Bay Conjury

Faith S. Holsaert

I am Madeleine who was nicknamed Dunk.

I knew the machines, I knew the land, I knew the outbuildings and the barns and the livestock they sheltered. They were my body. He’d trained me up to be his son, his little farmer. The white envelope cut into me like the blade of a plow, working me, preparing me. We both knew the white envelope bushwhacked his plan.

Last night Isolde, with her slanting cheekbones and her Russian accent said, “No way emergency preparedness. We will be bush whacked.” She was carrying a 1940s handbook of English idioms.

Jackson with his feist dog held against his chest said, “I dated a guy whose tag was BushWhack.”

“To live or travel in the wild,” Isolde said.

One of the first photos I took was in the dusky bottom near the creek. The sun was behind me, and I was facing downhill, standing on the edge of my great long shadow laid out in the blue pooled at my feet.

I told myself when the day rolls around for another missed payment, I’ll get on a plane, leave the house, leave LaFayette, leave Indiana.

Already I hear someone else running the water in my shower.

I can learn to drink real espresso instead of Starbucks. I’m leaving where women like me stand at a kiosk wanting to get their dead husband’s name off the phone bill, but the clerk with her pierced nose says Ma’am, your husband has to sign to make the change. We widows in the supermarket with our shopping carts, which contain too many tubs of ice cream and waffles, even if the latter are multigrain. Like capes we trail behind us fifty years apiece of making doughy, fatty, meaty dinners, as we vacuum our bungalows one last time before we leave with a click of the side door. The bankers will froth like mad dogs. I’m saying, Take it. They’ll rent it again and again until cocoa puffs accumulate in my carpet, lottery tickets drift like leaves in the kitchen. We will wander like those families who lost these same houses the last time, and then the houses will be sold for back taxes or however they do it these days.

Dunk must come home to help me pack up.

My family called me Eeyore, then Donkey or Donk. Hoofed, domesticated, with a terrible bray/laugh when I wanted to cry. My father would say, “Madeleine. Madeleine,” hitting each syllable hard like he was a policeman with a baton. I was stubborn and grouchy. Going from door to door and meeting with SRO tenants and homeless families with children—I love to say, I Am An Organizer—I just tell them my name is Donk, forget the history. I do hate it that people might think of drug donkeys. And one guy casually said something about donkey and anal sex that made me laugh like I was cool, though I’m not. And some people say, Dunk.

Ramona is in the Washateria. She is sitting in a cerise corduroy jacket with deep wales, which pick up the black vertical shadows in her cheeks.

“I can’t,” she says, gesturing to the washers, which shake. I sit beside her, feeling like a corn-fed giant.

“Could you put that thing away?” She points to my camera case. My camera case is like my arm. “Just get it out of my sight,” she says. I put it in my backpack. She shrugs, “I thought… but I just can’t.”

She is small with a puff of hair. The word Afro hardly captures the ferocity of her hair, so enormous, balanced on her small head on her small neck (last night, Isolde announced the term was first used in this way in the 1960s, that Angela Davis had, perhaps, the most famous Afro of all. Isolde and her word books. When I met her, she was reading Dummies Guide to Yiddush. I’d said, Yiddush? and she’d said, You never know, which is scary to me; I like to know, even if I am wrong).

“Ramona, isn’t it?” I ask and she smiles. I turn on the I’m-listening-you-can-say-anything mode, and with her thin fingers she pulls quarters, one by one, out of her plastic change purse. We buy a one-use box of detergent. At first, she doesn’t want to buy it because the machines don’t offer the box with the smell she likes, the one she used when she lived in a house, the one she used on her children’s diapers.

Out of her black, plastic bag spills girly undies and the faded layers: camis, and tanks, and turtleneck and sweatshirt, and skinny leggings in purple and pink, from I can guess, The Clothes Closet and Thrift Town and Walgreens where I once saw her buying frozen food, so she must have a microwave.

“Not your kind of clothes,” she says, scanning my army green and boots. “Not on you, anyway.” She gives a tickly giggle. I think she’s ten, maybe fifteen years older than me.

“The hierarchy of academic oppression in grad school fed my internal oppression.” Surely she’s not as old as my schoolteacher mother? “I had scholarships.”

