Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
November again. Harvard Square. I called Adele. Not the first time. One ring, two—never more than this. If my mother loved me, she’d pick it up that quick.
Don’t be stupid, Clare said.
No answer, no surprise. Coins clanging down. Jackpot, Clare said.
I saw Emile across the street. He was a Latino boy with cropped hair, reaching for his mother’s hand.
Then it was December 3rd. I remember because afterward I looked at a paper in a box so I’d know exactly when.
One ring. My mother there, whispering in my ear.
Now you’ve done it, Clare said.
Past noon, Adele still fogged. I knew everything from the sound of her voice, too low, knew she must be on night shift again: nursing home or bar, bringing bedpans or beers—it didn’t matter which. I saw the stumps of cigarettes in the ashtray beside her bed. I saw her red hair, matted flat, creases in her cheek, the way she’d slept. I smelled her, the smoke in her clothes, the smoke on her breath. I remembered her kissing me one night before I knew any words—that smell: lipstick and gin. I heard Clare sobbing in the bunk above mine, her face shoved into her pillow, and then our mother was gone—we were alone in the dark, and if I’d had any words I would have said: Not again.
Who is it? Sharper now, my mother, right in my hand. A weird warm day, so the Haitian man was playing his guitar by the out of town newsstand. He’d been dancing for hours, brittle legs, bobbing head. You never saw a grown man that thin. Sometimes he sang in French, and that’s when I understood him best, when his voice passed through me, hands through water, when the words stopped making sense.
I wanted to hold out the phone, let my mother hear what I heard. I wanted to say: Find me if you can.
It’s me, Nadine, I said.
I heard the match scraping flint, the hiss of flame burning air. I heard my mother suck in her breath.
Your daughter, I almost said.
Where are you?
I thought she was afraid I might be down the road, already on my way, needing money, her soft bed. I saw her there on the edge of the bunk, yellow spread wrapped around her shoulders, cigarette dangling from her lips. I saw the faded outlines of spilled coffee, dark stains on pale cloth, my mother’s jittery hand.
Not that close, I said.
Muffled words. I thought she said I’m glad. The Haitian man kept jumping, dreadlocks twisting, pants flapping—those legs, no flesh, another scarecrow man. Dollar bills fluttered in his guitar case, wings in wind. Coeur d’oiseaux brisés, he said, and I almost knew what he meant. A crowd had gathered to listen, two dozen, maybe more, all those people between us, but he was watching me; I was watching him.
I’m glad you called, my mother said again.
And I swear, I knew then.
Je ne pleure pas, the Haitian man said.
For a moment both his feet were off the ground at once. For a moment his mouth stayed open, stunned. He was a dark angel hanging in blue air. I saw his heart break against his ribs. For a moment there were no cars and no breath.
Then every sound that ever was rushed in. Horns blaring, exploding glass; ice cracking on the river; On the ground, motherfucker—all this again.
I said: Clare’s dead.
Tell me where you are, Nadine.
Fuck you, Clare said.
The Haitian man fell to earth. I heard the bones of his legs snap. He wouldn’t look at me now. He was bent over his case, stuffing bills in his pockets.
The voice came over the phone, the one that says you have 30 seconds left. I said: I’m out of quarters. I said: Maybe I’ll call you back.
That night I found a lover.
I mean, I found a man who didn’t pay, who let me sleep in his car instead. He told me his name and I forget. Fat man with a snake coiled in the hair of his chest. I kept thinking: All this flesh. When he was in me, I thought I could be him.
Clare said: I tried to come home once, but the birds had eaten all the crumbs. There was no path.
The next night, another lover, another man with gifts. Two vials of crack we smoked, then heroin to cut the high. Got to chase the dragon, he said. No needles. Clean white smack so pure we only had to breathe it in. Safe this way, he said. He held a wet cloth, told me, Lean back, made me snort the water too, got to get the last bit. When he moved on top of me, I didn’t have a body: I was all head.
Then it was day and I was drifting, knowing that by dark, I’d have to look again.
Emile appeared on Newbury Street, shop window, second floor: he was a beautiful mannequin in a red dress.
Listen, you think it’s easy the way we live? Clare told me this: I never had a day off. I had to keep walking. I could never stay in bed.
So she was glad when they put her in a cell, glad to give them all she had: clothes, cash, fingerprints. She said: I knew enough not to drink the water, but nobody told me not to breathe the air.
No lover that night. I found a cardboard box instead. Cold before dawn, and I thought, Just one corner, just the edge. When the flames burst, I meant to smother them. I felt Earl, his cool metal grasp. Get out, he said. Ashes floated in the frozen air, the box gone that fast. Clare said: Look at me: this is what they did. Later my singed hair broke off in my hands.
