Nora is banked and blanketed in sleep. At first, the mayhem outside is absorbed and accommodated by a dream she is having about the Good Humor truck that used to troll past her family's house in the summers. She and her brother are running after it the way they used to in real life, jostled from afternoon naps, still in their underpants, fists full of change, yet in the time-pleat of the dream they are their adult selves, running in their underwear nonetheless. And then the nostalgic tenor of the dream shifts abruptly as the ice cream truck explodes.
Nora's eyelids flip open. Her partner, Jeanne, is already out of their bed, stumbling across the room to the window, which overlooks the street. "Something bad is happening," she says. Then, when she is at the window and has rubbed away the frost with the heel of her hand, she says, "What is this? No, this is very terrible."
Nora pulls the comforter around her and listens to what is now absolute silence reflecting off the ice-white night outside.
And then it begins again — a lowercase armageddon, judgment rendered automotively. A car careens around the corner and hurtles down their block. Nora understands that this is its second pass; the first was what awakened her. Then there is the gunning of an engine in neutral, the high whine of reverse, rubber tread crunching frantically through snow. The slam of steel on steel. A sucker punch of fender into door. The pull of metal snagged, then stretched, groaning. Slam and creak overlaid with shatter of glass. Then, a peeling-off into the wider night, leaving behind the tripped horn of
a wounded car. Which, when Nora makes her way, reluctantly, to the window, she sees is her Jetta.
It has been struck with such impact that it has left its parking space and now rests on the front lawn of the house across from theirs — home to a jumbled assortment of family with two burly father possibilities, both with furry hairdos and high trucks. A wife who stands on the porch through all but the harshest weather with cigarette and cordless phone. Several giant, sullen teenagers. These familiar strangers are now barely awake, bleary but curious, pulling on parkas, gathering up their forces as they lumber across the front yard, their way illuminated by blinking holiday lights.
The storm door downstairs slams as Nora's daughter, Fern, shouts behind her, "Hey! Come on!"
More neighbors add themselves to the scene. A small group forms, bringing to bear on the situation the weight of flesh and blood, and speculation.
Nora turns to see Jeanne pull on pants and a sweater from a pile on the chair in the corner. She comes back to the window and puts a hand on Nora's shoulder, a gesture to release her from whatever glitch is keeping her still when she should be leaping into action. Jeanne, of course, can't know that within Nora is actually quite busy, gathering up all the false notes she is soon going to need to pretend she is surprised by what has just happened.
Fern and Tracy stretch out on the wide, lumpy futon where they used to laugh, shaking like bowls of jelly through stoned sleepover nights as if there were no tomorrow, tomorrow being adulthood. They lie on their sides, facing each other, languid and silent, listening to the soft sweep of a sprinkler fanning Tracy's mother's garden, green aroma drifting up in the afternoon heat in the same lazy way a Cubs game from an unseen radio fades in and out on the soft waves of breeze.
On the floor beside the bed, Lucky also lies on his side, legs stretched out straight. Fern had him clipped at the beginning of the summer, and now his fur has grown back some. He looks like a rusty lamb. At the moment, he appears to be pondering something, staring off into the middle distance dogs keep an eye on. Fern drops a hand, gives him a good scratch behind one ear. She ran over here with him an hour or so ago, although going on a run with Lucky, who's deep into his golden years, means loping together for maybe thirty seconds, then sprinting on ahead for half a block, then doubling back and jogging in place while he finishes a two-minute sniff of an especially fascinating blade of grass.
The girls are quiet because Tracy's baby, Vaughn, is asleep between them, pacifier fallen from his mouth into a small puddle of drool on the flannel bunched next to his face. Vaughn is four months old. Tracy puts the lightest pressure of a fingertip on the edge of his ear, which causes him to raise his arms and squiggle into a horizontal dance move, toes clenched.
"He's in a dream club," Fern says, noticing that Tracy's swollen breasts are leaking milk through her old Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt. The Pumpkins are part of their past life when they were stuck in an edgy, static place. Now everything has changed. Vaughn is a sign, a sign that anything is possible.
Tracy and Fern have been best friends since seventh grade, but Tracy won't tell anyone — not even Fern — who Vaughn's father is. "He was a bad idea I had for about one minute. Totally irrelevant" was what she said when she first told Fern she was pregnant, and since then she hasn't added anything to that small piece of non-information. Fern interpreted the statement to mean Tracy wasn't all that sure herself who Vaughn's father is. She was moving pretty fast at that point.
