If Peggy and Becca turn up, a dozen kabobs are bound to rematerialize as pulpy orange puke.
Ever since I roared out of town in my dad’s company car with a walletful of pilfered twenties, nothing’s changed but the look of things. Jackson’s park is dead. Nobody ages like wine. My mother is 55 and wearing a wig; my father is bespectacled and mostly-senile. They still have lots of sex, but that means shit when it comes to happiness. They live in the Berber carpet capital of the world, where wall-to-wall carpeting is tough as nails and never shows footprints. Nobody knows this save for residents and grown children who’ve fled. From outside, it’s neighborhoods of grayish coral stucco, geranium lines, inch-long yards uniformed in hunter greenness. What we know is rendered in parked PT Cruisers, ficus tree mutts, bagged gifts for Goodwill, neighbors quieter than the dead on non-holidays. I think: Nothing so identical hasn’t been partly digested. Who chewed it up and spit it out? God couldn’t find this place on a map, and skies are too cloudy to make out His slice of moon thumbnail.
So I showed up yesterday, bearing cake shaped like an American flag, fifty stars and everything. We cut it today, reverently, after singing the National Anthem. I recognize two similarly panicked faces in a sea of hungry cake-eaters, and the three of us size one another up before congregating by the potted micro-palm trees. Peggy’s gone and cut her bangs; Becca’s fattened up, still ballsy enough to wear Spandex; I look like a lame-ass Malibu Barbie. We let seconds pass before speaking.
“God, look at you,” Peggy breathes, cake dribbling from her mouth in neat spurts. She’s wearing an A-line skirt and a black turtleneck. Frosting gleams from the black mound of her breast. “You look, you know, good.”
Becca half-nods. The way Peggy’s inhaling that cake reminds me of mornings at her house when we were ten years old and hovering over frying pans bubbling with leftover bacon grease and the remnants of fatty American breakfasts, our mouths watering for eggs over easy. Everything was easier then, when we’d sit around her kitchen table discussing the latest trends in stationary supplies. Life’s grown exponentially more complicated. We’d sooner discuss euthanasia than our old friend Jackson Spragg, whom we know is behind bars in the state penitentiary, being read religious literature by prison missionaries — Won’t you turn from your wicked ways? The Lord will save you — because we’ve put him there. When will we know we’re ready to die?
The monsters playing freeze tag, about to be impaled on my spiky yellow lawn, are Peggy’s kids, she says. The older one’s got this headful of gorgeously floppy hair and his mother’s gawky air about him; the two others are twins à la Diane Arbus’, dressed like premature pilgrims and creepy to boot. Peggy says she’s a stunt double on weekends; you know that new Lucy Liu movie, where she takes a swan dive into snow-crusted rubble, sends spear-shaped icicles flying? That’s Peggy. When introduced, her kids — this close to turning me soft — are coy and fatherless, and call me “Aunt Janet.”
But kids! Ducking in and around overfed tree trunk legs, dirt mounds of dead pets, the napping elderly. I can’t imagine them coming from Peggy — see them sprouting, instead, from suburban driveways like Venus from sea foam. Hadn’t we once exploded from our mothers’ wombs, sticky and pink with life? We’re thirty. Becca has plans to divorce her no-good, cheating husband, who’s gingerly dipping a crusty big toe into the overchlorinated pool. She sighs the way I did, getting an abortion for my eighteenth birthday — relieved and pained in one loaded gust. Our parents mostly forgave us: there was redemption in siblings, who went on to join sororities and cut up their university sweatshirts enough to fall off their shoulders. We were blameless ten-year-old casualties, thrust too soon into adulthood (sex, death, and taxes) by some horny creep-o gardener named Jackson: shaggy pervert, scum of the earth. He’d spend a lifetime behind bars, and we’d be expected to cry every time grown men smiled in our direction — the way one of Peggy’s twins, careening to the patio in one tidy smack, bursts into shrill tears and sends my Neosporin-laden mother flying to the rescue.
Jolted from our sleepy chatter, we listen as the crying climaxes, hiccups, winds down with a whimper until — bang! — my father and his high school compatriots give an impassioned shout, a call to innocuous arms. They’re shooting fireworks from that abandoned lot next door that used to be a park. Jackson’s park. Our park — sandwiched awkwardly between identical rows of beige houses, sticking out like a giant’s sore thumb, once springing like a weed from the cracks of a sidewalk that otherwise stretched for miles.
We remember: a rusted merry-go-round, stretches of thin-petaled wild flowers, an oversized magnolia tree with blossoms large enough to cup our faces, huge drooping tear-shaped leaves with veins so pronounced they must’ve carried the park’s lifeblood, and a scraggly, then forty-something Jackson Spragg who took afternoon naps in the shade and meticulously trimmed the hedges that fenced us in, keeping bursts of jungle from spilling over into the yards of strait-laced neighbors. We’ve repressed nothing. Oh, Jackson, we remember you, uniformed in khakis and grubby white shirt, spinning us on the merry-go-round as fast as you could, so fast you could hardly stand or speak, so fast the world around us merged into the richest green haze we’d ever seen. Nothing came close.
