Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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The Starveling
Why should it console me to be praised as a good writer? These stripped bones are not enough to feed
a starving woman.
—Jean Stafford, in a letter to Robert Lowell after he divorced her

No streetcar ever stopped at her door. She lived with her boyfriend, Connie, in an apartment behind and adjoining the storefront where she made and sold earrings and read palms. It was always hot in the apartment, and even with the window unit on high, she was drenched in sweat. Connie walked around stripped to his briefs and St. Christopher’s medal. He was writing poems. Sometimes he showed her what he had written, the ballpoint scribble in a spiral notebook (it was Y2K, but Connie didn’t have to worry about that):

ribbon of booze-piss
o i have drunk with the gods
of despair and lust,
and ah! will my heart not
beat evermore?
is an old man who has forgotten

Connie had wooed her with poems—his own, yes, but also the poems of other poets—and by now she recognized the difference between theirs and his. The words of the old poets were like beautiful beads. But she respected Connie’s passion for his craft, his art. If he was a jerk sometimes, if he never made the bed, never washed the dishes, she fully agreed with him that his art lent him privileges she did not deserve. In her view, he had earned an exemption from daily life.

She also believed that a girl was supposed to encourage her boyfriend, but it wasn’t always easy to see how. “I love that,” Calista said, at last. “An old man who has forgotten how to spit. How in the world did you come up with that?”

Calista tried her best to understand Connie’s talent. She respected the anguish it caused him: To capitalize or not to capitalize? To punctuate or not to punctuate? Once she had suggested that he flip a coin to decide whether to go with an end rhyme (was closure good, he had wondered aloud, or was it kitschy?) and in response he had pulled his jeans on and stomped out, slamming the door behind him so that all the earrings jumped and rattled on their wire hangers.

Now, with the ice in her mimosa melting, and sweat from the glass she held in her hand dripping onto the lilac pillowcase, she wanted to ask him if old men didn’t actually spit even more than younger men, and was that what was called poetic license, but she was never sure when he might construe something she said as criticism. He was sensitive. “Everybody thinks they’re a poet,” he’d said once, not so much bitterly as angrily, as if he felt he had to muscle his way into excellence, “but I am going to show them what real poetry is.”

Connie’s anger upset Calista but she tried to understand it as a function of the artistic temperament. Her friend Lisbet was not so forgiving. “What about your artistic temperament?” Lisbet said, in a tone that Calista would have found taunting if they hadn’t been best friends since confirmation class. As it was, however, she knew that Lisbet had once washed her face in holy water, hoping to ward off zits; that Lisbet had stolen a bottle of Prince Matchabelli from her mother's dressing table; that, in seventh grade, Lisbet had given her heart to Freddie Bass, whose scale model of an Apollo missile had taken first place in the science fair. Freddie had never even noticed Lisbet’s heart was right there in front of him. With this deep background on Lisbet, Calista was able to respond to her sarcasm with equanimity.

“Constantine isn't like us,” she said. “He has moods. The muse doesn't show up on schedule.”

“You get up and open the store on schedule. You make earrings every day.”

“I learned how to make earrings in a crafts class in high school, remember? I don’t think you can put earrings and poetry on the same plane.”

“I can and I will,” Lisbet said. She wrote something on a sheet of paper, folded the page into an airplane, then took off her cloisonné bicycles—earrings Calista had made for her for Christmas—and put them on top of the paper airplane. “There,” she said. “And since when are you calling Connie ‘Constantine’?”

“He’s decided it's more suitable for a poet.”

They were hunched over po’ boys, elbows on a high table with a small top, heels locked onto rungs of stools with red leather seats. They were on their lunch break. Lisbet bubbled her iced sweet tea with her straw. “Publication,” Lisbet said. “Publication would be suitable for a poet.”

Calista had had the same insubordinate thought, but she was not about to let Lisbet know that. She flicked one of the bicycles with her fingernail. “These look really good on you,” she said.

She started to add: And I don't make earrings every day anymore.

There had been a time when she couldn't keep enough earrings in stock. Hoops, dangles, studs; wires, posts, clips; teardrops and antique lamplight beads; funky, delicate, dramatic, humorous, classic; silver, gold, turquoise, pearl, plastic. (She made a mental note to tell Connie, oops, Constantine, that classic rhymed with plastic. Unless it didn’t. Maybe you had to get that “t” in there. Plastic rhymed with spastic. She wished he’d explain the rules of poetry to her, but when she asked him, he gave her a look so condescending she felt as if she hadn’t graduated high school, but she had.) At first, there was no end to how many pairs of earrings women wanted. Then, for a time, there had seemed no end to how many earrings men wanted. But something had changed: people were wearing earrings less and less often. They were wearing nose rings and tongue nails. They were wearing tattoos, but not earrings. It was as if they had gotten bored with earrings. Maybe bored with jewelry in general. Maybe bored with life in general.

There might be a movie they would go see.