A baby is crying.

“I have two kids,” Ramona says.

The crying slips inside the noise of the dryers and lurks, my distress welling up into the cracks. I can’t help that baby girl I was. “Sometimes the babies cry so hard, I can’t hear anything else,” I say. “I’m sleep deprived. I know I am. It’s right here,” I rub the spot below my collar bone. “I think I need to put the camera back on.” The strap runs right across the painful place. The crying in the farmhouse. My mother. Me. In separate rooms. Never loud enough to disrupt.

“And I can’t sleep even when I’m tired,” Ramona says. I know her SRO hotel, the Gold Coast: military vets refighting their wars and sometimes taking their ptsd out on their partners, and the acrid hash of smokes. In those corridors you could miss the sob of a child.

Ramona’s clothes are in the dryer when my mother calls.

“This air train thing is so confusing.” She sounds speedy.

“Where are you?”

“Your airport.” Bouncy voice. I imagine her on the platform, her suitcase as high as her waist, the suitcase pom pom, from her and Dad’s thirtieth anniversary. I had made gagging noises when they said they’d been to the battleship or whatever it is at Pearl Harbor.

“What the hell am I going to do with her?” I ask Ramona.

“What?” She smiles down at her little cell phone and gives it an affectionate pat.

“My mother.”

“Do what with her?”

“I was fine with her never coming here. Her never touching this Sodom and Gomorrah. She thinks California made me this way.” I touch the strap of the camera case, because I remember all those humid Indiana nights when I sweated in my bed so angry I heard the brawl of calves separated from their mothers, even though there were no calves; there were no more cows. And winter rage, the crunch of frozen ground under my boots, walking out to catch the school bus where the boys laughed at me, Is it a girl or a boy?, and when my mother complained about the bullies on the bus the principal would twinkle at her, Boys will be boys.

All those potlucks, all those years teaching snotty kids, all those years I built up a pillow of flesh in each upper arm, a bosom like a sofa cushion, until my dreamy, auburn hair is flat and gray.

“I told you not to put it back on,” Ramona says, pointing to the camera case.

“The case is empty,” I say, though it isn’t. She looks at me in that way that says: I know that’s not true. My heart starts to break. I do not want to be like her. All those times I know people are not telling me the truth. They say I’m wrong. I say nothing. I know they’re not telling the truth. Sometimes it turns out they are and I am wrong.

The children are crying, and I can’t hear because I have the worst headache I have ever had in my life.

“Your mom,” Ramona says.

I know it is real crying, but I don’t know where the children are. Somebody should call the authorities. If somebody knew how much it hurt and if somebody loved me… I know the babies are crying like the whole world should be crying, but what if Ramona says, what crying?

My mother. Holy fuck.

The ache is not just my head. I can take over-the-counter things for that. When the hurt reaches my heart, I will stroke out.

My mother is in one of the pants suits, which hang in the extra bedroom closet in Indiana. The driver hands her a suitcase I have not seen. It is not new, and I wonder where else she has traveled with it. Without hesitation, she wheels toward the door.

My mother’s name is Neddie. She was called Nettie until she left home to go to college. I want to think of her as a seventeen year old in slim pants and a soft, wide necktie, choosing the boyish name, maybe a Neddie, in a circle of queer friends, but honestly she never strayed far from Nettie, named for her grandmother Antoinette, a woman my father called pretentious.

“What is your friend’s name, dear?” Mom asks.

“Ramona,” says my friend.

“Well,” she looks around, “this could be South Bend.”

“Bent it is,” contributes my friend.

“And hello to you, too, Dunk,” she says. I reach for her, the camera case an impediment.

I want badly, badly to ask has Indiana been wiped off the map by birds flying in cloud-shaped convoys? Has she reached me by dint of speculative fiction adventures? Has she emptied her bank accounts, and are they in her pockets in ducats? What did she do with the smelly old dog? Has she lost her mind, and oh god, what does she want of me?

At the end of their cycle, Ramona’s undies are collapsing in a pretty ballerina way.

“Cafe Azul,” I say.

