First Four Chapters
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Judge for Yourself
Like most families, mine has two
sides: my mother’s, the Taylors, and my father’s, the Greens. I understand that
two sides are all you get. That’s too bad. It would be great to have a third,
sensible, side to the family. Taylors tend to go to extremes. Greens tend to go
to extremes. People should marry opposites, but a Taylor married a Green, and
Yvonne Juliet Green came into the world. I like my nickname, Vonnie, and I even
like Yvonne. I’m the only one with either name in my school. When other kids
say, “Vonnie this…” or teachers say, “Yvonne that…” everybody knows who they
are talking about (or they think they know). What they do not know are the
extremes you grow up with when you are both a Taylor and a Green.
Now what are these extremes about? The
two subjects would seem different, if they both weren’t so equally extreme.
The Taylors get really excited about religion and, in the case of my mother,
spiritual development. My dad, Dave Green, is totally devoted to cheese. No,
not chess, the strategy game, but cheese, that congealed milk you eat. On the
Taylor side, my aunt and my uncle argue. On the Green side, my dad and I argue.
The war between my aunt and uncle
began long before I was even an idea, even before my mother could talk, when
Sarah and Quentin were kids. It’s amazing how a grownup brother and sister can
argue, as if they were still little children fighting over a toy. The subject
changes, but not the fight.
“Nothing is more precious than
eternal life…,” my Aunt Sarah starts.
“…and what you get instead is an
endless cycle of suffering on this earth,” my Uncle Quentin interrupts.
“Jesus will forgive you,” Sarah
says, totally sure of herself.
“…and mislead you,” Quentin adds,
totally sure of himself.
This is how they typically talk. I
don’t know much about religion, but when you get a Buddhist arguing with a Christian,
and they’re brother and sister, nobody wins, nobody even scores points. My
mother is their baby sister. She’s the one who usually got the toy the other
two were arguing about. Mom doesn’t identify with a set religion like Quentin
or Sarah. She’s all tarot cards and crystals. “The path of the spirit shows
itself differently in each of us,” she likes to say, “but the destination is
always the same.” She makes me want to sink into the floor when she says this.
It comes out so automatically. So predictably, like most of her remarks. I am
never sure she is actually real. Other people, adults, have to notice. Take my
mother together with her brother and her sister and…oh, I want to run, if only
we didn’t share DNA.
Sarah announced she was born again
only recently, but Quentin has been developing his Buddhist interests for a
long time. I should have known when he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner a few
years ago with the words Buddha Mind tattooed onto his arm. I didn’t make the
connection then. I thought it was simply another cool tattoo. Sarah glared at
the thing, but at the time, I thought it was just because it was a
tattoo. Sarah has always been fastidious and proper about anything relating to
grooming and appearance. You don’t see her with a tattoo, or even a hair out of
place. Quentin dresses in a more relaxed way, but if you look at him carefully
you’ll also see the tension.
I wouldn’t mind if Sarah and
Quentin argued until the heavens opened and some celestial force decided who was
right, if it weren’t for my little cousins. Ashleigh is Sarah’s daughter, and
Janine is Quentin’s. They’re both seven, born just a few weeks apart. They see
each other less and less because of the debate between their parents. When they
do see each other, Ashleigh and Janine never argue. Ashleigh has the more
forceful personality. Janine is more thoughtful. Ashleigh collects stuffed
rabbits. Janine collects stuffed bears. All they really want is to spend time
together, and give the rabbits a chance to talk with the bears. Of course, I
don’t ruin it for them by telling them that rabbits and bears speak different
languages. I do think it is possible for their parents to start speaking the
same language, if they try. Problem is, they’ve got to want to. They obviously
don’t want to.
