halfway back from the Deep South, mirroring our profound sense
of location & dislocation that year, I broke out in
poison: oak, ivy and sumac, all three. By the time we were in
Georgia, staying at a turn-of-the century brick building in
the middle of some town whose name I can't recall, I'd gone
down from the brown hotel room with peeling paint, for a dusty
breath of fresh air at five in the evening: the street was
still sweltering. People swam and shimmered in the blue heat,
buildings crumpled like cardboard. The scorching street came
up to hit me in the face. I did not know this part of the
world. Fire-swallows. The fire, which was prejudice,
superstition going down the throat as perilously as the fire
which was real flame.
I was somewhere in Georgia, slapping at blackflies, standing
outside a crumby third-class hotel, just to breathe without
feeling my lungs were behind gauze. I thought I was invisible
pressed flat and lean as I was against the side of this
building. Suddenly, out of the blue, a hand reached toward me:
it held coin! I, Indigo, was actually being handed coin by
a passing stranger. Taken for a street-beggar.
Horrified, I took a deep breath and bolted. I beat it so fast
my calves were throbbing, up the three flights to our room. I
must have looked badly scarred from burns.
mother cut up her silk underpants to lay on my face. We hung a
washline from the ceiling during the heat wave that seemed to
stretch the several thousand miles from Sarasota to Manhattan.
It turned roofs into corrugated tin and cardboard. It
flattened, then bent and buckled my family, Chel and Marcelle.
It blistered, it broke red brown in the Southern states,
turned green as rich swamps in the mid-Atlantic States and
finally cooled to azure, indigo, cobalt as we neared home.
Mother said. "You're a big girl now. I'm thinking of
flying you home."
You're 9 years of age."
airlines were in their early days. None of us had ever flown
in '48. All the planes were warplanes.
in such misery, you're spreading the mizzables around."
began to talk Southern.
send you to Grandmother's, Indigo, she could take you to the
doctor up East."
don't want to go home alone ahead of you and Rachel."
me think on it overnight, Indigo," she said in her old
mother voice, lower in pitch. She pulled out a pack of Luckies
from the breast-pocket of her shirt and lit up. I waved it off,
screwing up my face. "You're looking worse by the moment,
don't scare easy."
Rach and I started sassing. We'd had a tin of beans for supper
again. Beans on the hot coil. And we'd gulped root beer out of
its glass bottles. I squinted and saw three fiery coils. The
light was endless and it was cruel. It lit up every mote of
dust in that room, every coil of the burner heating. First I
began to sin, then Chel.
Beans Beans the musical fruit
more you eat the more you toot.
beans with every meal
more you eat the better you feel.
the tomboy, I was horsing and horsing, jumping barefoot on
those beds with rotten springs. That wild body-energy that
took me over at times, turning me into a wild child, enfant
sauvage, my body-ecstasy overcame me and I sprang
like a cat from one bed to the other, mine to Rachel's right
across the room with wooden floor, that mean little poor
bastard of a room.
it, Indy!" Mother raised her voice.
more quietly, she mustered her quiet, her thunder guns:
"Here you are sick and all. You'll be the death of
the death of my childhood!" I yelled.
just think of the natural bacteria in this room!"
she looked scathingly at my bare feet, which were callused
filthy, my hands breaking out now in this thing,
this strange thing. "It's this dislocation we're
going thru, Indigo, now act your age." ("Think
of the natural bacteria"—as if there were any other
kind—was a family phrase. It could bring us to laughter or
tears.) I thought of that backbay Georgia doctor in the
antiquated office she'd taken me to that morning. He shook
his head. He was stumped. "Never seen anythin' like it,
ma'am. Your girl's got a cross between poison oak, poison
sumac, and poison ivy. She must have bin swimmin' thru the
Mother arched her eyebrows. They were still dark, not singed
by cigarette smoke like her lashes. (How did their cranky
little Southern doc, Dr. Lacoya, know I'd gone swimming through
grass the week before we left Sarasota? I did it on a dare. I
too miserable in that hot little office with the fans whirring
but not cutting the heat any.
hung my head like a dog.
must have flashed back in Mother's mind while I was jumping.
it! I'm flying you north tomorrow Morning."
thinking of the natural bacteria in this room," I slowed
the beating of my heart, jumped down off the bed onto the wood
floor where I'd driven a splinter into my right foot the night
before but not told her—my father was the one good at removing
splinters, shards of wood I drove into my running feet
thinking," I said slowly deliberately ignoring by now
three types of pain: the pain in the sole of my right foot,
the pain in my face, the mounting pains in my heart and mind.
All I could focus my soul upon was that I didn't want to fly
North in the morning without them. Nor did I want to let on I
was scared. I turned the tap on till it ran tepid, down that
rusty little runnel in the old battered soapstone sink. The
batteries in the radio were shot. It was dead silent in that
tell me, Indigo, are you thinking?"
thinking that the pain's easing some."
I crossed my toes mentally.
looked at me with that hard look of—you're my child, not my
friend, which presently softened to—I'm your mother, you're my
child. That she with all she had instilled in us of pride,
self-sufficiency, should have her child seen as beggar. She,
above all who taught me get back on your own two feet, you
know who you are—if she should learn this she would be
annihilated, or worse, would annihilate.
you won't need these," Mother folded the silk panties
she'd cut up the night before. "Nor will I ever wear them
again," she said bitterly, I remembered that bitterly. I
felt the way I did the day she walked in the door and said,
"I'm allergic to my children."
thinking I could overcome anything by not wanting to fly home
in the morning. I began lifting that bronzed knocker I
imagined existed at the door of my soul.