In the morning, I called Adele again. Tell me, I said.
I thought she might know exactly where and when. I thought there might be a room, a white sheet, a bed, a place I could enter and leave, the before and after of my sister’s death.
But there were only approximate details, a jail, stones, barbed wire somewhere.
No body. She meant she never saw Clare dead.
Clare said she tried to get home in time, but the witch caught her and put her in the candy house instead.
Busted. Prostitution and Possession.
Let me answer the charges.
This is Clare’s story.
Let me tell you what my sister owned.
In her pocket, one vial of crack, almost gone. In her veins, strangers’ blood. She possessed 96 pounds. The 96 pounds included the weight of her skin, coat, bowels, lungs; the weight of dirt under her nails; the weight of semen, three men last night and five the night before.
The 96 pounds included the vial, a rabbit’s foot rubbed so often it was nearly hairless, worn to bone.
Around her wrist she wore her own hair, what was left of it, what she’d saved and braided, a bracelet now. In her left ear, one gold hoop and one rhinestone stud, and they didn’t weigh much but were included in the 96 pounds.
She possessed the virus.
But did not think of it as hers alone.
She passed it on and on.
Stripped and showered, she possessed 91 pounds, her body only, which brings me to the second charge.
Listen, I heard of a man who gave a kidney to his brother. They hadn’t spoken for 11 years. A perfect match in spite of this. All that blood flowed between them, but the brother died, still ranting, still full of piss and spit.
Don’t talk to me about mercy.
The one who lived, the one left unforgiven, the one carved nearly in half, believed in justice of another kind: If we possess our bodies only, we must offer up this gift.
You can talk forever about risk.
New York City, Clare. Holding pen. They crammed her in a room, 200 bodies close, no windows here. They told her to stand and stand, no ventilation, only a fan beating the poison air. And this is where she came to possess the mutant germ, the final gift. It required no consensual act, no exchange of blood or semen, no mother’s milk, no generous brother willing to open his flesh.
Listen, who’s coughing there?
All you have to do is breathe it in.
It loved her, this germ. It loved her lungs, first and best, the damp dark, the soft spaces there. But in the end, it wanted all of her and had no fear.
December still, Clare eight months dead. Adele only knew half of this.
You can always come home, she said.
I went looking for my lover, the fat one with the car, anybody with a snake on his chest.
I found three men in the Zone, all with cash—no snakes and none that fat. Tomorrow I’d look again. I wanted one with white skin and black hair, a belly where my bones could sink so I wouldn’t feel so thin. I wanted the snake in my hands, the snake around my neck; I wanted his unbelievable weight to keep me pinned.
Ten days in a cell, Clare released. 253 hours without a fix—she thought she might go straight, but it didn’t happen like that.
She found a friend instead. You’re sad, baby, he said. She dropped her pants. Not for sex, not with him, only to find a vein not scarred too hard. When your blood blooms in the syringe, you know you’ve hit.
Listen, nobody asks to be like this.
If the dope’s too pure, you’re dead.
This is Clare’s story. This is her voice speaking through me. This is my body. This is how we stay alive out here.
Listen. It’s hope that kills you in the end.
On Brattle Street I saw this: tall man with thick legs, tiny child clutching his pants. Too beautiful, I thought, blue veins, fragile skull, her pulse flickering at the temple where I could touch it if I dared. The man needed a quarter for the meter. He asked me for change, held out three dimes. A good trade, I said. He stepped back toward the car, left the girl between us. I crouched to be her size, spoke soft words, nonsense, and she stared. When I moved, she moved with me. The man wasn’t watching. I wanted to shout to him: Hold on to this hand.I wanted to tell him: There’s a boneyard in the woods, a hunter’s pile of refuse, jaw of a beaver, vertebrae of a deer. I wanted to tell him how easily we disappear.
That night I found Emile sleeping in a doorway. Shrunken little man with a white beard. No blanket, no coat. He opened one eye. Cover me, he said.
I held out my hands, empty palms, to show him all I had.
With your body, he said.
He held up his own hands, fingerless. I froze once, he said.
In the tunnel I found the Haitian man. Every time a train came, people tossed coins in his case and left him there. Still he sang, for me alone, left his ragged words flapping in my ribs.
Listen, the lungs float in water.
Listen, the lungs crackle in your hands.
Out of the body, the lungs simply collapse.
For my people, he said.
His skin was darker than mine, dark as my father’s perhaps. His clothes grew bigger every day: he was singing himself sick. By February he’d be gone. By February I’d add the Haitian manchild to my list of the disappeared.
But that night I threw coins to him.