“Shouldn’t we fold the clothes?” mom asks, but Ramona is ramming things into the black plastic bag.

At the cafe, my mother makes a beeline for the bathroom, a plywood cubicle against the back wall, but she must be buzzed in. While she is in there, my phone and I find a room for her at the Travelodge on Market.

“Oh, I want to stay with you,” she protests when I suggest she go take a nap, so we make our way down Valencia, me (camera case), my mother (suitcase: roll, roll, roll), and Ramona (slippery black plastic).

I really don’t want to walk in the door at the Collectivo with my mother. I do not want her here. I did not ask her here.

As we are rolling along, my mother says, “What’s that noise?”

“The babies,” both Ramona and I say.

“Dunk, remember the calves?”

“Sounds like pioneer days,” Ramona says, more black plastic bag shifting in her arms before she asks, “Did you know June Jordan wanted to be a cowboy? It’s in Soldier.

“Soldier what?” I ask, but we have arrived at the Collectivo. I cannot stand my mother being here with her roll, roll, roll suitcase.

Isolde is telling a man I don’t know, “The tenant’s rights movement was an outgrowth of the other American rights movements of the ’60s, such as civil rights or women…” She is a skinny cigarette smoker. Her skin and hair are the same tan as jute twine. The man is wearing red pants and a Giants sweatshirt. The man beside him, who holds a little dog to his chest, is also wearing a Giants sweatshirt.

Ramona says, “I have a blue spot.” She holds up her hand and on the heel is a small pewter lake of differently colored, pebbled skin.

“I know that signifies soul,” Isolde says.

“Don’t you ever stop?” Ramona says to her. “Like, shut the fuck up. You do not know everything.”

In the photo, I stand in a pool of dusky blue.

“I want you to come home. You can help me empty the house,” Mom says.

“I thought you just walked out,” I say.

“No. I’m quite sure I said What if I just walked out.

Blue Indiana shadows and mismatched words and words withheld until the only possibility is crying. My acceptance letter from the university came in March, mud season. Lux et Veritas read the envelope. Dad was in full prep for the spring. He had taken apart the old tractor, cleaned, and oiled the parts. As the plump envelope—filled with admissions info I was sure—fell onto the table from the bundle of farm catalogues and bills, I could hear the crackle in his cold denim, smell the machine oil, see the ashen callouses on his hand. I handed the acceptance to him.

“Asinine slogan,” he said, dropping the unexamined envelope back on the table. “Slogan for bankers and townspeople. You got chores,” he said, “the chicken coop wire needs repaired.”

I didn’t say, It needs to be replaced. A fox or one of the coyotes that now lived on our land would break in. He’d have a fit, throwing wrenches and hammers, ripping the worn and rusted fencing with his ungloved hands. Miserable, no good, he’d say and glare at me.

I picked up that envelope and opened it in our silence.

“I got in,” I said.

“Doesn’t mean you’re going,” he said and turned to wash his hands. “What’s the point? You’ll just get married.”

I said the thing I had been schooled to not say. I said, “I’m not getting married. I’m gay.”

I won a prize for that photo of me standing in the blue shadow, “Self Portrait 1.”

Was I crazy to think my grumpy, stuck little donkey could be my gateway/getaway?

It’s mid afternoon and the Collectivo has homeless people from one end to the other, and staff like me who are just a step or two away from homeless. And my mother. I do not want her here. I want her back in never-never land known as Indiana with the creek and the barns and the blue shadows, want her in that world where I once won a prize for a photograph where the most powerful thing was my shadow.

Imelda arrives with her three little kids. Every eye turns to those little ones.

“Do you not understand? This is now my home?” I say to my mother.

Imelda’s baby’s face crumples and she starts to cry.

Isolde says to the man in the red pants, “They see my cheekbones and my gray eyes and they think whore.

My mother gets tears in her eyes.

“And I need…” I say to my mother as I begin to erupt, though I need to keep it in check, need to do my job.

It is Isolde who looks at me, stripped. “Hush,” she says to my mother.

Wanda arrives. At San Francisco General the doctor said, the tongue thrusting was an irreversible side effect. Wanda and I walked out with a changed prescription. She still has the problem, but it’s not getting worse. That’s the sort of thing. If I were honest with my mother, makes me wonder what I think is so almighty effective about my work. Wanda waves and helps herself to coffee.

