My mother, Joyce, is fond of smoking with a fervency that trumps her fondness for the mathematics she was famed for in her heyday as well as that for her husband and one measly crack at progeny.
When we go out to a restaurant—something my father insists on the moment he finds himself with money over debt—our host asks ‘Smoking or non’ only because it’s a formality whose omission could earn him a demerit. The host and the entire live-long world knows where we will sit on account of her. They only need take a look at the fissures raked down her upper lip so hard they don’t look like wrinkles but like birthmarks from a Bully God. That buttery blot at the meeting place of her smoking fingers. The fried laugh she musters upon hearing something decently raunchy. Jesus Christ knows why her voice still sounds husky rather than crunched, like gravel under a Mack truck, because in down or simply boring times the woman’s been known to plow through two, three cartons a week.
There’s a legend coursing through suppers in my family that, prima gravida with yours truly, she idled down to a pack a day, an ascetic level she kept until at three weeks old I was weaned to whole fat cow’s milk with Karo syrup. For this reason, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that whenever I die, it will be with perfect awareness that I could’ve lived 15 to 20 years longer but for her nasty crutch. Though she does scowl when I wave this matter under her deadened nostrils, there are greater ways to evoke a rise out of Mathematical Joyce. When she’s on my ass about something the way she is given half a chance, I’ll point out that had she breastfed longer I might have been a more intelligent child. Might’ve had real potential to get out of this backwash delta she and my father took a shine to for no reason they’ve ever been able to articulate.
Usually, then, we share a mother-daughter laugh and let go whatever our discrepancy was because—Christ only privy, again—despite her smoking to beat a spit, her little daughter Iris is a genius. Not “I painted neat pictures young” sort of parent-labeled genius. No, I graduated at 13 just to be addled by various colleges saying why I should attend when I know well and fine the reason I should attend—to bring to their school the weird sort of prestige that goes hand-in-hand with Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not and overstuffed people in freak-tents at fairs.
Right now, though, I’m not contemplating colleges and I’m not gagging on a secondhand fog. I am sitting in the lounge of the Family Planning Clinic waiting to be called back.
Several factors would prevent nearly anyone with sense from liking this building. The first is that the workers are cloistral to a mind-numbing extreme—nouveau nuns from the order of Testing Poor People for Babies. Christ’s sakes, there’s a dollar store in town where you can get a two-pack of home tests for fifty cents; I’ve known girls to go home with ten boxes in hand just to shore up against their unpredictable futures.
Another thing that can make your skin creep as though from chiggers is that directly cock-eye of this place, so you’ll see it if you look up from the table magazines the nun-workers have arranged in a perfect stack, is Linwood’s Laundromat where the owner’s son is famed for killing himself one night. He got hopped foolish on a multiplicity of drugs, used his daddy’s key to the place and—you may not want to visualize this—stood there touching himself in front of the huge windows panes. Everyone knows this due to half the town driving by seeing him; he gleefully waved with his unemployed hand. Then he climbed up to the roof and just jumped, crown-down onto the cement which had just had oak leaves blasted off it earlier that afternoon.
Can you conceive of how hard a boy’s got to thrust himself, and from what angle, to accommodate his death when thousands of other boys all over the country jump from buildings taller than Linwood’s Laundromat to no consequence except a lasting vibration in their shins? I’ve tried to shut my eyes and see it several times. And though theorems dawned powerfully upon me while most were drawing rainbows in the empty place of their protractors, I cannot understand this suicide. Every single time I’ve been to the clinic, I’ve looked over there, then shut my eyes and tried to be quiet enough that the facts would come together and create some kind of motion picture.
I’ve been here, now, five times. For me, it’s a matter of convenience: the clinic is only 87 strides from my house.
When the girl calls my name, she stops and sighs halfway through saying, “Iris Auction.”
I give them a sample, wait for them to demystify it. The girl who normally intimates that I’m not pregnant this time tells me to hold a skinny minute if I will, there’s someone else who wants to see me and before I can swing off this table, there is little black Ingrid Hertz in front of me. Little black Ingrid Hertz asks point-blank what in land-over-hell I’m trying to pull and even though I know what she means, I ask her to tell me what she means.
“You been in here repeatedly taking these tests, and you go slack-jaw when it turns out nothing. Now you explain for me, and you do so without your smart lip, what you’re doing wanting a baby.”
When I do not answer her, thinking it’s not one stitch her business, she changes her question to: “Iris, do you know how to have a baby?”
Do I know how to have a baby.
“Iris.” Ingrid is gentle now. “You haven’t been close with any of those boys have you?” Her eyes claim she won’t believe me if I say I have. I sit there for a while looking square-on at her, allowing female-to-female transmissions to go on between ours sets of stonewalling eyes. Now, her features squirm alive. “Iris Auction, your mama would belt your ass! Do not tell me—we just naturally assumed you were coming in here ’cause nobody’d ever taught you birds-and-the-bees, and you thought maybe, well, maybe …” I can visualize her eyebulbs going POP right out of their sockets, oozing down her cheeks like runny eggs.
“Your mama has talked to you about sex?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m doing it.”
“You are thirteen.”