Tracy's boyfriends have all been bad news. For a while in high school, she was involved with a gang guy, Luis. He weighed about three hundred pounds but wasn't fat, that kind of guy. For a whole summer, Tracy wore vinyl shorts and drove around with him in his low-rider while he dealt crystal meth, checked out graffiti in alleys, and planned fights. Over the course of that summer, she herself became moody and chemically overanimated. She traded make-up tips with huge-hair girls. Her own hair got huge, her lips got lined. Fern was sure she'd lost her, and then suddenly, in the fall, Luis was history and Tracy was back, her old self shakily reassembled.
The next year, when they were juniors, Tracy disappeared for three weeks with someone named Don who ran the Tilt-A-Whirl in a traveling carnival that had set up in the parking lot of St. Ben's. She lived in a trailer with him and his little dog through all the carnival's stops in Indiana. Her parents freaked; Tracy was calling them from along the way, but not telling them where she was. The guy was forty-three.
Tracy's emotional life has been harrowing and exhausting for years. For a time, Fern envied it. She kept an eye on Tracy's euphoria, Tracy's sufferings, while she herself was only able to stand on the other side of heavy glass, reaching toward the smoking beakers of passion and derangement, her hands encased in heavy protective gloves, shielded from the chemical burn. Then Fern met Cooper and got some experience of her own. This has put them on more equal footing; now they both have stuff they don't want to talk about.
Vaughn is starting to come out of sleep. His lashes ?utter, his fat hands ball up into fists. Everything about him is so new — perfection awaiting the wear and tear of the life he's about to live. She tells Tracy, "If you want to get out — you know, get a break — I could take him tomorrow." Fern enjoys hanging out with Vaughn, especially when it's just the two of them, plus Lucky. A small, nonverbal community.
"Thanks, but I'm on at the store." Tracy works part-time at a stupid store up on Clark called Aroma One's Own. They sell scented candles and soaps, crystal jewelry, audiotapes of waves and dolphins, and what Tracy calls "spiritual clothing" — fanciful dresses and capes patterned with celestial motifs. "Thalia lets me bring the papoose to work. To show what a feminist and nurturing person she is. But the truth is he's good for business. He's a charmball, puts customers in a warm and fuzzy mood. Which can turn into a candle-purchasing mood."
"Then what about coming over? Next week sometime? Friday. I'll ?x dinner for everybody. Mom and Jeanne.My uncle. They're all nuts for Vaughn. They'll goo-goo, give you a break. Plus it'll give me a chance to do my Stepford Daughter impersonation. Like — if I'm standing there cooking, I must be okay. They don't have to start worrying about what's really going on with me. It saves us all a lot of trouble."
"We can invite your dad and Louise, too," Tracy says. This is a joke. Fern hates Louise.
"She has a new gym," Fern tells Tracy. "Some gonzo fitness place where they pinch you with calipers to check your percentage of body fat. She's moved on to the stationary bike thing. Spinning. She's a spinner."
"What happened to the StairMaster?" Tracy says. "I thought Louise was Queen of the StairMaster."
"They had to talk with her because she was hogging too many time periods. If you read history books, all the things Louise does were once ways they used to punish prisoners. Next she'll find a place where they put her in the hold of a ship and lash her to an oar." Suddenly Fern is tired of trashing Louise; she flips back to her dinner plan. "I'll make my peasant spaghetti."
Tracy sits and picks up Vaughn, who has started to fuss. She gives him a breast — her left, which in the old, pre-Vaughn days had a small gold ring through the nipple.
Fern stretches half off the futon and reaches for a stack of CDs, flips through them to find a Lucinda Williams disk, then plucks it from its case and sets it into Tracy's boom box. Fern has only recently tuned in to Lucinda Williams. She has developed an ear for songs of murky obsession. They wait until the music starts.
"Lucinda sings the way I feel," Fern says. "Like she's learned so much from experiences with guys, but she's also ready to do something stupid again in about ten minutes."
"Yeah, Lucinda's cool," Tracy says. She reaches down with her free hand and touches the side of Fern's neck. "This, too," she says, meaning Fern's tattoo. "Way, way cool." Fern herself already has serious doubts about the tattoo, which is a small black ankh. When she got it done a few months back, it seemed so ancient and mystical, so Egyptian and all. There was also the bonus that her mother would hate it, but there's only so much she can get off on that. Lately Fern has been thinking there are probably too many people with tattoos, that they're becoming cheesy personal statements along the lines of bumper stickers. She's grateful for Tracy's reassurance, though. This is one way in which Tracy is always a good friend. She can figure out exactly the thing Fern is having doubts about and boost her up.
"Does it seem to you that things are moving pretty fast?" she asks Tracy.
"It seems to me like they've stopped entirely."
"But in terms of change around us. Vaughn, big change. My dad marrying Louise after all those years alone. Louise and her Bible-beating family and that hideous wedding with the minister telling them that Dad was the farmer and she was the mule pulling his plow or something like that. And — bam! — now these religious nuts are part of my family. Same with Jeanne. Before she came to live with us, she was just this Frenchy person my mother was sleeping with. But then all of a sudden she was, like, my assistant mother."
