In the bar at the Fess Hotel, where a young professional crowd hung out and met one another without quite being on the prowl—so that if you just wanted to sit and talk with someone without its going any farther, that was okay—she met an Assistant D.A. named Manny Durkheim. She thought a man should be like a poem. He should have an interesting image and be musical in a way, and maybe he was easier to fall in love with if you didn’t altogether understand him.
He asked her out for Saturday night, but he couldn’t believe he was going to go out with a woman with a purple streak in her hair. He hit his forehead with the heel of his palm and said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Me, either,” she said.
“What I mean is, I never met anybody like you before. You’re so sophisticated.”
If you wanted it to go farther, that was okay, too.
She had driven herself home through drifting snow, a white curtain blowing past her headlights as if the sky were sighing, the sky-god’s breath clouding on the mirrory cold air. Her front-door key was like an icicle in her hand. She waited for the cat to come back in and then she went upstairs to undress in the bedroom for which she still needed to buy a real bed. This was her house! Her housel She climbed into flannel pajamas. Falling asleep on the futon, Zora Neale Cat in a crook of her arm like a small bundle she was toting on her journey into the elsewhere that dreams are, she thought about how Manny Durkheim had such long lashes it had seemed as if they would get tangled up whenever he blinked—which he’d done a lot because he couldn’t believe what he was doing—but instead met in a swift fluttery kiss and parted as his eyes opened wide again.
Then her own eyes closed, and she fell into sleep like falling into a ravine.
In the morning, still in her pajamas, treating herself gently because she was soft with sleep and unhardened against the day, she made real coffee and drank a cup while she read the Midwest edition of The New York Times, and then she poured herself a second cup and went back upstairs, to her study. She set the blue cup down on the desktop and pulled the application form toward her. The blue of the cup was cobalt, a color that seemed to pulse like a heartbeat. It seemed to throb like a headache. It seemed to give off a dangerous molecular shine, radioactive rays. For a moment, she stared at the first question, feeling stupid with early-morning desire—for the money, for Manny.
She stared out at the Norwegian spruce in the backyard— the backyard was the real reason she had bought this particular house—and waited, as if the answer might light on one of those evergreen branches. As if it might already be there, cleverly camouflaged against people like her who would hunt for it.
Q. Please describe your project briefly. It always struck her as rude, this question that the application inevitably began with. It was the most personal question she could think of. Do you have orgasms? How do you feel about oral sex? What are you going to think about for the next six months?
What concepts do you plan to be intimate with?
She liked to live with her ideas, get used to them the way you were used to your own family, before she introduced them to other people.
There was a beginning period where she still felt shy around her own idea. Or the idea still felt shy around her, and she had to be careful not to intrude upon its sense of privacy. After you got to know it better, after you’d had a few dates with it and maybe a makeout session or two, then you could take it along with you to a party, see how your friends reacted to it.
And she was attracted to such strange ideas. “Jasmine,” her mother had written, in the cramped arthritic penmanship that made Jazz wince to read it, “I don’t know where you get these ideas.”
“I don’t either, Mother,” she’d written back, her disingen-uousness a form of obstinacy that had been the only way she could figure out to live her own life. “I guess they’re just attracted to me.” She replied more or less the same way whenever her mother asked her why she wasn’t married yet.
Jazz thought about her mother living alone back East in the small co-op decorated with too many spider plants, a kind of social security of photosynthesis on the Upper West Side, that she’d bought when she retired and moved out of Ithaca. “You can have affirmative action,” her mother said when she retired, “but I’m ready for some negative action. Like snoozing past nine in the morning!” A former dean’s secretary with a streak of purple in her personality, a divorcee for so many years that, she liked to say, she often forgot she had ever been married. Whenever her mother said this, Jazz felt an obscure hurt, as if she’d been subtly attacked, but her mother accused her of being “overly sensitive.”
“I guess it’s what makes you an artist,” her mother would say, something mildly sarcastic in her tone, “but you really shouldn’t let it interfere with your life.”
