It was just for the summer. And when he came back from Berkeley at the end of August, he would bring her a sea horse from the biology lab, which was next door to the physics lab where he would be smashing and separating and studying atoms in a way that really couldn’t be explained very simply—he shook his head—without also explaining some of the more basic principles of particle physics in specific and mass spectroscopy in general.
Her father closed his eyes for a second, slumping back against the Pontiac’s green vinyl seat. But the sea horse, he said, giving the dashboard a decisive slap, the sea horse would be a beauty, not like that sad crust of a thing glued to the specimen board at the Boise Science Museum, but a real—live—marine—creature sailing up and down on its uncurling tail in a case of perfect seawater blue. On his first trip down to Berkeley, he had seen a whole aquarium full of them, bobbing daintily as ballerinas. They were a fish, actually, he said, but most people didn’t know that. Most people thought they were crustaceans because of their bony-plated skin and prehensile tails.
Rennie stood next to the car and peered in at her father through the Pontiac’s open window. He seemed to be examining their house in his rearview mirror. He cleared his throat. It had been amazing to him to discover lately that some people seemed to be laboring under the misconception that feelings and hunches were as accurate an indicator of truth as empirical data. Which was obviously, ha ha, just not good science. He flinched as somewhere inside the house a window slammed shut. But, he said, coughing a little, no matter what anyone else said, no matter what crazy ideas some people had in their heads, he would definitely be back in Boise by the end of August. Even before she started school. Third grade, with Mrs. Culbertson, right? See, he hadn’t forgotten. He ran his hand back and forth around the top half-moon of the steering wheel. Early September, at the very latest. The very—he promised. He looked down at her and then sighed. “Renata,” he said.
She was hanging on to the Pontiac’s door handle, carefully examining its lock button and pushing it in and out, in and out, in and out.
“Renata,” he said again. “That’s enough.” He tried to gently remove her fingers from the door’s handle. In the end, he was forced to swat at her quite hard before he could pull out of the driveway, roll down the block past the Dornans’ forsythia bushes, and glide around the long corner toward the highway and beyond.
Now there was a lot of vacuuming and mopping and bathroom-tile scrubbing with “The Girl from Ipanema” and “King of the Road” playing at full volume. Their mother would hold a broom in one hand, hitch Double up high on her hip with the other, and sweep back and forth across the green-speckled linoleum of the kitchen. “Who’s my baby—Walter Walterson—who’s my little bunny?” she’d say, dipping her hip dramatically toward the floor to make Double scream. “Who?” she’d demand.
“Who?” he would echo, clutching stickily at her shirtfront.
Double was much too small for his age, which was five and a half. He was also, the doctors said, a little slow. He had been born two months too early, in January instead of March, and had “suffered an amount of perinatal hypoxia sufficient to affect the periventricular white matter located deep inside the brain.” Rennie had seen the papers that her father kept buried under his physics teaching files. She had creased and uncreased the papers until she could say the words in her head, and even sometimes out loud. “Perinatal hypoxia,” she would whisper as she sat on the toilet or looked at her own lips moving in the mirror. Lately, for some reason, she had been tempted to teach the words to Double.
Now, whenever the phone rang, Rennie and her mother would both rush at it wildly, often skidding into each other just as they reached the little alcove, the tiny church-window cutout in the wall where the pale-blue princess phone was kept. Rennie nearly always got there first, but regardless, her mother would demand, “Give it. Give it!” and twist the receiver out of Rennie’s grip. “Hello,” her mother would say each time, her voice suddenly high and breathless, asking the same question over and over. “Hello?” But it was never anyone. Just Rennie’s friend Lewis from next door, or sometimes Mrs. Hildebrand asking if they should send the ministry bus to pick them up for Sunday school.
“There’s a phone strike, you know,” her mother said one night at dinner. “The long-distance operators in California want more money or fewer hours or better working conditions or something.” She waved her hand about, and then let it drop onto her hair, where it rested for a moment like a large, pale moth. “I heard them say that.” She scooped up a spoonful of lime Jell-O and plopped it onto Double’s plate. “On the news.”
“I didn’t hear it,” Rennie said.
“Well, I guess you just weren’t listening.” Her mother smiled quickly and leaned across the table to cut Double’s hot dog into little penny slices. She sat back and smoothed her napkin into place.
Rennie pressed the tines of her fork into the emeraldy jewel of Jell-O. “I guess all the California mailmen must be on strike, too,” she said. She looked closely at her plate, at the uneaten Jell-O.
“What?” her mother said. “What did you just say?” Her mother sat motionless, staring at Rennie for one long second, and then she screeched her chair backward against the hardwood floor in the way Rennie and Double were never supposed to do. “You go to your room. Right now.” Her mother was standing up, her napkin spraying out between her clenched fingers. “And don’t you come out until I tell you to!”
Rennie could hear Double’s huge intake of breath as she scooted out of her chair. She didn’t look back to see his mouth opening in a wide O, but she knew he would cry silently, breathing in faster and faster, their mother unable to stop any of it, until he finally passed out, his head slumped over a little to one side. It was always like this.
Much later, when Double was asleep and breathing in the trundle bed across from hers, Rennie eased out from beneath the sheets and padded down the hall. In the living room her mother sat in the brown-striped chair, holding a bottle of Old Milwaukee and watching a man and a woman dancing on a rooftop. The television woman’s skirt billowed out like a silver umbrella each time the man twirled her around, sailing her safely past chimney tops and steam vents and TV antennas.
