Part 2 of 3
(Read Part 1)
She was the bigger one, the tough one. When Mom didn’t have a man to lean on, when things got bad, it was Charlotte who figured things out for them. Sometimes they’d run out of food. They’d eat everything that was left in the pantry, even the flour. Once, his mother had fried little balls of flour and butter in the skillet and they’d licked their plates clean. It had tasted delicious. Even weevil infested cereal tasted good when you were starving.
It was Charlotte who told them what to do. They’d pick a Seven-Eleven that wasn’t in the neighborhood, and stuff their pants with whatever food they could grab, while Mom ran interference at the counter. Mom was great-looking, and most men wouldn’t take their eyes off her. If a woman was behind the counter, it was a no-go. Stealing from the Seven-Eleven was fun. It felt great, to get so hungry that you could feel your brain humming inside your skull, and then to stuff yourself with potato chips, candy, whatever you could find. They would peel out of the parking lot giggling so much they almost peed their pants. Even Mom would laugh until her tummy hurt.
It was Charlotte who figured out the maps the time they had to escape Tom Loudermilk, the crazy son of a bitch who punched Mom so hard he knocked one of her teeth out. Charlotte woke David in the middle of the night and helped Mom out to the station wagon. She’d swiped Tom's keys. She even drove part way, and she’d never driven before. She’d just figured out how to do it by watching Mom and Tom. She was smart. Charlotte was smarter than him and Mom put together. She was brave, too. She stood up to Tom when nobody else would.
Then they met Judson. He was nice, and he wanted to marry Mom and to adopt them. He had a good job. Mom liked him, too. She bought a Betty Crocker cookbook and made dinner every night. Judson took David to see the Astros play. He told him that if he was good, Santa would bring him a Nintendo for Christmas.
But it seemed like Charlotte was going to ruin it for them. Even though Judson loved Charlotte. He took her to see The Nutcracker and he gave her a whole set of the Narnia books. It wasn’t even her birthday, he just gave them to her. The Narnia Chronicles were Charlotte’s favorite books.
She told their mother about it, but not him. Why not him? He told her everything.
“I'll tell you this, David,” his mother would say to him, over and over, “there was no penetration involved. And Judson had a terrible childhood. You don’t even want to know what that house of horrors was like. If she would have just tried to understand him, maybe things would have worked out for us all. He was willing to try. He was willing to go to counseling.”
Mom wouldn’t leave Judson. In the end, he left them himself. Before Christmas came around. David never got his Nintendo. It wasn’t until that summer, when he was whining about it and Charlotte was babysitting him—that’s what she called it, babysitting, even though he wasn’t a baby anymore—that she’d screamed at him to shut up.
“Maybe I should have fucked him like Mom did. Would you have liked that, Davey? I could have fucked him and then you could have your stupid Nintendo and your stupid Cub Scout buddy and your stupid ball game buddy and your stupid, stupid Daddy Judson!”
Later, when she’d calmed down, she made him peanut butter and chocolate frosting sandwiches for dinner.
“I didn’t know that about him, Charlie. If I ever see him again, I’ll cut him up with my knife. I will, I swear I will.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said.
“I hate him. You know what he is Charlie? He’s a motherfucker,” he said. The words tasted delicious on his tongue. Better than his sister’s sandwiches.
“You shouldn’t hate him,” Charlotte instructed. “It’s like Mom said. He had a terrible childhood. He wasn’t all that bad, you know. I happen to know that he loved me even more than he loved Mom.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yup. It sure is. And I forgive him.” Her smile was creepy. He didn’t like it.
“Why are you smiling?” He wanted her to stop grinning like that.
“I’m just feeling munificent.”
“Look it up, why don’t you? I’m not a walking dictionary.”
Charlotte had shown him the literature. Neither family dynamics nor social disadvantage have been proved to be causative agents. You don’t get schizophrenia because your parents were mean to you, the therapists told him.
Of course her mind was cracked. It was a disease, a disease she would have had anyway. But Judson hadn’t helped. David wondered if Uncle Frodo would have come to her at all, if Judson had never walked into their lives. Treated them all like he owned them, the way he owned a three bedroom ranch house in Dripping Springs, with wall to wall carpeting and central air conditioning. Mom had been so happy about that air conditioning. She’d left the thermostat at sixty-eight degrees all summer long.
If Charlotte wanted to uglify herself, she’d done a pretty good job of it.