There might be a television show they would stay home for.

They might go to a party, if they were invited. But they would come home early!

“I should quit making earrings and turn the place into a tattoo parlor,” she had said to Connie at the end of one very slow month, when she was tallying receipts.

Instead, Calista tried to bump up her palm-reading sessions, distributing fliers all over the Quarter, but with a psychic on every corner and in between, not to mention her own mother, Madame Rouée, née Tina, this, too, was a losing proposition. She was finding it hard to keep Connie—Constantine—in the style to which he had become accustomed.

“He could get a job,” Lisbet said.

“He has to be ready when a poem comes,” Calista explained. “If a poem shows up and the poet is not at home, the poem turns away and knocks on a different poet’s door.” She was repeating what Connie had told her. He had also told her somebody had said a poet has to stand out in a thunderstorm and wait to get hit by lightning, but she didn’t think Lisbet would go for that. She could just hear Lisbet saying, “No wonder the guy’s all wet.”

“You shouldn’t assume everything he says is true,” Lisbet said now. “You’re like his echo. You quote him as if he’s Bartlett.”

Calista sighed. “You just don't understand,” she said. “Chère amie, you haven’t the soul of a poet.”

“T. S. Eliot,” Lisbet said, “worked in a bank.”


Lisbet was a bookkeeper for a furniture outlet. She was dating the floor manager of a large department store and getting not only sex but discounts. Although neither Calista nor Lisbet had gone to college, both had high school diplomas, and the friends often took noncredit adult education classes of one kind or another to improve themselves. They had listened to lectures on “Modern Poetry,” “Investing for Your Future,” “God and History: Are They Both Over?,” “Technology for Luddites: The Internet and You,” and “Women Today: Feminism and Fashionistas.”

Calista had inherited the store from her father, whom she had known for all of maybe sixteen minutes. Oh, wait, she remembered, it had been sixteen years!—during which time he would often come home stoned on stuff straight off a ship from, he said, Southeast Asia, smooth her long, straight hair, “soft as cat fur,” tell her she was pretty, and then turn his attention to whatever woman he had brought home with him. Her father had inherited the store from his father. No one who owned real estate in the Quarter ever let go of it. Her father's father had sold toy trains. Her father sold hookahs and roach clips. Her mother, who dressed like a gypsy although she had grown up in a suburb of Metairie and was as Romany as, say, Grace Kelly, told fortunes. One day she told her own. Calista was six years old at the time. The cards were spread out before her mother on a card table. “If I don't leave now,” she said to her daughter, “I'm a dead woman.”

“What do you mean, Mommy?” Calista cried, knowing it couldn't be good.

“Your father is killing me. You can come with me, or you can stay here.”

Calista at six felt as though her eyes were burning inside her head and her body was cold and numb. There was a roaring in her ears and while she could see her mother sitting there, the cards laid out on the table, for a moment or two she could not see anything else in the room.

She wanted to ask where her mother was planning to go. She wanted to ask how Daddy was killing her. But she couldn’t talk or hear or think and, besides, didn’t know how to ask these things.

The silence had continued while Calista clutched her Raggedy Ann and sucked her thumb. The battering tide in her head began to recede. Maybe, she thought, if she said nothing, the world, which had just gotten knocked on its side, would right itself and everything would go back to being the way it had been a few minutes earlier. Please, please, please, she thought, too desperate for any words except that one.

How could she choose between her mother and her father? She hated the thought of hurting either of them. But had they even noticed what they were doing to her?

She felt as if her parents were pulling at her from each side, and she was being bodily split down the middle. Calista couldn’t understand how to choose, so she said nothing. Not knowing what to say, not even knowing what she was supposed to say, mute with shock, fear, and confusion, she just looked up at her mother—her exotic, fascinating mother, who dressed like Carnival every day of the year, whose eyes were huge and dark with kohl, deepened by shadow, and glittered like the black-glass earrings that bobbed below her gypsy kerchief-cap and swung out whenever she turned her head.

Her mother pushed her chair back from the table and walked over to her. She put her hand on the top of Calista’s head. The dangly black earrings threw shadows on her mother’s face. Her mother sighed.

“Okay,” her mother said, “I guess that means you want to stay with him. Well, it's your bed, you'll have to sleep in it.”

Calista did not know what this meant, either. Whose bed would she sleep in, if not her own?

“And take your thumb out of your mouth,” her mother said. “That’s for two-year-olds.”