Rennie tiptoed past and lifted the telephone out of the alcove and set it down on the floor. She squatted next to it, feeling somehow that it had been waiting for her, vibratingly alive, holding something humming all night inside its plastic sea-blue shell. She picked up the receiver and dialed zero. Almost immediately there was a muted click, and then somewhere far away Rennie could hear a woman’s voice saying “Operator.” Rennie sat and listened in the silence as the high wondering voice asked its question over and over: “Hello?” it said. “Hello?”
Sometime in July, their mother started wearing dark glasses and golden hoop earrings and pink toreador pants. She rummaged through her bedroom closet and dresser for things she said needed throwing away and filled five Hefty bags with pants and shirts and shoes and tie clips of their father’s. “No one wears a tie in California anyway,” she said, tossing in his old army uniform, another pair of brown socks, three duck decoys, and a slide rule. “I hear it’s a casual, beach-blanket-bingo kind of lifestyle. Nothing but blondes and bikinis and beer. Can you dig it?”
She didn’t wait for an answer, but stuffed and shoved the bags into the back of the station wagon until the latch wouldn’t shut, and she had to wrap their musical jump rope around and around the trailer hitch to hold the trunk closed. She strapped Double into the front seat and then turned to look at Rennie. “Aren’t you coming?” Her mother shaded her eyes with one hand even though she was already wearing her dark glasses. “We’re going to the dump, Renata. You love the dump.”
Rennie turned and ran around the side of the house, past the evergreen bushes, and then she crouched down behind the big posts that held the air conditioner in place. She clutched at their cat Ginger, who was twining between her bent knees, and listened to the fading sound of the jump rope handles banging out snatches of Pop Goes the Weasel as the station wagon hit each bump in the road.
After the kitchen shelves were repapered and the refrigerator was defrosted and the dining room had been repainted a dark and somewhat splotchy avocado, their mother began staying up every night studying interior design and home bookkeeping and all kinds of things because somebody was going to have to bring home some bacon pretty damn soon or else.
She had also decided to renew her old acquaintance with unfiltered Kools. “Lots of women get jobs these days,” she said, twisting her cigarette into the pop-top hole of an empty Tab. It hit the bottom of the can with a hiss. “Look at Aunt Chum—Uncle Frank was completely adamant about ‘No wife of mine is going to blah, blah, blah,’ and now guess who’s spending Chum’s haircutting money.” Her mother raised a pointed eyebrow at Rennie and tapped another Kool out of the pack, her hands shaking in a way Rennie had never noticed before. “And on a ham radio set and golf clubs, no less.”
Double stood on the couch cushion behind their mother, leaning against her and carefully inserting bobby pins into her hair as she turned the pages in Money, Make It Mine!. Double had what their father said was “a rather unhealthy obsession” with hair: He liked to touch, brush, manipulate, and pull out hair that belonged to him and to other people. Once, they had gotten kicked out of Safeway when Double wouldn’t let go of a toddler’s ponytail, and now they only went to Albertsons.
“Hey, Double.” Rennie rapped sharply on the top of his head. “Knock, knock.”
Double looked up at her with delight. “Who’s there?”
Double smiled. “Double me,” he said. He poked the end of a bobby pin into his own ear experimentally. Rennie slapped at his hand and he let out a howl.
Their mother flipped open the chunky silver lighter she had resurrected from the back of their father’s sock drawer and Rennie watched the wild flickering of the little blue flame as her mother tried to light her cigarette. “In high school, at the Hungry Onion, I was line-shift boss for an entire year. Seriously, I was the only person that could even begin to operate the ice-cream machine. Which is why I’m really starting to think … products. Say Ren,” she said around the cigarette, “be a sport.”
Rennie took the lighter and held it beneath the tip of the cigarette. Her mother inhaled deeply.
“Great,” she said, letting the smoke drift out both her nostrils, “now how about grabbing the mail for me?”
The large, brown-wrapped package had barely fit in the mailbox. Rennie pulled it carefully out, sliding it smoothly so its paper covering wouldn’t get torn. It had a whole row of stamps at the top, emperor penguins from the Antarctic, their bright-yellow bills proudly raised against the glare of the midnight sun.
Rennie carried the package back inside, holding it with both hands. Double looked up from his bobby-pinning.
Her mother leaned forward on the couch. “Oh, hey, my Avon-lady sample case. That was fast.” Her hand traveled absently to the back of her head and plucked out several bobby pins which she looked at strangely. “Dub, that’s enough, honey,” she said.
Rennie still stood by the front door. “It’s from Dad.”
“What?” Her mother leaped off the couch, causing Double to plop down hard onto the sofa cushion behind her. “Give it here, Renata.”
“It’s for me,” Rennie said, holding the brown-papered rectangle tight against her chest. “It’s my sea horse.”
“There is no sea horse in that box.” Her mother wrenched the package free from Rennie’s grasp and began pulling off the brown paper in long, ripping sheets. The wrapping slid to the coffee table, along with a plain white envelope. Their mother grabbed at the envelope and tore it open with her thumb. Still standing, she unfolded and then read the page inside. Rennie watched her mother’s eyes darting from left to right, her mouth pulling tight.
