I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I changed the bandage over my father’s knee in the final month of his life. His wound was purple, and blood heaved through. I never looked away from it. I swallowed my vomit when it struck the back of my clenched teeth; I was ready to swallow my insides as often as necessary—it was important to gaze at his flesh exactly as it was because I would not have it with me for much longer. I wanted to learn matter-of-factness about being this close to someone. The yellow fluid on the gauze around the bloodstains, the cortisone spray that would have made Papa scream if he’d had the strength: I thought of them as my own—my stain, my shock, my unuttered scream.
A brain lesion gave him double vision. Everything wore a register of itself, a crown of haze. It amused him to watch people walking around with the ghosts of themselves stuck to their skins. Papa’s knee had ripped open when he fell off a ladder while trying to repair a broken window sash. Frantic to protect us, to seal every entry, he had crawled from his sick bed while my mother was at work at the Sunshine Biscuit factory and I was at school. A killer who called himself the Zodiac was roaming the Bay Area. He was sending letters with obscene ciphers to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Isabel,” said my father, his fingers brushing first the specter of my face and then my face. The rind of the moon cut through the windowpane. The wallpaper was an old pattern of “The Strawberry Thief,” with sharp birds poking through tall red grasses. Saint Anthony of love and lost things had an arm-span covering the top of the bureau, and someone had sent over a plug-in picture, with a lightbulb in the back, of Saint Lucy with her plate of eyeballs. Papa was 42; he would stay posed in time with black hair. He did not know how to guard me anymore. He could no longer hide the newspapers, as he did when Richard Speck murdered those nurses in Chicago. Fear gives off a smell. That’s how evil finds its victims, Isabel. If you don’t give it off, you’ll be safe, you won’t get hurt in the dark.
I told him he must stop worrying. The Zodiac would not bother coming to our town: What was here? Every morning I walked to the boulevard to catch the bus to Bishop Delaney High School in Oakland, and we passed the Adobe Feed Store, where my father had said that hiding in the sacks were eggs, smaller than the eye could see, waiting to hatch into vermin. And sometimes I had caught it, in the days of holding his hand when we went to buy chicken scratch. The sacks jumped, they stirred a bit, moth wings straining against the weight of the feed. Eggs and wings: I thought of death as white. Our morning bus passed the Miniature Golden-Tee, with its hydra-head of neon dragons guarding the windmills, clowns with big mouths waiting for a golf ball to gag them, and a little Wild West corral with a gate that gave out a horse whinny again and again as it swung open. What was in San Damiano? It sounds like a place with terra-cotta earth and a Spanish mission, but it was an ordinary suburb, house after house with those netless basketball hoops, and a gauntlet of stores on San Damiano Boulevard. People favored wind chimes in the shape of pagodas, which they bought in San Francisco’s Chinatown, as if crossing the bridge was going from part A of the world to part B, and the winds blew in and tilted the pagodas and no one ever straightened them; there was always a faint music, a trickle, really, coming from these shattered columns of pagodas.
I was in love with someone who was leaving me his own lessons in being unafraid. James was a tall Filipino boy in my sophomore class who wore three-piece business suits on Free Dress Day and smoked cigars with the Asian kids in the parking lot, and once when Sonny Barger and some Hell’s Angels rode through, as they did now and then, James threw a flaming butt end at one of them and was rewarded with an obscene gesture. I understood that the motorcyclist admired James for a moment, and it thrilled me, to watch how someone could go straight toward points of fear.
Violet Wong, my best friend, would get onto the bus with me at the San Damiano stop, and she’d take out the green eye shadow that she’d stolen from her mother. We’d put it on with our fingers, and my lashes were so long that they stroked green dust onto the inside of my glasses. She wanted to help me be beautiful for James. I had written a speech for him, and he won the regional Lions Club contest with it and would go on to state finals. He had not told me that he won; one of his friends did, and when I went to him, he said, “I was going to tell you, Isabel.” I wanted him to bury his face in my hair and wet my scalp with his mouth, to breathe my name back to me inside my ear.
How could I explain any of this to my father—the odd, awful timing of my love? “I’m not scared of anything, Papa.” That was all I could manage. “That’s good,” he whispered. “I don’t want you taking a stitch in my arm.”
“No, I won’t, Papa,” I said, and we laughed.
It was a joke between us. When he was a boy on the island of São Miguel in the Azores, he suffered a fear of the dark. His mother explained to him that the family cure for that, she was very sorry to say, was taking a stitch in a dead man’s arm. The cure was horrible, but its strength lasted forever. “Forever” had sounded wonderful to my father, so he said yes, next time there was a dead man in the town of Sete Cidades, he would take a stitch in his arm. Nothing could be worse than the monsters roving in his bedroom at night.