Calista liked her bed. It was a single bed, white iron, with a pale-pink coverlet. She had stuffed animals who watched over it during the day: two teddy bears, one big, one little; a dog; a monkey; and a kitten with soft, fluffy fur and a blue ribbon around its neck. She liked to pet the toy kitten and imagine her hand felt the way her father’s did when he ran his hand down her hair. There were also red-haired Raggedy Ann, Barbie Bathing Beauty, and Barbie Bride. Before she climbed into bed at night she had to move her dolls and toy animals to her little chair, which she kept pushed up against the wall beside the bed. Her father, when he came in to wish her sweet dreams, would rear back and exclaim, “Whoa! It's a regular menagerie in here!” He’d look all around the room and pretend to tear his hair out, saying, “Where am I going to sit?” and then he’d sit on the side of the bed and ask her if she was happy, and she always said yes. Sometimes he would close his eyes as if to think about her answer and keep them closed for so long she would begin to worry that he had fallen asleep, but always, he would seem to call himself back from some far-off place, maybe Southeast Asia, and wake up and kiss her good night on the forehead.

At first there was always one babysitter or another when her father went out at night.

By the time she was eight, if one of his lady friends was with him when he paid the babysitter and then came to tell her good night, the lady would be impressed, Calista could tell, thinking that here was a man who cared about children. To make sure the lady would know she had gotten the right impression, Calista always threw her arms up to hug her daddy, who bent down to be hugged. She kept hoping one of the lady friends would decide to stay. She knew her father was lonely; Calista thought he missed her mother as much as she did.

The day her mother left, Calista refused to talk to her—until her mother had finished packing suitcases, put on her sunglasses, shrugged her padded shoulders, and said, “Baby,” whereupon Calista ran to her mother and threw her arms around her waist. Her mother was wearing a wide belt with a buckle, and Calista could feel the buckle’s imprint on the side of her face. “Please, please, please,” she said, her one word the summation of everything she felt. Her eyelashes were wet and clumped together with tears.

Her father said, “Hey, goofball, we’ll have good times together. You’ll see.”

Her mother eased herself from Calista’s embrace. When she walked out the door, she had her purse slung over her shoulder and a suitcase in each hand.

“Don’t go, Mommy!” she cried, pleading, calling out. Her mother turned around, and for a moment Calista thought she was going to do what she had asked, not go. But then her mother said, “If you don’t want to live with me, I don’t think you should call me Mommy. You may call me Tina now.”


Despite the divorce, it was her mother, Tina, aka Madame Rouée, who had taught Calista to read palms, as well as cards and tea leaves and auras. Calista visited her after school. Occasionally Tina came to see Calista. Tina had moved in with a man who sold praline cookies and now, many years and many, many cookies, and a certain number of cinnamon buns and pecan rolls, later, she was fat. Her eyes still flashed but her flesh jiggled, especially under her arms and on her thighs. Whereas Calista, having spent those years with her manic, improvident, alternately speeding and spaced-out father, was, at twenty-five, as skinny as she had always been. He’d had trouble remembering to feed her—she rarely had three meals in one day—and fed himself even less often. At first she had lived on Cheerios, Cheerios and Cokes. When she taught herself to cook and made pancakes for her father, he said they were the best pancakes he’d ever eaten, but they sat on his plate, getting cold. Cold pancakes in congealed syrup. She couldn’t eat either. Her light-brown hair had never been cut, and if asked to she could sit on it, but she usually wore it in two long pigtails. Sometimes she made loops with the pigtails, like Princess Leia. She was on the tall side, almost five-nine, and in the store she usually wore khaki shorts and a white men's-shirt with the tails hanging out. She wore glasses for the close work of making earrings. Her eyes were hazel. A month after her father died—he overdosed and choked on his own vomit, and the woman he was with that night might have saved him but instead she ran off. And although Calista, half-asleep in her single bed, heard strangled, animal-like noises, she assumed that what was going on was sex. It wasn’t until the woman raced out of the apartment and the fifty-year-old bell on the door to the shop chimed that Calista had the nerve to pull back the bead curtain he had hung to partition their room into two sections and found him on his back on the double bed, eyes open as if he were staring through the dark at the ceiling. She had a going-out-of-business sale to get rid of all the head shop paraphernalia. Her mother worked the register and took the opportunity to hand out business cards for Madame Rouée. Calista cleared enough to pay the long-delinquent property tax, and by the next year she was pulling down a profit.

She had dialed 911 and tried to blow air into her father’s throat, his mouth all sloppy with throw-up, and she had rolled him over on his stomach and pounded him on his back, but it was too late.

Too late. Too late. Too late. After the paramedics took his body away, she lay down on her small single bed and cried.

A year later, with the help of a friendly lawyer who charged her not one red cent, she got herself legally emancipated from her mother, celebrated her high school graduation, and opened her earring-and-palm-reading store. She was sixteen.

Her father, she now understood, had drunk with the gods of despair and lust. This was what Lisbet didn’t get about Connie. Connie had shown her how words could illumine things that were mystifying and incomprehensible. Perhaps, after all, his own poems were not very good. Maybe they were, in fact, ridiculous. Even so, he had taught her how to see the world through poetry. And the two of them had fun together, strolling in the park or going out for drinks and dancing. There was nothing wrong with his dancing. There was nothing wrong with the way he would put his arm around her shoulders or brush her face with his slender fingers.