He was sitting drinking that sludgy black coffee, ready to punch his fist against the cinderblock walls, when he’d first heard her voice.
“Hello,” Harper said. He looked up. There she was, hair pulled back in a sleek…what was it called? French bun? Looking down at him with clear, calm eyes. Her eyebrows were plucked. She wore pink nail polish. She smelled like lilacs. She was everything his sister feared. She definitely belonged to the cyborg category.
“You must be David Helprin....”
He loved Harper. Nothing had ever come to him so easily. He loved her pretty mouth, the way it curled up at the corners while she was concentrating. He liked watching her shake her hair loose. She wore it pulled tightly off of her face, but when she was with him, she’d take it down and let it fall to her shoulders. Her hair was slick and slippery under his fingers; it didn’t feel sticky or gummy the way women’s hair tended to feel these days. Her eyes made him think of the lake when it was unruffled, when you could see the sun shining on it and just the hint of what was living beneath its surface.
He knew without hesitation that she had an unshakable sense of her own containment, her own sanity. He liked watching her blush or crack her knuckles when she felt his eyes on her. When she fell asleep against him, she would cling to him at first, and then bunch her hands into fists, curling her long body into a weapon. He would smooth the wrinkles in her forehead as she dreamed. On the one night Lily stayed with them, he made the bed for her upstairs in Charlotte’s old room. Harper had slept lightly that night and tiptoed up to the room every couple of hours to check on Lily as she slept. He’d never been with a woman who did such a thing for her child.
“I didn’t know it could do that,” Harper told him one night, laying her head against his chest.
“What?” David kissed her forehead. Her head fit snugly beneath his chin.
“Sex. I didn’t know it could make everything feel so good. Make everything go away but the moment.”
“You think too much,” he said.
“I know I do.”
“You look positively radiant, Harper,” her mother said. “Those visits with Brad must be going well. I’m so glad, dear. Maybe he’ll be well enough for us to see him soon.”
Harper took Lily to meet David. He made spaghetti, Lily’s favorite dinner.
“It tastes like ink,” Lily said. Everything had tasted like ink to Brad during the weeks before he’d been committed.
“Maybe the peppermint ice cream will taste better,” David said. Harper smiled at them. David wanted to make Lily happy, and Lily knew it.
“Why doesn’t the silverware match?” Lily asked.
“Lily, be polite to David. He made this dinner especially for you,” Harper said.
Lily ignored her. “Can I have a root beer float?” she asked David. Lily wasn’t usually allowed to have soda, but Harper nodded.
They ate the ice cream out on the front porch and watched the sun set as Lily chased fireflies.
“I like David’s house. David’s house is made out of sugar and soda,” Lily pronounced. She spun around in circles until she collapsed into giggles.
“If you’re quiet," David told her, “you can hear the coyotes. They come out at dusk. Listen.”
They sat in perfect silence and listened to the coyotes’ serenade of mournful howls and short yaps.
“They are ghost dogs,” Lily whispered. Then she held out her arms to David.
“She wants you to carry her to bed,” Harper told him. She followed him up the stairs as he carried Lily up to Charlotte’s bedroom. Harper hadn’t noticed it before: They had the same corn-gold hair.
Brad knew. Somehow, he knew.
“You think I don’t know?” he asked.
“The lesbians have gotten to you. Disgusting. It is revolting, Twink.”
“Nobody has gotten to me. I told you before, I’m seeing someone. He’s nice, Brad. I think you’ll like him.”
“I know. Trent. He asked you to abort Lily.”
“Not Trent. Someone else. He’s not like Trent, Brad. Not at all. And you will meet him. But you have to know something, first. He doesn’t share our background. He has, well, unconventional views. An unconventional view of life.”
“That’s a very good way of putting it, Harper. An unconventional view of life. You've gotten almost as good as Mom at that.”
Harper shook her finger at him. Why did he bring that out in her? She’d never shake her finger at her daughter or her students.
“You need to listen to me, Brad. I have to make some decisions independent of you. Remember what Dr. Garcia said?”
His smile was smug.
“Are you listening to me, Brad?”
“You can say that. But you can’t. You can’t make a decision independently of me. I can’t make a decision independently of you.”
“Yes I can.”
“You can’t by your very nature, Yin. You are half of me.”
“I am not, I am not half of you.”