Post-pronouncement, there’s silence. We’ve discussed the weather, and my breasts. Becca picks up the slack, injecting uneasy quiet with the superficial strain of a two-decade synopsis, beginning with multi-colored braces and ending with garden variety marital woes. She’s J. Alfred Prufrock, but a pathetic fat housewife with two pathetic fat cats and no children. Her being is summed up in the compilation of mile-long grocery lists, saving up for designer sunglasses, obligatory love making. Peggy chimes in, a shitty bell strung round her children’s tender necks. Vanpooling, sitter-hiring, scaling the ranks of the PTA, the occasional freefall off multi-storied buildings. That turtleneck is as ridiculous as my tits are fake. Life is very long.
I’m having back pains. I am Picasso’s cruel rendering of scrambled Barbie doll parts, deliberate and unnatural. Who would win in a fight? I wonder. Me against Becca, it’d be flesh and titties flying; I’d be bodyslammed to a pulp. Peggy’s the fairer scuffle. Once the cruel, precariously confident girl-types, we’ve morphed from brazen to pitiful — flinging apart in Junior High, disbanding after fifth grade’s short-lived clustering as made-up victims. Imagining life at ten without Jackson Spragg has become as unfeasible as picking lint from machine-washed Old Navy performance fleece. We’d never been a trio. We’d been flying off trees, a solemn Jackson at our side, locked in make-believe universes (in which, for example, we were husky black warrior princesses with shoulder blades that doubled as nutcrackers, they were so beefy).
Here’s how it happened: One day, we grew up and out of him. There was hearing of sex. There was the five o’ clock news; there was seeing reports of murder and theft and rape, understanding and feeling nothing. We’d gone to the park and hung our heads, seeing how we were and how Jackson was and how we were — ripped from infancy by some crazy force we couldn’t help but didn’t care to stop. What are we doing today, Jackson had asked. What are we doing? And we thought we heard his stoic today morph into tomorrow and forever in our minds, and knew there’d be no more black warrior princesses with beefy arms, no more pretending at all.
When our parents found out about forty-something Jackson Spragg, we lied when they’d panicked and asked if he’d touched us anywhere. We didn’t know why, but we lied in the courtroom’s fluorescent glare, where we’d sworn to tell the truth, but feigned innocence instead. Had Jackson touched us? Jackson, who’d never laid a finger, and probably didn’t stop to think that little girls didn’t have little penises, too? Yes! We said, one-by-one, eyes opened and knowing. He’d touched us! Jackson touched us, though he’d been Rip Van Winkle, napping through life in grassy, shady spots. We woke him up with our fraudulent YES! We jerked Jackson from sleep. We wondered, how did he wake, seeing himself alone and suddenly grown?
Last Saturday, Becca nearly died. At three p.m., alone in a corner convenience store parking lot, she’d backed up with windows down to be halted by a teenager, armed and pimply. He’d held a gun to her head and told her to freeze; “Your money,” his voice quaked, as she dumped her purse contents out her window and onto the pavement, sending receipts, metallic credit cards, bills, and dinner mints spiraling to the floor in a panicked, girlish whirlwind — loose change rolling, unfolding on the asphalt like a flower in bloom. Becca stifled sobs, so sure he’d shoot her for klutziness. “Aw, lady, don’t cry,” he said instead, pocketing his gun and stooping to restuff her purse. Passers-by, trickling past while seeking Slurpees, would see a boy and — was it his mother? — on hands and knees in the hot afternoon, sun beating mercilessly. It was beautiful and kind of sacred, maybe, the way the light bounced sublimely off their spines and off backs of nickels. Becca threw in an extra fifty — so happy to be breathing, so grateful to her sorry pardoner.
Daydreams of busting Jackson from jail have grown increasingly sophisticated with time. We’ve dreamt of swooping from the sky in the arms of fantastic six-winged seraphs, plowing tractors through prison walls, baking grenades into Bundt cakes, delivering him from evil. We haven’t mustered so much as a visit. In high school, while Becca dated some poor kid named Jack with perpetual bedroom eyes and big Dumbo ears, I baked Jackson’s escapes into being. Becca drove Jack crazy, coughing out jack!, hushed like it was some dirty word meant to slip out from under her breath; I spent eighteen hours, one Sunday, baking enough to fill the kitchen, floor to ceiling — a twelve-tiered kitchen of pineapple upside-down cakes on countertops, carrot cakes, angel food cakes, frosted pastel-tinged sugar cookies, blueberry muffins, chocolate cupcakes, gingerbread husbands and wives, brownies with nuts, brownies with no nuts, pumpkin bread, key lime pies stacked high. When I’d thrown open the shutters, the bakery stink flooded the streets and refused to leave for a week. By Monday, I’d lined the sidewalk with lumpy garbage bags of baked goods, rendered inedible by bobby pins and keys in all shapes I’d dumped into batter. My mother caught Peggy, crouched outside my door, face in her palms and crying her eyes out.