Connie left poems on her pillow:

Moonlight drips into
my veins like an I.V. and
resuscitates me.

Calista was worried: Was Connie using drugs, as her father had? Could a poem be over almost as soon as it had begun, like, she had to reflect, sex with Connie?

“It's a haiku,” he said.

“Oh, a haiku!” Haiku were supposed to be short. “It's beautiful,” she said.

“Do you really think so?”


“Then I have to tear it up,” he said, and he tore it up.

“Why did you do that?” she asked.

She didn't know why everything she said to him was the wrong thing to say. She tried to guess what he wanted to hear. Connie was so good-looking, so mysterious and moody, so contained, seeming to need no one, not even her, and it drove her a little crazy; it made her want to make him need her. But it also made her afraid to try to do that.

“Art shouldn't be pretty,” he said. He had pulled his hair back in the kind of ponytail that used to be called a horsetail, and the length of him flowed from his hair into a long torso and long legs. He was dressed in white. All white. “Art should tell the truth, and the truth is never pretty.”

Calista thought about her beads and stones. She made pretty earrings. She wouldn't want to make ugly earrings.

Besides, ugly earrings wouldn't sell. Or would they? They might become the rage, the new trend, the latest fad. Couch potatoes would arise en masse to mob her shop for. . . the uglier the better.

“Earrings are not art,” she informed Lisbet, when they were sitting in church waiting for the mass to start. Sometimes they went to church together like this. They went to a famous old cathedral in the Quarter, where the colors were as deep as carpeting, the sounds hushed, like angels’ wings, the light diffused by stained glass, and the tourists intimidated. They shared a nostalgia for God. Discussing what they had learned in “God and History: Are They Both Over?”, they agreed that God had died sometime between 1850 and 1950, but they also agreed that they thought of him as a dead father, not some dead stranger.

(And for a while, after the class about the Internet, Luddite became their favorite word. “He's such a Luddite,” Lisbet would say with contempt and then smile like the Cheshire cat. “Luddite,” Calista would say, even more briskly, to a cop who threatened to cite her for crossing against the light, and when she recounted the incident to Lisbet, they both burst into giggles and guffaws.)

“How come?” Lisbet asked. She took the nicotine gum out of her mouth, placed it neatly into the packet it had arrived in, and put the packet in her purse.

“Art has to tell the truth, and the truth is never pretty,” Calista said.

“Hunh,” said Lisbet. “I guess that means we're not works of art either, since we're both pretty.”

“In fact,” Calista said, “I think you’re as pretty as a picture.”

“Damn right.” Lisbet smiled. “Southern girls are hot.”

The organ had started, and the acolyte—a girl—was bearing the cross down the aisle toward the altar. Religion could be so beautiful. Did that mean it couldn’t be true? All those wars waged in the name of religion did not make a place of worship less aesthetically pleasing, the pews less polished and welcoming, the altar less layered with meaning, the stained glass less restful.

A blue sky over the balconies and balustrades of the Quarter was beautiful: was it fake? A black woman singing the blues was beautiful: was that false? A child—any child—was beautiful: was childhood a lie?

Well, yes, so far as she could say, Calista admitted to herself, childhood was a lie.


Lately Calista had been making lamplight beads. Sometimes she made the beads herself, starting from scratch. Each earring was a series of balls formed by spinning thin spools of glass over a gas burner. (In earlier days, artisans had used the flame of an oil-lamp.) She used rods of raw glass, about as round as a pencil. Moretti was soft and melted quickly; Bullseye took longer but had its advantages. She began by coating a mandrel—a stainless steel rod—with bead release, which was sort of like PAM; it kept the glass from attaching to the mandrel. Then she heated the glass rod. When the glass was molten, she warmed the mandrel, touched the tip of the molten glass to the mandrel, and rolled the mandrel. She would add stringer, frit, confetti, whatever she felt drawn to use, to the bead. She was especially fond of frit, the tiny chunks of glass that can be melted onto the bead. She used ruby frit and green Aventurine frit, the colors swirling on white. Then came the slow cooling process, using fiber blanket or heated vermiculite, and after that, the bead was ready to be removed from the mandrel and placed in a kiln for annealing. When it was time to make the earrings, she used bell caps and kidney wires or leverbacks and other findings. Building an earring was like working a puzzle, figuring out how to fit the pieces together, but it was like working a puzzle that took you deep inside yourself, where the real you lived and made you ask why you liked these colors together and not those, these shapes and not those. And then you changed your mind, and you had to ask why you changed your mind. And then again, glass looks different while it is molten, so that it is not always possible to tell what a bead is going to look like until it has cooled, and if it didn’t look the way she had thought it would, she would follow the glass instead of trying to make the glass follow her. Sometimes she thought that what she liked best was not the doing of what she did but the questions it made her think about and the way it led her to unexpected moments.

Then again, she would make her earrings out of almost anything, using gold-core beads, store-bought to keep the price of the finished piece down. She had made an earring for Constantine that was a teensy mirror. “Because you're so handsome,” she said.