That night I believed in the miracles of wine and bread, how what we eat becomes our flesh.
It was almost Christmas. I put quarters in the phone to hear the words. Come home if you want, Adele said.
Clare made me remember the inside of the trailer. She made me count the beds. Close the curtains—it’s a box, she said.
Clare made me see Adele at the table, the morning she told me she was going to marry Mick. It’s my last chance, my mother said. I wanted the plates to fly out of the cupboard. I wanted to shatter every glass.
I smoked a cigarette instead.
I was 13.
It was ten.
I drank a beer.
I felt sorry for Adele, I swear. She was 34, an old woman with red hair. She said, Look at me, and I did, at her too pale freckled skin going slack.
I thought, How many men can pass through one woman? I thought, How many children can one woman have? I tried to count: Clare’s father and Clare, my father and me, two men between, two children never born whose tiny fingers still dug somewhere. She didn’t need to make the words, I feel them; didn’t need to touch her body, here. I knew everything. It was her hand reaching for the cigarettes. It was the way she had to keep striking the match to get it lit. It was the color of her nails—pink, chipped.
If she’d been anyone but my mother I would have forgiven her for what she said.
I can’t do it again. She meant she had another one on the way. She meant she couldn’t make it end. So Mick was coming here, to live, bringing his already ten-year-old son, child of his first dead wife; the boy needed a mother, God knows, and I saw exactly how it would be with all of them—Mick and the boy and the baby—I could hear the wailing already, the unborn child weeping through my mother’s flesh.
Clare made me remember all this. Clare made me hang up before my mother said the words come home again.
Storm that night, snow blown to two foot drifts; rain froze them hard. Forever, Clare said.
She didn’t know which needle, didn’t know whose blood made her like this. She didn’t know whose dangerous breath blew through her in the end. She told me she had a dream. We were alone in the trailer. Our little hands cast shadows on the wall: rabbit, bird, devil’s head. She said: Someone’s hand passed over my lungs like that.
I wanted to go home. I didn’t care what she said. I saw the trailer in the distance, the colored lights blinking on and off, the miles of snow between me and them. I saw the shape of my mother move beyond curtain and glass.
It’s too late to knock, Clare said.
She made me remember our first theft, Adele’s car, all the windows down, made me see her at 15, myself at 10. We weren’t running away: we were feeling the wind. We drove north, out of the dusty August day into the surprising twilight. I remember the blue of that sky, dark and brilliant, dense, like liquid, cool on our skin. And then ahead of us, glowing in a field, we saw a carnival tent, lit from inside.
Freaks, we thought, and we wanted to see, imagined we’d find the midget sisters, 33 inches high; the two headed pig; the 300-pound calf.
We wanted to see Don Juan the Dwarf, that silk robe, that black mustache. We wanted to buy his kisses for dimes. We wanted him to touch our faces with his stubby hands.
We wanted the tattooed woman to open her shirt. Pink-eyed albino lady. We wanted her to show us the birds of paradise on her old white chest.
We wanted to go into the final room, the draped booth at the far corner of the tent, we wanted to pay our extra dollar to see the babies in their jars: the one with half a brain and the twins joined hip to chest. We wanted to see our own faces reflected in that glass, to know our own bodies, revealed like this.
We wanted freaks, the strange thrill of them.
But this is what we found instead: ordinary cripples, a man in a violet robe promising Jesus would heal them.
We found children in wheelchairs. We saw their trembling limbs.
We saw a bald girl in a yellow dress.
We saw two boys with withered bodies and huge heads.
We saw all the mothers on their knees. We thought their cries would lift this tent.
Busted driving home. Adele knew who had the car, but turned us in. That’s why I left, Clare said.
I’m waiting for you on the road.
I’m not trying to go home. I’m heading north instead.
Clare’s tired. Clare’s not talking now. If you’re dangerous, I don’t think she’ll tell me.
I see swirling snow, pink light between bare trees, your car in the distance, moving fast. I speak out loud to hear myself. Clare’s gone, I say. But when you spot me, when you swerve and stop, she surprises me. She says: Go, little sister, get in.
She whispers: Yes, this is the one.
I don’t know what she means.
If you ask me where I want to go, I’ll tell you this: Take me out of the snow. Take me to a tent in a field. Make it summer. Make the sky too blue. Make the wind blow. Let me stand here with all the crippled children. Give me twisted bones and metal braces. Give me crutches so I can walk. Let my mother fall down weeping, begging the man in violet robes to make me whole.
Melanie Rae Thon is the author of Meteors in August and Girls in the Grass. Her most recent novel, lona Moon, has just been published by Plume. “Home” is the last section of a three part story, Nobody’s Daughters.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.