Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lit Night at Sullivan's Pub

Caroline Graham, one of La Honda's talented teens, joined with me at the most recent Lit Nite to read a few passages from a novel of mine, a work-in-progress that might have the title Jesus at the Mall or perhaps Wormheads.  We'll record it as a podcast later this year.  (Copyright © 2010 by Joe Cottonwood.)
     Jaz Lee hung up the phone and saw that her mother was staring.     “Who was that?” Linda Lee asked.
     “Hoot?  He’s a bird?”
     “No.  He’s a kid.”
     "Does he go to your school?”
     “Yes.”  For some reason, Jaz felt herself blushing.
     “Is he a nice boy?”
     “He collects waterfalls.”
     Jaz knew she was turning bright red.  Trying to avoid her mother’s probing gaze, Jaz swept her eyes around the kitchen — and noticed a shiny white toaster.
     “What’s that?”
     “Oh.  I got a new toaster.”
     “You what?”
     “It was broken, Jasmine.  So I got a new one.”
     “Couldn’t we fix it?”
     “Jasmine, you don’t repair toasters.  You replace them.”
     “But we had that toaster all my life.”
     “You want it, Jasmine?  It’s in the garbage.  You can keep it in your room if it’ll make you happy.”
     “Mo-ther.  That isn’t the point.”
     “What is the point?”
     “The point is you got a new toaster.  And it’s white.  Toasters are chrome.  We’ve always had a chrome toaster.  All my entire life.  How could you?”
     Linda Lee sighed.  She folded her arms.
     Jaz recognized the expression on her mother’s face, the grim forbearance.  She’d known that look all her life.  It was reassuring, somehow.  Cozy and constant.  Like an old Christmas carol.  And Jaz was being unreasonable; she knew the toaster wasn’t the issue — and so did her mother who was asking, "What are we talking about, Jaz?  I mean, really."
     "Did somebody die?  Is it about death?"
     "Nobody died, Mom."
     "Then what are we—"
     The phone rang.
     Jaz answered.  “Hello?”
     “It’s me.  Hoot.”
     “What do you want?”  It sounded a little harsher than she intended.  But she didn’t know how to take it back.
     “Is there a Hair Nebula?”
     “God, Hoot.  I have no idea.”
     “Well, I just painted one.”
     “What are you talking about?”
     “I thought you knew about nebulae.”
     “Well I don’t know all their names.”
     “Oh.  Okay.”
     He hung up.
     Jaz stared at the phone in her hand.
     Her mother was watching.  “Who was that?”
     Linda Lee was shaking her head, smiling.  “So now boys are calling my darling daughter.”
     “No they’re not.”
     “Oh.  Excuse me.”
     “We were just talking.”
     “Right.  Absolutely.”
     Jaz watched as her mother went to the refrigerator and took out a gallon jar of pickles.  Removing the lid, she started fishing with a pair of tongs for the last kosher dill.
     Linda Lee looked up.  “What?”
     “Don’t take that pickle.”
     “Why not?”
     “It’s the last one.”
     “You want it?”
     “Then what—?”
     “If you take it, they’ll be gone.”
     “We can buy another jar.”
     “That isn’t the point.”
     “What is the point?”
     “The point is that’s the last pickle.  And if you take it, they’ll all be gone.  Forever.”
     "Okay, now I get it."  Her mother put the pickle jar back in the refrigerator.  "I understand."
     "You do?"
     “You’ve got a birthday coming up.  Fourteen."
     "You're ambivalent."
     "Ambivalent?  I don't have a choice."
     "Precisely.  Even the late bloomer has to bloom.  But I can offer one choice.  Of course I like to surprise you but I’m just wondering:  You want anything in particular?”
     “Yes.  A … ring.”
     “Any old ring?”
     “A navel ring.”
     “From the navy?”
     “Na-vel.  With an e.”
     “Jasmine?  Is a navel ring what I think it is?  Is it something you put around your belly button?”
     “Actually, I think it goes through the little fold of skin just above.”