She knew that he did look at himself a lot. He would catch a glimpse of himself in the dresser mirror as he paced the room in his underwear, writing.

Once, when they were getting ready to make love, he had stood at the foot of the bed (not her childhood single bed, not the bed her father had died in), admiring his erection by moonlight. “Look!” he said. “Look at that! Isn't it magnificent?”

The moonlight glinted off his medal.

She loved Constantine’s languid form, the way he stretched and turned, almost like a dancer at the barre. She loved his smooth, hairless chest, the way he wore his hair, the chestnut tail sweeping his back. Elsewhere, perhaps it was the new millennium, but here in the deep South, the men wore boots and ponytails, the women ankle-length gauzy skirts and sandals. Not that it was the same everywhere in the South: it might be the 1950s in Houston; it might be the Crazy ’80s in Atlanta; in some parts of the South the women's hairdos were Farrah Fawcett 1978, with flipped bangs. Lisbet, with her spiky dyed-black brush cut, stood out; Calista, with her long pigtails, could have been mistaken for a foreigner. If the whole South had gone Republican—if, as Robert Frost had feared, wild youth was doomed to a conservative old age—parts, at least parts, of the deep South were—unseen, unreported upon by the media—sixties to the nines. Calista and Lisbet had discussed this phenomenon during the history part of “God and History: Are They Both Over?” Lisbet said the counterculture had taken such a hold in the deep South because there had been no culture in the first place to put up resistance to it. “Faulkner?” Calista argued. “Walker Percy? Black culture? Creole culture?” Calista thought the reason the counterculture was so successful in the South was that it was a beloved tradition in the South to run counter to the rest of the country. The South had always been knuckleheaded and ornery, and proud of it. That was certainly true of the Big Easy. Napoleon Bonaparte and Huey Long, Mardi Gras and Voodoo: there had always been something lawless and strange about Louisiana. It was like the heat of it just went to the head of the state.

“I hate it when people think Louisiana rhymes with Louweezy Anna,” Lisbet said. “When it’s supposed to rhyme with Floozy Anna.”

She and Lisbet liked to lean against a wall or a window on Bourbon and listen to zydeco or reggae or jazz, some blues guitar, some boogie keyboard, some Dixie horn; there was always music escaping from a bar, even though more and more often it was tedious pop music. They liked sucking the meat from the tails of boiled crawfish and washing it down with beer or Co'-Cola. They liked the sounds of lazy laughter, footsteps in an alley, the way summer Southern nights were smothering and low-key, with sudden, isolated, loud chords of danger.

She thought she herself could be lawless and strange and contrary. She almost had it in her to understand the beauty of a ribbon of booze-piss, the dream of it, the stream of it.

“That's how you see yourself?” Lisbet asked. “I don't know, Cal, to me you seem like the goodest of good Southern girls, you know?”

“I am not good,” Calista said, obscurely insulted.

“Yeah, right. When have you ever been bad?” Lisbet continued, like an interrogation. “When have you ever not done the right thing?”

Calista remembered being six and just looking up at her mother, not saying anything, being so afraid of doing the wrong thing that she had done nothing. Nothing had certainly not been the right thing.

“It's in our genes,” Lisbet said. “Maybe most women’s genes, but especially Southern women’s genes. We want to please, to not hurt anybody. We’re taught from day one that a man’s ego has to be nurtured, just like a garden. Nobody shovels the shit like a Southern woman. When’s the last time you told Connie, excuse me Constantine, that your finances are not all that great?”


Calista tried to speak with Connie about how tight money was. “Nobody is buying earrings these days,” she said. “Nobody wants their palms read. They’re into crystals.”

“What will you do?” he asked.

She took a night job waiting tables in a diner. She pulled down the iron grilles over the shop windows and the blind over the door. As soon as she stepped out of the store, the heat hit her like a fist. With each breath she drew she felt as if she were swallowing a cotton ball; in no time, her chest felt stuffed with cotton. Even at 6:00 p.m. it was still so hot, the sidewalks smoking with the sunshine that burned into them all day long, that on her way to work she passed a dog weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic, panting and blank-eyed and looking about to keel over from heat stroke. For sure, she said to herself, dog daze. “Grab him, Tee-Jay,” a boy yelled, and a second boy, as black as if he’d been charred by the same fire of weather, seized the dog by the collar. “I got him, Flagpole!” Tee-Jay crowed. Tee-Jay picked the dog up and gently set him in a round aluminum bucket under a hydrant and Flagpole turned the water on.

Lucky dog.

When the dog was sitting comfortably in this portable swimming pool, the boys petted him on his head and shoulders. “Good ol’ dog,” they said, in a crooning way. “Good ol’ dog.”