“Harper, listen. Listen to me. I know you. You know I do. I know the lesbians have gotten to you. You think I can’t smell them on you, Harpy? I can. They licked you all over. You know what you smell like? Like a pit bull that’s been rolling in sewage.”
She wasn’t supposed to challenge the delusions, but she wasn’t supposed to reinforce them, either. That’s what the social workers, the therapists, the doctors said. But how could she let him continue?
“Brad, stop it. This is too much for me, okay? Please stop it. You know that isn’t true. You know it can’t be true.”
She started to cry. He reached for her, stroked her face with his fingers. His fingertips were dry and cold against her cheeks. When she looked into his eyes they were not tender, they were not angry. They were not anything. He was looking at her as if she were some kind of specimen.
“Just tell me this: am I the only one here with you?” she asked him. “Are they here with you, now, those Lesbos, or are we alone?”
“Harper? Did you think I was mad at you? I know it isn’t your fault. Harper. Don’t cry. You’re my sister. They can never turn you into one of them. I know it. You know how? You want to know how? Because I’ve seen it. Inside the walls of your heart. You know what’s inside there? Starlight. Your heart is full of starlight. It is so pure, so pure and bright, they will never touch it. You are the only person in the universe that is immune to their infection. Don’t cry, Harper. It’s true. It’s true.”
His diagnosis was Acute Schizophrenia. The illness pierced his psyche and severed his emotions from his intellect. During those first years, there was either a fire in his mind, or what the doctors told her was a blunted effect. Sometimes they called it the flattening effect.
Flattening was a good word for it. After his first break, a dead calm settled over his body. It was as if his soul had been steamrolled. Harper remembered how much he’d loved it when Mary Poppins jumped into the chalk drawing. He’d drawn fabulous worlds onto the sidewalk, and they’d taken turns jumping into them. Once, he drew Mom’s hollyhock tree and they had jumped into the picture together, holding hands, just as Jane and Michael Banks had leapt into a new world. “See,” he’d told her solemnly, “we made it. We jumped into another world.”
If only she’d insisted on it, that first time. If only she’d said, He’s not depressed, Mom. He’s out of his mind. Instead of flying away and leaving him behind to unravel without her. She’d left him to endure nature walks with their mother, to be subjected to her aromatherapy sessions and water music. All he needed was someone to restore his wounded spirit, Mrs. Lee told her.
“How do you know he’s crazy?” her mother asked. “How do you know your brother wasn’t meant for something deeper than we are? He’s an artist, Harper. He has an artist’s soul.”
Harper kept a copy of the article he’d been obsessing over when his mind had splintered.
Who practices Sustainable Development in its purest form? I’ll tell you who. The People’s Republic of China is the only country to use quotas on child bearing decisions. In 1970, the government issued three reproductive norms: late marriage, longer spacing between births and fewer children. Men were encouraged to marry no earlier than 28 yrs old (25 yrs in rural areas) and women no earlier than 25 yrs old (23 yrs in rural areas). After the first child, couples were encouraged to allow four years between any subsequent births. The fewer children norm suggested two children for urban families and three for rural ones. In 1979, authorities limited households to only one child. The one child policy is still enforced. And what if these children are twins? This will require further research on my part. But my instincts tell me, if the sonogram reveals two fetuses, the parents are ordered to abort.
Who practiced Sustainable Development? I’ll tell you who practiced it. Adolph Hitler practiced it.
He was always such a weirdo. Even before he’d decided that Sustainable Development was some kind of plot to destroy humanity.
Before they’d moved to the shaded lawns of Hyde Park, Brad and Harper had walked home from public school to the neighborhood their mother would later dub “pre-fab hell.” On hot days, they’d throw their book bags down and run through the water sprinklers that showered the neighbors’ lawns. They had to cross two busy streets, and walk through Sunny’s corner market. You could buy penny candies there. You could also buy Goobers, Now & Laters, Pop Rocks, Mike & Ikes, Pixie Sticks and any other kind of candy, but those were her favorites. Sometimes Harper stole the candy, and Brad would fold his arms across his chest and pout. But he wouldn’t tell. He was not a tattle-tell.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” Harper said to him once. The sidewalk was broken and cracked into pieces at the corner.
Brad jumped into the street.
“What are you doing, Bradford Cleigh Lee?”
“There are too many cracks.”
She jumped on the broken concrete and giggled.
“That’s not funny, Harper.”
“You take everything too serious,” she said. “It’s just a joke, dummy.”