“Here,” her mother said. She thrust a large book with a blue-green cover at Rennie’s chest. “Here’s your goddamn sea horse.” She marched crookedly toward the hall, letting the folded piece of paper drift from her hand and onto the floor behind her. “It’s the only one you’re getting.” Rennie could hear her mother’s bare feet slapping fast against the hardwood, and then her bedroom door slamming shut.
Rennie carried her book over to where the piece of paper was lying face-down on the floor. She picked the letter up and turned it over. Her father’s printing! She could feel its precise up-and-down lettering somewhere in her spine—as firm and evenly spaced and inerasable as law. Whenever he used to write on the telephone message pad Rennie could read the impressions of his printing on all of the pages beneath.
She’s a marine biologist with an advanced degree in differential calculus. Yes, I know, I know. I can see you rolling your eyes clear from here, and saying ‘Oh, Phil, how fucking predictable.’ I can picture you sighing and shaking your head, but it’s not just that. It’s not. It never was. I wasn’t any good at the other stuff. At pretending everything was okay—that it didn’t matter that he wasn’t okay. You were great at it. I wasn’t. I’m ashamed to admit it, but you know it’s true.
Rennie read the letter twice and then folded it carefully in half and looked down at the book. It was smooth and heavy in her lap. Mysterious Creatures from the Sea,the cover proclaimed, by Margery A. Showalter, Ph.D. Below the bright letters a large glossy-eyed sea horse looked out at Rennie from its perfect ocean-blue world. She opened the cover and turned a sharp page. “The sea horse is actually a fish,” it began, “although many people often mistake it for a crustacean because of its bony-plated skin and prehensile tail.” Rennie let the book’s stiffened cover fall shut. She touched the sea horse’s bony-plated skin, and then its inky eye. In real life it would be slickly wet—sticky and jelled like the salmon eggs her father had shown her hidden on the underside of a river rock. She carried the book and the letter over to the couch. Crouching down, she placed the letter between two of the book’s middle pages and then slid the book into the darkened space between the couch and the floor, pushing it all the way back, until even when she squinted hard, she couldn’t see its outlines anymore.
Rennie and Double were watching Jonny tell Hadji that Race Bannon had indeed been put under a spell by the venomous Spider Queen, and that Dr. Quest was now working against time to come up with an antidote. Mr. Clean made a sudden appearance on the television screen, arms crossed and earring gleaming. “Hey, Dr. Claw,” said Rennie. “Hold my spot.” She poked Double in the side and then jumped up and raced down the hall toward the bathroom, giving their Siamese cat an accidental kick in the process. Ginger had been gnawing delicately on something that was wrapped in toilet paper and was now unfurling bloodily down the hallway. Rennie scrunched down to peer at it. It was a spongy bandage of some sort, a thickly padded, foreign-looking thing, flooded with brilliant red. It had an unusual odor, too, like vegetables left too long in the fridge, mixed with a sharp, metally penny smell.
She stood up and looked toward the bedroom. That must bewhy her mother had been in her room with the shades down for the past two days… why she wouldn’t get up, even for breakfast, even for Jeopardy!,even for the UPS man delivering the real Avon-lady case. But why wasn’t she calling the doctor? Or the emergency room? Rennie’s heart now pounded faster even though she didn’t want it to. She blinked, trying to swallow the furry dryness that kept creeping up and filling her throat. She swallowed again and then crept down the hall and opened the bedroom door with a small squeak. Her mother was lying on the bed in her old quilted bathrobe, one arm flung over her face. Rennie stood still and looked at her.
“I just need to rest for a while,” her mother said, her voice muffled by the sleeve of the bathrobe. “Just a little while longer, and then I’ll get up and make some dinner.”
“You’re… bleeding,” Rennie whispered. “I saw it.” She pointed vaguely back toward the bathroom hall.
“What?” Her mother rolled slowly over and sat up halfway in bed. Her hair was completely flattened on one side and her face looked puffy and yellow like it did when she was sick. “What are you talking about?”
“There was bloody toilet paper and… and a bloody bandage thing. What’s wrong with you?” Rennie could hear her voice rising higher. “Where are you bleeding from?”
A strange, unidentifiable expression crossed her mother’s face. Anger mixed with shame, maybe? She fell back against the bed and laid her arm back over her eyes. She was silent for a moment and then in a voice that sounded both furious and tired her mother told Rennie that if she was so concerned about her dying she could just leave her alone for once, she could give her a moment’s peace, she could let her have a little goddamn time to herself, and then she cried like it hurt her horribly to breathe, and she got up and locked her bedroom door, and she wouldn’t say anything even when Rennie called to her through the keyhole. Rennie had tried knocking and then later slipping a note under the crack at the bottom of the door, but when she peered underneath, when she squinted her eyes nearly shut, she could see the folded piece of paper still lying flat on the floor a few inches from her eye.
Days now went by, although Rennie couldn’t say exactly how many. Tonight she and Double were having Popsicles and graham crackers for dinner because all the cans of tuna fish were now gone and so was the sliced bologna and also the Kraft American singles. Rennie didn’t know what to do with the lone package of hamburger meat that was turning somewhat gray and fuzzy on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. She knew you plunked it into a pan on the stove, but what magic transpired after that was a mystery. How long could you go without eating? Admiral Byrd and his men had finally eaten their own dogs, except for their livers, which the Eskimos had told them were poisonous. After that, they ate the dead dogs’ food.