She had been worried about the dog and relieved when the boys came to his rescue. She waited until she was sure the dog would be fine and, pushing past oil riggers in for R & R, drag queens, and tourists, she was still late to work and to make up for being late kept her mind on the job and never even glanced out the windows. She didn’t see the sun set and barely noticed when the lights in the diner came on. When she got home at 2:00 a.m., she found a poem on her pillow and carried it into the bathroom to read:

the night is dark
i cannot see
i cannot feel
i cannot touch
i can only hear
the stars falling
out of the sky,
landing at my feet
with a loud ker-plop

Taking her uniform off in the dark, lying down naked beside him, Calista imagined stars falling out of the sky, landing at the foot of the bed, landing not on a field somewhere but on a tile floor, going donk-donk-donk instead of ker-plop, metallic-sounding at first, like lilliputian space ships, space ships the size of actual cup saucers, but then burning out with a small hiss. So actually, she thought, the sound would be more like donkss-donkss-donkss. She wanted to point this out to Constantine, but he was asleep, and besides, he was the poet.


When Calista had missed her period twice in a row, she went to visit her mother. Tina’s cheeks and chins had crowded out the features on her face so that Calista had to look closely to see the mother she remembered from childhood. “Let me see your palms,” her mother said.

As if she were six again, Calista held them out for her inspection.

“Oh, oh, oh,” her mother said, and Calista tried to snatch her hands back but her mother wasn’t letting go. It felt strange to be holding hands with her mother.

It had been years before Calista could acknowledge to herself how much she had hated her mother for leaving. For years, Calista had tried to figure out what she had done to cause her mother to leave.

Maybe she had been afraid to acknowledge it before, because if she had gotten angry her mother might not have visited, might not have given her lessons in palm-reading, might not have held her hand crossing the street, although the visits were always unplanned, the departures swift and final-seeming, the absences long, unexplained, and painful.

“What’s wrong?” Calista asked. “What do you see?”

Tina had drawn her mouth tight in a straight line like a zipper.

“Sit down while I read your cards.”

The tarot had always given Calista the creeps. She knew that there were positive ways to interpret even the darkest images, but it still made her nervous to see the Hanged Man, or a knight with swords stuck all over him like medieval acupuncture.

After Madame Rouée had looked at the cards, she held Calista’s face between her hands and gazed into Calista’s hazel eyes. “You’re pregnant,” she said.

“The cards told you that? My palms?”

“Your eyes. Have you told Connie?”

Calista shook her head.

“Are you going to?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re afraid he’ll leave. If he leaves, he’s not worth having around.”

Don’t go, Mommy, she had said. Don’t go!

“He’s who I have,” Calista said.

“You wouldn’t—”

“No, of course not. I don’t think so, anyway. I don’t know—.” She stopped. Tears were blurring her vision. “Anyway,” she said, “what would you care?” Her voice seemed to be coming from someone else, someone deranged and bitter. Then she was screaming at her mother. “You were willing to get rid of me!” Yet it was as if Calista had said nothing at all. A small fan on the table was pointed at Tina, turning with a clacking noise, and the breeze lifted a few dank strands of Tina’s hair that the heat had plastered to her neck. “Did you ever love anybody,” Calista asked in her normal voice, “or did you just forget how to love?”

“You’d throw away a life for a man? It’s not even your life. What right do you have to throw it away?”

“Roe vee Wade.”

Tina was silent again.

“He needs me.” For room and board, Calista was thinking.

“He's a grown man, for God's sake.”

“He's a poet.”

Her mother shoved the cards to one side of the table and moved a tin of pralines to the center. “Gary has a new recipe,” she said. “They’re better than ever. Try one.”

The world could fall into a black hole and her mother wouldn’t admit to being flustered. Aliens could take over the earth, and her mother would not alter her routine or be deflected from her purposes. Calista pried the lid off the tin and took a bite of a cookie. She wished it would change her in some essential way, like Alice in Wonderland eating the little cake and getting so tall her head crashed through the roof or drinking the bottle labeled Drink Me and shrinking to the size of a safety pin, but she stayed just the same. The only way cookies changed a girl, she thought ruefully, was to make her fat. There: an ugly truth. Hence a poem.

“You know,” her mother said, “first you choose to stay with your father instead of coming with me, then you divorce me in the courts, and now you choose to ignore my advice and cater to a man you’re not even married to. How am I supposed to deal with this?”

Calista thought something was wrong here: about nineteen years had been skipped over.

Nineteen fucking pretty much motherless years.

“I wasn't exactly asking for advice,” Calista began, clipping her words off as if her tongue were a scissors. She felt like she was biting down on the bitter self that threatened to erupt again. Recovering, she said, “I just thought I’d drop in and see how you’re doing.”

“Do you know how happy I am I left your father for Gary? Your father was a drunk and a doper. Cleophas Puryear. If he’d had a middle name it would have been Out-to-lunch. True, he was handsome for a while. Before it all caught up with him, and then he was a piss-ugly drunk and doper.”

