The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor

 Chapter 5
Mouth to Mouth
Shen Christenson
 

[p.69]I remember it often. It made national news: view after view of a woman, made-up, teeth and microphone shining, eyes on the story board; bloodstains. The mother rented a room on the fourteenth floor of the Tri-Arc Hotel where she knelt with her children all morning, whispering prayers. Then she led them out to the balcony and threw them down to the sidewalk. Kissed each one and said: fly, sweetheart. She jumped off after. She had no will. Left nothing, no note to be read. The baby was killed, of course, and all the others except the three-year-old girl, who had shattered legs and shards of bone in her brain, but the rest of her must have been cushioned by the pulp of her siblings. She is alive now, in a hospital back in Salt Lake, where she doesn’t paint with a brush in her teeth, tell stories, sing; she masturbates in her wheelchair, rocks in her bed. I think about what those [p.70]children might have thought in that moment between leaving the balcony and landing, what they saw spinning to the sidewalk. Did they scream or sigh? 

The name of the hotel changed, but they didn’t take off the skinny metal balconies. The picture is there, blood in my mouth, every time I look down from high places. 

The father was never shown. 

I have children of my own. Kate. Willow. Sammy. It’s strangely hard sometimes, to remember them. They seem insubstantial. It’s worse than catching a dream the next morning, where you don’t know what’s inside your head and what’s not. My kids weren’t on the T.V. 

Pictures of them-to remember? 

Kate grew like a sunflower, skinny and straight and hair poking up from her head in petals. Willow had squashy feet. I’d kiss them; I’d say, This little one cried all the way home. I try to think of Sammy, something good. And then I remember their father. It’s like looking at an optical illusion, one of those black-and-white pictures that looks like a sweet-faced woman and a witch toohow once you see the face and the witch, you can’t know how it was to see only the face. 

To remember their fatherI will not. When my kids spilled what their father had done, would dowhen everything past fell out of my focusI ran. Sam went in day care. The girls were in school. I went to work cleaning. It held us together. My mind had flown. After a year I could read again. Magazines, anyway, [p.71]ladies and news ones. The words were things I could recognize. Although books with long plots, love linesthey still splat on what my girls told had happened, what’s past, and seem senseless. The ad for the Clairol contest in Family Circle for mothers wanting to go back to school I understood. And thanks to Clairol we’re in California and I don’t clean anymore. You had to send in a Before Miss Clairol photo and an After. A lady I worked for, I’d pick up her dog’s crap and get the stains out of her carpets and sheets; she’d work on my make-up. She’d decorate, then stand back and squint. Kate said about the After photograph: You look sort of pretty, in a fake way. Willow cried over the red hair and told me my crack showed-my cleavage, she meant, which Sam said looked like my butt was in the wrong place. But I looked a lot better than the Before and I won. They flew me from Price, Utah, to New York to get the scholarship, and they made me over again and took a new picture. It came out on a page called et cetera, black-and-white, small, with the winning women all so competently lovely, I wasn’t sure which After was me.  

So I moved the four of us to Berkeley; not too close to Disneyland, and the university didn’t request self-evaluations, they cared what you could score. I’m taking Evolution and the Fossil Record, Conversational French, Problems in Population Development, Meteorology, Human Sexuality and Its Pursuit. Things like that [p.72]make a lot of sense to me; I used to believe in religion. 

Laundry day. A sheet pinned between my chin and chest. 

“Mommy,” Willow asks me, “are you having more babies?” 

“You have to have a dad, stupid,” Kate says, not looking up from the book open across her knees. 

“Well, Mom could get a dad. Couldn’t you?” 

“No,” Kate says. “Shut-up.” 

“Mommy could marry Hobb. Couldn’t you?” Willow asks me. 

“His head is shaped like a lightbulb,” Kate says. 

“Hobb says there is heaven,” Willow tells her. 

“You have no taste,” Kate says. “Mom’s not getting married. We’re normal.” 

I believe that. At least I do when I go up University Boulevard, past Shattuck. There’re always students doing stuff like taking off their clothes to celebrate the sun and waving poster boards, trying to change things; Sammy and Willow use the old poster board signs for forts. There is a science professor who only has half a face. I see him everywhere. The other half got burned up in a fusion experiment. There are lots of dogs, Hare Krishnas, and too many trees. 