Each night now, when it was dark, and even with Double asleep in the bed right next to hers, the house got too quiet, and first Rennie could hear herself breathing and then she could hear the noise the ceiling made as it came slowly closer, creeping and easing slickly down the walls toward her head. Rennie could feel it getting nearer. She ran fast down the hall to her mother’s room and she sat outside the door and after peering under the door three times just to check, she rubbed her fingers across the door’s splintery bottom until her fingertips finally hurt enough for her to stop. Then she leaned against the wall and thought: About how many miles it was to California, about how many atoms you’d have to smash before you’d be done smashing, about who exactly Dr. Margery Showalter was and why Rennie’s father could “communicate with her on a deeper and more important level than he could with any other female.” Rennie supposed these other females, the not so deep and important ones, meant her, too.
She was almost asleep, her head slumped painfully against her shoulder, when the bedroom door opened and her mother walked out and down the hall. Rennie scrambled up after her, her heart beating hard in her chest. She stood in the bathroom doorway watching as her mother bent over the sink and drank directly out of the faucet. Her mother wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and then lifted her nightgown and bathrobe and sat down on the toilet and peed, staring off somewhere above Rennie’s head. It was like Rennie was watching through a one-way mirror like the ones on Get Smart, like she could see her mother, but her mother couldn’t or didn’t or wouldn’t see her.
“Mom,” she said. Her mother’s eyes focused slightly until she seemed to be looking right at Rennie. “Mom,” she said again. She took two quick steps and kneeled next to her mother’s bare legs. She looked down at her mother’s feet. The red toenail polish her mother always wore was chipped and peeling on each toe except the second one, the longest one. Rennie touched the smooth shell of polish on her mother’s toe. Her mother looked slowly down as if someone else were moving her head for her. “What day is it,” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Rennie whispered. “It’s July. Or maybe August.”
“Oh,” her mother said. She stood up without wiping or flushing or washing her hands and walked past Rennie and down the hallway toward her bedroom. Rennie clutched at the back of her mother’s bathrobe and stumbled on behind her. “Tomorrow will you get up and go to Albertsons?” she asked. Her mother continued her silent shuffling into the bedroom and then sank back down on her bed as if sliding into a warm and welcome bath. Rennie stood next to her feet. “I don’t know how to make hamburger,” Rennie said, “and the cheese is all gone.” “Get my purse,” her mother murmured, pointing vaguely toward the dresser. Rennie retrieved her mother’s blue wallet from the top drawer and handed it to her. Without sitting up, her mother unzipped the wallet and examined its contents fruitlessly. She lifted the wallet’s checkbook cover and slowly and somewhat jaggedly tore out a check along its perforated edge. “Milk and eggs,” she said in a voice nearly like her old one. “And hot dogs. But no candy or pop.” She handed the check to Rennie, who held the slip of paper between her fingertips as if it were something contagious. “But I don’t know how to write a check.” she said, her voice squeaking a bit at the end. Her mother pulled the flowered bedspread up to her chin. “I’ll get up soon,” she said. “In just a bit.” She rolled over on her side and away from Rennie. “I just need to sleep a little. So you be a big girl and take care of Dub.” Rennie couldn’t understand the rest of what she said because her mother’s voice was muffled by the bedspread and because her own throat had filled tight with something that made a roaring noise in her ears. “I hate you,” she whispered, but so softly that it was almost as if someone else had said it.
Rennie moves out to the backyard then, to live in the teepee, day and night. The light is part of it—liquid yellow in the afternoon—it squeezes through the burlap stitches of her father’s old army tent and cooks her in a way that makes her want to pull up her shirt and examine the hairs on her stomach. And out here she has no idea what her mother is doing and there is no ceiling to slide slug-like down the walls toward her head, just the inside of the teepee that points up and up toward a sky filled with crickets and nameless night sounds that aren’t her breathing or walls sliding or creeping.
Her name is Pinto now, and she has her rubber tomahawk and her slingshot and her mother-of-pearl whittling knife. She also has a bunch of hardbound Pogo comic books she’d found in the alley, an illustrated version of The Man in the Iron Mask now permanently missing from the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School library, three Isaac Asimov paperbacks with wonderfully disturbing covers, and a necklace she made by twisting together the wire ends of some of her father’s resistors. A box of Nilla Wafers is for lunch. She can hear Double snuffling and crying out there, breathing faster and faster as he continues his daylong search to find her. Rennie lifts the tent flap and sees him squatting a few yards away, staring at her with his green eyes all tear-crusty, twisting his hair.
Rennie leans out of the teepee. “Knock, knock.”
“Who’s there?” Double smiles and wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Perry natal high poxia. You can’t come in until you say the password.”
Double stares at her, holding perfectly still, even as she reaches out and pokes a stick at the tender spot in the hollow of his neck.
“Say it,” she says.
Double takes a shaky breath. “Perry… may… my… poxy.”
She leaps out of the teepee. “Close enough. Now we are ponies on the Indian plain and there’s not much to eat since winter is fast approaching. We will have to make our getaway to warmer climes.” She gallops to the patio; she can hear Double breathing snottily behind her. “The winds are rushing through my blue-black mane… and what color is yours? It’s red because the smaller horse is always red and we have to get away.” Now they are sliding on the thin skin of ice that had mysteriously formed on the back patio’s cement even though it is still warmest August or maybe September. Sliding their hooves like soft-shoe dancers and tossing their manes madly against all bridles and breaking. “No one can catch us,” she whispers to the small red pony. “Not even the fleet-footed Cheyenne. Not even the rapid-running Sioux.”