After Mom read them Charlotte's Web, Brad said he wouldn’t eat ham or bacon.
“You’re so stupid,” Harper said. “It’s, like, a cartoon. I mean, Wilbur was more like a person than a pig. It’s just a story.”
“Pigs are smarter than dogs, for your information,” he said. He looked away from her when she opened her mouth and exposed her chewed up hot dog to him.
“You know what you're eating, Harpy?”
“I’m eating an Oscar Meyer Weiner.”
“You’re eating lips and hoofs and piggy intestines.”
“Mmm, I like Wilbur, I like his piggy lips. Yumm,” she said, rubbing her tummy.
Brad’s face turned yellow. He turned away from her in disgust.
“You know what I can’t stop thinking?” he whispered to her one night. They were camping in the backyard. Harper turned the flashlight on underneath her palm. Her hand glowed a spooky orangish red.
“It doesn’t matter if I don’t eat pig. Or if I don’t eat meat. Because just by surviving, you hurt life. You can’t help it. You step on a bug. Or you kill germs when you wash your hands. It’s like, humans are killing machines.”
“That’s ridiculous, Brad. Germs make us sick. Bugs eat each other.”
“That’s different. They don’t think like we do. But we know, and we do it anyway. I think maybe we’ll just gobble the whole earth up someday. And nothing will be left.”
“Even Mom’s flowers. I was looking at them yesterday, and they looked so gross. They were in the water to stay fresh because it fools the stems into growing like they are alive. I thought I was going to throw up.”
“That’s so dumb. They don’t feel pain. They’re plants.”
“Maybe if the Soviet Union and the USA have a nuclear war, it will be good,” he said. ”The plants will grow humungous and it will be a big jungle.”
“God, Brad. You think about all that stuff too much.”
“Do you think it could happen?”
She switched off the flashlight. “No. If it did happen, it would just be roaches and big fat rats left. Nothing else could survive.”
She turned away from him in the dark. After a few minutes she could hear his nighttime breathing. He made funny little warbling noises in his sleep. And he always fell asleep before she did. She tried to think about the giant sunflowers and jungle vines of an earth without people. But all she could think about were smelly rats and tree roaches rubbing their hairy legs together. Sometimes she wished he’d keep all those goofy ideas in his own head. She didn’t like thinking about them.
David said he wanted to marry her. He showed her the Victorian garnet and pearl ring he wanted to give her.
“It was my grandmother’s.”
It was much too small for her ring finger.
“I can get it sized. I had someone assess it for me. It has hand-chased gold shank. Whatever that means.”
“It’s beautiful," she said. She felt her throat constrict.
“Hold it up to the light.”
“I had no idea,” she said.
“I didn’t either, until last week. But, why not? I want you to be with me all the time. Think about it. That’s all.”
“I want to be with you, too, David. But I haven’t known you for long.”
“I know you well enough to know I want to marry you,” he said.
Harper held the ring up against the window light. She studied it for a few minutes. He waited for her to say something.
“We have things to consider though,” she finally said.
“What’s to consider? There’s plenty of room here for all of us. You can sell that condo, you can’t afford it anyway. The country will be good for Lily. I’ve thought about this.”
“Have you thought about the compromises we might need to make?” she said quietly.
“Why don’t you move in then? Hell, I’d be happy with that.”
“If that’s all you were thinking, that’s a lot different. A lot different than marriage.”
“How is it any different?”
“Marriage is forever and ever, ’til death do us part. You;d become part of my family. I’d become part of yours.”
“I know that. That’s what I want. To be your family.”
“Have you told Charlotte about me? How is she going to react?”
“Badly, at first. But then she’ll love you.” He watched as she closed her fist around the ring. She began to pace in front of him, twisting a section of her hair around her index finger.
“Maybe you ought to ask the doctors about that. What medications is she on right now?”
“Whatever cocktail mix they’re throwing at her this time. I don’t remember.”
“Do you even know what she’s taking? Because we’ll have to know that information. There are a lot of good drugs out there. Clozapine. Olanzapine. If we do this, we’ll have to take care of both of them. What we decide together, it might change them forever.” She opened her fist and held the ring out to him.
“Don’t give it back to me, Harper.”
“I don’t think this is the right time. I’ve known you for a few weeks. When Brad and Charlotte are released everything will change. You want her to move back in with you, right? When Brad lived with me, I posted his meds on the bathroom mirror for him. There were so many, it was hard for him to keep track of them. And how will we handle that? The two schizos? You need to meet Brad. This will take some time. And there are…other issues."