The sun had set. The room was bluish-white outlines in black
Rachel wriggled under the covers nude except for her cotton
underpants, and fell asleep in twenty.
read a Daphne du Maurier mystery novel and smoked in the
window's last light, blowing out smoke-rings, wearing her
man-tailored shirt whose breast pocket always held her Luckies,
the sleeves of the blue shirt rolled up below the elbow. It was
a trouser role she was playing. Instinctively, I knew that
even then. I wondered was she going to come and kiss me
goodnight. It was a long time before she rose.
asleep?" she called from the window.
know I am not," I said, beginning to smile through the
pain in my cheekbones.
she rose, came over, my heart was a trip hammer. "You're
too sore for me to kiss you goodnight, Lynn, but I—"
do anyway in your heart and mind."
it." She snapped out the lightbulb by the chain.
I was in my forties, Marcelle reminded me. "You remember
that trip down South when I cut up my underwear to soothe your
were heading back north. How could I forget?"
that's when you began to be the tough person you are today,
Indigo. Don't ever put your boxing gloves on the shelf."
noticed how pale our mother looked then. Last year, she'd got
on hands and knees and scraped down one room in the attic of
our big old colonial home we bought post war. She said,
"The more you scrape, the better things get, Lynn."
She'd told me then about Pentimento: "It means
scraping away one layer to get at another one."
though she was the death of my childhood, the death of all
vibrant fun-loving things in that split-second I cried out as
I saw another rip appear in the mattress ticking, and burst
feathers had gone flying...
that time of heightened longing and quickened senses in
Georgia, down in Dixie, slave-land, that I go in my mind when
terrible things happen. Silently lethal things occur in
merciless heat. The kind that blinds people and makes objects
lay awake till I swore it was the midnight caboose—not the ten
p.m. train slicing the night.
knew she wouldn't be flying me home alone in the morning. I
imagined by the time we crossed the New York State line my
skin would be clear and smooth as a newborn. That was the turn
of events crises always took in my life. Except for one. But
that was three years later. I would be twelve then.
radio played. The batteries had given up the ghost.
was blackout like the war.
wondered about my father.
that we had the divorce formally would the two be split like a
entire drive home I was to imagine we hauled a small casket in
the trunk of the car: it was glass, it contained my childhood.
During that momentous, yet monotonous drive when hills were
anonymous like rain, and the town which is so memorable for my
having been taken for a beggar began the sole time in my life
town forever remains without name, during that drive I grew by
leaps and bounds. Mother always at-the-wheel, in command, up
through sweltering Tennessee, up into the North Atlantic
states, it was visible in my mind's eye, every time I blinked:
yes, the death of my childhood in a casket of bright light
formally laid within.
very night when I'd been taken for a beggar and told no one -
I felt my body-panic coming on in a wave—I calmed myself
thinking of all the episodes where I was strong, Rachel less
so, and our Mother's predictions wrong.
began with Lox and sturgeon are too strong and rich for a little
kid's stomach. But Poppa brought them all the time. I'd
whittle away at the chunk left in the fridge after we were
served our dinner or breakfast helpings.
yeah? I thought: Not this kid. So I'd take an extra bit of
each when Poppa brought them over and I was four or five. Then
we graduated to plum pudding. "Because we're in this
dislocation," I told mother soberly, "I need more of
the things which are accustomed."
she'd say again, sometimes breaking down and laughing at
herself, "this is far too too rich for a child's
stomach." My ears perked. I smiled at her from one side
of my mouth. I got myself into a brief feverish sleep—my face
was blistery and burning—realizing how few times she'd lied to
us, our mother. Thinking of Mother and Father. How they were
dissolved forever as a team. Thinking of the two of them, two
black construction paper silhouettes like those we made in
first grade when I was even more lonesome, when the war was
still on. Then suddenly something shifted, maybe Rachel in her
sleep, maybe only another hotel guest coming in late in the
hall, but I wakened and couldn't get to sleep again. I dreaded
seeing the blue light of dawn. The first birdcall. But
sometimes that's the way it happened.
didn't tell her someone had thought I was a beggar. It had
never occurred to me to look in the mirror. I thought I was my
same old belle-laide dirty blonde.
pulled on my hermithood again.
was the Prisoner of Zenda, I dreamed. That's where I located
myself in my dream.
was blond Ingrid Bergman, St. Joan.
. .The shape of the black typewriter, the old Royal Underwood,
would ghostly loom: was in and out of my dreams as it was on
the long drive through our Dixie States (that were Death) up
into the North (which was life). This was the Confederacy
against the Union, but the Union after the dissolution had
welded our nation—that long, heart-rending, blistering drive
home. We were going back to the Union. Those glossy Southern
mornings, those white, cruel noons.
of those boys stopping outside Garbo's apartment in Manhattan?
Did they never, ever get a glimpse of her radiance?
as beggar one more terrifying second flashed through my mind,
then I zapped it with this transcendent power I'd developed by
age nine to mentally stop things dead in their paths.
went to sleep alongside Rachel thinking of my life as a
doorknocker, a sombre heavy one, of bronze with a woman's
face. It was with this heavy knocker that the visitor must
knock to enter the door of my house, my soul. The light was
dusty till way past twilight outside that window in a hotel
someplace in Georgia. Location, dislocation. The flies clung
to the vivid yellow, oily flypaper suspended from the ceiling,
the one lightbulb shone over the old clothing hung by the line
I hadn't read about Skid Row. Not yet. When I did I pictured
it flowing out from, beginning in that room. When Rachel
reached her hand out to mine I caught her hand, then slipped
back into bed, and noticed when I woke way past midnight so
intense was the pain in my face, observed I did, that Mother
and Rach wrapped up in their pale bedsheets as though the
sheets were water looked like two drowned persons. Once I
closed my eyes, I likely looked the same.