Red pony rolls his green-grape eyes and stamps his hooves against the silvering sky.
Each afternoon, when Double is asleep in the teepee, Rennie sneaks up to the house and closes her eyes and runs her hand along its back wall, tracing each brick with her fingers until she touches the wooden window frame of the corner bedroom. Then, even though she tells herself that she won’t, she crouches down next to the bridal-wreath bush and opens her eyes and peers into the window. With her hands making a tunnel around her face, she can almost see past the partially lowered shade and into the darkened room. Her mother is still there. She is still lying on her back in her old bathrobe with the washrag over her eyes and the door apparently locked. How many days has it been? Rennie squints hard and sees her mother’s chest rising gently up and down. She counts as she watches and takes a breath with each number. Twelve for the disciples, and then one each for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. She would like to include one for Houdini and for Sherlock Holmes and Einstein and also perhaps the man from U.N.C.L.E., but she thinks that nineteen is not as good and round a number as fifteen. Not as smooth or holy sounding. But were there twelve disciples before or after Judas hanged himself? “Hanged” not “hung”—her mother insisted on that along with “lie” and “lay” used correctly, and responding to people on the phone with “This is she” and saying “dissect,” not “die-sect” like most everyone did. These were the things her mother would not compromise on. On which she would not compromise. Rennie scratches softly on the wire screen that covers the window. Her mother doesn’t move. At twenty-five breaths she decides she can stop. That should be enough, she thinks. For today.
Tonight the garbage-can pickings are slim. The Sherviks, the Pilkingtons, the Dornans, none of them have thrown out anything good. Cantaloupe rinds, cigarette butts, liquefied cottage cheese, licked-clean tuna cans, fly-encrusted chicken bones—Rennie looks twice at some moldy-blue bread ends, and then slices her thumb on the lid of a fruit-cocktail can trying to retrieve the two maraschino cherries left at the bottom. For a moment she gets very excited at the heft of a Fudgsicle box that turns out to be crammed full of nothing more than gnawed-on corncobs. “Argh,” she says to no one. Argh she traces on the back of her bare forearm with the pointy end of the corncob holder. Double argh. She sits down in the warm dirt of the alley and sucks at the bloody gill-like flap of skin on her thumb.
Her house is the only dark one. The houses on either side of hers each have tiny lights on in solitary rooms. Night lights, maybe. The Dornans’ is in their bathroom in case Lewis has to get up and go in the middle of the night. Rennie stands up and walks directly toward the Dornans’ backyard. She opens their gate and in a second, she is pushing up the window that Mrs. Dornan always leaves slightly open “for ventilation.” It is surprisingly easy to hook first one leg and then the other over the windowsill and pull the rest of her through with her arms. For a minute she stands in the Dornans’ bathroom looking at the little dish of pink and green seashell soaps she had mistaken for wedding mints the first time she saw them. She opens the medicine cabinet above the sink and takes down a bottle of Merthiolate and dabs at the cut on her thumb. The Dornans don’t seem to have any Band-Aids. Her head feels filled with something light, like helium, and her eyes seem to be open very wide, much wider than usual, so that she can see things all around and from some special angle. She floats into the hall, past the Dornans’ family portraits: Mrs. Dornan smiling grimly in a nurse’s hat, Lewis with no front teeth, and his sister, Kathy, posing in her sparkly white Junior Miss Baton Twirler dress. I am a ghost, Rennie thinks, a ghost with liquid feet and x-ray vision. The carpet feels plush beneath her bare toes and then she is on the cool linoleum of the kitchen. Here it smells faintly of Ritz crackers and onions and cigarette smoke—like warmth and food in general, and the Dornans in particular. She hesitates for just a second and then gently tugs at the refrigerator door. It comes open with a sudden, suctioned whoosh that makes her heart skip. She glances behind her, but nothing has changed. She squats down and gazes into the fridge’s lighted interior. An unopened package of thick-sliced bologna. A block of cheddar cheese. A six-pack of grape Nehi. Two family-sized cans of peach halves. Chocolate milk. A plastic bag full of round green grapes. Several Tupperware containers of… spaghetti? Sloppy joes? Chili?
Rennie jumps up and looks at Mr. Dornan, who is standing behind her in a pair of pajama bottoms. The pajamas are red with squarish white dogs on them.
“Kids always like pizza. Right?” Mr. Dornan is looking at her expectantly. She realizes that she is still holding the refrigerator door open. She watches Mr. Dornan take a large swig of whatever it is he has in the short glass he is holding. She shuts the refrigerator.