My mom tells me, “The universe will
resolve all this,” but I disagree. Ashleigh and Janine grew up so close, and
it’s a shame to keep them apart. If Mom doesn’t want to do something about it,
I think I will. Her “universe” doesn’t give me any sense of confidence. I’ve
always had the idea that she thought I would go along with her way of thinking
because, like her, I'm the younger sister. My older sister Rev, who is already twenty-two,
only cares about motorcycles, specifically Harleys. She never paid attention to
Mom or anyone else, always went her own way. Like Rev—if you have to know—I
have a brain, and I think for myself. If I listen to anyone, it’s actually Rev.
My mother is hard to listen to
because there’s no arguing with her. This doesn’t mean she insists she’s right,
just that she remains totally calm, she never sees a problem in the first
place, and you get nowhere. I can turn red in frustration, but she never notices.
It’s always stay calm, and trust in the universe. I understand that,
technically, I live in the universe, but I can relate better to the earth I can
see and touch. The earth is filled with people, animals, trees, and rocks. The
universe is filled with stars, planets, and weird space-aliens. I sometimes
think my mother is actually one of those space-aliens, but that would make me
at least half space-alien.
I say “at least” half because I
also have doubts about my father, the other extreme side of the family. There’s
no arguing with Dad either. He has the same calm never-a-problem attitude. The
topic of discussion is different, of course. My dad and I tend to make a theme
out of Dad’s religion: cheese. Most of our talk isn’t totally serious, except
the part where I worry about his health, because he eats way too much fattening
food, especially cheese. Everything I say to him about all that cheese bounces right
off. What I really want to do is develop some kind of magnet effect, so that
whenever he starts to stuff his face he’ll realize I’m watching.
If I really am a
full-blooded space-alien, maybe neither Vonnie nor Yvonne are appropriate names
for me. I should be called Fnorg or Snorglefleep or something
like that. I’m kidding, of course, but like certain space-aliens on TV or in
the movies, I keep looking for some kind of l-o-g-i-c-a-l way to solve every
family problem, something I can do. Action excites me. Without action, I
wouldn’t have all those trophies on my bookshelves. I may not be able to reduce
the unpleasantness between my aunt and my uncle (yet), or prevent my mother
from driving me batty with her slogans and her chanting, but sooner or later I
will win the battle against cheese! As it is, my dad mixes in, sprinkles on, or
melts cheese on top of virtually everything he cooks or eats. There has to be
We’re out of the house, thankfully,
away from all that cheese. We’re out together, just the two of us, at a Chinese
restaurant to celebrate my passing my driver’s license test. The waiter brings
me my Happy Family and Dad his General Tso’s Chicken.
“Can I have some grated Parmesan on
that?” he asks the waiter.
“Great what?” the waiter replies.
“Sprinkle some cheese on it,” my
Dad says, looking at me sideways.
“This Chinese and we no got
cheese.” The waiter looks at us intently a second, a long second, with a look
that tells us we’re whatever the Chinese term for “insane” is.
“Okay,” Dad says, cracking a smile,
and then looking straight in my eyes, “Maybe next time.” He’s only asked for
the cheese for my benefit, to provoke me, the way he used to tickle me when I
Dad’s side of the family likes
making rhymes, so I invent one. “Cheese?” I say. “Please, please, not at
We get back to our kitchen, and Dad
is into the cheese once again. “You know it’s just a habit,” I tell him. “You
can’t possibly really taste that cheese if it’s everywhere and in everything.”
“How can I not taste it, if
I’m eating it?” he answers, scrunching his nose at me.
“It all goes down like a lot of
glop. You only think you taste it. You swallow it too quickly to taste.”
“I’m a fast taster. Got a lot of
“All that cheese isn’t good for
your heart,” I say, trying another argument. Dad could lose a few pounds,
actually, more than a few.
“I had a normal cardiogram last
time,” he says, making me worry instantly. He keeps repeating the cardiogram fact
as if it’s the health equivalent of a get out of jail free card from Monopoly.