My father was five years old. His mother stood outside the chapel, crying into a lace handkerchief. Fear of the dark is fear of aloneness; my father had to go by himself to the dead man in his casket. The thread in the needle was white. Papa thought the young man looked like marzipan, especially where a drip of pink paint stood out on his ear. He had died from falling off a stone wall, where he had been entwining hydrangeas through the gaps. Everyone agreed that the world fought back when you tried to make it beautiful.
My father pulled up the dead man’s cuff and touched a waxy arm. His name was Jaime, and his mustache was trimmed neatly for the first time ever. My father stuck the needle into the wrist and pushed until it dipped through flesh and emerged from under the skin, and then he thought, all right, that’s enough. Two drops of fluid seeped at the prick marks. My father’s stomach shrank smaller than a fist. He left the thread in the man’s skin and drew the sleeve down and ran back to his mother.
It was easier to give up fear of darkness rather than repeat such a cure. Perhaps it was some old-world remnant, sticking a man with a needle to make certain he was not merely in a coma. At one funeral in Sete Cidades, a man had bolted upright in his coffin while being borne to the cemetery and roared, “How will I breathe underground?” Maybe the idea was to stitch the body to earth, so that it would not cling with its worms to the spirit trying to fly to heaven.
Death sinks a person’s eyes back until they become bright creatures in a tide pool. I got up to go to my room, but my father grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t leave me, Isabel! Not yet,” and I saw, on the gleam of fever, on the water on his eyes, a terrible fear, and I did not know if it might be from him, or if it were my own, reflecting back to me. Perhaps I was so far into fright that I’d touched clear round to the other side, where I could claim to be past it; perhaps I was a liar; I could stand that. But I could not bear to think that the fear might be coming from him.
For once I did not mind Mama’s nightly habit of getting out our glow-in-the-dark rosary set. The Holy Family statue had a hollow compartment to house the rosary. I held it under a lamp’s light to turn the beads into glowworms. My mother snapped off the lights, and she, my father, and I handed the fluorescent beads from one grasp to another in the dark. Fingering this string of lights like the souls of infant stars, I finally knew what to pray: I’ll give up love, if You’ll save my father.
That was my bargain with God.
Our Alameda County transit bus, #80, went from San Damiano through San Leandro and then under the “Free Huey” banners along East 14th Street into Oakland. Near the General Motors plant, we picked up the riders going to Castlemont High, near Bishop Delancy. They had afros with fro-piks stuck in them and wore Angela Davis glasses and hiphugger lace-up football pants, including the girls, with angel-flight hems. On their Pee-Chee folders, they had penciled dashikis and black-haloed hair over the Waspy white kids in tennis outfits. We lifted our schoolbooks onto our laps to free up seats for them.
One day Charles Mayer, a Castlemont Knight with his purple-and-white letterman’s jacket, sat next to me. Everyone knew him from his picture in the newspaper. He was heading for the NBA. He ripped out a sheet of binder paper from a folder and began writing in pencil. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his writing, and I did not know what came over me when I leaned over and said, “No, ‘receive,’ is ‘e-i,’ not ‘i-e.’”
I cringed when he said, “What?” and looked right at me. I glanced near his eyes and told him about the spelling of receive. He jotted it down and insisted it didn’t look right, but I told him, “Believe me, I’m sorry for speaking to you, I didn’t mean it, but I’m telling you the truth: receive.”
Charles Mayer handed me his paper and said, “What else is wrong here? Tell me.”
I got into the habit of moving my books for him to sit where I could help with his homework. Once when some Castlemont kids pried up a bus seat and crammed it out a window to protest the arrest of Eldridge Cleaver, and the Delancy kids were jostled around, Charles Mayer told them not to touch me. It had nothing to do with the usual sort of love; that was understood. He had a girlfriend and plenty of other girls after him. I was ugly, with my skinniness and battles against fright. We all rolled our blue herringbone tweed skirts at the waist in a crude attempt to have mini-skirts. He was taking a portion of my mind, but not as James had. Not long into knowing him Charles handed me five pralines made by his grandmother, in a baggie secured with a psychedelic-streaked rubber band.
He said, “Thanks. Tell me your name?”
“Isabel Dias,” I said.
“Isabel Dias,” he said, as if pleased with locating an obscure country on a map. “I got a B on my essay about my future,” he said.