“Well, your appearance for one thing.”
“What’s wrong with my appearance?”
“Nothing. I like your appearance. I love your appearance. But Brad won’t. Looks are very important to him. You might be threatening to him.”
“Once he gets stabilized...”
“Even then. Even once he gets stabilized. It is one thing for him to pass what he calls a dirty hippie on the street. Another thing to call one his brother-in-law.”
“I am not a dirty hippie. I’m very clean.”
“I know, I’m not saying you are. But you will be to Brad. So, maybe you could get your hair cut before you meet him. It might be a good thing for Charlotte, too.”
“Charlotte? Why would that be a good thing for Charlotte?”
“Well, you do resemble Uncle Frodo. I mean, he’s dirty, and probably more hobbity, and hairier. But the beard, the hair…”
“What are you saying? Are you saying I’m Uncle Frodo?”
“No, I’m just suggesting…”
“I know what you’re suggesting. I’m nothing like fucking Uncle Frodo. I am not some demented, pervert Hobbit who eats his own toejam and fucks little girls!”
“That’s another thing I need to talk to you about.”
“Brad is very protective of me. And he’s sensitive to harsh language, especially around me or Lily. It is just something for you to keep in mind, when you meet him.”
“Let me ask you something. Can I do that? Am I allowed to ask you something?”
“Has he ever turned against you? Brad? Has he? Has he ever accused you of poisoning his body, or sending little maniacal wind up dolls with teeth into his room at night to bite away at his brain? Has he ever been locked away from you for his own good? Not allowed to see you for months and months?”
“No. Never. Is that what…?”
He grabbed the ring from her and clenched it in his fist.
“Well then. Maybe you can’t understand. Maybe you can’t understand why it makes me want to smash your prissy little face in when you say I look like Uncle Frodo!”
She was out the door before he finished his sentence.
Her brother’s perfectly proportioned block print grew larger as the article progressed. She could see the pencil lead had broken at the first exclamation point.
We are all ANIMALS, part of this planet we call EARTH. Just as rats adapt to city life and carve complex tunnels throughout the innards of New York City, as the Peregrine Falcon nests in the eaves of the great structures we have erected, so must we fulfill our natures as humans. We must strive to reach the heavens. WE were given teeth to gnash the meat of the beasts. We stand erect, to tread the miles and miles of fruited plains. We must re-build the tower of Babel! We are humans, we are Americans, and it is in our nature to dominate the EARTH!
She’d wanted her brother to move out. He was ready for it, he told her. His shrink, his social worker, his boss at Home Depot, they all agreed that it was time. He hadn’t heard the voices in a year and a half.
Lily didn’t want him to go. She scribbled black circles around her bed with a permanent marker in protest. She curled up beside the mural on her wall and sobbed until her face turned red and her nose ran. Harper allowed her to cry herself to sleep. When Lily woke the next morning, curled up in a fetal position beside the moat of her castle, she rested her head against Harper’s breast. Her face was covered with red marks from the floor, and her hair clung in sweaty tendrils to her forehead.
“It makes my head hurt, Mommy,” she said.
Harper’s parents thought the move was a bad idea. “He doesn’t do well away from you, Harper,” her mother said.
True enough. But did he ever do well? Didn’t the voices always find him?
Harper had been prepared to tell her mother off, ask her to take care of him herself if she was so goddamn worried about it. But the night she’d planned to make her case, during dinner one Saturday evening, she’d looked over her mother’s carefully prepared Cornish game hen, at her father’s slumped shoulders, and saw nothing but defeat in his eyes. Her mother’s withered face was free of make-up. Without her mascara and light diffusing foundation, she seemed vulnerable. Harper scrapped the speeches she had planned. The hen was dripping with brandy sauce, and her mother had laid the table with the silver candlesticks and Delft china. She brought out the Delft only for guests and family dilemmas. Harper could only reassure her parents.
Brad started taking computer classes at the community college. He joined the pro-life movement and illustrated posters for demonstrations. The fetuses he painted were as lovely as fresh flowers; they glistened an orangey white. Their skin glowed from within like the wax of a lit candle. He was so proud of those posters. “This is the power of art, Twink,” he explained, “nobody can see these babies without being moved. Unless they are misanthropes. Unless they are anti-life. I am a protector of life. I embrace life. I revel in life!” He gave her a monkey-grin that exposed a mouthful of large yellowed teeth.
