An excerpt from The Atlas of Reds And Blues (Counterpoint Press)
. . . in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no . . .
Possibly the exact moment the mustached state policeman, in monogrammed Kevlar and matching navy pants, stands in her driveway and points his assault rifle at her head on a cloudless morning in May, right after she took the girls to school, before she has her shower, and while she is still wearing her brown “Hard Work Never Killed Anyone but Why Risk It?” T-shirt and gray sweatpants.
Possibly one minute later when she counts the number of police and the number of automatic guns on her front lawn: all weapons at the ready as if she would cower before them or be impressed at the demonstration of force or be more inclined to listen to their list of demands.
Possibly a moment not too much later when the firecrackers are unexpectedly displayed, and she finds herself on the ground, bleeding.
Or, years earlier, the moonless night before she goes into labor for the first time, the air thick with mosquitoes. Hands, face, and feet swollen from gestational diabetes. She wears flip-flops everywhere, the police precincts, the courthouses she covers, and the newsroom where she works as a journalist. For months, all jewelry had been off her hands, ears, and neck to quell the tide of swelling, the tide that never ebbs. The dangerous pregnancy and its forty daily admonitions and precautions always looping in succession in her mind. Labor Day weekend, 1998. After work, she lives in black stretch pants and a maternity T-shirt that has a cartoon picture of Garfield on it because those are the only two comfortable things she owns.
It is close to midnight and neither her husband nor she can sleep. So humid that even the crickets in the Georgia thickets stop chirping to conserve personal energy. They decide to watch a movie, but notice there is no popcorn, her only obgyn-approved snack, left in the pantry. She volunteers to go to the 24-hour grocery a few miles away to lap up the hyper-air-conditioned air, while her husband, her hero, tries his luck at renting Titanic.
A beached whale trying to navigate the aisles with a shopping cart, she remembers to take advantage of her human hands. She enjoys the forced air-conditioning, relishes the empty aisles and stocked shelves. She picks out her popcorn, and for her husband she chooses a variety of tasty garbage including a pint of ice cream that is called, appropriately enough, Coma by Chocolate.
One checkout lane open. Manned by a man named Manny who, according to his name tag, is the night manager. She looks like she is carrying some sort of obscene food baby ex-utero, chips and popcorn for the torso and legs, chocolate chip cookies for the pair of arms joined together, and ice cream for the head.
He gawks. “Ma’am, do you know about prenatal care? There are some vitamins on Aisle Twelve, next to the baby wipes.”
She turns around but finds herself alone. “Excuse me?”
He cocks his head. “Hables español?”
“What?” She gulps. “Yes, but . . . no.”
“Ma’am, you need to put back the chips and the ice cream, and drink some milk.”
She attempts to clamp shut her jaw but fails. “It’s for my husband.”
“Are you kidding me?” He pounds his fist on the price scanner. “What kind of man allows his pregnant wife to go to the store in the middle of the night?”
“I didn’t want to go to the video store.” She swipes the credit card. “It smells in there.”
He grunts. “Are you sure you’re married?”
A small hiccup of laughter escapes. “Why?”
“Where’s your ring?” His stare almost a glare. “People will talk.”
“Where’s your house?” His finger wags near her face.
“Three miles that way,” she says, pushing away his hand.
“Do you have a doctor?”
“Actually, I have two.” She signs the promissory note and waits. “And I have a medical condition that prevents me from eating anything after dinner, except for this popcorn I’ve bought.”
“Bless your heart, ma’am,” he says. “I’m just concerned for you.”
Huh. “That’s excruciatingly touching.”
“Can I have my receipt now? Please?” Nothing has changed. The dolls are still judged. She is thirty-one years, ten months, and six days old.
Or, years later, after she moves them from the city to homogeneous suburbia, cookie-cutter identical for everyone but her. No one answers their doors when mother and daughters march up and down the cul-de-sac and ring the doorbells, homemade brownies in hand. Not only do the new neighbors not come over to see if they are all right after the lightning strikes the new house, none of them bother to say welcome. No chicken casseroles forthcoming, no chocolate chip or oatmeal cookies, no smiles. They, the family, wait patiently, every day, like maiden aunts at a charity dance, waiting to be asked to waltz.