And now he’s mixing cheese in, sprinkling it on, getting ready to melt cheese
on top of more cheese, only to dip it all into further cheese. As I said, both
sides of my family are extreme.
I have a nightmare again and again.
Dad is there, whole, one minute, and then he slowly melts like, well I don’t
want to keep saying that word. He ends up a big puddle on the kitchen
floor, my anti-cheese magnet fails to work, and then the story is over.
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The story of cheese, for me, might
as well be over. When I was eight, half my present age, I swore off cheese for
life. That means, by the way, giving up pizza, which I admit is sometimes
inconvenient when I’m with other people, especially with Ashleigh and Janine,
who seem to live on the stuff.
Cheese-less-ness is a super
concept. Lactose is the milk sugar in cheese. Every third kid in my school
seems to be intolerant to lactose, or gluten, or something difficult to avoid
in everyday food. I’ve never been tested, but just the thought of absorbing
lactose into my body gives me stomach pains. And then there’s casein, the major
protein in cheese. It can be used to produce glue, paint, and even explosives,
and we’re supposed to eat it? When you get past those two villains, you get
oodles of fat. The only good thing in cheese is the calcium, which I read you
can just as easily get from nuts and green vegetables.
The big change for me occurred
after the now famous cheese incident. Dad prepared a humongous pot of macaroni
and cheese, cheese, more cheese, and—you guessed it—additional cheese. My best
friend Kimberley was with us. We’ve known each other since daycare. I call Kimberley
“Ber” for her middle syllable because we had so many Kims in what she used to call
“I made this extra cheesy,” my
father declared. For Dad, quantity beats quality every time. “Eat up, kids.” Kimberley,
who even at eight was always on a diet, spooned out a small portion for herself.
Without giving me a choice, my dad slopped a big serving of mac and cheese onto
my plate. The heap in front of me looked enormous. I desperately wanted a
simple bowl of cereal or a crisp apple. Our toy poodle, Muffin, looked up at me
expecting her own portion. If only she could have helped me just then.
“I just can’t eat this. It’s too…”
“One bite at a time,” Dad urged as
he filled his own plate to the edges and did the same for my older sister Rev.
In it went, the first bit of glop
sliding down my throat. The second spoonful was also successful, but there my
“I can’t,” I gagged. I looked over
at Rev, and she had nearly cleaned her plate. Rev has always been able to eat …
and never show it.
“Take a break,” my dad said, putting
the serving spoon aside.
“Enjoy the whole experience,” my
mom suggested. “Go with the flow.” That’s my mom.
“I can’t,” I choked. “I think I’m
gonna vomit!” I lost speech. I lost breath. I was about to lose a big heap of
macaroni and cheese. Kimberley could tell.
“Go ahead, Vonnie” she said,
obviously thinking that this was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. “Go ahead
and vomit, Vonnie.”
“Arrgh,” I growled. “Nooooo,” I
added, with difficulty.
“Go ahead and vomit, Vonnie. Go
ahead … vomit …, Vonnie.”
The two “V” words linked together
began to echo in my stuffed head: “Vomit, Vonnie; Vomit, Vonnie; Vomit, Vonnie.”
I felt that slithery, slimy, snaky cheese working its way through my throat. I
was ready to feel it spurt out my ears and drip down the sides of my face. I took
a few breaths. I got to a point where I was simply miserable but knew I
Kimberley started calling me Vomit
“And how is Vomit Vonnie?” she asked
once, imitating the school nurse. “I hear they’re having mac and cheese in the
I’m not shy about telling Kimberley
to buzz off, because you can do that with friends.
“I’m really looking forward to
that cheese,” Kimberley continued, with a combination of evil teasing and
good-natured buddy-ness. “And how about you, Vomit Vonnie?”
What I said in reply I can’t
repeat, but it involves certain activities eight-year-olds are not supposed to
“Yum. Yuk. Yum. Yuk,” she went on,
over and over, stressing the mmm in the yums, and making the yuks as
throaty as she could.