My hand was moist around the bag of pralines.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No problem, thank you,” he said, and we each settled back into our books.
In that essay, he had written: This is my world at this moment. Everyone I meet is my history. This is the year that Charles Mayer has stepped into his life.
When we disembarked at Delancy, Violet said, “What’s wrong, Isabel?” I ran to the rest room, willing to let the smokers beat me silly, and I locked myself into a stall and wept, I wept without making noise, I was good at that; imagine me counting just a tiny bit as someone’s history. How uncanny, too, that my father should seep inside my lonely hours: with the raw instincts of a small animal, with the Zodiac on the loose, I found myself a protector on the bus, a guardian angel on his way to money and fame, far, far above anything I was, but I counted now in his tally of moments, owing to my lack of fear in spelling out receive.
An essay or two later, Charles Mayer stopped taking our bus. I never saw him in person again, though I continued to see his photo in the sports news. I heard that he had a car now. Rumor had it that it was a gift from a recruiter, because his future was so much on the rise.
I studied my mother the way I looked at the eyes and blood of my father, to preserve her as she was right then, down to the safflower oil with its faint scent that she rubbed into her skin. Already, young, her skin was overly set, like the film on a pudding, and her light brown hair was thinning, and her glance seemed not to be owning things but making blank spaces where she looked, and I forgave her, I never thought that not seeing me meant that she did not love me. She could hardly bear to look at my father. I would make watery soup but she refused it. Right through her skin it was poking out, the dryness in her bones. When she curled up next to my father on their bed, I took off her shoes and set them upright on the carpet, where they exhaled her entire day of standing and picking the pink marshmallow cookies off the conveyor belt and putting them bottom to bottom inside the compartments of a box. The Sunshine people let the workers eat all they wanted, but one week we had devoured four boxes of pink cookies and three boxes of Sunshine cheese crackers on purpose, to break the habit of wanting any more.
Mama, dozing next to my father, would give a startled shudder of remembering me, and with her eyes still shut, not looking at either of us for fear of dying of it, she let me crawl between her and Papa. Their silver carpet was bare, stripped to its gums. Somehow the roses on the carpet had worn themselves onto the bottoms of our shoes but since we saw no roses on our shoes I think they must have gone up into our feet, roses inside my mother’s feet and climbing inside her sore calves as she stood at the factory.
When I roused myself to go off to my own bed, I could not sleep. Suddenly the dark drifted into a white blindness, like the belly of a night turned inside out. I got up in the white sac of night to clean the green leather couch, Comet on a rag that made the green pale. The majolica Christ child over the stove, inside His ring of majolica fruit, had collected streaks of grease, too far to reach.
I piled bedclothes on top of myself and put my arms and legs around them and thought of them as a man, and I thrust around like a stupid fish on land, and that made me feel worse, because a man would move in ways beyond predicting. Even then I suspected that when a woman got to be experienced in love, that was the point—for him to surprise you; the very touch of love was a plunging reminder of the unknown, the same unknown I carried with me now.
I heard that James came in third in the state finals of the speech contest held by the Lions Club. I was about to round the corner to find him at his locker, to tell him that he had gone quite far with my speech and should not think of it as failing. I decided this would not violate my vow to give him up. I stopped when I heard his voice say, “Deborah, I’m dying to fuck you.” And thereafter I saw him with this girl, who had long blonde hair that she plaited and undid so that it held a ripple. Her rouge compact fell out in the bathroom and I kept it: Mauve Turbulence.
In religion class Sister Miriam showed a filmstrip about sex in which a priest’s voiceover affixed every act of physical love onto a scale. “Looking at, talking to, walking with” was at the end marked “Early Stage of Arousal.” “S.I.”—for “sexual intercourse”—was at the far other end, in the Marriage part of the scale. The projector went “Ping!” whenever Sister Miriam had to move the filmstrip. The narrating priest said, cheerily, “I really don’t know where to put the fondling of the breasts!” and the screen showed an “F” surrounded by question marks that ended up straddling the line between Engagement and Marriage.
So God was merely amused. I had not even been on the scale with James. I had not owned this love enough for me to offer it up. And the pain I was in meant I had not even truly surrendered the nothing I had. But what of any of it? My father might be saved now, but there comes a time when such a prayer is not answered.
My lungs flattened so that it was impossible to get air into the bellows. I took an early bus home and crawled onto the bed where my father lay with his pounding double vision. I did not speak; I tried to get some breath into me so I would not die. He put his hand on my hair—kindly, though I had failed him. My glasses fell off and the birds on the wall, the strawberry thieves, blurred into a red ironworks, becoming almost pretty. He said that he’d been wrong his whole life; taking a stitch in a dead man’s arm hadn’t been about fear of the dark.