Most of the time I think moving here was a clean break: things stopped being really-hard and got medium-hard. We have an apartment with clean carpet and Vene-[p.73]tian blinds; Mrs. Papadak, who lives below us on the sixth floor is usually sweet; and I’m mostly able not to think what flesh is capable of. 

Hobb likes all the trees. I gave him a t-shirt from a boutique off campus that says Berzerkeley across the front. He laughed. 

Hobb says we’re normal. Looking at us, we could be anybody. I am sorting dirty clothes, Kate is reading Nancy Drew, and Willow’s landed in front of the T.V. watching a commercial for douches. She sighs, turns from the filmed field of petals to Kate. 

“Only dodos read Nancy Drew,” Willow says. 

“Get a life, fart-face,” Kate answers, not moving her eyes from the book. “This is real. People don’t die all the time. Someone gets bit by a black widow or trapped in a cave.” 

“No-huh.” 

“You think life is T.V. Your brain is barf.” 

“No-huh, you butt-hair.” 

“Dildo-face.” 

“Willow, Kate,” I order, “help me.” I hand Kate the Stain-Out-Spray. “Whites here,” I tell Willow. 

Willow holds her nose with her thumb and one finger, shaking her head no, her half-grown-out bangs dark, flapping over her eyes. She picks up a sock with her other thumb-tip and tosses it towards the couch. 

I get turkey burger out of the ice-box for dinner. [p.74]“Gross,” Willow yells, still plugging her nose. “Pray for your enemas.” 

“That is not what it says,” Kate says low. “You are what you read, and you don’t.” 

Willow picks up a pair of panties and holds them by the elastic on one finger. “Mom,” she says, “Are these underwear white? I can’t tell.” 

I don’t answer. Willow throws them in the general direction of Kate. 

“Mom,” Willow pitches Sam’s X-men shorts next to the love seat. “Can we do something? Go to the park? Go downstairs?” 

The kids like running down the fire escape stairs to Mrs. Papadak’s below us. Their footsteps make metal echoes. When we moved in Mrs. Papadak thought it was the second coming of Christ; that’s how noisy it is when Sam plays Ghostbuster. Mrs. Papadak looks for signs from above, she told us; she’s dying. It’s what they sprayed here in the ’60s, she said. She means old tear gas during riots. 

Meanwhile, Mrs. Papadak raises baby birds for Feathers and Fins, which has outlets from Oakland to Walnut Creek. She tells stories of how there’s money falling in smuggling birds, how in the Pacific Rim they stuff birds in toilet paper tubes and the tissues used too, in America. Lots of birds die, she says, but there’s such a demand because most birds are too smart to breed in captivity. 

Mrs. Papadak’s place looks like a hospital unit for pre-[p.75]mature babies, incubators and tiny rag blankets, and labeled bottles. My kids like to believe they help her out. Actually, Kate’s pretty good at sticking the eyedroppers down the birds’ throats and squeezing in seed-mush. She takes care they don’t choke. The new ones are easy; without any feathers, you can see the lump of their meal drop down their gullet. When they get older Mrs. Papadak insists the food be followed with a finger, just to be safe. 

“No,” I tell Willow, “you’re not going downstairs. No parks. I’ve got homework and Hobb is coming for dinner. He’s picking Sam up from T-ball on the way here.” I try to make my stomach unleash after I say this. 

“Gross,” Kate says. 

“What is this!” Willow shrieks, girl-high. She aims my new pair of underpants and they drop in Kate’s spreadeagle Nancy Drew pages. 

Kate snatches them up, shakes out my panties. They look fragile, just a few strings. She sprays Stain-Out all over them, crushes them into a ball and hurls them at me. 

I pick them up. 

“Hey,” I say. “They’re not white.” 

“You’re not decent,” Kate says. “They’re butt-floss.”

“Set the table.” 

“You’re sick. Hide those.” 

“The table.” 

“Don’t you embarrass me, Mom.” 

“In front of who? Hide what? Masturbation? Who’s in my life to humiliate you?” 

[p.76]“Who cares who?” Kate screams. “Sick-o. I hate you.” 

Willow yells, like I’m not standing right there holding my panties, “I’m going down to see Mrs. Papadak.” 

She runs out the door and Kate follows.