Yes, Vomit Vonnie is a clumsy kind
of name, so she had to shorten it sooner or later. Don’t think she would
shorten it back to plain and simple Vonnie. Kimberley doesn’t operate that way.
She went in the other direction and began just to call me Vomit. And just like
real vomit, the name stuck.
When someone calls you Vomit with
the deep affection Kimberley does, you get used to it very quickly. Now, if she
called me anything but Vomit I would become extremely concerned. I’m particularly
thankful the mac and cheese accident happened at the beginning of the digestive
process instead of further along. Who knows where Kimberley might have taken that?
Even without the sound-alike words, she would have thought of something gross.
I know Kimberley isn’t the easiest
best friend to have around. There is never a time when she doesn’t have an
opinion, and a strong one. “Your aunt and uncle are really weird!” is a typical
statement, but I already know that. Tell me what to do about it, Ber,
tell me what to do (while my mother runs around the problem as if it will solve
itself if we simply wait)! I appreciate all the fashion advice, the help with
hair and makeup, even your opinion about them (boys), but tell me what
to do about Ashleigh and Janine. You owe me something in exchange for giving me
such a sticky nickname.
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As dynamic as we are as a duet, Ber
and I form a trio on our walk to and from school with “Bert,” which stands for
Norbert, who officially is not my boyfriend. Norbert is an information
junkie, always testing us, often with a word of the day, or an obscure
historical or scientific fact. I know Bert sounds a lot like the Ber I use for
Kimberley, but I pronounce my t’s very distinctly. Norbert isn’t going to college
when he graduates. He’s going to Princeton, where he’s going to teach
philosophy, have a family, a golden retriever, and drink scotch. I pay
attention to my academic requirements and I keep my grades pretty high. I’m practical
and don’t go to the trouble of attending school to waste my time, but I’m not really
interested in all the words, and dates and places that motivate Norbert. I kind
of trust school. What I mean by that is that I have faith that later in life I
will use the material I learn, maybe in some unexpected ways, so I do what I
have to do. Other kids just complain.
In the middle of second grade,
Norbert’s family, the Hochmeyers, moved here—here is Albuquerque, New Mexico—from
York, Pennsylvania. We’ve known each other ever since. What amazes me about
Norbert is the amount of talk he can get out while still eating his lunch no
slower than anyone else. Norbert-talk is often interesting, but there’s just so
much of it that you need a break from it every once in a while. I can’t really
complain about Norbert’s words of the day of course—propitious, replete,
abrogate, ensconce, plethora, ephemeral, and so many more—since they’re all
going to be on some college entrance test sooner or later. As to the rest of
the verbiage (a typical word of the day itself), I just want a little less.
Kimberley is a cheerleader, which
often puts us on the same field since I’m on the track team. That’s where the
trophies come from. The eight hundred meters, middle distance, is my specialty.
I might as well not be modest. I’m the fastest girl in Paseo del Sol High
School (which makes me a Paseo del Sol Panther), and usually among the fastest five
in all Albuquerque (now and then numero uno). I’m thin, and Kimberley
isn’t. She dresses around it.
Kimberley always seems to be in the
process of making or breaking what she calls a connection with some boy. “I
didn’t trust him at first, Vomit,” is the typical way her brain revolves around
a boy issue. “Next, I decided to trust him.” Of course, it’s never so simple.
“Then he kissed me…twice, and then I kissed him…then I trusted him but I didn’t
trust myself…I speak the truth.”
“And where are you now?”
“I speak the truth,” is her basic
reply. She says this a lot. “What do you think of him, Vomit? You think he’s.…”
“I think he’s major yuk, Ber.”
“You think all boys are yuk. Sooner
or later you’re gonna decide one of them is just a little less yuk than the
others. I speak the truth.”
