015. Grace Mountain
“Della,” she said.
Her face was inches from mine and I could smell her skin. She had cocoa butter on her lips. When she kissed me I felt the print. She touched my head.
“And Jimmy,” she shifted and her eyes turned yellow in the sun. “It’s wonderful to have you here.”
I saw Jimmy on the edge of a circling current.
“Miro will be back soon. Annette called. They just left.”
“They were giving him a hard time about taking the day off,” I said.
“Oh, whatever,” Grace laughed, taking Jimmy’s hand. “That union wants to be a vanguard so bad it just keeps leaching the life out of people.”
She passed through the front door and, once through, let Jimmy’s hand drop. She pulled a rubber band off the back of the knob and put her hair in a loose ponytail, tobacco brown strands playing by her cheeks.
“I mean they’re willing to create a dialogue on class but…”
We walked into the kitchen and Grace stepped into a flood of sunlight. Leaning against the butcher’s block counter, she unbuttoned the top of her blue dress and pulled the rubber band back out of her hair. A plane scratched a path in the sky and she watched it through the window then threw her head forward and shook her hair which, streaked with copper, cascaded around her ears until she wound it back into a ponytail and stood up. Her face was flushed and there was sweat on her forehead and under her eyes.
“They’re too orchestrated. Too mired in Party structure.”
She wiped her temple with the inside of her wrist and smiled.
“Jimmy, Credence tells me you’re going to Honduras.”
“Come see the garden,” I said.
Grace uncorked the wine, “Where is it you’re going?”
I grabbed Jimmy’s hand.
Jimmy yanked her hand back and settled in. Clearly, she thought this was an opportunity to soften Grace up on the subject of expatriatism. But Grace doesn’t soften.
“I’m flying into Tegucigalpa then on to the mountains.”
Grace handed her a glass of white wine.
“Really? What made you decide to leave?”
“Well, I don’t feel like there’s much more I can do here and I don’t really want to be a part of what’s going on.”
Grace brushed hair out of her face, paused, and then wiped the sink. When there was no response Jimmy went on, chattering about native cultures, indigenous medicine and artisan craft movements. And, maybe because it was the anniversary, or maybe because Jimmy’s gay, I don’t know, either way, Jimmy got a pass. I saw Grace make that decision. The faintest exhale, the smallest movement of an eyelid. Jimmy saw nothing and yet Grace watched her as if she were a pretty tangerine bird, waiting for her to finish, all the time with her flaming eyes dancing over the feathers until they caught fire.
“So then you won’t be staying for the rise of the proletariat?” she said when Jimmy was done.
Jimmy laughed, “I’d only be cooking for rich white people anyway.”
“You could always industrialize,” she refilled Jimmy’s wine glass. “You know, get a job stunning chickens in a factory to earn the trust of the working class.”
Jimmy laughed again and accidentally spat Chablis on my legs.
“It’s a pretty silly idea, isn’t it?” said Grace, getting a rag. “Leaping out of the closet in a crisis?” She lowered her voice, “Don’t worry, sir. I’m a revolutionary socialist. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Jimmy covered her mouth with her arm so she wouldn’t spit on me again. Grace smiled. That’s how I love her. My fearless Grace, my Broken Shield.
“Anyway, it’s stupid. Who is going to run the healthcare system if everyone’s picking grapes or on a tractor?”
She hung the rag over the faucet.
“That’s why, in the end, I always thought what Della did was smart. Deciding to stay in school.”
“Yes,” I said, “because everybody needs an invertebrate paleontologist on the inside when the time comes.”
Grace looked at me and I felt like she could see it all—the box-mall-church, the ticket in my pocket, even the seeds of new ideas that I couldn’t yet see myself.
“I thought that went well,” Jimmy said later. “I think she’ll understand.”
“Watch your head.”
We were climbing the ladder into the attic. Grace waited below.
“Don’t forget the Rainbow Brite dolls!”
I pointed to a stack of boxes in the corner.
“They’re behind that.”
Grace keeps all of Cady’s things in a crib so that no one ever forgets to whom she really belonged. Stuffed rabbits, snap-on black leather bracelets with metal studs, half-used hair dye—Enchanted Forest and Electric Lava—black nail polish, a plastic record player, Mutant Ninja Turtle stickers, jewelry boxes, candles, incense, a Bauhaus poster, a walkman, cassettes. If you glued it all together it wouldn’t look like Cady, though. Like when you look at fossils and think the world must have been nothing but seashells but it wasn’t. It was filled with all sorts of things that didn’t preserve.
“What’s going to happen now?” Jimmy asked.