Calista remembered her father combing her hair with his fingers. He had told her that her hair was prettier than Rapunzel’s, and longer, too. She remembered the sweet, licorice smell of the shop when he had been alive, that after his death she had gone to talk with the vice-principal to tell him she would be getting her degree by correspondence, because she had to build up new stock for the store.

A letter from her mother helped. My daughter knows how to take care of herself, Calista had read when the vice-principal showed her the letter. She’s an independent girl.

The vice-principal put a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to take care of yourself,” he said. She could feel his concern and it had almost made her feel sorry for herself, his feeling sorry for her. “Your mother is still legally responsible for you. If you want, I can talk with her.”

“No,” Calista had said before he could continue. “I’ll be fine on my own.” She had crafted earrings all that year, spending days in the closed store, nights with Lisbet’s family. And then she had gone looking and found the lawyer who didn’t charge her a dime.

“You’re more Cleo’s daughter than mine,” her mother said now. “By choice. Your choice.”

I had no choice, she screamed silently.

Calista often wondered whether, if her mother had not left, her father would still be alive.
Maybe he wouldn’t have been doing all those drugs, but who could say? Maybe he would have done even more.

“He was sweet to me,” Calista said.

“You think so? You were too young to know whether he was sweet to you or not. But we choose our destinies, and more often than not we choose them before we’re even old enough to know that’s what we’re doing.”

“He wasn’t mean to me.”

“Think what you want,” her mother said. “It’s no skin off my nose what you think.”

“And I didn’t choose my destiny. You chose it.”

“Do you really think that? You know I would have taken you with me if you had wanted to come.”

In spite of this turn of the conversation, Tina had held Calista’s hand, hadn’t she, and Calista suspected that her mother would not have let go of her hand were it not for needing to use both of her own to shuffle the tarot deck.

Calista thanked her mother for the praline and the tarot reading and said good-bye. She went home to change into her uniform, which was getting tight through the chest. She was developing boobs. Real Erin Brockovich boobs. Connie hadn’t even noticed.

Suddenly she couldn’t move. She couldn’t move her hands, her feet, not even her mouth. Her skin was clammy. There was a buzzing in her ears, as if her head had become a beehive. She sat down on the bed. What was she going to do about the life inside her? For that matter, what was she going to do about her own life? The buzzing went on and on and then gradually died away.


“I’m pregnant,” she told him, when he came in.

He didn’t believe it at first. He told her she must be mistaken.

“I don’t think I’d make a mistake about this.”

“How late are you?”

She told him.

“And you haven’t done anything yet?” he shouted.

“No,” she said.

“We’ve got to find a doctor,” he said, as if she had been in an accident and they had to find one in the next minute. He was throwing up his hands one minute and reaching for the telephone book the next.

“I thought you might want to have it.” There was no way she could bring into the world a baby who would not have two parents who loved the baby more than anything.

He looked at her as if she were demented. “You can’t be serious,” he said.

She didn't say anything.

“I'm a poet—an artist.”

“Moonlight drips into your veins,” she said.

“That's right! That is just the hell right!”

“Constantine,” she said, “mi corazón”—if not extension courses, then life in New Orleans had made her a little bit multilingual—“suppose your poems turn out to be like my earrings. Suppose nobody wants them.” She was wearing the pair that she thought looked best on her—long drops of a fresh, delicate, light green. She loved the way they swung when she moved her head.

“What do you mean?” He looked genuinely bewildered.

“Maybe the world isn’t going to let you be a poet. Maybe your destiny isn’t what you think it is. Or maybe people get to have a destiny only as long as there’s a demand for it. Fortune could be a matter of supply and demand.”

“Are you trying to undermine my faith in myself? Why would you do such a terrible thing?”

“No, that’s not it at all,” Calista argued. “I’m just—.” She started over. “I really used to love you, Connie. Constantine. I think. Maybe it was just some kind of sexual obsession. You’re so beautiful. I could look at you forever. And I admire your ambition. If I could write—well, anyway, I hope you become a famous poet. Maybe someday you’ll give a reading and I’ll ask you to sign a copy of your book for me.”

She left off there, because he looked stricken, and also because she had noticed that she was relieved that he didn’t want to marry her. She patted the bed. “Sit down,” she said, and he did.

His lashes were as long and thick as a girl’s. His eyes were wide. “Are you dumping me?” he asked.

“Not dumping,” she said softly. “But I’m letting you go, as soon as you want to.”


Calista had the abortion two days later, a month short of her twenty-sixth birthday. Lisbet went with her to the doctor’s office, a place where posters on the wall urged you to call an agency if you were being battered. Calista stacked her braids on the top of her head and held them there, letting the air-conditioned air cool her off. When the nurse called Calista’s name, Lisbet stood up with her and insisted on hugging her before she followed the nurse out of the waiting room.

Lisbet had not tried to sway her one way or the other, but Calista knew that in her place Lisbet would never have had the abortion. God might be dead but the Pope was still around, and Lisbet had really believed that holy water could protect her against acne.