Brad started to make friends. “You were right, after all,” Harper’s mother said. "I haven't seen him so…well…normal, in years."
Harper didn’t like his newfound exuberance. She didn’t like the woman who started trailing him. Trish Gent was her name. Brad met her at the group home. She’d had her first psychotic breakdown when she was only fifteen. Her family seemed nice enough. They owned a Dairy Queen in Tyler. They invited the Lees over for barbecue on Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Lee declined. “What do you suppose they want?” she asked Harper. “An engagement?”
Harper wanted to be supportive. She went to the barbecue without her parents. Mrs. Gent buried a fold out table with all of the potluck dishes Mrs. Lee scorned: jellied salads, frito pie, L'il Smokeys, macaroni and cheese with sliced hot dogs on top. Lily loved the Kool Aide ice pops in the cooler.
Over brisket and lemonade, Trish’s mother told Harper about how lovely her youngest daughter had been before the onslaught. She’d been a baton twirler and basketball player in junior high. “She was the cutest, the sparkliest one in the family,” Mrs. Gent had whispered when her husband left to go check on the grill. Her eyes shimmered as she looked back at Harper expectantly, waiting for an exchange in confidences. Harper bit her bottom lip and loaded another paper plate. Sometimes, she thought, I really am my mother’s daughter.
There was no sparkle left in Trish’s soggy, dishwater gray eyes. She wore shapeless sweaters over her loose breasts. Her hair was long and lackluster. Harper couldn’t bring herself to ask Brad if he was sleeping with her. She didn’t like the way Trish eyed Lily, either. “May I comb her hair? May I borrow Lily for a trip to the ice cream parlor? May I help her with her pretty shoeses?” She acted as if Lily were a walking, talking doll.
“The precious life that God gives us,” she’d whispered once, staring at Lily as the little girl knelt by the coffee table with her tea set. “If that isn’t an argument for Life I don’t know what is.”
“You know, Bradford doesn’t believe in God," Harper had said. Why had she thrown that at the poor woman? She knew she should feel sympathy for Trish’s worn-out soul. She did not. She didn’t like her brother’s attitude towards the woman, either. Trish looked at him with slathering devotion. Brad never touched her with affection, never looked at her with tenderness. He was full of himself and what he called his egalitarian love. “You can love anyone, if you decide to do it,” he said to Harper, “and loving someone meek, someone who needs your charity, is a noble act indeed.”
And then Brad called her at three a.m. one morning. “You think I don’t know what you told Trish? That you believe in a woman’s right to murder?”
“What are you talking about, Brad? I don’t talk politics with her,” she’d said. Her mind was woolly. She wasn’t really awake. These late night phone calls always spelled trouble.
“I saw you laughing at me with him. You were going to abort Lily!”
“I never was going to do such a thing. Go to sleep, Brad.”
He’d gone off his meds. Trish had gone off hers as well. Then they both went missing. Harper took another day off from work. She looked for him downtown. She combed his favorite wandering places. She asked all the homeless panhandlers and street kids huddled in the doorway of the church on Guadalupe if they’d seen him. She checked the lines at the plasma center in the pre-dawn early morning. He would never have sold his blood, but maybe someone in line would tell her where he was. A lot of people that wandered downtown knew him by name. No one had seen him. After three days, she notified the police and filed a missing persons report.
It was Trish’s parents who called to tell her the news. Brad and Trish had tried to make a pilgrimage to the Guadalupe Shrine in Mexico City. That must have been Trish’s idea. They didn’t make it very far. The police had found them collapsed at the side of the road in San Marcos. Trish was sunburned and dehydrated. Brad’s bare feet were covered with blood blisters. His hair was scabbed over and full of lice. His toenails were the color of tarnished silver. It was a fungus, the doctor told her. Brad wouldn’t allow anyone to touch him at first. Finally, Harper cajoled him into taking a bath. She tried not to look away as she bathed him. But she was embarrassed. She didn’t want to be faced with his wasted body. Now that his mind was skittery and his body was skeletal, his nakedness was even more startling. She blushed as she scrubbed his back with a sponge, as she tried her best to dissolve the scaly patches of dandruff on his scalp.
They had conceived a child together, they said, and gone off of their meds to protect the baby from defects. The doctors found no evidence of pregnancy. Trish was menstruating when they picked her up.