     “Like, pierced.  You know.”
     “I’ll have to talk this one over with your father.”
     “That means no, doesn’t it?”
     “Why do you want a navel ring?”
     “Because … Mimi Bucher doesn’t have one.  She wouldn’t have one.  She’s too cute.  She’s bought.”
     “She bought what?  Who’s Mimi Bucher?”
     “She’s somebody who would never have a navel ring.  Now do you understand?”
     “I’m not sure I like this idea, Jasmine.”
     “There’s a shop that’ll pierce it but I have to get parental consent.  You sign it.  A form.”
     “I don’t know, Jasmine.  I don’t know how sanitary this is.  And more than that, I don’t know about the idea of putting rings in a place like that.  I’m not sure you understand how it might seem.  How it might look.  To boys, I mean.  You never let me talk about this, but you’re becoming a young woman.  Boys are starting to notice and we need to talk about—”
     “No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no!”
     Jaz opened her eyes, unplugged her ears, and saw that her mother was standing with arms folded, fuming.  “I understand ignorance, but I cannot tolerate willful ignorance.  Read the book.  That book.  WILL YOU PLEASE READ THE BOOK I GAVE YOU?”
     “Will you ask Dad?  About the ring?”
     “Yes.  We will definitely talk.”
     “Thanks, Mom.”
     Jaz danced a little jig step that took her right out of the kitchen and up to her room and her cat and her stuffed animals on a shelf all in a row.
     Jaz sat on the bed.  Her eyes caught sight of the book her mother had given her — Our Bodies, Ourselves — which she’d never read, which she didn’t need.  She’d learned all that stuff back in third grade, and she wouldn’t get pregnant.  Not the first time.  You can’t get pregnant the first time.  That's what she learned in third grade, and the facts don't change.  And after that first time, if you don’t want to get pregnant, all you have to do is hold your breath while you do it.  Nobody ever gets pregnant if you hold your breath.  Facts don't change.   They just don't.
     Jaz opened the Oxford Book of Christmas Carols, then set it on her chest as she lay back.  She hummed The First Noel.  She made up better words.  Softly she shared the carol with the stuffed animals she had played with, the cat she had loved, the room where she had lived all her whole entire life.


    Jaz peered in the eyepiece and adjusted the focus knob.
    “Here, Hoot, take a look.”
     They were in Jaz’s back yard.  Light streamed from windows.
     Hoot bent to the telescope.
     “See ’em?”  Jaz asked.
     “I see a bunch of stars.”
     “Those are the Pleiades.  The Seven Sisters.  Except with magnification you can see more than seven.  Can you see haloes?”
     “You mean they’re angels?”
     “The stars.  Each Pleiad.  They have haloes.  Sort of bluish white.  Can you see?”
     There was too much light in the yard.  Jaz wished they could go somewhere out in the country.  Somewhere dark.  With the stars.  Alone.  “The haloes are dust.  Reflecting starlight.  On clouds of dust.  Which are nebulae.  So you’re looking at haloes which are dust clouds which are nebulae.  Young ones.”
     “Huh,” Hoot said.
     “You know what?  The light that you’re seeing — the light that’s going into your eyeballs right now — that light left those stars years ago.  Years and years.  The light that's in your eyes might have left those stars when Jesus was alive.  And so right now Jesus is alive in your eyes.  And mine.  That is, if you care about Jesus.  Do you care about Jesus?"
     "He's all right."
     "I'm sorry I shouldn't have talked about Him.  But the light that’s starting its journey from those stars right now won’t come to our eyeballs until you’re an old man.  And I’m an old woman.  Or maybe we’ll be dead.  Maybe centuries will have passed.  But those stars will still be young.  Isn’t that awesome?”
     “Uh.  Yeah.”
     “You really think so?”
     “Yeah.  Awesome.”
     The night was cool.  Jaz could see her breath.  There was something electric in the air that had made Jaz want to call Hoot and invite him to look at stars.  She could hardly hold still.  Didn’t he feel it?  He seemed almost bored.