“We’ll put some of Cady’s stuff up, play her music. Make some toasts. We’ll be out of here by midnight. I promise.”
From the rafters, dried Indian corn hung.
“When we were little we used to play Battle of Wounded Knee,” I handed Jimmy a box. “I never got to be a warrior, though. Cady and Credence were always the warriors and I got stuck being one of the babies left to die on the hillside.”
Cady would make speeches of vengeance over my body and Credence would draw plans for a counterattack. If I moved, Cady would kick me. Hard. I broke some ribs once doing fieldwork at grad school and what struck me was how familiar the feeling was. I remember thinking it was lucky Cady didn’t puncture a lung ’cause if I’d ratted her out she would have had me shot. That’s how it was. We were all in training.
Through the window I saw Credence and Annette walking up the path.
“We should probably just take the whole thing downstairs,” I said.
We dragged the crib into the dining room. Grace set out chips and guacamole while Credence and Annette caught her up on the shootings. Riots had started and were getting worse. Organizers were holed up at Higher Ground of Africa Baptist negotiating with the city and that’s why Credence was late. He’d been trying to get the unions to pressure the mayor but the unions were trying to get the mayor reelected and didn’t want him chastised over police accountability. Community leaders split—What solution was to be had? What mystical action could convey both rage and passivity? Candlelight vigil! Credence was trying to act excited but Annette’s disgust was clear.
“Those boys were fourteen and sixteen years old. That baby was holding a goddamned robot toy when they shot him.”
Just then Miro came in. The lost fish of the Morava, he swam muscled and aging, his scales like silver coins fell and glinted between the rocks. Something was wrong. His frayed fins beat the water. He laid a newspaper down in front of Grace. “They’re tightening the borders. Soon people aren’t just going to be able to leave.”
Grace glanced at headlines then poured some salsa into a bowl.
“Sounds like you’re going to get out just in time, Jimmy,” she said.
I could feel Jimmy’s eyes boring a hole in the side of my skull.
Annette asked her to help out in the kitchen.
Grace flipped through the newspaper.
“Let’s get the stuff up,” said Credence and walked into the living room.
Every year we each choose something of Cady’s to decorate the house with. Some things always get used. The dried wildflowers she collected the summer before eighth grade and ironed between sheets of wax paper, her tape deck and the cassettes with her name written in nail polish on the plastic shells. I found a copy of Pretty Hate Machine missing its cover. Cady and I were singing “Head Like a Hole” on the bus the day she died. She said it was “got money” and I said it was “god money” and she called me an idiot and went to sit with some friends up front. Then she ran back crying because Jeremy Sokolov called her fat and she had a big crush on him. So I ran up and whacked him with my knapsack. Then we went off the cliff. All three kids in the very back were killed. I remember Cady like a magical animal with sharp lines and multicolored fur. I knew she would call me a coward for even thinking about leaving.
Miro looked over at me and held up a clay dog.
“She made this at camp, right?”
“Yep. She used to tell me it came to life at night and that the only reason it hadn’t ripped my throat out was because she had asked it not too. Goddamned death hound.”
Miro smiled, “I think it’s exactly what.”
Credence unrolled a huge Bauhaus poster. We spread it out on the floor and put books on the corners to hold it flat. Cady’s face, soft with her baby fat, floated up before me. She had thick black eye make-up smeared just above her freckled cheeks.
Credence grabbed some of Cady’s black nail polish out of the crib and Grace took the plastic record player. I picked out a drawing Cady made as a kid. It had a row of burning apartment buildings and everyone standing over a little dead bird. On the bottom of the picture it says “Africa” but I know it was Philadelphia. Cady drew herself too, big as a skyscraper, right next to the little bird. I laid it next to the clay demon dog.
Jimmy came back in. She wasn’t saying much anymore. I didn’t blame her. What do you say at a funeral? Or wear to a hanging? Or a bus crash or a school bombing? Nikes? A flak jacket woven from pieces of the true cross?
“How bad is this going to get?” she whispered.
“Maybe not so bad.”
Grace put Rainbow Brite dolls on the shelves and tables. She tried to balance a couple over the door but the molding was too narrow and they fell off.
“Cady would kill you if she knew you were putting those dolls up,” I said.
“I know,” said Grace, “it helps me to see her face.”
I heard the sea shift in her voice.