I explain to her that, most likely thanks to a generational flailing of hormones, which in turn is thanks to over consumption of bovine once subjected to steroids, most girls have their monthlies well before thirteen now. I ask her then why I’ve had not even a scare when I’ve made sure to be as skin-to-skin reckless as possible with them.
She now loses the equanimity she’s known for, slapping her thighs as she stands up with a snap. “Why on the good Lord’s green earth you want to go havin’ a baby you’re only thirteen you’re a baby you are –” She stands near the door of the exam room, pointing at me and not flinching from that stature. I would assume she’s picked up on the conjugation of my male pronoun, is realizing that I’ve just claimed a farm of them. I see her reasoning stripped stark in the changing contour of her eyes, the restriction followed by the shrugging by the easing off of her eyelids. I have now exaggerated too much and have lost my footing.
That rapidly, Ingrid Hertz makes a face to indicate her worries have gone the way of so much left-over salad dressing. She conjectures I feel ostracized from the girls at my grade-level, a group around here known for swelling up like knotted water-hoses, having pretty babies, getting saved, taking to cross-stitch patterns of wolves and rainbows found at Walmart. I listen to her go through this, amused and grateful to be so.
When I convince her that I’ve seen the error in feigning promiscuity, I get away from her and into the sun. Warmed up and fit for the next thing on my shoddily built itinerary, I stroll over to Linwood’s and shield my eyes to see the roof. I’m certain that Linwood himself or any one of his myriad Asian workers could look out and see what I’m doing, know that I am trying to see something that happened a while back now and did not involve me. If they indeed think that last part, they’re actually somewhat wrong. Which is not to say I had one iota to do with the boy’s goon-headed leap; but I knew him.
Sometimes now, I will find myself losing track of what his name was, reminding myself and writing down that it was Solomon if I light on it through the day, but name is incidental in the affairs I’ve worked up for he and I over time.
In my mind, Solomon Linwood didn’t blister himself on every chemical handed to him, and he certainly didn’t lose two-thirds of his brain bashed on a sidewalk. He lived and made good on the hinted-at, daredevil promise he’d given me by saying, “Hay, Iris” and waggling his sandy eyebrows, walking backward in the hall at school that was being rebuffed that day. He lived right the hell on. We started going out, eating bananas sitting on the balcony of the water tower, tossing our peels down afterward and waiting to see various rodents and water bugs make eyes at them. I sat passenger while he slung mud off the tires of his Jeep onto anybody with poor enough sense to get near him. He got me pregnant, and was I ever a sight—little peg-body Iris and then this gelatinous egg in my middle.
Sad that all of this has been pulled from beneath me and with such lingering gusto, I leave the block of Linwood’s and the family clinic. Having reached the end of what I intended to do with my day, I try to think of something else that seems likely to either titillate me, lull me into a body-and-mind dullness which will allow me to not care that I am not amused, or provide a spate of gossip for passing back and forth with Joyce.
There is nothing. There are few dull movies. There are no new road-side mascots for tax firms for me to pester. I glance backward at the ugly, ribbed, beige Family Planning Building.
I walk the 87 Iris-steps back home. Joyce sits on our front porch, which has always reminded me of a bird house. Our yard this time of year sways full with red sweet grass and purple yard flowers; when the breeze strikes it just right, the whole thing appears to be a square-shaped, pulsing spleen.
Having waded through our ankle-tall weed garden, I sit down beside her and lean away from her exhaust. Then I change my stance on smoking, entirely and suddenly, and hold my hand out, asking that she give me one. She cannot bring herself to do this, not even when I point out that I’ve already smoked the equivalent of a skybox seat stuffed full of loose cigarettes, what with neighboring her so long. She offers no response to speak of.
For a few minutes, we sit there looking at the cul-de-sac, both hoping our neighbor will materialize in her gown the likeness of a dressed-up cowbell. While this doesn’t happen, a boy and a girl staying with their grandmother who lives exactly parallel to us come out in the middle of the street’s bulb and hover over a dead raccoon. The little girl pokes it with bare fingers.
My IQ didn’t germinate out of the blue, piecing itself together from nary an anteceding material. My mother once blew the ever-living socks off of Stanford. Born here, left here, could have stayed gone as long as she cared to, throwing her intellect at the great quizzes of the world. Came back here instead. Didn’t come back married and dragging the dirt with child, now. She came back fully aware of herself and everything that she could do, every way in which her life could diverge from the front-porch-sitting, meatball-cooking, pack-a-day-smoking lives of her friends. Hell. When you’re born in one of the world’s last remaining petri dishes of rednecks, aren’t you supposed to want to get away?
I look at Joyce, who was once beautiful and has weathered herself to within inches of a greeting-card caricature, who is part of all this but not quite. She asks have I been down heckling the good-hearted sisters of the clinic. Not knowing how she knows this—I certainly haven’t told her—I say yes I have.
She comments that she hopes that stupid kid washes her hands before sticking them in her mouth. She waits a little bit then cuts her eyes toward me, saying, “You get bored, don’t you, baby?”
I wait a minute myself, so as to fence back my sarcasm because she is asking me something real, and I say, Yes ma’am, and she nods because she knows exactly what I’m saying.