“When you made the paper airplane?” Calista asked later.


“You wrote a poem on it.”



Lisbet lit up and dragged deeply.

“I think that I shall never see / A man as true as you and me.”


The doctor had given Calista some sleeping pills, and when she woke up late the next day, Connie had left another poem for her. A poem and his key to the front door.

It was so muggy in the apartment that the paper had absorbed moisture from the air and she had to smooth out the wrinkles to read it. He had found a way to make her the dumpee.

I am falling
into the messy landfill of myself
such waste
no one can save me
save yourself

His clothes were gone—the skimpy briefs in red and black that she had loved to see him in, his one linen suit, his ten pairs of low-rider jeans, and his shirts, tee-shirts, socks, shoes, and shaving kit. “Flight in August,” Lisbet said, when Calista told her.


Calista dumped her inventory and sold the store front to a man who turned it into a recording studio. As there was only the one door to the apartment, through the store, she made the apartment part of the sale and moved to a residence hotel on the outskirts of the city, nowhere near the streets named for the Muses and way out beyond Elysian Fields, where the lights and the music died, toward Terrytown. Lisbet came by after work to see the new place. “Are you sure you want to be this far from the Quarter?” she asked. She handed Calista a bottle of chardonnay. “All right!” she said, looking around. As she did so, Calista saw it through her eyes: the boring right angles, the undistinguished windows, the monotone walls. But the central air conditioning worked like a dream.

She had quit the diner, and she was getting enough from the store that she could live on it. She didn’t say that she felt both guilty and relieved to have let the property go out of Puryear hands. But maybe her father had wanted out, too, and couldn’t leave because he had had a child to think about.

“I’m going to miss you,” Lisbet said. “It won’t be the same with you way out here.”

They fell into each other’s arms and promised themselves that they would never grow apart. Then Lisbet punched Calista on her arm and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, Cal, but I hate you for doing this.” Their eyes met, and Lisbet’s were wide and overexcited.

“Lisbet,” Calista said, “this is not Timbuktu. We can see each other every day. I’ll come in for lunch.”

“Yeah, I know. But we’re in a new era now,” Lisbet said, and added, all in a tumble like falling downstairs, “Excuse me, I gotta go now, don’t worry, it’s just a temporary thing,” and fled, sniffling. But at the bottom of the stairs she looked back, grinned, and called up, “The era is dead! Long live the era!”

“Lisbet!” Calista called, but Lisbet was already at the bottom of the stairs and she didn’t look back.


Calista’s old furniture was sufficient for the new place, but a few days later she added to it a baby’s changing table she found in the furniture outlet where Lisbet worked. It was hardwood, made in Indonesia, and even though the irony seemed grim and even forbidding, she instantly saw that the three wide shelves would be perfect for holding manuscripts. Life had taught her to be practical. She pushed the changing table against the wall and went outside, and as soon as she did, she was covered in kisses of sweat. The air was thick with strata of smells, the distant but sharp scent of sulfur fields, sand and broiled snapper, essence of sea water—the unbottled perfume of the South, its heady mix of sea salt and myrtle, memory and desire. Her skirt floated around her legs; below her halter top, her midriff was bare, and when she grazed her abdomen with her hand, her hand came away damp. Because of the heat, she had piled her tresses in coils and clips, thinking it might be time for her to cut it all off. She looked up at the sky, where the gods in their constellations continued to act out their timeless distress. The Perseids were better and brighter than the fireworks of the previous month. They looked like they might fall on the city, donkss-donkss. She went back inside to pack a single suitcase and in the morning caught the bus to Oxford, Mississippi. There, with some of the money she had gotten for the store, she registered for a week-long writers’ conference. The teacher was a middle-aged, gray-haired man in shorts, sneakers, and a Tommy Bahama shirt. “Write about what you know,” he said, stern as a storm warning on the Gulf, “assuming you know anything.” He wanted them to write a story by the end of the week. What she knew was fear, grief, anger, loneliness, and fending off despair with work. Then again, what she knew was self-reliance, adaptability, clarity of purpose, joking, and friendship. In her mind, she ordered all these things in a single column, then separated out the first five. He had not said they had to write about everything they knew. She thought about the self she would have become if she had not also known the other things, the five things that remained in the column, and a story took shape in the air in front of her. Writing was not all that different from making jewelry. There was the pleasure of solving a puzzle (and the pleasure of creating a puzzle to solve). It was also a lot like dredging old boots from the bottom of a pond, diving into dark water to bring something to light. She opened her laptop and confronted the screen, and then she wrote her first sentence. Death is a young woman, she wrote, who has forgotten how to love. Surprised, she stared at the sentence, wondering if life was inherently ironic. And was irony the subtle and necessary sophistication her writing teacher said it was? Or was it closer to something like a hazmat suit? Protective and muffling? She shook her head to clear it and resumed writing.  end  

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