Miro taped the Bauhaus poster to the door and put the little clay dog on my dinner plate. I threw a napkin over it. Credence painted his nails black in the doorway. I propped my drawing up between some glasses. We used the turntable on the plastic record player like a lazy Susan and put the salsa and sour cream on it. Annette put the Frito pie on the table and Miro poured the wine. Then we all sat down. Credence blew on his nails to dry the polish. Annette looked like she’d rather be chained to a fence. Jimmy shifted in her seat and bowed her head slightly. The windows were open and outside the woods were filled with small sounds, sparrows and quivering tree needles. We always start with silence. It’s my favorite part because it feels like Cady’s there, like she’s upstairs and lost track of time and might come down to dinner any minute. Grace rose from the table like a tsunami. With her breath she washed away the debris of the past until we were all floating in her massive sorrow and buoyed by her absolute conviction in life, vibrant and wild on the shores, she carried us forward and that’s how we landed, all of us on this strange beach.
“It is a wonderful thing,” Grace said with her glass high, “to raise a free child. To Cady!”
She drank then slammed the glass down. The wine splashed out on all sides and reddened the tablecloth.
“To Cady!” we yelled and drank and slammed our glasses down like Grace.
“To my wild sister!” I shouted, “to Cady!” and slammed my glass down.
Jimmy jumped up to get some rags from the kitchen. I saw her minutes later in the doorway with her hands full of surgical gauze. Credence made his toast and she started laying down the dishtowels. Miro went and Jimmy scrambled to sop the wine that was pooling under the plastic record player. Then Grace went again and on and on until the tablecloth was a field of crimson flowers and Jimmy could find no more towels and we were all hoarse. Cady the bold. Cady the poet. Cady the fighter. Cady the argumentative. Cady the strident. Cady the gentle. Cady the unsure. Cady the secret crier. Cady the awkward. Cady the valiant. Cady the private. Finally no words, but there aren’t any really. Jimmy was crying. And even though it was silent, I knew my parents were talking because they never stop. Grace is a tsunami and Miro is radio signal and they speak in waves punctuated by dolphins and sea glass.
Miro brought out an orange guitar with hummingbirds and brushed the back of his hand down the strings. It came to me again as I watched him that Miro is a radio signal. He arpeggiated a chord with his leathered hands and I thought—these sounds have traveled across a galaxy to get to me. My last thought was—the singer’s been gone for years. He started to sing and Miro, the lost fish of the Morava, snapped his torn tail and bubbles filled with strains of Czech lullabies shot upwards, each for Cady.
We all have our mother’s mouth and our father’s cheekbones, sharp and high. I have my grandmother’s lighter hair. It turns blonde in the sun and when I was at Davis nobody believed it had ever been brown. Credence has dark hair and dusky skin just like Cady did. Even now, in the end of September, there’s rose on his cheeks. They both had blue eyes but Credence has a dark spot in his left iris. Someone told me that those are trauma scars and not genetic. I don’t know if that’s true. Eyes change over time though just like rivers and it would make sense if every place we’d been, everywhere that counted, we left behind a meander scar.
Mom cut the Frito pie.
“It’s nothing but meat and cheese,” I whispered to Jimmy.
“Shut up,” she hissed.
The skin under her eyes was swollen.
Grace came over and tucked a piece of Jimmy’s hair behind her ear.
“How are you doing with all this?”
“It’s pretty sad, Grace.”
“Yes. It is sad,” Grace put her hand lightly on the back of Jimmy’s head, “but it is important to remember that we have always had our political martyrs.”Grace reached across and pulled two grapes off a dense cluster in the center of the table.
“What do you mean?” Jimmy asked.
A veil came down between Credence and the world, thin, shimmering and nearly invisible and Miro, like a man waving in the distance at a passing ship, smiled. He set a piece of buttered bread on the edge of Grace’s plate.
Grace squinted her eyes.
“It was a failure on my part, “ she said, “Cady never really did understand the role that gender played.”
She sat back down and took a bite out of the buttered bread.
“I don’t understand,” said Jimmy.
“You see Cady understood class and race. She was very good on those points. She had a wonderful critical mind but she did not understand gender. Her grasp of feminism was tentative and that’s where I slipped. You see she didn’t have the tools to protect herself from gender-based criticism—she didn’t know how to let what that boy said, calling her fat, roll off her. If she had had those tools, she wouldn’t have run to the back of the bus.”
Annette looked down at her plate and shook her head. Jimmy put her fork down.
“We have to learn from our mistakes,” she continued. “I know you more than anyone at the table must understand the importance of gender. Della’s always been pretty clear on that too. But I underestimated it. We are nothing if we can’t face our own past with clear eyes, no matter how much it hurts. I take full responsibility for what happened to Cady.”
Then Grace picked up the empty bowl and walked into the kitchen to get more salsa, trailing behind her the harpoons and tangled rigging of a terrible storm.