Now in the summer of 2000, Clara screeches the tattered U-Haul to a halt by the side of the two-lane highway.  She watches her grown son, Frank, make a wide turn into the big Desert Dan’s Casino and Restaurant parking lot in Jackpot, Nevada.  Hunching forward, she white-knuckles the steering wheel as she watches.  He’s shooting for a grand ballet-like turn — if you can describe a fifty-year-old, one thousand square foot house anchored to a twelve-axle flatbed trailer as being at all ballet-like in the way it moves.  He’s over-shooting the curb, she’s sure of it. He’s going to hit it!  That’s how he gets – impatient! This is the end of their journey from Eugene, Oregon, to Jackpot, Nevada. It’s June 4, 2000. They’ve been on the road four days now.  They’re bushed.

Her heart is pounding.  She jumps out of the U-Haul to watch and stands panicked near the wide driveway entrance, clenching her damp hands together.  As he rounds his load into the oncoming lane, a car speeds toward him.  Frank lays on the horn.  The other driver slams to a halt and jumps out of his car, shouting, “What the fuck, man!  A house? For Christ’s sake, what’s going on here?”

“Give me a minute here, dude.” Frank cranks the trailer cab back out of the oncoming lane with a hard right.  The house groans and shifts as it gains the parking lot.

Clara hears something like a muffled crack. She covers her ears, refusing to let it register. But her heart sinks. The house hit the curb? Cracked? No, it’s just the sighing of old timbers hammered together almost fifty years ago. Has to be, she thinks desperately.

The offended motorist careens into the night, blasting his horn for good measure.

Late night gamblers gawk at the highway showdown and the uncommon cargo as it lumbers to the far side of the big casino parking lot, shadowed by the small gray-haired woman running along beside it. Such a drastic step, some might say – uprooting her house to be with her son?

Frank kills the motor and unrolls the window when he sees his mother running alongside the tractor trailer.

“What now?” he barks.

****************************

CHAPTER 8

 

Sitting at the kitchen table again, Clara rifles her hair with strong fingers until it snarls. She counts on her fingers: “I have my son, my house, my breathing, my wasps.  I have everything that’s important.  I can’t get involved with these people. Dawson and Edie are  trouble.”

Silence, more coffee.

She exclaims, “Edie could end up just like Samantha.  Dead on some road.  She has no mother or father.”  Straining, she re-locks Samantha’s central dungeon in the back of her head. The key turns hard, like a cramping blood vessel.

The trouble is Nevada, she decides. In Eugene, her life was starched, thin, regulated.  Nothing crazy.  After all the dying and Frank leaving home, she knew how every minute of every day would unfold.  She had her teaching until 1993. She had Frank’s occasional visits with their awkward silences and self-conscious warmth, an ocean of withheld feeling between them.  Those visits were all she really had.  Oh, she had her magnificent lilacs – and the wasps carrying on every day.  And her volunteering – at the library stacking books; at a hospice, where she sang old songs and got patients to talk if they could; at city hall where she re-directed lost visitors; at a shelter for abused women where she got them jobs and housing. On the streets, she ran into her ex-students who seemed happy to see her.  Sometimes she and Abigail went to Ashland to see summer Shakespeare.  She had regular bridge games with Abigail and Abigail’s sister Susannah, weekly lunches at the River Road Coffee Shop (where she got the beef jerky jars), petition drives with Abigail at Safeway, where they set up a card table for any number of causes over the years:  reduced class sizes, Oregon forest restoration, voter registration, objection to the inevitable shopping mall.  It wasn’t as if she had nothing to do.

She gets up to wipe off the counter.

But those things just filled time.

She could have been a marionette.

Something was always missing. She gave up real life – heart-pounding, hands-sweating life – in 1963. She always knew this.

Well she wants it back, the chaos and glory of life, if only for a week or a day. With Frank.

So DO something, Clara. You’ve got to get him in the door again.  God you are slow-witted.  How did you ever get through college?

A cloud of wasps circles her head like a ceiling fan. They understand the same thing she does:  Her son must feel safe in this house before anything else can happen.

But the wasps always want to sting him.  On the neck.

She runs into her bedroom and snatches her old Willamette Elementary School Crossing Guard T-shirt from the drawer. It’s faded yellow with black letters. She sits on the bed and cuts five inches off the bottom with her pinking shears. She puts it over her head and looks in the mirror. The rest of it drapes over her shoulders. It’s her only souvenir from the adult crossing guard program she started after Samantha died. This butchered relic will protect Frank’s neck when he finally comes to see her again. The wasps always go for his neck.

Feeling energetic, she Windexes the beveled mirror over her dresser, dusts the  framed family pictures, takes the ratty lambs wool rug out for a shake, puts it back beside her bed.  She sits in the oak rocker, finishes a puzzle in the New York Times crossword puzzle book, listens to music from the 40s and 50s on the scratchy radio (it survived Dawson’s manhandling).

She gets up to fill her mug with Sparkletts water, looking trancelike out the window as she drinks.

Dawson and Edie emerge from room eight of the rundown Sagebrush Motel.

“Oh dear God.”

Vampire pale, they move slowly, hands low on each other’s buttocks, their sinewy bodies sheathed in black. Edie’s cropped hair is askew, Dawson’s long hair in tangles.  Clara stands transfixed.  Trading sloppy kisses, they feed coins into a vending machine and glide back to room eight with several cans of soda and a cardboard bucket of ice.