No one calls.
Maybe, just maybe, it all starts one morning in the fall semester, 1986, when she meets her man of the hour and coins her nickname for him. The starting line for the hard looks and comments that will follow them for the next twenty-four years, strangers unhappy when they hold hands or kiss in public. That Friday, the leaves burnishing gold and crimson and copper among the evergreens, the air brisk even in the afternoons. It is her turn to feed the meter, not just for her clunker, but for her roommate, Donna, as well. The meter maids on campus have been cracking down and the Real Thing knows she cannot afford yet another parking ticket. She is in danger of losing her car, her parents had warned her it would be confiscated if one more parking offense reached their mailbox, and without her car, well, she will lose her part-time job as a newbie reporter in the local bureau of the second-largest newspaper in the state of North Carolina.
Her English professor, Dr. Shelley, had let them out late, nine and a half minutes late. An entire semester devoted to the verses of John Donne, one ecstatic poem after the other, a graduation requirement. The professor’s voice more irritating than her fuchsia-painted nails that accidentally scratch the chalkboard as she writes out her lecture during class. In her haste to reach the cars before the meter maids do, the Real Thing trips over a brick paver by the planetarium entrance and the quarters fly from her fingers into the labyrinth of rosebushes. She spies one, and scratches her left arm on the thorns as she retrieves it.
The meter maid is six, maybe seven, cars away from her hatchback but only a few cars from her roommate’s. Her trot turns into a jog, backpack slung over one shoulder, toward her roommate’s white Chevy Cavalier. She stops at the car, and notices that beside it is its twin. The meter maid is two cars away. She dashes to the back of the car, but the license plates are virtually the same, and each car is sporting identical university magnets and business school logos.
The meter maid is close enough that the Real Thing could reach out and touch her cap. She reaches the meter, and puts in the quarter, and buys another hour.
“Thank you for rescuing my cadaver,” a voice says by her ear.
“What?” She looks up to see the chiseled jaw, the brightest blue eyes, a bemused grin. “Wait, did I pay for your car?”
“Yes,” he says, and introduces himself, tells her he’s named the car a cadaver because it often fails to start in cold weather. “Are you okay? I saw you fall back there.”
The Real Thing feels a cinnamon-red blush flooding her face. “I’m trying to beat the meter maid, for my roommate.”
“Allow me,” he says, and fishes for something in his pocket but comes up empty. The grin fades as he looks on the ground and on the curb. “Damn it.”
“What’s wrong?” she asks, aware of the meter maid inching closer.
“I thought I had an extra coin or two,” he says, then looks closely at a spot just above her shoulder. He tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and produces a quarter, tucks another strand, and produces three. “I knew they were here somewhere.”
He feeds one of the quarters into Donna’s Chevy.
The Real Thing laughs. “You’re the man of the hour!” She snatches the remaining coins from his hand and runs to her car, feeds her own meter as well as the meters of the cars on either side of her. She looks back to see her new friend speaking to the meter maid, a small white package in his hand, and then the maid hopping back into her vehicle and moving toward the exit. She walks back to him. “What did you say to her?”
He shrugs and shows her his roll of quarters. “I promised her I’d feed everyone’s meter.”
She wonders why he has this money, and remembers the arcade just down the block. “And she believed you?”
His smile holds the glow of a campfire in the deep woods.
She pictures herself as a moth.
“She’s coming back in fifteen minutes, to check.” He breaks the roll in half. “You’ll keep me honest, right?”
She takes her half of the stack.
Perhaps it’s when an older boy, Michael, follows Middle Daughter around during first-grade recess on the school playground, pushes her down in the hallway near the library, bumps her elbow in the cafeteria, calls her names that allude to the darker side of the color spectrum, calls her a coconut, white on the inside, for even wanting to attend this fancy Southern school. Michael gets on the cross-campus bus that transports the children to and from the school gymnasium and natatorium three days each week and sits behind her and taunts.