 

A long time ago, two years aboutwhen Kate was eleven, Willow six, Sammy threeI took them to Price City Park in the middle of Utah. There were four skinny trees and lots of gray sand. I pushed Willow as long as she wanted on the chained swings and I climbed up the ladder of the rusty rocket ship slide and held Sammy between my legs and slid down. I told Kate she could take off her Kedsthere was no glass in the sandbut she didn’t. I asked her would she hold Sammy and keep Willow from standing up on the whirly-go-round. I grabbed the iron handles and pushed them, made it go as fast as I could. Kate sat in the middle of the circle of metal, her legs a knot around Sammy. Faster, Willow kept screaming: Make it faster, Mommy. So I held the bar with one hand and ran around and around, my other arm flapping, till I couldn’t keep up anymore and had to let go and suck in burning air and watch my children whirling, that round metal disk spinning so fast all I could see were colors and blurs. 

Sammy laughed. My hands smelled heavy, like kids’ dirty hair. They wobbled, spun. Willow stood up and climbed on the handles as if she was riding a horse. My children rippled in the heat like a mirage. 

[p.77]There was a little girl crawling slowly to the swings. She had no legs. The bottom of her red sunsuit was sewed together where the holes used to be. She was twisting through the sand on her belly like half a lizard. 

Kate stood up. Sammy slopped off onto the hot sand and started to cry. Kate was leaning over the edge of the whirly-go-round, throwing up. Willow pointed her finger in front of my face. She shouted: Look at that, Mommy! What holds that girl’s privates together? 

A woman in purple pants stared at us. Her husband walked up. People, she said. 

I said: Let’s go. 

I buckled Sam into the car and said: Seat belts, girls. Willow kneeled up in the back and pushed her face at the window. 

She’s pulling herself up the ladder, Willow told us. 

We sat in the car. 

See, I said. There are worse things. We’ve all got our legs. 

They didn’t answer. 

I started the car. 

Her daddy is with her, Willow said finally. 

 

“Hi, Mommy.” 

Sammy is back from his T-ball. Hobb did pick him up. It’s all right. Safe now. Sam is where I can see him. 

He butts his head into my stomach. ‘‘I’m starving to deaf.” 

[p.78]“Hi,” Hobb says. He’s tall and he has dog-brown eyes. And Kate is right, his head is shaped like a lightbulb. He gives me a sort of hug and a pat and I’m scared he’ll feel sweat from my skin through my shirt. He says, “Sam told me he has a girlfriend.”

 I say, “What?” 

“She’s in love with me, Mom. She wants to get married. We had sex today.”

“What?” 

“Sex. Where at rest time you climb on top of each other and make the matt wiggle.” 

“No. Sammy! My God!”  

And Hobb says when you burp with the guys you don’t have to say pardon. Only with women.” 

“He’s a great kid,” Hobb says. Hobb knows the way to a woman’s heart. 

“Sammy,” I say. “Go. Run down and get Willow and Kate at Mrs. Papadak’s. Tell them dinner.” 

He grabs up his G.I. Joe gun and is out the door, shooting. 

Standing alone with Hobb, I can’t think what to do. I forget, for a minute, how many kids I actually have. My mind spins view to view and I don’t remember a way to seize one and believe it. 

“Pardon me,” I smile at him and get to the bathroom. Too much black feathers out from my eyes. Lip gloss. I stick panty shields in my shirt armpits to catch my sweat, so it won’t show. 

[p.79]Back in the kitchen, I smile shiny at him. “Well. How was your day?” 

Hobb laughs. He works from San Francisco, ferrying tourists to Alcatraz. I took the kids out one Saturday; that’s how we met. I got sick from the boat and he gave me Dramamine. He let the girls play like they’d locked him in one of the prison cells. 

He comes around behind me, puts his hands on my shoulders and molds his thumbs on my spine up to the base of my skull. 

“Tense?” he asks. 

The children are back. 

“I’ll eat if it’s good,” Willow says. 

I’ve set the table myself, out on the metal-railed balcony. The sun is starting to sink. Dinner is pasta, turkey burger simmered with canned sauce, fruit cocktail. Hobb brought a bottle of wine. 

“How many bites do I have to have?” Sam asks. 

“Delicious,” Hobb says. 

Willow glares. “We need a blessing,” she says. “Our Father in Heaven,” she starts, loud. 

“This hurts my taste bugs,” Sammy says after he spits out one spoonful. 

Willow, eyes squished shut, sticks to her prayer: “Halloween be thy name.” 