That’s because they had forced them to abort the children, Brad told her. Harper felt sick to her stomach when she smelled his fetid breath. He was thinner than ever. His body was feeding off of itself.
“They aborted my children,” he whispered. Baby girls, he’d seen them, he’d held them in the palm of his hands, he said. Twins. Beautifully formed, beautiful baby girls. He’d buried them under a juniper tree.
Harper was ashamed of the white hot hatred she’d felt for fat, sad-eyed Trish. She was just as out of her mind as Brad. She was in love, and she was crazy, and she was helpless. So why did Harper hate her so desperately? Harper wanted to scream at the marshmallow face, You had to have him and so you lied, you tricked him, you pulled the oldest trick in the book out of your lumpy bag of tricks.
And now that Trish’s voices had been squelched by the magic bullet Clozapine, she was back with her folks and working days at the Dairy Queen. Harper had gone in one day and bought a scoop of soft-serve. She looked into Trish's moon-pie face and wanted to slap her. There she was, serving ice cream and looking at Harper without recognition, while Brad tried to escape the lesbians that were tunneling through his brain.
“Remember that woman? The one who helped me with the posters?” Brad had said once.
“You mean Trish?”
“That one. They tried to trick me. I’m not a machine. Sometimes I believe that I don’t really have emotions. That I only imagine I have emotions. But that isn’t true.”
“Of course not. Of course not, Monk.”
“Trina. I had to stop seeing her because it was a trick.”
“Her name was Trish, Brad. Trish. Remember?”
“Yeah. Trish. They sent her to me and they wanted me to raise her lesbians.“
He was out of his mind.
The blowout with David had been inevitable, she told herself. She rolled down the car windows and blasted the radio all the way. Just close your eyes and imagine your arms and legs getting colder. Until the cold creeps up your legs and into your stomach and into your heart.
When she got there Lily was down for her nap. Mrs. Lee sat at the kitchen table, reading a paperback. Harper smiled when she noticed its cover. A fiery red head swooned into a pirate’s arms. The novel was most definitely not book club material.
“Mom, you’re such a romantic.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, this trash. This is my brain candy.”
Harper noticed school pamphlets strewn across the table.
“What are those, Mom?” Harper asked.
“Aren’t they lovely? Blue and pink and purple grape Hyacinths. I thought, it’s spring, it’s about time to fill the house with flowers. Do you like the vase? It’s Fiestaware.”
“Not the flowers, the leaflets.”
“Private schools. I told you, your father and I would be more than willing...”
“I asked you to drop it for now, Mom.”
“Some of these places have a waiting list, dear,” Mrs. Lee said. She ran her fingers over her thin shoulders as if she were cold.
“Then the answer is no.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake. We don’t have to go into it now. You look tired. Would you like some sleepytime tea?”
“No, thanks though. I think I’ll just get Lily and go home for now. I’ll call you about the visit tomorrow.”
“Well, at least let me know how he looked.”
“He looked good. He should be getting out in a week or so. He’s stopped babbling about the other inmate.”
“Inmate. Now is that any way to talk, Harper? She’s a client. So is he.”
“Sorry. Like you said, I’m just tired.”
Her mother rose to put the kettle on for tea. Harper decided not to put up an argument. She sat down.
“Why don’t you just take a look at one of those brochures while I fix us a little snack?”
Harper didn't answer.
“I don’t think we should wake up Lily yet, honey. I just put her down for her nap and we don't want to disrupt her schedule now, do we?”
That evening her parents told her over cocktails that they had a suggestion to make. Brad was going to need a lot of attention when he was released. They would be willing to watch Lily for the summer, until school started. They had found this wonderful au pair, an utterly captivating, vivacious young woman who would be able to stay with them throughout the spring until the end of summer. Now, wouldn’t that be just wonderful for Lily?
Harper put down her third cup of tea and sat at attention.
“Mom, that’s not going to happen. Lily is coming home with me. Brad isn’t. I think it’s about time we traded children again..."
Mrs. Lee sighed. She jiggled the ice in her glass and gazed into her lap. Harper’s father cracked his knuckles. He was rumpled. There were rings of yellow sweat at the armholes of his shirt. She felt a sudden urge to take it all back, to smooth the loose comb-over from his forehead, to fill her mother’s glass with tonic.
Her father broke the silence. “Alright, Harper. Fair enough. Alright.”
Copyright © 2003 by Claudia Smith.