Middle Daughter announces her decision to forgo education for a life of flight. “I’ll just go to the moon sooner than I thought,” she says, breaking open a chocolate cookie and crumbling the sweet white frosting between her fingers. On TV, news anchors are showing NASA’s photographs of the Phoenix soft landing on Mars.
“You have to finish high school, college, graduate school, a stint in the Air Force, and then NASA training,” Mother says. She takes a sip of the black coffee and puts down the cup.
Middle Daughter’s lower lip juts out, the cookie crumbles on the tabletop. “I just can’t go to school anymore, not while HE is there.”
Mother’s heart crumbles too. “Can I tell Daddy now? Please?”
She shakes her head, unable to speak.
In this new neighborhood the wives take baths (not showers), put on pumps, and apply mascara just to retrieve the morning newspapers from the edge of the driveway or check the mail before their children come home from school. Their husbands take notice of other things, and leave curt messages duct-taped to the front door of Mother’s house. Her man of the hour is usually not home, he is usually out of town for work. But her man of the hour happens to be at home when the latest note about their failings as residents of the subdivision, on cut yellow Post-it, is posted.
“We have to be nice,” he says to her, softly, as he sits down next to her on the couch. “We agreed to follow their rules when we moved here.”
Greta is by the fireplace, and she opens her eyes. She wags her tail weakly but does not sit up.
“A lightning strike. We couldn’t close the doors to the garage.” Mother pokes holes in the yellow Post-it with a ballpoint pen. “Everything was broken.”
Her hero turns on the TV and finds a college basketball game. “They don’t care.”
She looks at the box, the score is tied. “But we couldn’t park in the driveway. The repairmen were parked there.” The pen breaks the skin of the paper and goes through.
He starts to channel surf. “They don’t care.”
She puts her hand out and they trade, note and pen for remote. “They didn’t even check on us when we were hit! We could have had a fire. We could have died.”
He crumples the paper into a ball and puts the cap back on the pen, and then juggles them high into the air. Greta takes notice and her head follows the paper ball like an avid tennis fan at Wimbledon.
Mother finds The Wizard of Oz, it is the moment that Dorothy falls asleep in the field of poppies. Greta rises and wobbles to Mother’s side of the couch, sits back down again. They all watch in silence until a mouthwash commercial interrupts the film just as Dorothy and her companions enter the Emerald City.
Her hero sighs. Maybe in resignation. “If we fight this, we’ll end up in court. They’ll have the law, and then we’ll have to apologize and we’ll have to pay a fine.”
They trade again. She tucks the pen behind her ear, and makes a perfect shot with the Post-it into the wastepaper basket on the other side of the couch. Greta follows the shot and goes to investigate the trash can. Mother says, “I just think we should . . .”
Her hero changes the channel back to the basketball game. Overtime. “Be nice,” he says. “By the way, I have to go out of town again.”
More likely, it began on the playground when Mary-Margaret Anne Moriarty expounded on her theory of love. Recess, at St. Luke’s co-ed. Last full week of April 1978. A day when the azaleas are already in bloom, when sixth grade still means elementary school, and the term “middle school” hasn’t yet replaced “junior high.” While other schoolkids embrace the Bee Gees and John Travolta, the Real Thing and her classmates argue with nuns about attending mandatory morning mass, even as non-Catholics. On the playground Sister Joan drones on about school uniforms, which look suspiciously like habits except they are an ugly green plaid, and how their souls would be in mortal danger if “boys” could see the girls’ knees or calves or shins or even ankles. She wants to know what mortal danger really means but doesn’t understand the correlation between that and her bony kneecaps—scarred by the rough tumble off her bike in the woods near the creepy cemetery managed by the Bible thumpers who want to save her soul but know better than to ring the doorbell and argue with her mother once more. The school bell rings, calling them back to their classrooms.