“Or meat loaf,” he says, taking another drink, “We have an endless supply of meat loaf.” He lifts the glass to his mouth, and Rennie can’t help noticing the way this shifts the geography of the hair on his upper body. It’s dark and everywhere. She looks away and starts inching toward the hall. He seems perfectly content to follow her. “Lorraine seems to think meat loaf is a food group.” He gives a chuckle and scratches at his midsection and continues to shuffle along behind her down the hall. Rennie realizes with a start that she is heading back the way she came in. That she and he are now standing together in the bathroom. “It’s not that I’m some kind of food snob or something, but a little changeup now and then might be nice. You know, just to experiment once in a while.” He takes another drink and then leans down and peers at himself in the bathroom mirror. “Like a scientist. A food scientist.” He rearranges his hair slightly. “A scientist of food.” Oh no oh no oh no, Rennie thinks and steps as casually as possible up onto the toilet-seat lid. She stands there and puts a leg through the window opening. “Say, here, let me help you.” Mr. Dornan pushes ineffectually at her bottom as she slides out of the window and onto the ground below. “Good night,” he says, sticking his head out the window and peering down at her. “Rhonda.”
“Renata,” she says, and runs off into the darkness.
Mr. Dornan is now lying in his backyard in the orange-striped lawn chair with his feet resting in the water of an inflated rubber wading pool. Every once in a while he takes off his sunglasses, wipes his forehead, and takes a long drink from a large metal thermos he keeps next to the lawn chair. Rennie peers at him through her father’s old army binoculars.
She pokes at Double. He’s been asleep in the teepee since yesterday morning. Or maybe even before that. “C’mon,” she says, shoving him hard. He rolls over, but doesn’t open his eyes. “If you don’t wake up, I’ll be forced to kill you,” she says. She pulls him up into a sitting position. “Plus, I have food.” She picks up and shakes the half-full box of Cap’n Crunch that she found on the Sherviks’ back patio.
Double slumps against the side of the teepee and crunches solemnly with his eyes closed, eating handful after handful until the box is empty. He holds the opened cereal box upside down and lets the crumbs fall onto his face. He licks each of his fingers one at a time. “California is just a ways over that hill.” Rennie takes Double’s chin in her hand and turns his head to the left. “Look,” she says, pointing outside of the teepee’s flap. “See the big mountain behind the sugar-beet factory? Berkeley is probably a few miles beyond that.” Double nods.
Rennie leans up out of the teepee’s doorway and walks briskly across the alley to where Mr. Dornan lies on the lawn chair. Double stands up and trails behind, pulling at his hair. Rennie stops directly in front of the lawn chair and clears her throat. After a moment, Mr. Dornan lifts his sunglasses. His eyes are a surprising shade of transparent blue. “Rhonda,” he says, sitting up in the chair and leaning slightly forward, “and… ?”
“Walter,” Rennie says.
“Who?” says Double.
Mr. Dornan bends over and picks up the thermos and unscrews its silver top. “Care for a drink?” He holds the thermos out toward Rennie.
Rennie takes the cold and sweaty thermos and tips it gratefully back. It tastes wonderful and then slightly awful, like lemonade mixed with Robitussin. She hands the thermos to Mr. Dornan.
“Walter?” He holds the thermos out again.
Double smiles shyly, holds the thermos in both hands, and takes a long, long drink.
“Mr. Dornan,” Rennie says.
“Call me Lyle.”
“Lyle,” she says, “how far is it to California?”
“Hmm,” he says. “Lemme see. It’s been a while, but last I checked it was about four hundred miles from here to the border.”
“Oh,” Rennie says, looking at the ground.
“Disneyland’s even further.” He lifts the thermos to his mouth. “A hell of a lot further.” He hands her the thermos again. “Anaheim—what a nightmare. San Diego’s not so bad, though. Ensenada, Tijuana. Now we’re talking. I stepped on a huge sea slug on a beach there—it turned inside out on my foot and squirted purple slime all over me. Most fun I ever had.”
Four hundred miles. Rennie tries to picture this distance in her head. She had been to Idaho City on a school trip once. She takes several swallows and hands the thermos back.
“Family vacation?” Mr. Dornan wiggles his toes against the blue rubberiness of the wading-pool bottom.
“Sort of,” says Rennie. She leans a little closer to the lawn chair and looks down at Mr. Dornan’s submerged bare feet. The hair on the tops of them sways gently in the water like the legs of a sea anemone.
“Good God. Driving for a million miles while getting kicked in the kidneys. Trying to find a motel with Magic Fingers and a pool.” He shakes his head. “Makes a man think seriously about getting on a Greyhound bus… alone.” He clears his throat and takes another drink. “Although I guess that’s what I am right now, isn’t it?” He shoves his sunglasses farther up the bridge of his nose. “Ha,” he says, “the joke’s on me.”
“Where’s Mrs. Dornan and Lewis and Kathy?” asks Rennie.
“Well, that’s the question, all right,” Mr. Dornan says.
“Oh,” Rennie says. She’s not entirely sure what this means. “My dad is in Berkeley, working,” she says, although she hasn’t intended to say this at all. “But he should be home any day now.”
“Um hm, um hm,” says Mr. Dornan. He takes a long sip from the thermos.
“What day is it today, anyway?” Rennie says.
“Last I checked it was still the fifth.”
“Yes, indeedy,” says Mr. Dornan. “Friday the fifth and fish for dinner.”
Rennie says nothing.
“It’s a joke, an old Catholic joke.”
“What?” asks Mr. Dornan.
“Oh,” says Mr. Dornan. “Who’s there?”
“No, you’re a poo.”
“Ha,” says Mr. Dornan. “Aren’t you hot? Feel free to join me in here.” He gestures toward the pool. “The water’s fine.”
Rennie edges up to the wading pool’s inflated side and then slides just the toes of one of her feet over its ringed ridge and into the lukewarm water. She moves her toes back and forth. The water moves faintly against the bright-blue bottom. It laps against Mr. Dornan’s pale ankles.