     Jaz tried to explain:  “It’s so big.  So … vast.  Does it make you feel insignificant?”
     “Sort of.”
     “Not me.  I love it.  I love the, the bigness of space.  It makes me feel all tingly all over.”
     “Yes.  Tingly.  Because I’m a part of it.  Whatever I do here on this planet affects what happens on the Pleiades.  Because everything’s connected.  It’s the Butterfly Effect.  Because what happens to a butterfly affects the whole—”  As Jaz was speaking she cast her hand in a wide circle around herself to indicate the whole of the universe — and struck somebody’s shirt.
     Her father.  Standing behind her.
     “Daddy!  What are you doing here?”
     “I just came out.”
     “To check on things.”

     “God, Daddy, you could give me a little warning before you go sneaking up on —”
     “I wasn’t sneaking, Jasmine.  I just walked out the back door.”
     He just walked out the back door in time to hear her say she felt tingly all over.  Tingly.  Of all times.  And the only reason he would want to check on her would be because there was a boy with her in the back yard as if — as if she were the kind of girl who would need to be checked on just because she felt tingly all over.  God.  How humiliating.
     “We were looking at the Pleiades,” Hoot said.
     “That’s nice,” Mr. Lee said.
     Her father had eyeglasses.  A big nose with hair hanging out.  Why didn’t he trim it?  Ears with more hair bursting out.  Disgusting — and it was all black.  Black body hair.  God.  What Hoot must think of her, to have such a father.
     Hoot said, “Jaz told me you were a mathematician.”
     “That’s right,” Mr. Lee said.
     “I’m trying to understand the Theory of Relativity.”
     “Good luck.”
     “Do you understand it?”
     “Pretty much.”
     “Is space really curved?”
     “In layman’s terms.”  Mr. Lee rubbed his big nose, thoughtfully.  “The question is:  Curved as compared to what?”
     “You mean a curve is relative?”
     “Everything is relative.”
     “Daddy,” Jaz interrupted, “you can go back inside now.”
     “But this young man wants to talk about relativity.”
     “No, he doesn’t.  He’s just being polite.”
     “No,” Hoot said.  “I’m really interested.”
     “Ah.”  Mr. Lee smiled.  “There.  You see?”
     Jaz saw.  Hoot would rather geek with her father than with her.  She stomped across the yard and into the house.  Behind her, she heard Hoot asking a question and knew without looking that her father was rubbing his nose back and forth with his finger, thoughtfully, smecking the big nostrils and those horrible hairs back and forth, back and forth.
     She slammed the door.
     Her mother was at the kitchen table grading papers.  “What’s wrong, Jaz?”
     “I invited Hoot to come over and look at nebulae and now Daddy’s out there talking about mathematics.”
     “Math?  Your friend must be bored to death.”
     “No.  He’s interested.”
     “Well if he’s trying to make a good impression on your father, he’s certainly on the right track.”
     “He’s not faking it.  I don’t think Hoot fakes things.”
     “He seems like a nice boy.”
     “God, Mother.”
     “What?  What did I say?”
     “You’re always saying.”
     “Saying what?”
     “Judging people.”
     “All I said was he seems like a nice boy.  Jasmine.  I talked it over with your father.  We think, the ring, not yet.”
     “Then when?”
     “Later.  When you’re older.”
     “I need it now.”
     “Nobody needs a navel ring, Jasmine.”
     Mr. Lee came in the back door rubbing his nose and said, “He seems like a nice boy.”
     Jaz made fists, clenched her jaw, swallowed a scream, and ran out to the yard.
     Hoot was gone.
     She ran to the gate.
     Hoot was walking down the street toward home.
     He turned.  “What?”
     “I’m sorry.”
     “Hey.  It was fun.  Let’s do it again.”
     Then he turned and continued walking.
     Jaz slammed the gate shut.
     Somewhere on the other side of the universe, butterflies were trembling.

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