Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
I was one of those blue-skinned babies who look like they won’t survive ‘til dinnertime, but somehow do, and then become toddlers with the tics and nerves of a used-up veteran.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
I was one of those blue-skinned babies who look like they won’t survive ‘til dinnertime, but somehow do, and then become toddlers with the tics and nerves of a used-up veteran. Leonard said it that way. He said I looked up at him and he looked down at me and he knew and I knew and we both knew that we’d always dislike each other. I can’t disagree. My mother was such a good friend, though; so he felt he had no choice. He couldn’t possibly say no—not to a woman whose belly had watermeloned overnight.
Yes, she said, who else?
Leonard always told it that way and I always thought my mother’s question really wasn’t such a good question, not even a little useful. Because she knew and he knew and no one else knew that there wasn’t anyone even pretending to lurk in the shadows of that tiny town where they’d ended up, just burned-brown grass and black-eyed Susans, swaying in useless fields. Leonard didn’t know anyone else. My mother didn’t know anyone else. I’m still not sure how it got that way, how they’d become a town of two. It was as if they had survived something together and couldn’t help the affection it gave them.
The loneliness of certain American States is enough to kill a person if you look too closely—Leonard said that while I was thumbing the albums again, trying to figure out what happened, how we’d become a town of two. The loneliness of the trailer park. The loneliness of a warped Polaroid. The loneliness of the gay decade when I appeared. It didn’t kill me, though, and it didn’t kill Leonard and even though we never grew a love for each other, he had a stubborn bit of mercy, and for that, I was thankful. (If not a merciful god, at least a merciful godfather.) It wasn’t anyone’s fault that she died while my birth certificate ink was still fresh, but we both blamed the other and we raised me in a cloud of resentment. He’d lost his only friend. I’d lost a whole type of future. We’d gained something we’d never wanted.
When I was a week old a nurse removed me from my clear coffin and handed me, screaming, to Leonard. Despite his prayers to a god he didn’t believe in and despite two collapsed lungs and not quite enough blood and the umbilical cord I’d worn like a scarf, I had still survived. I stared up at Leonard with bulging gray eyeballs and he knew and I knew and everyone knew we were fucked.
As a kind of back-handed gift, Leonard told me we could speak to her and I believed him for so many years. We spoke to her aloud, giving her a summary of our days, what we ate, what we saw, and twice a year Leonard read my report card aloud, to the air. Sometimes I’d ask a question and it would just dangle there, answer-less.
I spent all the school day thinking, revising, rehearsing the nighttime messages Leonard was careful not to call prayers. One night I tried to kneel at my bed, but he told me to get up, that’s not how we do it.
But that’s what they do in the movies.
You’ve been going to the movies?
I saw a movie once.
Oh, you did?
They played it at school.
That’s not a movie, that’s what they call an educational video. What kind of education they put in it?
I guess to kneel at night like this.
And what do they call what you do down there?
They call it a prayer.
And what have I told you about praying?
That it’s useless.
And that god doesn’t exist.
You are such a smart goddaughter.
Can’t I just call you father since god doesn’t exist?
It’s not the same thing. Being a godfather has nothing to do with that god. God is just a sound made of a G and an O and a D. It’s a good sound. That’s part of the reason it’s so very popular these days. Everyone loves a nice noise.
He put a brick-hard hand on my scalp and I felt all the pounds of him pressing down.
Sleep, he said, and turned out the light.
On the night of my sixteenth birthday when we usually talked to mother, Leonard told me he had something to say and he wasn’t going to say it to her; he was going to say it to me.
I didn’t ask for you. I had no part in your creation. I still cannot even understand how she had a baby inside her to begin with and she never even told me how. I was her only friend and she never told me what happened, not even once. Someone must have driven up at an opportune moment and done what they wanted just because she was there.
That is what he said, exactly as he said it. I wasn’t surprised. I’ll even say it made a good deal of sense because I’ve always had a box in my brain packed to the lid with vengeance.
That night he wrote me a check for two thousand, one hundred and forty-three dollars, left the car keys on the dresser and walked to town. I started packing my own lunches, signing report cards and doing what I had to when the money ran out.
Decades passed and one night I answered the phone because it rang and that’s what you do. That’s what you do for the person who calls you on the phone. You hold up your side of the bargain. It doesn’t matter how much I want to throw the phone straight through the screen door some days. I still answer it. I have always answered it.
This time it was a stranger, a nurse with a tiny blue feather of a voice.
I’m afraid you have the wrong number.
Oh. Well. You wouldn’t happen to know Sophia, would you?
What about Leonard Brown?
I heard that after a certain large earthquake or hurricane, a major river temporarily ran in the opposite direction. This was basically like that.
I had never imagined hospitals in the Dakotas, just acres of unremembered earth, but I suppose people must be destroyed there, too.
North Dakota was where Leonard had ended up and ended. Hairless and in a haze he told all the nurses about the remote islands he visited, the mercenary armies he fought in, about beautiful women in dresses that fit just so. He told them my name was Sophia, which it is not and in my pocket I thumbed the beet-dyed foot of a long-dead rabbit. I’d bought it out of a machine outside of a bowling alley outside of a town where I had run out of options. I looked at Leonard, my godfather, my once merciful godfather. I don’t believe in godfathers anymore.
When he woke up on the last day, I decided to believe him when he said that he simply must catch the last ship to Tanzania tonight, so please hurry up with your ravioli so I can pay the bill.
All done, I said.
Leonard smiled and recounted what a lovely trip it has been, got nostalgic for the past few minutes of his imagination—Remember that ravioli? Incredible. Maybe there are so many Italians here because it’s so beautiful, just like Italy, another Italy down here. And how about that ravioli?
His knees, beneath a sheet, trembled, and after a long silence, he broke character. He looked at me, at my eyes, said my real name. Said he wanted to know how I was.
He said it this way: How are you? He said it like nothing. Like he’d said it a million times.
And it took me a second, but I answered. I answered like it was nothing. Like he’d asked me a million times.
I am good, I said. I have a good husband who has a good job as a manager and I am a manager too, which means I am managing. We get juice in cartons so big they ferment before we finish them. We think this is good; this means we are on the right side of things. We know what I am, and he knows what he is, so that means I take out the trash.
Leonard twitched again, a smile whimpered into a frown.
Sophia, he said, what about the opium trade?
I can’t tell you much, you know.
A comrade is always discreet.
I thank you for your discretion.
Opiates, as you know, are recession-proof.
I waited patiently for the last few hours, most of them silent. The nurses told me I should leave, that it could be weeks, days, months, but I knew what was really going to happen.
He woke up and told me he was very far away, in a remote location, in the Commonwealth of Dominica.
Of course, I said.
Time travel, he whispered, they’ll kill us all if they know we’ve harnessed it. We must say we’ve never met. They could be following us right now.
Catherine Lacey’s debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, is forthcoming from FSG. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, the Paris Review Daily, The Believer, and others. She was a 2012 NYFA fellow for fiction and is a founding owner of 3B, a cooperatively run bed-and-breakfast.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.