I don’t think all boys are yuk. I
just haven’t gotten to the yum stage with any of them. Occasionally a boy asks
me out. Occasionally I accept, and yet I’m definitely taking my time in that
department, and everyone knows it. I’ve been kissed, twice, but I have not
kissed back. Besides, I forgot to tell you, Norbert is about as cute as they
come, what with those piercing hazel eyes and that wavy blond hair. He’s tall
and fairly well built, with nice muscle definition for a guy who’s on the chess
team. You don’t notice all those features while he’s talking so quickly he has
to catch his breath in the middle of a word. Sometimes he goes silent and
becomes thoughtful, and you do begin to notice. Whether he notices you, whether
he sees even an inch inside you, is another question. We do spend a lot of time
together, hanging out you could call it, but Norbert has never actually asked
me out on a date—a movie, a hamburger or anything like that. I would say yes if
Norbert’s need to educate other
people, me especially, is annoying but sometimes also handy. If I understand
the argument between Quentin and Sarah the little that I do, it’s because
Norbert looks up both Buddhism and Evangelical Christianity on the Internet and
then writes up a whole paper on the subject, complete with footnotes, not for
class, but just for me. We go over the material carefully.
“We now know more about it than
either your aunt or your uncle,” he boasts.
“Maybe that doesn’t help,” I say.
“Right, because it doesn’t bring
any understanding to the reason they’ve been fighting since they were kids.”
“Yeah, before all this came up. Rev
and I never did that.”
“There’s no way I can look that
“It wouldn’t matter much, if only
Ashleigh and Janine weren’t caught in the middle. Still, I want to do
something about this.”
“I’ll have to…um…work on that. Hey,
I’ve got an idea…,” but Norbert goes silent here. He’s great at research, but
the word action doesn’t seem to be in his dictionary. He’s also an only child
of only children, so he has no experience of brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles
and aunts. The Hochmeyers are secular humanists, and they’re one tight family
Norbert and I have lunch together
every day at school. Kimberley coincides (Norbert’s term) about once every
three lunches. We usually plan this in advance on the Internet chat sessions we
have every Sunday evening. She has other friends for those other days, and this
is good. I’m not going to make believe I’ve never heard of the celebrities and
rock bands they talk about. I’ll let Norbert make believe he’s never
heard of them, but of course we both know them. That doesn’t give me the talent
to keep up a stream of talk like Kimberley. She needs to let that loose and
those other girls let her do it.
When Kimberley, Norbert and I have
lunch together or walk home from school together, the two of them do
most of the talking, but all three of us communicate. Without me as the middle
of the triangle, they don’t have much to do with each other. Kimberley, as
history shows, is never shy about giving someone a nickname, but she calls
Norbert just plain Norbert. You would think he’d become “Norbitude,” “Norbislurt”
or something Kimberley-clever like that. She steps back from calling him Bert
because I do that. He calls her Kimberley and he calls me—now don’t be
shocked—Vonnie. If Norbert created some special nickname for me, some weird
reference from the books he reads, I’d take it. I’d even let him borrow Vomit
from Kimberley. Once I thought he nearly did call me Vomit, but he was afraid
of Kimberley’s reaction and ended up with something like “Vo…on…nie.” Heck, he
could call me “Vinnie” if he wanted to, as long as it was special between the
two of us.
The two Ber-people sometimes go
hiking with me in the Sandia mountains that overlook Albuquerque to the east.
Most of the time I go on my own, since it’s good cross-training for track. A
lot of people in the rest of the country don’t know the kind of elevation we
have here. We’re not just desert, we’re high desert. Downtown Albuquerque
is about five thousand feet above sea level, and our neighborhood is just about
six thousand feet up. The trail begins a few hundred feet above that. I usually
hike to about nine thousand feet, but I can go farther to the upper crest beyond
ten thousand feet.