Was I listening to him? Was I?
I moved a shoulder a bit to signal him yes.
It was about leaving behind the curse of waiting. “Waiting is the fear you have to get over, Isabel,” said my father, so lightly I barely heard him. It frightened me that he could hear my heart battering its way onto the sheet. “Don’t wait for anyone.” Because waiting was darkness, having no imagination to see beyond the fallen curtain, where you were right then. But when you were young and looking at a dead man, and actually sticking it to him, you were saying that it wasn’t your time to die, it was your time to enter your better and better future.
There were so many cracks in our house that I was sure that water ebbed in while we slept, filling every room to the ceiling. The Zodiac got in through one of the cracks, but we fought him, and his knife, instead of killing us, opened gills on our sides and we could breathe. The Zodiac had a fear of drowning and swam away. My mirrored vanity plate of lavender soaps and vanilla cologne got swept up in a vortex of water. My father had been a champion ocean swimmer, and this, to him, was child’s play. This was nothing, getting to dance underwater until morning, when the water receded and daylight began and a string of water was falling out of our mouths, connecting whatever had gone on in our heads in the night to our pillows.
My mother and I threw out the newspapers, though my father could no longer read. We had to protect him from the latest: The Zodiac had written a letter that said: Ha! Ha! Ha! Your pigs can’t catch me!! When a busload of Catholic kiddies step off in their uniforms I’ll go pop! pop! and I am going to find me some niggers, too.
My #80 bus, with Delancy and Castlemont students, was a gift box, wrapped and delivered, for the Zodiac. Everyone thought this, but no one worried. The Zodiac would stay in San Francisco. Surely death would not trouble to stalk us on this one obscure line from San Damiano to Oakland.
Death was too busy, death was in my father’s body. I stitched my gaze to my father’s when he yelled, “Isabel!” He looked straight into me, and I looked back; into the iris and nerves.
When he died, my mother insisted on a simple, closed-coffin affair, no flinging ourselves at the dead, no kisses that drew back embalming paint. But at his wake, I almost fainted from the smell of the casseroles, the Chinese noodles baked over ground beef and peas, the lasagnas oozing like a cutaway of magnified muscle, the Boston pies leaking their middles—I stopped eating for days, and then, all at once, my bones shook as if my father were shaking me, I saw black puddles moving along the floor and sticking together to make odd black-water animals, and I could not wait to eat. I ate, my mother said, like someone who was going to be shot in the morning.
As a girl, I had attended a school run by Carmelite nuns from Spain who told us stories about their parents being killed in the Civil War. Once a year, we filed into the convent’s chapel and the priest held out a black speck housed under a small glass dome. We had to kiss the glass over this black jot, which was a particle of bone from the order of the founder.
How had this bone chip been obtained? What part of the body was it from?
Why did we turn the color of night down to our bones when we died?
There is always some way in which we lend ourselves to taking a stitch in the body of the dead. Someone had taken not a needle but a knife and carved out of the bone. At school, Violet held out her biology book and said, “Isabel! Did you know that the skeletons in the wings of birds are the same shape as the inside of the human hand?”
That would be just like my father, to hide where he would not frighten the living. He and the other dead could sweep across the daytime sky, over my head, caressing the face of the air.
My mother would sit in dark rooms and not move. In the living room, the dotted Swiss curtains bulged with air blowing in through the screens. It was as if the air had shape, and the curtains were stretching themselves over it. “Shall we go for a walk, Mama?” I asked, and out we ventured under the birds in the sky, stunned and silent. At a distance I imagine we must have seemed to be striding quite fearlessly.
While walking down Redwood Road to the bus stop on San Damiano Boulevard, I noticed a car—maybe a station wagon—going in one driveway, pulling out, going into the driveway of the next house, pulling out. Someone was following me, entering and idling for a moment in every driveway so that he could stay behind me. I walked a little faster and stepped closer to the curb. Hardly any other cars were out at that hour, still dark, before seven. I was wearing my trench coat over my uniform, with the fringe of my herringbone skirt showing, and blue knee socks and coffee-and-cream saddle shoes.