She feels a mixture of fear and fascination.  She knows what’s going on in that room.  They are having so much sex they’re probably dizzy and exhausted, and for heavens’ sake, she doesn’t even want to think about it.  She thumps her Teacher of the Year mug down on the kitchen counter. Her Dream Jar isn’t working! She had already stuffed Dawson into it– but the jar jumped out of its cubicle and shattered on her forehead.  Now Dawson’s on the loose. With Edie!

The purple wasp flies in circles and makes passes at her forehead.  Now you’re in for it, baby. Your lollygagging days are over.

She gives the wasp a dull look of recognition.  She’s afraid Dawson and Edie are going to come over here and get her because the skin on her hands is mottled and her bones are lighter than theirs and sex is not on the agenda for her, not like it is for them, and their hidden skin is smooth like a baby’s and they don’t even realize how beautiful their unmarked skin is, but one day their skin will be just like hers and when they look at her they just want to smash her because she is old and curdled in their eyes and she doesn’t even belong here, not in the same tribe at all.

Desperately she watches the wasps circling her head.

They can’t help her now.

They’re buzzing and darting about in lopsided circles as if they don’t have a care in the world – now when she really needs them.  All except the purple wasp, her steadfast friend, who lands on top of her head and won’t leave it.

She never felt frightened about her age in Eugene.  Oh, there was the time she was walking by a hardware store and she stopped at the display of teapots and gladioli in the window.  A stooped man with filthy hair passed her with a bitter laugh, spitting so close that the wiggly yellow blob just missed her tan walking shoes. “Old hag,” he rasped. She was so shocked she immediately walked into the hardware store and bought a teapot she never used.

She’s got to put Edie and Dawson out of her mind. But she’s got to talk to this Dawson character.  She’s done tough stuff before. She raised Frank alone.  And the adult crossing guard program was her baby.  No student fatalities or injuries since 1963.  In 1964, she testified before the Oregon state legislature, speaking in favor of phonics-based reading instruction over “picture book guess and shuffle.” The state went her way.  She turned a few heads, didn’t she, as she sailed into the Salem legislative chamber.  Her black cloche hat, a crimson feather curving dramatically under her chin, matched the crimson buttons on her black suit. This outfit is still encased in plastic somewhere in her closet.  She grasps her firm thighs, touches her still resilient breasts, looks at herself in the small mirror by the table.  For heaven’s sake, I’m not an old hag. Not yet anyway.

The purple wasp is fanning Clara’s face as she paces from room to room. Suddenly she sees that the wasp’s head is freakishly larger than before – it’s swollen like a bruise or a turban, especially where the two curled antennas protrude above its eyes.  Alarmed, she sits back down at the table.  The wasp’s head is almost at the breaking point.

Ever since her father almost trapped her in the barn, the wasps have watched her carefully – listening and recording her thoughts and experiences – passing on their knowledge of her from generation to generation of wasps, living out their one hundred twenty day life cycles as dutiful scribes. When Samantha died, they redoubled their efforts because Clara was so broken up about it.  Their job is to get as many secret memories as they can — unadulterated thoughts, withheld emotions – to arrive at clarity, the only thing that will redeem the tortured woman and set her free. Clarity:  She’s got to come clean about the days leading up to her daughter’s death, simply acknowledge what happened.  Otherwise, the wasp’s head will burst — hers too? — and she will die miserable and alone.

She returns to her rocker, finishes one crossword puzzle, begins another. Outside, nothing stirs. She listens to her Emerson radio, hears of a sharp decline in the stock market, a prison break somewhere, an earthquake in Japan.  Later she fixes a simple dinner and prepares herself for bed, thinking — despite herself — of Edie and Dawson.  Not until she’s in her nightgown and starts brushing her hair does the purple wasp leave the top of her head and fly to the nightstand, where the creature watches Clara all night long in her restless sleep.

In her dream, two Oregon pigeons (surprise visitors, bobbing and ducking), escape from a cage on her dresser, warbling and moaning in excitement until they fly to the other nightstand.  Clara opens her eyes.  Two pairs of red eyes peer back.  Their rich calls are baroque. Girlish trilling and chest-deep moans eddy around the bedroom in a private pigeon serenade.  She feels warm and young. It’s thrilling.

Aren’t you pretty, says one pigeon.

“Don’t be silly,” she says, her cheeks glowing. She has always loved the throaty moans of pigeons.

Both pigeons chorus:  Once we had babies but all our eggs smashed on the ground and now we have you.  We will take care of you.

            “No need,” she says, still in her dream.

Don’t you know, Clara? You need so much caring, they whisper in her ear. You need a home.

 

The wasps swarm in from the kitchen and dive-bomb the pigeons.  We have more manpower.  We can take better care of her.

            Her voice is drowsy.  “I will not have fighting in my house.  I love my son and I love all of you.”

The purple wasp sidles up to her ear.  Take what you can get, sweetheart.  Notice anyone else out here trying to help you?

The purple wasp always sets her straight.  She will fix things with Frank. She will.

            All night the wasps tap their silky wings against the bedroom walls. Their wings sound like tiny brushes tapping off-rhythms on a papery drumhead, accompanied by the pigeons, who sing soulful contralto.  She burrows into her bed, draws the sheet around her, dreams she’s on a jungle cruise.  Dew spangles her face, the humidity she so misses.  In the canopy of the rain forest, the macaws and orangutans and leopards are cawing and screeching and growling at each other.  Nuts and ripe fruit fall to the ground and are eaten by lizards and flamboyantly-colored parrots.  Rubbery damp leaves brush against her hands.  Flying insects bump against her shoulders, get into major tizzies over her head.  She is in a seething mass of life all night long.

 

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