“Aw, come on in,” he says, “I’ve had all my shots.”
Rennie pulls her other foot in and stands in the middle of the pool looking down. She doesn’t know exactly what to do next. She’s never been in a pool with a grownup before. Not a neighbor grownup. She glances at Double and sees that he is sitting up gazing in wonder at the sight of Rennie in the wading pool. Before she can say anything he has shrugged out of his shorts and is standing next to her in only his T-shirt, grabbing at her knees. “No,” she says belatedly.
“No,” says Double, bending down to take a drink of the pool water.
“Welcome, Walter.” Mr. Dornan removes his sunglasses and places them next to his lawn chair. “You seem to have accumulated a little dirt.” He smiles at Double. “And misplaced your underwear.”
Double turns and looks at Mr. Dornan. “Your underwear,” he says and claps his wet hands together. A stream of urine flows effortlessly from Double into the pool.
“Whoa!” says Mr. Dornan, pulling his feet out of the pool. “Just like those fountains in Italy. Only a little smaller, maybe.”
Rennie’s face is burning as she steps out of the pool and drags Double with her. She tries to cram his shorts back on him, but his skin is too wet and they bunch at his knees, going nowhere.
“Hold on, hold on, I’ll get something.” Mr. Dornan heaves himself out of the lawn chair and pulls a yellow-striped beach towel off the back-porch railing. Rennie gives Double’s wet T-shirt a yank over his head, and thinks Mr. Dornan will hand the towel to her, but instead, he begins drying Double’s legs and feet himself, briskly rubbing the towel over Double’s wet shins and thighs, his small white bottom and groin. Double smiles happily at this attention and leans his crotch shyly in Mr. Dornan’s direction. “Well, you’re definitely not Jewish,” Mr. Dornan says, dropping the towel and holding out Double’s shorts for him to step into. “No trimming of this dog’s tail.”
“Tail,” Double says. “Wash your own goddamn tail.”
“What?” Mr. Dornan rocks back on his heels.
“It’s just something he says.” Rennie looks at the ground. “Something he heard someone say.” Their father was always in charge of bath time. The last time, their mother had stood in the bathroom doorway with her arms crossed and said that was mighty nice talk for a scientist, and she hadn’t laughed when she said it. Their father said good grief, the kid was certainly old enough to wash himself wasn’t he and why hadn’t they gotten him circumcised anyway, like every other normal little boy on the planet? Their mother had snorted like a horse and said did he really think that was going to matter now, and if so, to whom? To whom, Marianne? To whom? her father kept repeating. Yes, she had said, you’ve heard the word before, Phil, to fucking whom. Fucking whoooom, Double had said and their mother had said, there, are you happy now? He certainly sounds like every other normal little boy on the planet now. If every other normal little boy is an MR, their father had said under his breath. What? their mother had screamed. What did you say?
“Well,” Mr. Dornan says, unscrewing the thermos lid and turning it nearly upside down, “looks like it’s time for reinforcements.”
“What does ‘circumcised’ mean?” It is out before she knows it. Rennie holds her breath and squints her eyes and pretends she is looking at something in the distance.
“Christ on a cross.” Mr. Dornan looks carefully at Rennie with his clear sea-blue eyes. “Well… yikes… it’s what they do to boy babies in the hospital after they’re born.” He taps the metal edge of the thermos against his wedding ring. Ping ping ping. “When they, you know, when they cut off the foreskin of the penis and that kind of thing.”
“They cut off the end part of it?”
“Just the very, very end.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“I sure as hell hope not.” He laughs. “I don’t remember it hurting.”
Rennie stands very still. She watches an ant making its careful way across her big toe. “Do they do it to all baby boys?”
“Every one I’ve seen. Whoops, scratch that. Walter here, he’s an exception to that rule—a true individual.”
Double, who has been resting cozily against Mr. Dornan’s mostly bare leg, suddenly grabs a fistful of Mr. Dornan’s thigh hair and gives a mighty pull.
“Goddamn it!” Mr. Dornan yells, as he gives Double a shove away from him. “That fucking hurts!”
Double drops to the ground and reverently examines the hair in his hand.
“Does he always do that?” Mr. Dornan tries to laugh, but he wears a look of concern that seems to be shading into one of slight shock.
Rennie grabs Double up by the elbow and starts pulling him across the lawn and away from the Dornans’ house. She can feel her brother stumbling and tripping over his own feet as she drags him much too quickly across the grass.
“Hey, now, no need for that,” she can hear Mr. Dornan saying, although she can also hear the sizable note of relief that has entered his voice.
Rennie and Double sit alone in the shaded dirt of the alley. Double’s hand travels up and over his chest, making its way toward the back of his head. “Don’t do that,” Rennie says, “don’t do that, don’t do that!” Double smiles shyly at her with his grapey eyes, and begins to pull at his hair.
“Knock, knock,” Rennie says.
“Who’s there?” Double says and laughs delightedly.