Beside me, my mother in her teaching pantsuit forces me back. I am not the only figure on the knoll in “Self Portrait I.” Walking up from the creek is an old woman.

I’m tired. I’ve already been to six meetings this week. The place smells of last week’s take-out food and coffee left sitting in the bottom of styrofoam cups. Why in the hell is there a mateless sock under the folding chair against the wall? Wanda’s chair screeches when she pulls it toward the table.

“I need you to tell me how you and Daddy got that land,” I say.

“Not me,” my mother says.

Isolde says, “Peasants always cling to that little bit of land.”

“They were not any peasants,” Ramona says. “Class is deep. I took this class with Angela Davis…”

“How?” I say to my mother.

“Before,” Ramona says.

Imelda’s baby, damp and swallowing her tears, is in my arms, the camera case on the tabletop. Imelda has gotten microwave popcorn from the locked cabinet and is making it for her older kids.

“What have you heard?” my mother asks.

“There was that old woman who came down the road when I was a kid.”

“Oh,” my mother says.

The pizza has arrived. “I have to sign for the pizza. And start the meeting,” I say.

“What woman did you see?” my mother asks, but I shake my head.

The man in the red pants rises to his feet, bows, and says, “Who has conjured this encounter?”

“Me.” I hold up my hand. Three more people arrive. The director brings a fan and plugs it in and then he goes away. People are taking slices of pizza, pouring themselves coffee or soda or juice.

“Time to get started,” I say.

At the table Isolde and Ramona flank my mother and me.

“When you said you were gay, I thought Daddy and I had done something wrong.”

Isolde says, “People today say queer.”

“Dunk, can’t we have a private conversation?” my mother asks.

“This is my job.” I turn away from her and call out, “Jackson?” I nod to the man with the dog and he stands.

He reads out loud: “In the event of a disaster, you must know where to find safe water.”

“What woman did you see?” my mother asks, as Jackson talks about how to decontaminate water. “What woman?”

“Daddy said she was a widow.” I rise and thank Jackson for his presentation. “Ramona?”

Ramona says, “How many of you keep food in little fridges in your room?” Isolde and Wanda raise their hands. “How many of you buy some food, say a burrito, eat some of it and wrap the rest to eat later?”

Most people nod and someone cracks, “If the vermin don’t get it first.”

“How do you decide if food is safe?” She asks for help in drawing up a safe foods list.

I ask my mother, “Who was that woman?”

Ramona is writing on a flip chart: smell, look, color, texture.

My mother says, “It was some old widow. She used to wander all over the county.”

Ramona says, “But really you can’t smell or see e-coli.”

“We’re cooked,” Jackson says and everyone laughs.

I say to Mother, “She knew right where my bedroom was. You bought it off the tax rolls.” Something else I’d been schooled never to say.

“All those farmhouses were built the same,” she says. “The bedrooms the same.”

“She used to live in our house. That’s what she told me. And I asked Daddy.”

The director and Wanda are talking about how to evacuate someone with a disability. They have three demonstrations: by yourself, with two people, using furniture.

“What earthquake?” Imelda’s six year old asks and the four year old begins to cry.

“Bet you never asked him that again, did you?” My mother asks.

“Did he beat me that night? He did, didn’t he?”

“No, that was when you drove the car into the hydrangeas.”

“Dunk?” Ramona prods. I rise and hold up complaint forms to file on SRO’s, which don’t have posted disaster plans.

Imelda says she’s afraid to sign anything.

Isolde reads a list of SROs without visible plans. The Gold Coast. The Aurora. The Union. El Capitan.

My mother says, “Do you really say, queer?” I nod. She says, “Daddy would just croak.” We look at one another and we laugh, because he already has.

Author Portrait

Faith S. Holsaert has published fiction in journals since the 1980s and has begun to also publish poetry. She co-edited Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC (University of Illinois). She received her M.F.A. from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. After many years in West Virginia, she now lives in Durham, NC with her partner, with whom she shares seven grandchildren.

View the website of Faith S. Holsaert