But her mother’s life had come down to this: shuttling back and forth in a special bus between that small apartment and the hospital. Sometimes Jazz felt guilty about having moved so far away, and then she had to remind herself that it was better for both of them to be apart.
A. I plan to hire two students as backup doo-wop girls. Wearing a motorcycle chain around my neck and a discreetly large metal cross over my pubis, I plan to portray in my own person the bondage in which Western religion traditionally has held women. 1 will call my group Heavy Irony.
She thought about Manny Durkheim. She could add a couple of Stars of David to her costume, she thought.
Q. What preparation have you made?
“If you were smart,” her mother had said, making it plain that she wasn’t, “you’d take typing.” In college, she kept changing her major. As an English major, she had written poetry and worn mock turtleneck sweaters. As a drama major, she had memorized poetry and made up her eyes. As an art major, she dripped paint onto canvas and went to bed, for the first time, with her boyfriend.
“You could move in with me,” Hoyt had proposed, his voice pleading and accusatory at the same time, as if he were already angry with her for saying no although she had not said anything yet. “I mean, if you wanted to, I wouldn’t mind.”
She was at his place, the Sunday papers spread around her on the floor like a skirt of newsprint. He was a creative writing instructor, a fourth-year graduate student at Cornell. He was writing a novel, and every time he read about someone younger than he publishing a book, he became deeply depressed and went to the movies. He would go to the one o’clock show, he had admitted, and not come home till after eleven. This was how he experienced creative despair.
He wanted an answer. He expected an answer. He wrapped his hands around her ankles, like manacles. She felt her veins pulsating under his grip.
“You have a roommate,” she pointed out, a little embarrassed that Raphael so clearly had been told to find somewhere else to spend the weekend. Jazz was sure that Raphael secretly hated her: He smiled at her too brightly.
Raphael had teeth as white as gesso, and he was so beautiful that Jazz always felt a bit abashed around him, humbled as if before a masterpiece in a museum.
“Rafie wouldn’t mind.”
She didn’t know whether he meant that Raphael would move out or that he would make room for her. She was afraid to ask. Q. Don’t you think it’s a bit strange that you’ve been living with a guy for four years?
A. If I were living with a woman, would you feel like moving in?
She had been completely unprepared for the telephone call that had come only a month after she had gotten her job here in the Midwest. (She never thought of it as Wisconsin, not yet. It was undifferentiated, a state by any other name, a huge farm in the middle of America, surrounded by malls. Or a huge mall in the middle of America, surrounded by farms— she was not sure which.) “You would like her,” Hoyt said. “She’s a lot like you in some ways.”
“Really?” she asked the telephone, thinking that her heart was like a mall in the middle of her body, a place where people came to try things on without having to buy them. “Does she think about the same things? Does she feel the same way about oral sex?”
A. I have bought contraceptives. I have prepared myself for every emergency, every contingency. I have laid in supplies of drinking water and flashlight batteries. I have purchased a Radon Testing Kit, though I am afraid to use it because if the radon levels are high I can’t afford to do anything about it. I have made a pilgrimage to Graceland. I have shaved my legs. If necessary, I will buy a gas mask.
Saturday night the temperature was subzero. She had bought a little heated house—a cathouse!—and put it on the front porch, and Zora Neale seemed content to curl up inside it, but suppose the house got too hot and her fur caught on fire? Suppose her tail got itself lit like a wick and the flame ran right up Zora Neale, turning cat into candle? Jazz reached inside the little house and pulled Zora Neale out, fluffy and warm, a purring mitten. So Jazz was standing there, holding her cat, realizing that she would never dare to leave Zora Neale in the little house unless she was there to keep an eye on her, which meant Jazz either had to sleep on the front porch in subzero weather, which was stupid, or bring the cathouse inside the real house, which was also stupid, or let Zora Neale sleep on the futon, which was where Zora Neale had been sleeping up till now anyway. If her department knew what her life was really like, she thought, she would never get tenure.
“Are we taking the cat with us?” Manny Durkheim asked, appearing on the step.
The movie was about a woman pretending to have an orgasm in a restaurant. It was a form of oral sex.
He reached for her hand and held it. The last man she’d gone to a movie with had leaned into her and said, “Do you want to hold hands?”
A. If you have to ask, you don’t know.
“So,” Manny said, later, walking her to the door. She felt as if she were being put back into her cathouse for the night.
“Thank you for the evening,” she said, giving him her hand again, this time to shake.
“You’re very welcome,” he said, shaking it. His lashes were like little dancers, a pas de deux danced on the spotlighted stage of each eye. She felt as if she were being twirled around and around. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said, and he kissed her.
What didn’t he believe, she wondered, the handshake or the kiss?
She kissed him back.
She had bought this particular house, a white frame house with dark red trim on the front door and windows, because the backyard made her think of her childhood in Ithaca. There was no grass in the backyard, because of the shade the tree cast and the needles it shed. Wildflowers, with the secret glee of survivors, sprouted next to the garage and along the back fence, and in the summer, when she moved in, there had been shy violets and tiny assertive forget-me-nots creeping around the back of the house. Birds nested and sang in the tree, and she nested and sang in her house. The scent of evergreen and shadow, deep and stirring, carried her back to
Cascadilla Gorge, where she had spent many hours alone or with the playmates of her imagination, who had more or less become the personae of her performance art.
Q. How many people will participate in your project?
One time, she had hired male students to be her backup, and then she’d called herself Susannah and the Elders. (Even though the elders were younger.) She thought she might do a piece called The Three Faces of Evil (Hussein, Gorbachev, Rush).
Q. Does your project require the use of animals?
Zora Neale leapt up on the desk and curled up next to Jazz’s coffee cup. The cat and the cup made a study in black and blue, they were black and blue in the study, the portrait of a bruise, study of a bruise.
A brown study.
Jazz had a distant memory of her father hitting her mother, or it could have been her mother hitting her father. Maybe it wasn’t hitting; maybe it was only yelling. Maybe it wasn’t a memory but a dream.
She must have been very small, whether it happened or she only dreamed it happened. It was a memory that came from the time when she used to pick wildflowers in the gorge, violets and forget-me-nots and dandelions, and sell them to Cornell students for a nickel a bunch. She had been a scrawny child with eyes almost as black as Zora Neale, a flowerchild from the streets. “They probably think I starve you!” her mother said. “You’re such a little con artist.”
She could still feel her mother’s fingers pressing into the soft underside of her arms, pinching, making dents of paleness that she looked at later in the bathroom mirror, raising her hands as if somebody were robbing her. Rut her mother was glad to have the money from the flowers anyway.
Something moved in the tall tree, a wing, or a forked tail, like a whiskbroom sweeping dry needles to the ground.
Q. What is your timeline?
Her timeline! The very thought made her breathless. She sometimes woke up in the middle of the night—it was a sort of detour on the long journey each night forced her to make—her face slick with the sweat of anxiety, her heart repeating itself like a machine gun. When she woke up like this, she would be thinking, Not yet! I’m not ready to die yet! Please! She had never told anyone this.
But suppose she woke up in the middle of the night and Manny was beside her. Suppose he stroked her hair and told her she had nothing to worry about. Suppose he told her that he would protect her.
Would she believe him?
And her timeline, well, her timeline had wandered through months and years of cohabitation with no one but herself, her ideas. You could go a little crazy, living alone.
You could go a little crazier, living with someone.
A timeline was like a river cutting through a ravine, a gorge. Sooner or later the landscape would flatten, the river would spread itself out like milk in a saucer, it would slow and widen into dreamy circles of itself.
He surprised her by turning out to be shy in bed, or maybe he was just profoundly untheatrical. “You have to get used to the idea that you’re the kind of man who could find himself in bed with a woman like me,” she reminded him.
It was already morning. Cold light was breaking into the room, a burglar stealing the night away.
He grew angry, the back of his neck red as the University of Wisconsin. She thought it was so interesting the way white skin was like a palette, the color-wheel whirl of it. He sat up and reached for Zora Neale, and when he spoke he seemed to be talking more to her cat than to her. “I’m not the kind of man who anything,” he said to the cat. “And you’re a woman like yourself, nobody else. I’m the one man in the world in bed with the one woman in the world who is you.” He turned, and set Zora Neale down on top of Jazz’s head. And this seemed, to Jazz, actually to make a kind of sense, that she should have a hat that was a cat. “It makes you look Russian,” Manny said.
She was sure, though, that he would break it off with her the first time he saw her do her act.
When he sat in an auditorium and viewed her 1950’s bullet breasts, when he watched her do the Gaza Strip Tease.
When he listened to her one-woman rendition of “The Martin Luther Kingston Trio.”
When he caught her impersonation of Ross Perot. “Government of you people, by you people, and for you people!”
When he watched her perform the piece called “Hack Writers!”, in which, taking her title as a directive, she slashed a photograph of Rret Easton Ellis, chopped a copy of Ellis’s latest book into bits. Ashes to ashes, pulp to pulp.
Observed her newest skit: “Cybersuck, or Vampires with Laptops.”
And when he heard her recite her dramatic poem. It was titled “A Psychological Profile of Women in the Arts: Luna-chicks?”
How was Manny Durkheim to be expected to deal with any of this?
“You have so many ironies in the fire. Do you know what an Assistant D.A. does?” he asked her. She shook her head. Zora Neale had leapt away, sitting on the bookshelf like a figurine. “Well, of course part of the time what an Assistant D.A. does is drag into court the deadbeats who refuse to pay child support. Rut look, a lot of the time I’m trying to help children who’ve been molested by their parents. We try to figure out what’s the best living arrangement for them. We try to get rapists to agree to HIV testing.”
“Have you been tested?” she asked, realizing she should have asked this the night before. This was the question you had to ask in these days of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
“Don’t think I’m easily shocked,” he said. “I’m not.”
Snow sifted past her study window, white roses planting themselves on the evergreen branches, on the decaying wooden trellis a previous owner had left in the backyard, on the garage, the fence. She was thinking how easily shocked she was. She supposed it was the source of all her work—that sense of shock, that awful feeling, located somewhere in the pit of her stomach, or behind her eyes, a place behind the eyes where you felt what you saw, which was that things, everything, all things, were really, really shocking. She thought it was possible that she had spent her entire life in a state of shock and that that was why reviewers so often found her work shocking.
My whole backyard, she thought, has blossomed into snow, one huge flower of frost.
But no, the feeling was located in the pit of her stomach. It had been there ever since the year after her father left, when her mother tried to make her eat the bowl of cream of wheat. All that whiteness, blossoming on the table, that snowy cereal, it had blinded her, it made her feel sick and dizzy. “Hurry up and eat your breakfast,” her mother had said, shrugging her arms into a thrift-shop wool coat.
Then, her mother did not have arthritis, or anything else. If she wanted to, her mother could dance her way through the apartment. Her young mother could do any dance anybody had ever thought up. She could slip a sock onto her chin and say, “Now who do I remind you of!” and Jasmine could shriek, “Daddy!” and her mother could say, “I think I’ll shave this beard off” and yank the sock off and throw it in the hamper and Jazz would try to decide whether she was supposed to laugh or cry. It was not always easy to know which was expected of her.
“What’s gotten into you?” her mother hissed. “If you’re not going to eat your breakfast, you can have it for lunch,” she said, snatching the bowl away.
At lunchtime, Jazz home from school and her mother home from work, the bowl was brought out from the refrigerator, but now the cream of wheat looked even uglier, looked left over. Jazz dipped a spoon into it but she just couldn’t get the spoon past her lips. She tried, but her mouth seemed to have gotten locked, and her hand was on the outside of her mouth without a key to it, only the spoonful of blizzardy cream of wheat, like melting snow.
“I don’t know what you think we’re made of around here,” her mother said, “but it’s not money. You’re not going to get another thing to eat until you eat that bowl of cream of wheat.”
The bowl of cream of wheat at dinner.
At breakfast again.
At lunch again.
Again, again, again! The third night, Jazz’s stomach had stopped hurting from hunger. She felt like she didn’t care if she never ate anything again in her life, but she didn’t want to die and she thought maybe she would if she was never allowed to eat something else. She stayed awake as late as she could. When the apartment was dark and the only sound was the refrigerator humming, she sneaked out of bed and slipped down the hallway to the kitchen, sliding her hands along the wall in the dark. She kept feeling as if she was going to faint. She opened the refrigerator. The light from the tiny refrigerator bulb seemed as bright as the light of the first day, when God said, “Let there be light.” Peering into the refrigerator, Jazz remembered that when she’d first learned to open the door she had opened it again and again, trying to catch the light being off. The bowl of cream of wheat was on the top shelf. She pulled a chair from the table over to the refrigerator and climbed up and got the bowl of cream of wheat, carrying it carefully with both hands over to the garbage can. She was about to tip the contents of the bowl into the paper bag lining the can when her mother flicked on the overhead light. Please, she thought, don’t let there be light.
Her mother didn’t say anything. Not a word. She took the bowl from Jazz’s hands and set it on the table. In the bright overhead light, the cream of wheat looked yellowish, as if it were as sick as Jazz felt, as if it were jaundiced. Her mother moved the chair back to the table and placed a spoon beside the bowl of cream of wheat. Then her mother crossed her arms and stood there, waiting for Jazz to eat. And Jazz did. Jazz finished and said, “May I be excused?”
“You may think you’re going to throw that up. Well, think again, young lady,” her mother cautioned her.
She fell asleep as fast as she could so she wouldn’t think about how much she wanted to gag. She dreamed about the gorge—didn’t that make a Freudian kind of sense? She dreamed she was falling into it, falling and falling and falling. She always remembered this dream as vividly as if she had had it the night before. She was falling through forever, and the one good thing about that was she never hit bottom.
“Have you ever noticed,” she asked Manny, “how you can tell how old someone is by who was starving while they weren’t eating everything on their plates when they were kids?”
“The Cambodians,” he said.
“My mother said her mother used to tell her it was the Armenians.”
“So,” he said, looking her squarely in the eye. “Who do you think we’ll be telling our kids it is?”
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she said.
“It could be anyone,” he said. “My God, it could be so many.”
Zora Neale had taken to sleeping in the heated cathouse, which Jazz had brought in and moved to the study. Zora Neale curled up inside it like an unraveled ball of yarn winding itself back up, and when Jazz, having done one more morning’s work, pulled her out, the paws tucked under like miniature muffs and eyes like little suit pockets that had yet to be slit open, her fur was as warm as a welcome.
While Zora Neale slept, Jazz scoured the tree in back for answers to the application form. Q. What steps do you plan to take to bring your work to the public?
A. I will be videotaped by Public Access Television. She would make herself publicly accessible. Some might say she might as well be living in a cathouse.
A senator or two would certainly say that. What would an Assistant D.A. say?
Q. How will this grant enable you to strengthen or develop your talents?
But what were they, her talents? An ability to localize theme in her own person, self-dramatization or, conversely, the ability to renounce her individual self for the sake of a political message. Her talent, when you got right down to it, was for propaganda. And what was propaganda if not the forfeiture of individuality in the name of something else— even, in this day and age, the name of individuality? Sometimes it made her want to tear her hair out, purple streak and all, this knowing that what she was doing was performance life. She had submerged herself in symbolism. She iocs her symbol. Her self she had left behind long ago, abandoning the child, that child hungry for love, in Ithaca, to the budding performer in New York City, to the tenure-track teacher— Have curriculum vitae, will travel—in Madison, Wisconsin. And Madison, cold as it was, had been like a housecat, warm as a welcome, responsively purring. Even the senior members of her department, who had been resistant to the idea of performance art—Is it art? Is it even performance?—had surrendered, because it would not have been politically correct not to. In short, this grant would help her to promote herself, in more ways than one.
No, there were no answers in the tree. There was a tiara of ice-diamonds glittering in the tree’s hair, but there were no answers. She fixed herself a cup of coffee and read the Times, and she thought about calling Manny at work but she was afraid to—he might think she was dependent on him. And she thought about calling her mother but she was afraid to—her mother might think she was dependent on her.
It was like radon: You might be dependent on someone but you didn’t want to know that you were, because the cost of doing something about it was too high.
When she got tenure, she thought her mother would be gratified, but her mother hardly seemed to notice. She had thought that her mother, the former dean’s-secretary, would be pleased by her daughter’s academic success, but it turned out that this meant nothing to her—at least, not now. What mattered to her mother now was that Jazz was living halfway across the country. Her mother would have liked for her to drop everything, quit her job, and come live with her. Jazz told herself she would fly to New York for her mother’s birthday. She could do that, she told herself, thinking it was strange how what was important one day turned out to be not at all important a few days, or a lifetime, later. But she had wanted her mother to be impressed!
She went to a faculty meeting, which was held in a large, austere room with uncushioned stacking chairs, and when she got home, Manny called. “It still startles me to realize that we all look like grownups,” she told him, about the meeting. She wanted him to think she was witty and observant. She wanted him to understand that she was a responsible, economically capable working woman, with or without a purple streak. In her mind, she was still five years old. “At least the others do. They were all wearing suits and high heels.”
“The same people?” he asked.
He was right: The department was full of responsible, economically capable working women. The younger women had huge leather handbags, and prescription sunglasses that they wore even in the winter. The older women wore Phi Beta Kappa keys. The older women, Jazz thought, looking at them and comparing them with her mother, were not women with a purple streak in their personality. But then, unlike her mother, they had not grown up in a shack on the outskirts of town, the windowpanes taped, the front yard pure dirt in summer, mud in winter, a perennial eyesore. My father kept a dog on a chain, her mother had said to her. The chain reached to the ditch in front of the house. The dog was always hungry, and mean-tempered in his hunger. Think of that dog when you don’t want to eat your breakfast, why don’t you. They were also probably not women who came home from the dean’s office one day and donated all the furniture in the apartment to Good Will, sudden as that, face splitting wide open in a smile as if her face were a log that someone had taken an ax to. That abyss of a smile had looked to Jazz like a ravine, a gorge. Her mother had hunkered on the floor of the empty living room, her arms clasped around her knees, rocking and laughing.
“Where’s your spirit of fun?” her mother used to ask. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Or she would sneer and say, “You little spoilsport. Why can’t you act like you’re happy?”
There were children in the neighborhood who invited Jazz to play with them: Marly, Juanita, a girl named Priscilla whom they called Popsicle. Her mother wanted to join in. “Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy!” her mother chided Jazz, her eyes as round as money. Her mother was tall, and when she leaned down to talk to Jazz, Jazz was afraid the money would fall out and roll along the floor. “I swear, Jasmine, sometimes I think you’re the old one, and I am the one who knows how to enjoy life.” Juanita explained to Jazz’s mother that they were playing Hide-and-Seek. “You can be It,” Juanita offered, generously. Jazz’s mother pressed her forehead against the side of the cement building, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands blinkering the sides of her face, just like a little girl, and counted to one hundred. When she opened her eyes, the children were gone, hidden in a doorway, behind a parked car, behind a trash can in an alley. One by one she ferreted them out, Marly, Juanita, Popsicle, each little girl shrieking and squealing as she raced for “home.”
Jazz watched them from the beauty salon next door to the apartment building. This was one of their favorite hiding places, and she was certain her mother would look there soon. She sat down in one of the waiting chairs, her feet not reaching the floor, and looked at pictures in the styling magazines. Permanent lotion and hair straightener made the salon smell like a laboratory, and Jazz began to scare herself, thinking maybe it was a laboratory, maybe her mother had let her stay there on purpose and soon someone would come out and take her into the back room and start to do experiments on her. It was getting dark outside, the cars had turned on their headlights, and she was getting even scareder, so she put the magazine down and went home. The trouble she had walking up the stairs! Her feet dragged, and when she’d get one foot on a staircase, the next one would refuse to follow until she sighed heavily, and then she could lift that foot but the other one didn’t want to budge. Finally she got to the top, and sighing one more time and squaring her shoulders, she walked into the apartment. “Gotcha!” her mother said, springing at her from the kitchen. “You’re It!”
Jazz wanted to cry but she seemed to have forgotten how. Crying was like long division, she thought, easy if you did it a lot but really hard if you didn’t.
“I knew you’d have to come home sometime,” her mother said. “I didn’t need to go looking for you. Admit it now. Aren’t I the clever one ?”
A. Mother, you are so clever that you knew from the beginning how to break my heart, how to make me love and hate you at the same time. Now you are old, even older than you should be at your age, as if you ran through all your energy—that enormous fortune or misfortune—too quickly, and your hands are curled up like little paws and your eyes are like empty pockets and your black skin is as wrinkled and worn as if it were moth-eaten fur or wool, and I wonder if the cobalt treatments will help, if anything will help. Yes, Mother, you are the smart one, you are the everything one, you are the only one, the only parent in the world.
“I knew you’d have to come home sometime,” her mother said, when Jazz had taken off her prescription sunglasses and put them away in her huge leather handbag, which she set down on the floor next to her small suitcase. She bent down to hug her mother. When had her mother shrunk so? Jazz felt like Alice grown miles taller than everything around her, a skyscraper casting her metropolitan shadow over this little tarpaper shack of a woman. She felt as if she had put her mother in the shade, but all she had ever meant to do was make her mother proud of her.
“Hi, Mom,” she said. “Happy birthday.”
Q. How can you say that? Maybe this is the last birthday I’ll ever see!
A. What else can 1 say? What could 1 ever say?
This was a bad business, Jazz thought, answering questions with questions, even if it was in your own mind.
“I bought a cake,” her mother said, and Jazz thought her mother’s eyes were like candles, lighting up her dark face.
They made a sort of birthday party, the two of them, and the next day some of her mother’s friends from in the building stopped by to meet Jazz. They told her mother what a pretty daughter she had, but they added, speaking about her in the third person, “Why does she wear that purple streak in her hair?”
“She’s an artist,” her mother answered. “Artists are different from you and me. More au courant.”
When she heard her mother saying this, Jazz felt her heart beat faster, the way your heart speeds up when someone you have loved from a distance pays you a compliment. You think that the world will be changed, now. You think that this is just the beginning. She went into the bathroom and closed the door and did a quick little two-step, a short but snappy shuffle and slide. She was dancing to the bongo beat of her heart, that old rhythm-and-blues.
That evening, when all the friends had come and gone, her mother said, “I don’t see why you have to wear that purple streak in your hair.”
“I thought you liked it!” Jazz cried, and it was as if the words had fled from her throat, refugees from the prison camp where, for so long, they had been kept under lock and key. “I thought you—” Liked me, she wanted to say, but the last two words stayed behind, having grown so accustomed to the routine of prison life that they shied from freedom.
“Oh, well,” her mother said, “what I like or don’t like doesn’t matter, does it? Not anymore.”
“Of course it matters,” Jazz said. And she chastised herself for forgetting that it was her mother’s feelings that were what counted now.
“In that case,” her mother said, “I wish you would get rid of it.”
Jazz felt outwitted. All her life, she realized, she had felt outwitted.
It was a shock to find yourself outwitted, and that was why she had always been in a state of shock. Shocked and outwitted.
“Being black is different enough,” her mother explained. “There’s no need to go being the color purple on top of being black.”
After her mother had gone to bed, Jazz lay on the couch in the living room, which was where she was sleeping, and looked at the lights in the building across the street. There were so many plants in the apartment that it was like looking at the stars through treetops. She thought about how much she would miss her mother when she died—for she would miss her, her mother who had struggled so to see that her daughter got an education, her mother who knew that they were not made of money, her mother who was jealous of her daughter for being her daughter—but then she thought that her mother would simply be moving farther away, and the part of her that had been strong enough to rescue herself from her past reminded her that that would be better for both of them. Part of her wanted to cry, but she seemed to have forgotten how. I’ve always been terrible at long division, too, she thought. She tried to remember the time her father had hit her mother, or her mother had hit her father, or she had dreamed her father hitting her mother, or maybe it had only been somebody yelling, but no matter how hard she tried, the memory stayed out of sight, in some corner of her mind, playing Hide-and-Seek. She tried to remember whether her father had left because of the way her mother was or whether her mother had become the way she was after her father left. There was a timeline there, a river cutting through a ravine, but whenever she tried to follow it, it spread itself out like milk in a saucer, it slowed and widened into dreamy circles of itself, and she fell asleep. In her dream, the river was made of tears, and forget-me-nots grew along the banks.
The next day, heading downstairs to catch a cab to the airport, she said to her mother, “Do you remember the wildflowers?”
“I was so scared,” her mother said. “I thought everyone would know how poor we were. I was afraid Welfare might take you away from me.”
“I’ll call you,” Jazz said, holding her mother’s hand but being careful not to squeeze it, because of the arthritis.
“You don’t need to act,” Manny whispered, after sex. “You don’t need to pretend. Tell me what’s really going on.”
It made her want to cry, his telling her she didn’t need to act. He was so generous!
Then she was crying, her tears, a river of them, matting the hair on his chest. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she explained. “I’ve always been this way. I’ve been underground my whole life. It’s like I’m frozen.” Rut she had never before slept with a man who would touch his forehead to hers in a Vulcan mind-meld! He liked to touch her eyelashes with his. He called this an eyelash-kiss. “The truth is,” she confessed, ashamed, “I wouldn’t recognize an orgasm if it walked up to me. I think I don’t even know what’s real and what’s not.” And she cried some more, a higher mathematics of weeping.
“Sure you do,” he said, patting her back as if he were burping her. “If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be such a good actress. You’d just be a realist, like me, and you’d never have dyed your hair purple.” He sighed and said, “We’re going to be fine, just as soon as you stop seeing things in black and white. Rut there’s no rush. We’re not on a schedule here.
There’s no timeline.” Then he fell asleep. He always fell asleep after sex, as if sex were a sleeping pill, a Mickey Finn.
She slept in the crook of his arms, feeling like a small bundle being carried away somewhere.
She and Manny had bought a bed, a real bed. Zora Neale slept with them because Jazz had read that electromagnetic fields could be dangerous; the heated cathouse had been carried off by the trash collectors, who had needed an extra five dollars before they would take it. Now when Jazz woke up in the middle of the night, Manny never stroked her hair and said he would protect her, because he slept through everything. In the stagy light of the reading lamp, Jazz watched his long lashes tremble, as if they were wildflowers and a breeze had touched them, wondering what dream was passing through his sleeping head, what country he was passing through in his dream. He slept through Jazz’s anxiety attacks—she had awakened from a dream, or nightmare, of an application form that had asked, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?—and also Zora Neale’s obsessive relocations from the foot of the bed to the head of the bed to the middle of the bed. In the morning, Jazz made real coffee, and Manny drank a cup of it before he went to his office in the courthouse. One day, shortly after he had pulled out of the driveway and she had settled herself in the study to work on the script for Heavy Irony, with funding by the Arts Board, the telephone rang; it was her mother.
“You’re still with Manny?” her mother asked, but Jazz knew that what her mother was really asking was, “Manny’s still with you?” And there was no answer to this, either, at least not any answer she could make without reminding her mother that she, unlike her daughter, had been a deserted wife.
“Mom? How are you?”
Jazz looked out the window at the tree, which was as white as the ghost of everything past. There was more snow coming down. In Wisconsin, there would always be more snow coming down.
“I was just wondering if you’re happy out there,” her mother said, loneliness in her voice like an ache, like pain, like a disease no one had ever found a cure for. And Jazz, whose heart, though she may not have known it, was always like something unfunded and free, brave as samizdat, gave the performance of her life, for life.
“Oh, Mother!” Jazz said, lightly, and with only a modicum of irony. “I’ve got everything I want. I’ve got my work, Manny, a house, tenure. Even the grant. What a question!”