“If you talk baby talk, I’m taking my dominoes back,” Kate says. 

“My king will come.” 

[p.80]Sam gives his middle finger to Kate, holding the rest of his fingers curled down with his other stiff hand. 

“He’s already a pervert,” Kate snorts.  

“Children,” I say.

Sammy gets off his chair and hides behind Hobb. 

“Hobb,” I say, “tell us about you. When you were a boy.” 

Hobb pulls Sammy onto his lap and takes a swallow of wine. “In the olden days, I was a little boy and I had a pair of cowboy boots. One day I got stuck in the mud in the pasture. I couldn’t budge. I’d seen them pull cows out of that kind of mud with winches, and sometimes their cow legs stayed behind, stuck in the ground. I was scared. I cried till my daddy came. He pulled me out but those cowboy boots got sucked off my feet and stayed stuck. My dad tried to get them out but he couldn’t with me under his arm. By next morning those boots were stuck forever. A scientist could dig them up like dinosaur bones. I planted pine nuts in them come summer.” 

“Are you aware,” Kate says, “that every time you consume an alcoholic beverage you kill brain cells?” 

“Yep,” Hobb says and takes another drink. The wind ruffles his hair. 

“Were you a real cowboy?” Sammy asks Hobb.

“Sort of. Except we had more sheep than cattle. I rode horses.” 

[p.81]“The brain can’t reproduce,” Kate says. “You just get dumber.” 

“Now you take a horse, there’s a dumb animal,” Hobb says. “The smartest thing on a horse is the saddle. They’re more trouble than kids; they tear fences down, tromp stuff up.” 

“I want a horse,” Willow says. 

“No, you should get something smart.” 

“Like what?” 

“Pig. Pigs take care of themselves. Except when they’re little they can’t because the mama will roll over and crush her own babies.”

“No way,” Kate says. “Females don’t kill their offspring. 

That’s fathers, like fish and bears.” 

“Sometimes,” Hobb says, “but some mothers do it. 

Rabbits, if they get stressed; and pigs too.” 

“I want a dog,” Sammy says. 

“Mom had a dog,” Willow says. “Mommy, tell us a dog story.” 

“Gross,” Kate announces. 

“Which story?” I ask. 

“Something with guns,” Sam says. “Something with bad guys.” 

“I’ve got to clean up. It’s past your bedtime.” 

The kids clear their plates when I ask. Sammy runs circles around the table and the iron core of the balcony reverberates. Hobb says he’ll put Sammy down, and Willow and Kate escape clean-up, swearing they prom-[p.82]ised Mrs. Papadak they’d help her after dinner. She has new cockatiels. 
 

Cleaning up? 

It’s not hard for just me and the kids. Hobb. 

I remember thinking if I could get through the time being a cleaning woman I could get through any time. Maybe I could. Someone in Salt Lake must have knelt behind the groomed news-woman, scrubbing the blood on the sidewalk down to dull stains. Someone must have wondered about the feet in the future, walking over; it smoothed with dirt, gone, normal. But it wasn’t me. 

I scrape plates. The water is cold falling into the gargle of the garbage disposal. The glass glasses I got for tonight shine. I never used to use plastic. The meals I used to make took longer to cook than to eat, and I used serving dishes, not pans on the table. In the kitchen corner Kate had this big plastic horse mounted on springs with a dowel through its head. She’d hike up her nightie and bounce that horse back and forth, rocking and squeaking and staying right where she was. Katie would say: I want Daddy to put me to bed, and Willow would say: I want Daddy. 

No one has memories that are real. We remember what we will, or can, or can’t forget. 

I go stand in the door of Sam’s bedroom, the dishrag in my hand. Just to check, although I know what you see will play tricks. 

[p.83]Sammy has on his race-car pajamas, Ghostbuster goggles, his neutron pack strapped on his back. Hobb holds a toy six-shooter. 

“I don’t understand modern warfare,” Hobb says. 

“It’s ghosts,” Sam explains. “You have to get rid of them.” 

“Bedtime,” I say. I watch Hobb dismantle the ghost trap Sammy had rigged out of blocks. 

“Night-night,” I say. 

Sam wraps his arms around one of Hobb’s legs and butts his head in Hobb’s groin. “Bye, Hobb,” he says. 

This is normal, I think. This is what people all over Berkeley do when they turn off the T.V. 