When I bring one or both of the Ber-people
along, we pack lunches. Without fail, they munch on cheese. (This is
understandable because it seems this entire country, the United States of
Cheesemerica, is hooked on cheese for every meal and snack.) They tease…with
cheese, and I let them, because I love them both. I get back at them by
out-hiking them, at least for five or ten minutes, until they pant and sweat,
and moan and whine about blisters. I usually order them to hush. The mountain
doesn’t like a lot of human noise. Down below, I’m forced to listen to every thought
that goes through either of their heads. Up here, I am the boss, and what I say
goes. When I need something to listen to, I turn to the mountain itself.
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My mom’s name is Marjorie. My Dad
and most people call her Marge. I call her Margarine because, as I told you
already, I’m never sure if she’s actually real. Norbert with all his logic (I
can’t stand his logic sometimes) points out that if Mom were real she
would be not margarine but butter. How could I relate to that, since I’m dairy-free?
I could have made her into Diet Coke instead of The Real Thing, but that
doesn’t sound like Marge, so Margarine will have to do. Margarine is what
people call New Age. That description is vague and can mean many things, which
seems about right, seeing that Mom switches from one interest to the other the
same way Kimberley switches eye shadows. Astrology, crystals, incense, auras,
past lives, tarot cards—as long as it fits in that general category, she’s for
it. Margarine is actually New Age on a professional basis, since she owns and
runs the High Desert Crystal and Gift shop right in Nob Hill near the
University of New Mexico campus. “I was born,” she often tells me, “in the
sixties. I am a child of light.” I point out that she was a teenager in the
eighties, which, I read, was the most materialistic of recent decades.
Maybe she absorbed something then, because the shop does turn a good profit.
Dad’s an accountant, and he approves. Margarine in fact has a graduate degree
in business, and once worked as an accountant—my parents joke that they met and
first dated over a complex accounting spreadsheet—but crystals and tarot cards
motivate her now.
Mom had my older sister Rev pretty
early, “while that spreadsheet was still on the screen,” as Dad likes to say. I
followed a solid six years later. Sarah and Quentin, even though they’re older
than Margarine, waited, waited, and waited until it was nearly physically
impossible to have kids and until, as Dad puts it, “they were plumb out of
energy to run after them.” Dad gets folksy sometimes. Because Sarah and Quentin
took their sweet time about having kids, Ashleigh and Janine, our first
cousins, are both just seven. The girls really love each other, but religion
comes in the way now.
The Greens, Dad’s family, are
Methodist and Presbyterian, with a few other Protestant ingredients, depending
on the relative you ask. Church isn’t a big word in the Green family. Everybody
does what they want in that department, nobody gets criticized, and the word
God is spoken mostly before bless you when someone sneezes and before damn it
when somebody finds a ding in a car door. My grandparents on Dad’s side died
while I was still officially eating cheese, but I do remember them as being open
and accepting, both of them. They were active in a Protestant church, but if
they involved Rev or me, it was usually to bring us to a social event like a
church picnic or a bake sale.
On the other hand, my Grandpa
Dwight Taylor, Margarine’s father, has a thing about religion. He never calls
himself an atheist, but his cynicism about religion is total. It all has to do
with the strict Baptist home of his youth. They didn’t keep alcohol in the
house, or enjoy movies on weekends. During the Great Depression of the 1930s,
they were dirt poor but accepted no relief from the government. The Bible
answered every question. Grandpa tells me that when he discovered other books,
in school or in the public library, he could hardly believe they existed.
Grandpa kept on reading, often in
secret. He went to college and became a soil chemist. I’ve heard the story over
and over, how working with what he calls the real earth changed his point of
view. “Like water that seeps into the ground,” he tells us, “the light started
to come into my brain, little by little, until I did not believe.” I’ve heard
him say more than once that his parents, my great-grandparents, “stole my youth
with their religious darkness.” Grandpa isn’t angry about everything. He’s
pretty open on political questions and social issues, for example, but when the
subject comes to religion, he’s about as inflexible as the family he left
behind. Grandpa is originally from Missouri, but when his work early in his
career took him to New Mexico he never returned.