Rennie looks away from him, over her shoulder at the distant mountains that lie curled and purple against the sheet of white-blue sky. “They were going to give you away,” she says. “To an orphanage for retarded babies,” she says. “But I wouldn’t let them.” She pulls the hems of her shorts down over her bare knees. “I put sand in the car’s gas tank and when they got halfway to the orphanage they had to give up and turn around, so then they tried to leave you on the side of the road, but I picked you up and carried you in a sling on my back and we hid in a ditch until they left and went home. There were dogs there, wild dogs like German shepherds crossed with Siberian huskies, those ones with blue eyes, but they could smell that I wasn’t afraid, so they just growled and by the time we finally got back it was dark and Mom and Dad didn’t know and I hid you in my room until they finally forgot about giving you away.” She glances up to see how Double is taking this. “And that’s why we still sleep in the same bedroom, Double-o. You know, just in case they ever change their minds.”
Rennie helps Double lie down under the biggest peony bush, and puts his shorts under his head for a pillow. “Now, Dr. Claw, first I must give you a calming elixir.” Agent 99 gets up and searches by the side of the Dornans’ fence for a minute, and comes back with the head of a tiger lily. She kneels down next to Double. His green eyes goggle up at her solemnly. She lowers her voice. “The tiger lily’s medicinal purposes are well known to practitioners of the healing arts. You will suck on the stem end for precisely one minute with your eyes closed, while I administer the local anesthetic.” She smoothes a fern frond back and forth across Dr. Claw’s belly. “You should be starting to experience the numbing effects now. Is that correct?” Double nods, his eyes still shut. She takes the lily out of the patient’s mouth, and places its furled edges carefully over Double’s penis, which rises slowly up inside the flower’s cup until it looks like a fat finger wearing an orange, speckled funnel. Agent 99 watches without speaking.
Rennie opens the wicker lid of the broken sewing basket she found in the garbage can behind the Sherviks’ house. Nestled inside on white quilted satin are pinking shears, a tomato-fat pincushion pierced by several long, pearl-headed hat pins, spools and spools of crayon-colored thread, needles and snaps and buttons of all sizes, and a snakelike tape measure that winds over the top of it all. Rennie remembers seeing a sewing basket like this in the bottom of her mother’s closet a long time ago. It had sat next to her father’s old brown pointy-toed shoes. The closet was big enough to sit in, and she would sometimes put her father’s shoes on over her own and then curl up inside the closet, sliding its door all the way closed so that she was shut in with the dark and the shoe-polish smell and the feel of her mother’s dress hems lying smooth and heavy on her head.
Rennie reaches into the sewing basket and lifts out the solid, red-handled pinking shears. She snips them open and closed. Their jagged teeth make a thick crunching sound when they meet. She puts the pinking shears back and digs beneath several loops of black rickrack. She holds up a pair of tiny silver scissors whose snipping blades curve like a crow’s beak.
Little bird scissors. She looks down at them. They are so light she can barely feel them in her hand. Rennie lifts the tiger lily off of Double and puts it on the ground next to his white hip. The blossom is still a brilliant orange; its petal tips haven’t begun to brown yet. It doesn’t even seem to know it has been picked.
Later, after Double finally quits crying and has gone suddenly silent and limp, Rennie scrambles up out of the teepee into the dusk. The grass is frosty wet, and a fingernail moon lies on its back, pinned against their broken chimney. The shadowy mouth of the sewing basket yawns wide, its contents still strewn across both lawns. The minute Double had begun to scream, the minute a narrow thread of blood had risen to follow the scissors’ path, she—after a second more of watching Double’s lips stretch and whiten—grabbed him up in her arms and ran, his loose puppet feet banging sharp as stones against her shins with every step.
Now she runs across the backyard barefoot, holding her hand out in front of her until it touches brick, and then she traces the brick by memory, knowing exactly when she will reach the window. She stops and presses the screen in toward the darkened glass with both hands, but all she can see is the reflected outline of her own face, and a tiny glow inside that is maybe a bottle or a glass of something winking at her from the nightstand. Rennie raises both hands and drags her nails down the length of the wire screen. How loud is this sound? How loud does it sound if you are inside, under the covers with the door locked and your eyes shut tight because you are so very, very tired?
She scratches and scratches against the screen and suddenly the screen slips free of its mooring and plops softly onto the grass at her feet. Rennie begins to pound on the window with her fists, first against the wooden frame, and then finally against the glass, until with a small pop the window shatters and her hand goes all the way through, sending glass scattering and tinkling against the bedroom floor. Inside, she can hear bedsprings squeaking and her mother swearing faintly in the dark. Rennie pulls her hand back, but it will not come. It is stuck on some part of the window. The underside of her wrist is caught and deeply hooked on a jagged spike of glass slanting upward from the sill. For a moment, she feels nothing except the cleanest, most perfect surprise. Think, she tells herself then, think. But nothing comes. The part of her that can think of things has been lifted up and away like a wind-caught kite. She is no longer a spy, or a Nazi SS man on a secret mission. She does not have a poison-dart gun, or a magic cloak, or any invisible ink. Her name is not Mata Hari and she doesn’t know the password.
She can hear her mother beginning to pick her way through the bits of glass, stumbling and gasping, and then, suddenly, the bedroom light switches on. There, in the awful brightness, is her mother seeing Rennie in the window for the first time. “Knock, knock,” Rennie says, and tries to smile, but it is too late. Her mother is moving awkwardly toward her daughter with her arms outstretched as if to embrace or ward Rennie off, either one. On her mother’s face is a look of horror, as Rennie, in a motion parallel to her mother’s—and with a rush of something like joy—pulls her wrist from the glass.