Hobb and I sit on the couch. There are wet stains under my armpits beyond where my panty shields stick. 

“So,” I say. “How’s the bird-man of Alcatraz?” 

He laughs. “I’ve escaped for tonight.” 

“I haven’t,” I say. “I’ve got lots of reading.” 

He is circling his hand on my knee cap. He starts walking his fingers inside my thigh like he’s playing eensy spider. 

“I have to look good for Miss Clairol.” I mean I have to keep my grades up. 

He lifts his hand from my leg. 

“You want me to go?” he says. 

“No.” I say. This is true, but I say it as though it weren’t. 

“Well,” he says, “I guess you can’t let your roots show.” 

[p.84]He gives me a kiss at the door, and I feel a chill under my breast bone, and I wonder if it was a good kiss or I imagined it. I need to see if Sam is asleep, check if he’s breathing.

 

I am reading Meteorites. I think about the science professor with half a face. I wonder who can ever be sure what they saw in the sky. Then I hear screams. 

Kate. 

I crash out the door and run clumsily down the metal steps. Mrs. Papadak’s backed to her balcony railing, her hands over her eyes. “Oh my God,” she is saying.  

Kate is still screaming. 

Willow has her lips circled on a moist ball of pink skin. My legs are lost under me. “No,” I yell at them all. “No,” I keep yelling. Willow’s mouth on a slick-blooded thing. I try to talk calm. “Tell me. Willow, you know you can tell me. What are you doing?” 

Willow starts crying. “Mouth to mouth,” she says. “But it’s not working.” 

She holds out a wet-skinned membrane with black eyes and a beak. 

“I can’t do it,” she says. 

She kneels down on the floor, her dark hair falling over her hands and the dead chick. She rocks back and forth, crying. 

Kate comes to me and buries her face in my neck. I feel the wet dead warmth of her on my flesh. 

[p.85]“It was the mama,” Mrs. Papadak pulls her hands from her eyes. “Katie done a good job with the bitty, so she puts it down. So this mama just up throws it out of the nest. How could Kate see this? It falls on a heat bulb. No chance, dear God, nobody sees this. No chance.” 

“It’s all right Kate,” I say, stroking her head. 

“I never seen a mama mistake that before,” says Mrs. Papadak. “It’s abnormality. This bitty not ready to fly.” 

By the time I get them upstairs Kate is silent. Willow shudders voiceless breaths in. Sammy is standing guard at our door. He points his He-Man-Laser straight at Kate’s heart.

“I thought you were a ghost,” he says. 

I tell them all they can sleep in my bed and don’t have to brush their teeth. 

“Should we say a prayer?” Willow asks from the cold middle of my mattress. 

Kate says, “Mom. Tell us a story, a true one.” She puts a hand on Willow’s knee. Sam squishes between the girls’ legs. 

I sit down on the edge of the bed. “When I was little,” I say, “I had a dog.” Their three brown heads almost touch. 

“And she kept you from running out in the street … ,” Willow prompts. 

[p.86]“And she’d open the gate and the doors with her mouth,” Sammy says. 

“And you’d have her for your head while you read and you’d scratch her tummy,” Willow recites, “and she found her way home from when she got lost.” 

“She was a good dog,” I say and lean over my bed to give each one a kiss. 

“Mom,” Kate says softly, “tell how she died.” 

“She got old,” I say. “Her hips couldn’t move, she had to crawl, she couldn’t walk. She wouldn’t eat.” 

“She was in pain,” Kate says. “You’d see her hurt every time you looked in her eyes.” 

“She was old,” I say, and Sam takes my hand. 

“You let them put her to sleep,” Willow says. 

“Yes.” I say. Sammy kisses my palm. 

“You loved her that much,” Kate says. 

“Me too,” says Sammy. 

From old bedtimes come whispers, “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord … ” Kate, it is Kate reciting. 

Willow’s arms fold, her head down she sighs in, “my soul to take.” 

I say, “No.” 

“Our Father who art in Heaven,” Kate says. 

Sammy says, “A fart in Heaven?” 

Willow is crying. 

“Listen,” I say to my children, “Look. No news is good news. We’re all right. There are worse things. We’re fine.” 

[p.87]View after view after view. A balcony. A mother. 

No chance? 

This is my will: Not to remember. Not to look into eyes. Not to believe in high places. Not to love.