Mary-Margaret Anne, as she likes to be called, stands two feet away from her. Dirty blond with tiny pixie freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her bulbous nose. Her father is a businessman who is never in town except on Friday afternoons, when he picks up Mary-Margaret Anne from school in a white Mustang convertible. Her mother roams in a station wagon with three boys still in diapers, rolling down the window at the curb, begging Mary-Margaret Anne to get in. And Mary-Margaret Anne never hurries her pace, and finishes speaking to Ellen and Paige and Jeanette before strolling to the car and flinging her hot-pink bag into the trunk. The Moriarty parents never offer the Real Thing a ride, but drive by as she trudges past the firehouse and an abandoned wooden structure with a caved-in porch that even animals stay away from, to the city bus stop a half mile away. Monday through Friday. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, like the postman. The boy Mary-Margaret Anne is “going” with, Eric Moynihan, has ignored his girlfriend that morning but utters “excuse me” as he whizzes by on his way back to his seat, his blurry form jostling the Real Thing’s left arm. Mary-Margaret Anne’s eyes flash green in the sunlight. “What did he say?”
“Nothing,” she replies, wishing she knew kung fu just then.
Mary-Margaret Anne pirouettes on her left foot, and she looks poised to do a jeté. She has the body to be a ballerina, and unlike her own mother, the Real Thing bets Mary-Margaret Anne’s has no problems parting with the money, if only to get her daughter out of the house for a short time. “You know what I heard? I heard you and Henry have been kissing in the library during reading hour.”
Sister Joan’s head turns on her broad neck, like an owl. She stands equidistant from Mary-Margaret Anne and the Real Thing and their shadows all lie flat on the blacktop. Sister Joan’s stare through her thick spectacles is thoughtful.
Henry and his parents had moved to town from Michigan over Christmas.
He is the first Black boy at school. Well, his mother is Black but his father is white. And from where she sits, Henry is just another student. Hair neatly combed, pressed collared shirts, impeccably shiny shoes. Shiny copper pennies glistening from his penny loafers.
He never raises his hand.
He doesn’t open his mouth.
She sits next to him, in the back of the room, watches him doodle battleships and helicopters on notebook paper during class, watches him crumple up the imperfect drawings and shoot hoops into the trash can, watches the nuns hand back perfect scores on his test papers. “I don’t think so,” she says, picturing Mary-Margaret Anne’s head in a guillotine, like the one she read about in history after an unflattering description of Marie-Antoinette. “He’s never even said hello.”
Mary-Margaret Anne’s grin is all knowing, the way her lips spread thinly over her even teeth. It is the same smile that she produces when she talks loudly to Ellen and Paige and Jeanette about how she and Eric are one day going to “do it” when her mother isn’t at home; and that after she “did it” with Eric, he would have to marry her. She can only imagine what “it” is, and judging from the bewildered look in Paige’s hazel eyes, their classmate doesn’t know either.
“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me,” Mary-Margaret Anne says. “But it’s nice that you two are going together.”
Sister Joan raises her eyebrows, and through the magnification of her glasses they look like perfectly synchronized caterpillars doing aerobics.
She shakes her head. “We’re not going together.”
Mary-Margaret Anne shrugs. “It makes sense.”
It does not. “Why?” she asks, pinching her fingers together so she won’t shout at Mary-Margaret Anne in front of Sister Joan and spend another afternoon in Sister Grace’s musty headmistress office hearing about her lack of gratitude for being “taken” off the streets—although she doesn’t quite understand what streets she is being spared from, since she still has to walk a half mile every weekday to and from the city bus stop to school.
“He’s Black,” says Mary-Margaret Anne, a coo at the back of her throat.
No, actually the color of his skin is coffee with cream. Since he never smiles, it is coffee sans le sucre. “I’m not Black.”
“Sure you are,” she says. “You’re not white.”
She feels hot in her face but knows she can never cry in front of Mary-Margaret Anne, or she will never be able to come back to school again.
Sister Joan’s head turns back to a forward position, her step takes on a definite marching intonation. She simply enters the building and disappears.
“Nobody,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, enunciating the first syllable at twice the length it normally requires, “like Eric will ever ask you to go with him.”
The Real Thing pinches her palm as hard as she can and the ocean of tears at the eyelid shores recede. “Why not?”
“Because,” Mary-Margaret Anne says, suddenly touching her skin, creating a crater of shock, “this doesn’t rub off.”
Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Tin House and Rattle, among other publications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and is an alumna of The OpEd Project and VONA. Laskar is the author of two poetry chapbooks, and The Atlas of Reds and Blues is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.