"I envy you," Tracy says. "I still have my same nightmare parents. Worse, they still like each other; they'll never get divorced. But you, you got a nice big divorce. Lots of drama."
"Well, it's true, and as it turned out, it's cool. It got you Jeanne, who is way cooler than your father."
"Yeah. Right," Fern says. Tracy ?at-out likes Jeanne and she's probably right. Still, Fern likes to appear to be keeping her suspicions up, on principle, the principle being not to let her mother push all the pieces around on her and totally get away with it.
Actually, when it's just the two of them together, Fern likes Jeanne fine. It's only when she has to witness Jeanne's devotion to Nora that Fern's sentiments starts wavering between contempt for Jeanne for being such a fool and pity for Jeanne for being such a fool. Sooner or later, Fern knows Nora will betray Jeanne, the way she betrayed Fern and her father. She will become distracted and walk away toward whatever is distracting her, forgetting even to look back over her shoulder. Sometimes when she is with her mother and Jeanne, Fern gets a mild chill, as though a draft is passing through the room. Jeanne can't feel this cold air, is incapable of imagining Nora's treachery. That's all right. Fern imagines for her.
"And Louise," Tracy is on a roll. "Even Louise might not be all that bad. I mean, she gave you that check for your birthday."
"It wasn't a check. It was a dorky savings bond. I have to wait until I'm retired or something to cash it in. When I'm ninety, I can stand all stooped over in line at the post office and get fifty dollars for it." She stops herself. "Oh man, do I sound like a total whiner, or what?"
Vaughn lets go of his mother's breast, appears totally satisfied for a split second, then bunches up his face in distress.
"Burp alert." Tracy hoists him over her shoulder and starts patting his back in time to the music.
What's actually bugging Fern is her own dead standstill in this great flutter of rearrangement. It seems she should be able to come up with some large, surprising event of her own. Instead, in place of actually being able to create a dramatic future for herself, she has become adept at making up one to suit the occasion or questioner. On the spot she can spin out to whomever — her mother or father or the head of the Anthro Department at school, or Turner, the therapist her parents had her seeing for a while — some detailed plan for the next few crucial years. She likes school but has no idea what she will do with all this education. She bluffs by putting together a full-color package featuring grants and fellowships and grad school programs and field study semesters on this island or in that remote mountain village.
Her line lately is that she wants to study the Nenets, an Arctic tribe in Siberia, some of whom are reindeer herders adhering to a lifestyle so primitive they wear clothes made of reindeer skins and live in reindeer skin teepees, make nearly everything they need, and spurn all modern conveniences except ceramic teacups. They have the narrowest worldview imaginable. A Nenets proverb, for instance, is: "If you don't eat warm blood and fresh meat, you are doomed to die on the tundra." The Nenets play into Fern's fantasies of being in a much simpler situation, a place of limited expectations.
She stretches off the mattress onto the floor to uncover the clock from beneath a pile of Tracy's clothes, then gives Lucky a little massage on his chest. "Can you keep Lucky for the rest of the afternoon? I have to go to work. I'm on from four to eight tonight. Rush hour. Right after they run the infomercial."
Vaughn curls up as though squeezing the sleep out of his body, pulling his legs and arms in, then pushing them out again. He smiles and explodes with something that sounds like "pow!" and becomes once again center of all the attention in the room. Even Lucky rallies. He gets up on his feet to stand quietly watching the baby for his next surprise.
It occurs to Fern that Vaughn's needs will be rapidly changing and expanding. Soon he'll be tottering around, rummaging through danger-packed cabinets. Then he'll have to be placed in preschool and go to summer oboe camp and get expensive braces on his teeth, and then in spite of all the attention and concern of the adults around him, he'll do something brainless like inhale air freshener on a dare, or steal a car. Or flunk out of a decent college and have to finish up at someplace nobody ever heard of in Ohio. But then he'll get it all together and find some niche in the universe. His own pattern of connect-the-dots. It's hard to imagine; all of this seems remote as another galaxy on this still summer day that smells like lawn and tomatoes and seems as though it could hold itself in place forever.
"What do you think he's smiling about?" Tracy says, giving up her index finger to Vaughn's grip. "What can a baby's dreams be? What can he know yet?"
"He knows he's a miracle," Fern says, putting her face close to his head, which smells like powder and sweat and is covered in thick dark brown hair like a cheap toupee. Everyone says he'll lose this, but so far he hasn't. "He's thinking, So far, so good. He's resting on his laurels."
Copyright © 2002 by Carol Anshaw. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.