi thinks of a cup of hot Earl Grey, with one lump of sugar – a lump not a spoon – and a ripple of cream. She thinks of cookies stamped with a chocolate schoolboy. She thinks of Sonny Bono’s smile.
And as she thinks of tea and cookies and Sonny, she wipes away her ruined mascara with a baby wipe. She looks down at the used wipe. It smells pink, soft and powdery, but it is covered with oily black.
And then she knows it is Henry Kissinger’s karma to spend eternity in a tin shack on the edge of Tegucigalpa caring for a crabby, sick little girl. It is the least he can do.
She counts to seven. She takes her mother’s hand.
She leaves him to it.