The floppy-haired kid gives his mom’s jeans a stiff tug, wraps his arms around a leg, stuck to shin and kneecap like a blond barnacle. “Momma,” he whines, drawing vowels out. Then, “Momm-ah!” scoldingly. I mean, it’s pretty cute, in this bratty sort of way. Peggy’s dead tired from remembering so she gives her leg a shake. The barnacle doesn’t budge, unsympathetic because he hasn’t lived long enough to feel the weight of years pushing down, or the permanent throb of guilt unconfessed and left to fester in your ribcage. But he’s a fighter, this kid. He probably knows the difference between real Fruit Loops and rainbow O’s you find bagged on the bottom shelf, and drives his mother crazy with knowing because what the hell, Peggy thinks, it’s all just cereal.
“Momma, can we go home?”
Peggy sighs, thinking of home. Insurmountable messes, stains on carpet, goldfish decomposing in fishbowls she’d been too distressed to flush. When stunt demands lag, there are too many ways to stay locked away for weeks and be driven crazy. Coming home from the cleaners, she hopes she’ll find her neighborhood flooded beyond repair, her house crushed by an angry God who’s angry for her sake. It’s her fantasy, anyway. Though shalt not torment thy world-weary mother. Hunks of stucco, rain spears flying down from heaven, her children miraculously saved by makeshift wall plank rafts and so frightened that they can no longer speak.
“You don’t want to stay for the fireworks, Danny?”
Danny wants to go home. The twins want to be lifted, one in each arm. They twirl in their dresses, playing up their identical cuteness for a shot at double victory. “We wanna see ’em, Momma,” one of them says sweetly.
“Annie, what should we do then, honey? Your brother wants to go home.”
“But we wanna stay for Grampa Ray’s fireworks.”
“Aw, shut up,” Danny says.
“Danny! Apologize to your sister, RIGHT NOW.”
“Why should I?”
My mother’s been watching, arms folded to the side. “Danny, you should apologize,” she butts in. “Because what you said was wrong.”
“God, shut up, Mom,” I fly in.
It’s an accident, I swear. But you’d think it was a gang fight, the way guests encircle, jaws clenched with worry and bemusement. Mothers gather round, assaulted; others seethe on their behalf. There’d be chanting if this weren’t an Independence Day barbecue (broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight), and kids weren’t watching open-mouthed and horrified (o’er the ramparts they watched, were so gallantly streaming).
I’d planned to leave it at that, but the next ten minutes blur by like this: me muttering, don’t tell Peggy how to raise her kids!; my mother screeching, Why not? Peggy could use the help. Just look at her!; Peggy howling to defend her parental aptitude, going on about her paycheck, her physical well-being, her unmatched devotion. She asks why she should take advice from my mother, anyway, because look how I turned out. I say nothing, though I know it isn’t my mother’s fault. Her blood boils against us both; guests gleam with curiosity; Becca asks if we can’t just forget about this all. It resumes: spit flying, hearts thumping, till NO! my mother yelps, with gusto. Rage fades into pity. We can’t ‘just forget about this.’ She sighs, steps back. You can’t forget him at all.
“Forget who?” We hear an onlooker ask, probably a new neighbor.
“Jackson,” someone says inadvertently loud, then whispers, “Jackson Spragg.”
For a few seconds, it’s left to hang grotesquely in the silence like a loose tooth. But then it sort of sticks to us and sizzles and fades, and it’s the three of us again, heads bowed. Were we ever fooling anyone, wearing our guilt like raw stigmata? It’s in the way Peggy sleeps curled up on a queen sized bed, the way Becca wept on my porch fifteen years ago, the way I do my hair.
“Jackson,” Becca sighs. “Has anyone heard from him?”
In our heads, we run through our years of escape plans and fantasies of Biblical earthquakes flinging prison doors wide open, to let him out to tend to another plot of land and grow another knotty oddball tree and sleep like Rip Van Winkle, beard flowing longer than life. Forget about us. We have to say, “No.” For Danny and the twins, the fray’s light years behind them. They’ve gone and balled themselves beneath my father’s unattended grill, whispering in tones foreignly childish. Coal’s burning above their heads, sending smoke to heaven like some burnt offering. It’s too precious to be for real, but there they are, escaped like Isaac. We’re tiptoeing round the barbecue, scared they’ll shatter, when over our heads there’s the boom and burst of a first firework. It’s pretty pathetic, the way it hits and kind of whimpers, trickling down like shiny silly string for the sky.
Tomorrow, we’re visiting Jackson. We’ll bring cakes.
There’s this feeling, in all of our guts, that he’s already been delivered.