I passed the San Damiano Library, a low glass building across from Faith Lutheran Church; the car went into its parking lot. I thought that if I took care not to look at the car, it would leave me alone. I tried a fast walk, afraid to look over my shoulder until I told myself, Fear nothing, your father is with you: don’t give off the smell of fear; that’s when the larger animal will catch the smaller one. I knew how to protect myself. The boulevard wasn’t far, and men worked all hours at the Union 76 station near the bus stop. I wondered if I should get the license plate number, or look at the man behind the wheel, but I broke into a run when I saw the gas station.
The A.C. Transit driver, Owen Campbell, was getting coffee out of the vending machine. When I ran up to him, breathing hard, I said, “There’s a car back there I don’t like.”
Mr. Campbell and two of the station attendants walked out with me and looked down the street, but the car had vanished.
“You get the number?” asked Mr. Campbell.
I shook my head. I told him what had happened, and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Maybe it’s just one of those things.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Because it’s a strange world,” he said.
He escorted me to the bus. I told Violet that someone had come after me in my Catholic uniform, and she stifled a yell and started a whisper in the bus about the Zodiac. By the time we stopped at the General Motors plant for the Castlemont students, the fear in the bus went into their skin too, and they picked up the murmur: of course he’d find us. We’re a two-for-one deluxe murderer’s dream. A girl next to me opened her Bible to the 23rd Psalm: He leadeth me beside the still waters/… Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
She took hold of my sleeve. We did not speak, but she clutched these stitches all over my arm. I hope it made her less afraid. For me it was a sweetness out of nowhere. How close to dying it still arrives, the better and better surprise. We could be minutes from gunfire, and someone finds the time to take hold of me.
When the bus stopped at Delancy, Mr. Campbell opened the door and exited first. He turned around and walked a bit, and then I stepped off. If the car were lurking, I would be able to identify it. It was the most fearless moment of my life. When I was out in the open, and the other students poured out, Mr. Campbell said to me, “God bless you, sweetheart,” a further gift in the middle of all that terror. No one had ever called me sweetheart before, not even my family.
There was no news that day, nor on any of the following days, about the Zodiac killer. He was never found, though it was guessed years later that he might have been apprehended for a different crime. Who knows? We refuse to believe in the persistence of the sinister. Perhaps he is a clerk or a dental technician or professor, his skull’s interior filled with webs that no one else can see.
Violet Wong drowned in the Bay during a marine biology trip in her freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley.
As far as I know, Charles Mayer never made it to the NBA; I hope life has not disappointed him. I hope he did not die in Vietnam. I wish him a good and cheerful family.
James came into my life 20 years after I last saw him, at an awards banquet for journalists. I was getting a small prize for some pictures I had taken. I was divorced and madly, utterly, out of my skin in love with a married man. I lived in a studio on Pine Street in San Francisco, where I developed pictures in my own darkroom. James came up to me at the banquet, and we had a drink together. But he was no longer beautiful to me, because he reminded me of what I still was—someone perpetually learning not to wait forever. There are times that contain all we shall ever be; everything we learn can be traced back to that start of the shading in of all we more fully come to know. Back then in the year when I learned to step into my life, there lay the first threads: darkness, waiting, the dragon in the landscape, love running in blood and water through my grasp.
My mother still lives in our little house with the red wallpaper in San Damiano, the sort of artless place that no one wants to admit being from, the place where I thought, What was here?
With Andrew, my married man, I gave up many things, including my notion of “here.” When he came to where I lived—here, there, it didn’t matter at all—anywhere was everything. He knew how to kiss the length of my spine and enter me almost at the same time and hold my head from behind so that he could feel my violent heaving face, and when I was by myself, when he went home to his wife, I was quite clear about one definite new fright. I had crested something and hit up against that farthest fear of the dark: nothing would touch me more than this that I was about to lose. Soon he and I would end this passion simply because it refused to have an end of its own. You could take a stitch in a dead man’s arm in order to defeat the night, because you wanted to live. But what if you hit up against a love that would cling to you, so that no one else would be able to touch you directly, not ever again, because that—him, it, the hours, this created thing between you—would stay adhered?
Oh, Papa. One lifetime is never enough to figure everything out, not the mystery you left off solving, the mystery that began when you were very young and took a stitch in the body of death and thought: There it is, I’ve finished, I will never again be afraid of the dark. What happens when it’s you that’s the body lying there alone?
“Taking a Stitch in a Dead Man’s Arm” is the lead story in Vaz’s Our Lady of the Artichokes and other Portuguese-American Stories (University of Nebraska Press), which won the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.
Katherine Vaz is the author of two novels, Saudade, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and Mariana, selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1999. Her collection Fado and Other Stories won the 1997 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee