Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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Carla happened to be kneeling outside the poultry enclosure when she heard her daughter Amanda in the milking barn telling the new boyfriend, “My father is a beatnik. He hates life up here. He calls us ‘montagnards.’ He really loves North Beach. And he’s in the right place, too, in North Beach. Because he’s into porn — something I approve of. Well, he isn’t ‘into porn,’ but he made his money writing an erotic book using the author name Francesca Weld. It’s the only book he’s sold so far. All his serious work frightens people. People are just too stupid for it.” Judging by the sounds inside, the boyfriend was toying with the latch on one of the milking stalls.
Carla went ahead and decided she was actively eavesdropping — which is a mother’s right sometimes, or possibly even duty — while she continued crawling around in the grass gathering vagrant eggs into her Carhartt-jacket pockets, domesticated fowl are so improvident, they leave behind their big white ova in seeming happy forgetfulness. Amanda inside the barn carried on: “My sense is, the Internet is going to save womankind. The Internet will give out so much free, downloadable erotic stuff, males won’t come out in society anymore. They’ll just stay home. They won’t want to get married. Or date. Because dating is expensive and scary. They’ll stay inside all day pointing and clicking and stop being a problem out in society. Totally different world.”
She was leading this polite, tall glee-club tenor — named Eric — on a tour of the farm’s goat operation. It was the second time Eric had been brought to make an appearance here, and Carla liked him. He was a product of the county public-school system locally, but he had applied to eight colleges and been accepted at most of them. All that labor, of filling out applications and writing personal essays and scrounging up recommendation letters, it made Carla tired just to think of it. Amanda hadn’t had to bother with applications because she was accepted early, a legacy on her father’s side. Lately she was saying she wouldn’t go at all, not to Brown, not anywhere, because colleges are all complicit in the war machine and the global-warming cartels, and because back east you can’t eat local-organic year-round. The whole East Coast is totally backward.
To everything she said, this Eric, in his purity, had a way of listening with utterly persuaded passiveness, enraptured, while his eyes kept falling to her mouth, her throat, waiting for the moment when he could fasten his own mouth there. At least that’s what Carla liked to imagine, or hope. The comedy of love — this young love in particular — was something she observed with certain secret biases, because despite her age and position, this boy Eric was the first male in years who’d inspired her dormant old girlhood crush. His full, beige lips with one pimple at the corner, his strong neck and general uprightness, were altogether the kind of traits that unlocked her own mischief. Or would have if she were thirty years younger. A mother after a certain age in her irrelevancy doesn’t try to repress such stirrings — she rather observed them in herself with a little proprietary gladness. Realistically she only hoped her daughter wouldn’t mistreat the boy. He was innocent despite all that intelligence. Or innocent because of the intelligence: all the braininess depended on the naiveté. Amanda by contrast was positively jaded. She even seemed to speak with a yawn today.
The sound inside the barn was of Eric opening the stainless-steel cupboard on the far wall. There he would discover an array of scalds, teat dips, all the not-very-effective mastitis remedies she had to employ instead of prostaglandins so Calafia Farms could keep its organic certification. There’d been a little silence, then Eric said, “I wonder if it’s uncomfortable.” By the muffledness of his voice, he was probably reading labels on bottles. “I mean for the goat. Being milked in this industrialized way?” Apparently he had no response to Amanda’s opinions about the pacification by porn of a nation of males.
“Oh, and the most picturesque thing is Antonio. You’ve got to see him,” said Amanda. “He takes the goats out. But he’s hardly worth his wage anymore, ’cause at this point that’s all he does: the goats. They go out grazing in groups of thirty at a time. Old, fat Antonio. He actually has a shepherd’s crook, and he takes them down in the live oaks. Your Spanish will get a workout. He speaks no English at all. Like, he’s been in this country for years, but he still only speaks Spanish. So it’s just him and his goats in life.”
Meanwhile Carla, like a child at Easter, was crawling deeper into the grass behind the barn. Maybe domesticated fowl somehow know. Know which eggs are fertile and which are the duds, and so are liberated to neglect the lifeless ones outside the henhouse. Then, egg laying for a hen is like menstruation. Had she ever found a fertile one outside? She couldn’t think of an instance. There was one time years ago when her husband cracked an egg over a bowl for his omelet and released a blue and brown packet, fetal toothpick-bones, a beak, a huge staring lidless eye. That was surely one of the first occasions of Steve’s admitting to himself farm life wasn’t for him and San Francisco had begun calling him back, because he walked straight out of the kitchen and wouldn’t return until she’d disposed of the embryo. Oh and then she horrified him, she poured it in the dogs’ bowls, yolk and embryo together, over their Ralston Purina. Poor Steve amidst the barbarity hung his head and gently closed his eyes. They had been married for maybe six or eight years at that point. Strange how you can know somebody so long, and so deeply, and still truly love him, then and now, and it never dies. Steve was her particular shot at love in her lifetime. As much as anybody ever does, she’d hit the target, marrying Steve. He had, upon the lawns of Berkeley, arrived in her sight as a handsome package of great genes, carrying a tennis racket. He was like a remnant of an elfin aristocracy that was now extinct, or had almost entirely vanished to enchanted western isles. So she’d acquired him, right there at Sather Gate on the campus, she reached out and took him. Him and his delicate ear and throat, his patrician drawl, his finickiness about language, his tennis, his recordings of weird modern orchestral music that sounded to Carla like horror-movie scores. The great assumption they shared and treasured, always, was his superiority. In the performance that was their marriage, he’d been the ballerina lifted in flight, upon her shadowier support. That was how she’d wanted it too. If she could have, she would have done the whole thing again the same way, right up to the discovery of that bloody omen in his omelet batter. Whether that particular egg had come from the brooding shelves or from out here in the grass, she had no possible way of reckoning now.
Amanda’s voice went on, speaking of Antonio, “Him and his goats and his Blessed Virgin. And the memory of his sainted mother. And his wine. He has a name for each individual goat. There’s Innocencia, Mercedes, Serena, Modesta, Guadalupe, Isabella, Soledad. On and on. He actually knows which is which. I mean, there’s ninety-some goats in this parlor alone, but you can ask him, ‘Hey, Antonio, como se llama este chivo?’ and he’ll say, ‘Maria,’ ‘Juanita,’ ‘Placentia.’ He is totally rustic.”
Carla got up from her knees. Eight brown eggs — and a slate-blue ninth one from the Connecticut hen — lay nestled in her jacket’s flat outer pockets, in danger of being crushed in the grip of Carhartt canvas. Holding the pocket rims lightly open, she went around to the front barn door.
Amanda was leaning on the rail of a milking stall. “He has a corncob pipe. He does,” she said, watching her mother come in. “It’s too warm these days, but a month from now he’ll be wearing a poncho. An actual wool poncho. If we went and found him right now, he’d be hanging out with his goats, with his pipe and his shepherd’s crook, like, sitting on a hummock, or a tummock, or whatever it’s called.”
She was draped against the railing, shoulders thrust back, her navel exposed above her jeans in its perfect baby fat, still unmutilated by ring or by steel stud, her breasts flattened into oddly high shapes by the new kind of bra Carla didn’t entirely disapprove of, but of course could never consider wearing herself.
Eric, who had been looking out a window over the valley toward the buttes in distant Sierra County, turned and said, “Hi, Ms. Levinson.”
“Hello, Eric. You’re invited for dinner. This Antonio you’re hearing so much about knows where to get mushrooms, and I have a risotto. So. Now, Amanda, I could hear you outside, and you are a most informative fascinating guide! I think we won’t have any secrets left after you’re finished telling Eric everything about us. Just don’t bore him.”
“Eric is boring, Mom. This is the most exciting day he’s had all year.”
“I’m definitely not bored, Ms. Levinson.” He was smiling, and his cheeks were ruddy.
“And, Amanda? Your father is not a pornographer.”
“Well, it’s the only book that ever sold.”
Carla had to laugh — and laugh with pleasure, because something about Amanda-logic was irresistible. Amanda herself was irresistible. Suddenly of late she was thrilling, indomitable, her fairy hair, her delicate complexion and big blue eyes, her bright fever matching Eric’s, their cheeks competing in blushes. Nonsense rules, when there’s love in the room: all bets are off, all rules are suspended, and an egg-scavenging, lint-haired mother ought to make herself scarce. She didn’t belong here where the air was misted with infatuation, or call it lust, indeed like the amazing blood-mist in a poultry abattoir, so radiant was the whole situation, so that Carla actually had to turn her face from the blaze, toward the door. Carrying her pocketfuls of lifeless eggs, she went out, saying, “I’ll be up in the kitchen adding little dribs of wine to the rice.” Her describing her own plans as trivial, in comparison with the thing that was happening behind her in the barn, was perhaps supposed to act, somehow, as license for them to get physically nearer each other. “Anyone who would like to come up and help with dinner is welcome.”
While she was walking off, she didn’t hear them speak. Probably a good sign. She hadn’t forgotten what it was like, the power to, by the slightest gesture, and from a distance, make a boy stand or leap or twitch or expand or shrink: Amanda had fulfilled her childhood Harry Potter fantasy — the years rush by so fast, it seemed like only the previous summer — when she’d had an all-consuming ambition to be a sorceress in a world of stupid Muggles and mere mortals; she used to fling the scythes of her little-girl fingers at people as if churning storms. In that milking parlor it was humbling, being in the same room with all that actual sorcery. Humbling even to the girl’s mother. Let her use it while it lasts; because people tend to forget, it is the ultimate reason for everything else, the reason for barns and goats and harvests and colleges; the reason for new brassiere designs and beatnik fathers and Eric’s perfect SAT score and the real estate underfoot and the paperwork Carla does all morning in her office. A young girl is the flower upon all that root and stem.
Up the lane ahead, the last gold sunlight of afternoon lay hard upon the side of the house. Sixty miles beyond and higher, on the crest, the remote peaks of Desolation Wilderness were bathed in that same afternoon light, above the shadows that climbed the lesser mountains. First dusting of snow on top. Winter arrived early up there. It was a place she had never visited. Lived within sight of all these years but never traveled to. A domain of serious backpackers, it was a place she had reached a point now of someday wanting to visit. Alone and not with a hiking party. It was a more arduous kind of hiking up there, involving serious equipment. And there would be a lot of silence, silence as you climbed higher, the way a canyon gets quieter in autumn after the foliage has fallen and the animals have departed. Here at this lower elevation, in the end-of-day warmth by the sheds, swarm clouds of fruit flies made shifting mounds, buzzing, undulating over the heaped pears, which had been harvested but in their abundance ignored, so that now they were turning to slick goo, a feast for the flies, in bushel baskets and cardboard boxes against the potting shed. All for Antonio to shovel into the compost heaps. The old bushel baskets could be hosed off for another year.
It had felt good being on her knees and crawling like a child at her age. It had felt rejuvenating. By contact of soft turf, kneecaps are physically healed; and her own knees had been wrecked during the years of high heels. Crawling, just crawling, is obviously therapeutic for the spine too. Grown-ups ought to spend more time on their hands and knees. In only four years, the whole goat operation had prospered so quickly, the entire muddle of business success had overtaken her so fast, alone in her years of triumph (except for Amanda!), Carla spent all her time now in the office, indoors, very little time anymore in the barns or the gardens. Every morning, the whole morning long in her ergonomic chair, she, in Amanda’s phrase, pointed and clicked. But in her case it certainly wasn’t Internet porn, it was banking and marketing, flashing past in quick windows, it was promotional searches, e-mailing, purchasing, hiring and contracting, memos for sales and operations and clients’ correspondence, paying bills. Absolutely everything now can be done on computer, it’s all so convenient, it’s deadly, it is death. Just now, crawling on all fours had uncoupled her vertebrae, so her hips seemed to swing better going up the dirt lane. A few minutes near the therapeutic smell of horseshit gives one a feeling of being years younger, like that kind of therapy-by-smell people do. Most days the routine odors, for her soul, were — what was it? — printer toner, the Vaseline Intensive Care on her hands, coffee after coffee, the smell of coffee in the telephone receiver’s perforated plastic disk like halitosis. At this point in her life, with Steve long gone and only dull men in these foothills, Carla might easily — might wisely — begin thinking of herself as one of that race of “older single women” who everywhere are a useful element in society, and admit she’d long ago given up all art and artifice, to become one of the chapped, sun-hatted, mannish happy gals, the kind of women she used to look down on, when she first moved up here, seeing them in the IGA wearing men’s work clothes, confirming her private generalization that the countryside was the reverse of the city: the females here are overweight and unblessed, the men good-looking. In San Francisco, it was the men who didn’t bother. At least in her circles. It was the women who had the goods. Made an effort. Worked the magic. Took up that responsibility.
Anyway, she was suddenly aware that Amanda and Eric were following her, coming up the lane from the barns. They were going to join her in the kitchen. Rather than, say, move deeper into the outbuildings. Or travel on into the woods and maybe catch a glimpse of the legendary gnome Antonio. Or even go down to the pond to feed the swans. What did this portend? It would seem they wanted her as audience for a while, rather than frankly facing each other. They wanted a chaperone! So, when Carla arrived in the kitchen, she poured herself some wine. She would be sociable. On the stove she started the flame under the risotto again, ladled in a dose of broth, tilted in wine, gave it a stir, adjusted the flame lower.
She unloaded her nine eggs, intact, upon the polished marble countertop, its black mausoleum luster as fathomless as an ocean: she’d always regretted putting in those marble slabs, preferring the irregular Mexican tiles, which Steve had insisted were trite and impractical. She was trite and impractical. It was years now, and she couldn’t get over disliking the marble slabs, increasingly. The black mass reflected the nine eggs in its surface, as nine duplicate effigies of eggs in the underworld, supporting them on their nine tangent points, rather than swallowing them up. In the mudroom she hung up the Carhartt she loved so much it might see her out of this life. In the mirror there, her tress of loose hair looked good. Funny, to be adjusting her looks for a clueless boy who could be her child. She stood up more crisply the collar of her shirt.
The two kids were coming up the porch steps. “Amanda, when is your movie?” Carla spoke through the screen door. “Risotto likes to take as long as possible.”
“I’m not having any. I’ll eat cheese and apples and nuts.”
She had been proclaiming lately she would eat only raw food for the rest of her life. Maybe tonight, however, she would relent and have some risotto, because it would smell good. Amanda’s radical diets came and went fast, entering her life with fanfare, accompanied by speeches and homilies, as well as politics and metaphysics and plenty of recommended reading, then later slipping away quietly without notice. Carla liked to think it came from her own Jewish side, this wrestling with dietary regimens having moral implications. By contrast, Amanda’s father, whether down in Mexico or at the ballpark or wherever, would happily put in his mouth anything that was set before him without even lowering his eyes to look at it, literally!
With the exception of the chicken embryo. That was something that got Steve’s attention.
Amanda was lifting the lid of the kitchen laptop. “I’ll see,” she said. Meaning, when movie showings were scheduled. As the screen came to life, Carla imagined, weirdly, that an invading blaze of true “Internet porn” could come storming in, from somewhere, from nowhere, from the heights of cyberspace: those shiny, inflated-looking people who tumbled in camera angles. Sometimes in her work she came across those blasts of dreary obscenity and clicked on past, pausing for a minute to contemplate the farce and horror of it, the odd, stunted lives of the actresses and actors. No doubt Amanda, by her age, had been irradiated by such images. You can’t avoid it. In every recess it flourishes yeastlike with a force that’s explosive.
But of course no such thing happened. The screen was just the mother-of-pearl gray background, with all her little icons labeled.
“Now, Eric. Are you under any special dietary restrictions? I’m not using chicken broth in the risotto, I’m using vegetable broth.”
“No, ma’am. I’m not a vegetarian. It smells wonderful.”
“Well then, since Amanda’s not eating — and at the risk of offending her morals — maybe I’ll sauté the mushrooms in a strip of bacon. Would that be all right, Mandy? That won’t drive you from an unclean, defiled place?”
Amanda kept her eyes on the screen. “There’s a showing at nine o’clock,” she said. “We have plenty of time.”
“So, Amanda, why only raw food?” Eric asked with an avidity only a seventeen-year-old could have, eager to learn something new, something that might make him change his ways, change his diet, and his life, forever.
“I’ll tell you why,” Amanda said, lowering the lid on the computer. “See that gas flame? Under that pan? Because of that flame — and a lot of things like it — shorelines are being polluted, women and children are being killed in far-off places where American foreign policy is. Salmon are dying in the dammed-up rivers, coal miners are dying, like in Kentucky and Mexico and China, and in Nigeria whole tribes are being driven off the face of the earth, not to mention Ecuador.”
Eric had a kind of joyful-to-be-defeated grin, fixed and ready, but it was clear to Carla’s secret eye, he wasn’t impressed so much by Amanda’s argument, he was simply lost in admiration of her ardor. As for Carla, she knew what was coming next: Amanda’s elaborate analogy of “sin.” She held her tongue and went on cooking, giving the mushrooms a few more chops on the butcher block, then stirring them straight in, leaving the bacon out, because without the animal fat the dish might tempt Amanda. It was hard to watch her subsist on carrots. And cold tofu and jicama.
“You know what Catholics and Protestants do?” Amanda said. “Every Sunday they have to ask forgiveness for the sins they did do and the things they neglected to do. Those are sins, too. The things you didn’t do. Secular people who talk about religion like to claim they don’t understand the ‘sin’ part. They say, ‘Frankly I don’t feel particularly sinful.’ Meanwhile they go out and start their car and burn gasoline that little Iraqi children were killed for. And they know it while they do it. They’re fully aware. They’ve been told. They haven’t, like, forgotten. While they fill up the tank at the gas station, they know what this costs. Republicans and Democrats and liberals — whatever. They all know. It’s murder, and they do it, and they know perfectly well they’re doing it. Do it every day.”
Eric had started to seem worried. He said, “We were planning to drive. The movie is way over in Grass Valley, and it’ll be dark. We can’t ride bikes.”
“Well, pfff, there’s always something,” said Amanda.
Carla intervened to rescue her daughter, asking which movie they meant to go see.
Amanda moved her distracting body up onto a bar stool. “We’re going to see the one where two boys kiss,” she said.
“Oh, excellent,” said Carla, stirring the pan again. Then in the role of mom at the stove she heard her own voice uttering that opinion. And wondered why it should be commendable.
Well, it’s commendable because, when you increase the box-office receipts of a movie about two men who fall in love, you’re committing a political deed, raising the prospects of a group that has been excluded from the media and culture establishment. Is that not the reasoning?
Amanda told her mother, “I know, it’s not the typical date flick. But I’m training Eric. He’s going to be less masculine when I’m done with him.”
Eric gave an affable shrug for Ms. Levinson, apologizing for his incorrigible masculinity. Ms. Levinson, the mom at the stove, felt her own heart go pitty-pat, in a remembered way, because of the masculine manner in which, now, he’d folded his arms, sitting there in the kitchen chair, his forearms making cancellation signs to remove his own opinions, and himself bodily, from the conversation. Berkeley — her own school, and the school Eric was destined for — was an excellent place; he would get a top-drawer education. The boy was already famous for his perfect SAT scores. It was the first thing one learned about him, before meeting him. But Berkeley wasn’t Brown, it wasn’t Ivy League, he would miss out on the social connections. All the phony social stuff is an angle kids underestimate. Then it creeps up on them later in life.
What a hypocrite she had become, at this point. The destiny she would really choose for her — rather talkative — daughter would be to end up with a husband, a husband who loved her, and for her to love him in return. Because Amanda was always a little too much in control. One wished for her a husband rather like Eric. But first a great education at Brown. Then graduate school, which is apparently unavoidable these days. Then a career and a dazzling life for a few years in (as she pictured it) New York. Then to be superseded in her profession, by the hordes of men out there who simply lower their heads and labor, in their chosen fields, in some single-minded way that one really doesn’t wish for a woman. Or, anyway, wish for Amanda. To end up single-minded like her poor father. In his airless room, writing his prickly, political poetry for a small cult. Amanda was, at the moment, informing Eric about the poisonous influence everywhere of testosterone. And right now the main thing Carla hoped for her was simply that she might be a little quieter, a little slower and softer. And for her body, with its winking midriff, to be a little less thrust into the discussion. The new bra compresses girls’ breasts with the shape of an unreal virginity, an unyieldingness of the classical Greek huntress-goddess, which surely boys must see as buds to be explored, if they can be brave and impolite enough. As Amanda went on, trying to raise Eric’s consciousness above the usual male torpor, he had every appearance of agreeably absorbing the whole argument. Despite his SAT-based reputation, he was a little slow. The SAT isn’t life.
The grains of rice in the pan had reached the point of being just about as plump and sticky as they were ever going to be. She added a last ladleful of broth and a drizzle of wine from her stemmed glass, then the Parmesan. And the table was set.
Homosexuality, her daughter went on, is troubling to the middle class and the bourgeoisie because when they settle down in the dark of a theater and are subjected to the big projected image of men kissing — when they’re forced to see that — their first thought is Ooh! but then they censor that thought and their next practical thought is Hey, but who’s the victim here? Because when a girl is kissed by a guy, it’s clear who the victim is. Who the object is. She’s the vessel. She’s the treasure. Right? So the economic relationship is clear. But then, love between two men? — or two women? — completely wrecks the economic setup. Marriage is the economic unit of society. Marriage is, in reality, part of the government. Marriage is the smallest corporation. A little taxable corporation. A governable corporation. That’s how it’s all organized. It’s all about property preservation. About mortgages. Everything in capitalism is about property. So with marriage and divorce laws, too, the whole thing is about money, without it being identifiable as prostitution. We in the middle class, we aren’t supposed to talk about the love-for-money thing. So the possibility of a love that isn’t prostitution — like gay people who are in love — makes us look at things we don’t want to look at. In a nutshell, to make a long story short, this is why it’s going to do Eric some good to sit in the dark and watch two cute guys make out.
This was one of Amanda’s well-rehearsed disquisitions. Carla had heard it before and was presently more interested in seeing its effect on Eric. This Eric, though, he was a smooth operator; he just soaked it up radiant with admiration. Carla spooned the risotto into three little painted bowls that would make the sticky mess seem more attractive. She supposed Amanda would, at some point, experiment with girls; but Eric didn’t seem to have it in him, to kiss a boy. She couldn’t picture it. She couldn’t picture him picturing it. Her own middle-aged, middle-class soul was that of a hopeful, bruised liberal, but, still and always, she could be squeamish or craven or fundamentally “trite,” in Steve’s words. Everything she knew about the embraces between men — of which she knew plenty, more than she really wanted to, having had many gay friends back in San Francisco who tended to confide and gossip, confide indeed all too much, about the riskiest, stretchiest kinds of amyl-nitrite-induced grappling in bathroom stalls — everything she knew made her simply worry, just like a mom, about the purely anatomical troubles and hygiene complications, as much as the morning after and coffee with a new friend at Cafe Flore, the entry there into an alienated and ironic tribe, the sadness of that.
Anyway, she lived now in the peaceful bright steamy-windowed kitchen of the bourgeois heterosexuals, compromised by — Amanda wasn’t half wrong — the old love-for-money deal, and perhaps gradually turning reactionary, one of society’s comfortable folks. She didn’t need to confess any of this to her daughter. Amanda would go forth and, with her generation, remake the world. It was all for the good, a mom’s not having justifiable opinions anymore, just focusing on keeping the farm solvent, e-mailing the stores, keeping the trucks running. The table was laid, the three bowls smoked at the three places. She seated herself in the candlelight and laid her napkin over her knee, and she lifted a fork, and she seized on a lull in Amanda’s lecture, which had pretty much run its course, to turn to Eric and ask, “Eric, tell me, what do you think you’ll major in at Berkeley?”
Eric was serving himself from the big wooden salad bowl, tender greens from the gardens above the pond, dressed with bits of the farm’s dill cheese. Amanda called Eric’s attention to the salad gripped in his tongs. “That cheese in there is famous. Seventeen restaurants — right, Mom? — actually list it by name on their menu: Calafia Farms Cheese.”
“Wow,” said Eric, looking back and forth between mother and daughter, his big tongs suspended.
“Anyway . . . ,” said Carla.
He went back to work with the salad tongs and replied, “I really have no idea what I might major in. But I do notice I gravitate toward the sciences. I find I like the terminology, the vocabulary, the whole lexicon, I have to admit. And I like the little details. I’ll bet I end up in life sciences. I don’t see myself practicing medicine, really. I see myself in some kind of research.” He set the tongs down and passed the big bowl.
It was the most the boy had said all evening, and it seemed to consist mostly of the first-person pronoun, a declaration bristling with Is all crowding the sentence as little columnar stand-up versions of himself.
“Typical,” complained Amanda: she would see “research” as dominated by corporations. She put down her fork, flopped back in her chair, throwing her arms over the back, and parted her thighs wide in Eric’s direction, opening herself up for a thorough, critical consideration of him. Carla, as mother, kept repressing her irrelevant dread of unladylike behavior precisely because she’d certainly had many sprees of unladylike behavior herself, back when the game was afoot. “That’s why you are the problem, Eric,” Amanda said. “You’re so narrow. It’s all career. It’s an ego game with you, and nobody gets the larger holistic picture. You’re all so helpless,” she finished — and in that instant her rather fond despair over her boyfriend seemed to melt back into real lasciviousness, Carla saw it, it was unmistakable, that gleam just for a minute there, she was sizing him up. And indeed, they never did go to their movie.
Because after Carla had covered the leftovers and switched off the kitchen lights; after she had watched Antonio pass along the lane amid a small herd of goats clank-clanking in the last twilight, carrying his little varmint-protection .22-caliber rifle — in the Mexican manner, slung over his shoulder upside-down so the barrel pointed at the ground — bearing his corncob pipe and his aluminum lawn chair; after she had phoned him down in his trailer to discuss tomorrow’s apple harvest and the rental of a chipper and the instructions for the distributor’s van in the morning; and after she had put the dogs to bed in the mudroom, she happened to be passing by the stairs that led down to the television area, where things were all too quiet, and where, presently, the sounds of love arose. She didn’t move on, though. She stayed there at the head of the stairs. It was sweet to hear. It was beautiful. Little whispers and scoldings and sighs.
If Steve still lived here, he would have found a fatherly way to forbid it. Despite all his bohemianism, he would have been a little enraged. But a young woman had to make her explorations, and somehow by insulting Eric all afternoon she had been buttering him up for this. Love alone — love of mother for daughter, of girl for boy — emerges as the warm stone. Warmed by what? Warmed by the sun of many other summers. And what had Carla done to deserve, or cause, all this happiness, this tranquillity and good luck? Nothing. Her daughter, she was the one who knew everything now — so it was time for her to begin the long education in confusion, lying on the old plaid couch down there, personifying the victim she had spoken of earlier. It’s terribly hard work being young. A young person must thrust herself into existence, must impersonate herself somehow. Carla wouldn’t want to be lying on that couch in Mandy’s place, not for a million dollars be young again, she was an old hypocrite at last, growing more ignorant and bewildered by the year. This mantle of ignorance and bewilderment, it’s grace all right, accumulating. It’s the snow on the distant peaks, calling to her. The secret a mother could never speak of to her daughter (or at least not until they’re both older, a pair of ladies having lunch together in a tea shop!) was how fine it is to reach an age when beauty is done with you, when lust has picked you up and used you and then dropped you, and you can revert to being as cruel as nature. Old hag, all evening she’d had those same dried mud-badges on her knees, and she liked it that way.
Louis B. Jones
I did a double take when I saw that the short story “The Mere Mortal” [May 2010], with its aging female protagonist, was written by a man. This only underscores what we know to be true: that it’s who we are inside that matters most.
Louis B. Jones’s character Carla is a wise and endearing woman who lightheartedly relinquishes the trappings of youth and celebrates her daughter’s coming-of-age. This is an enlightened vision of aging compared to our society’s inaccurate and mean-spirited portrayal of grudgingly over-the-hill females.
Thanks for the role model.