Grandpa raised Quentin, Sarah and
Margarine to consider religion a social and emotional illness. When I was small,
I’d hear them talking. If the subject of religion came up, Grandpa would
completely crush it with a one-word statement (that I usually had to look up)
such as “Corrupt!” “Neurotic!” or “Irrational!” The tone said it all: “If you
contradict me, you will be speaking nonsense, from ignorance. I will lose what
little respect for you I still may have.”
Grandpa’s steamrolling had its
limits, of course. Tell a kid black and he will do white. Tell a kid not
to get a piercing and…well you get the idea. Grandpa himself rebelled, and two
out of three of his kids turned around and rebelled right back. If only all of
them could settle on some position somewhere in the middle.
Back last autumn, we all gathered
at our house (the family’s largest) for Grandpa’s seventy-fifth birthday.
“Happy birthday to you,” we start
to sing, as Grandma brings in a cake. Our Grandma, Vivien Taylor, is a great
baker. Her family, the Hansons, ran a bakery you can sometimes see in those
black and white photographs of the old Albuquerque. All that is gone now, but
we still benefit from the expertise. Ashleigh and Janine have helped her with
the cake, and they’re now pretty excited about it.
“Sentiment!” Grandpa bellows. “This
country is stuffed with it.”
“Happy birthday to you.”
“Insane! Age is just a number!”
Grandpa says loudly enough to halt the singing. The girls giggle a moment and
then fall into an uncomfortable silence.
“Oh, and now is your number
unlisted, Dwight?” Dad jokes.
“You’re only beginning the
journey,” Mom adds. “Life is just the first step in it.”
“Happy birthday dear Grandpa,” we
sing quickly, and then the song dies out before we get to the final “Happy
birthday to you.”
“All right, Dwight. Make a wish,”
Grandma orders. Grandpa is completely bothered, thinks a moment, then pulls me
over so I lean on his knee.
“You make the wish, Vonnie,” he
tells me quite sweetly, “and then blow out the candles.” There are only two, in
the shape of a seven and a five. I close my eyes and wish for everyone to get
along. I get the opposite while the smoke from the candles is still swirling
through the air.
“I have an announcement, everyone,”
Sarah says. The tone of her voice rises as if the statement is a question. Sarah
is a school psychologist. Her voice is usually not so tentative. Dad, who has
already had a lot of beer, makes a point of clinking a spoon on his glass to
make the table hush.
“I have an announcement,” Sarah
repeats. She now sounds as if she expects everyone to shut up and listen. “I
have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” Sarah fingers her
pearls with such tension, I’m afraid they will break off. She is always
“Oh, Christ!” Grandpa bellows, turning
red immediately when he realizes he’s chosen the worst word he could have. He’s
at a loss for words for a moment. “A fine birthday present…this nonsense!”
“I have been born again, to a
different father.” She bites her lip in pride and fear, looking Grandpa
straight in the eye.
“Jesus,” I whisper to my dad, not
meaning it Sarah’s way.
“We’re in for a total war,” my dad whispers
“Is this your doing?”
Grandpa asks Sarah’s husband, my Uncle Cal.
“We both,” Cal stammers, “we both…”
“Psychosis!” Grandpa says, his face
redder than I’ve ever seen it. “Absolute insanity!”
“You’d better watch out,” Dad tells
Sarah. “Dwight will have you committed.”
“Ashleigh will grow with Christ in
her life,” Sarah announces, in a quiet but firm voice, ignoring Dad’s joke. I
look at Dad and notice he’s amused with himself, but his face quickly turns
glum. I make a note to myself to look up psychosis, if I can figure out how to
spell it. Grandma creates a non-verbal distraction by cutting the cake into
slices and serving it around the table. We all respect Grandma, we adore her
cake, and the combination of the two is about the most powerful force we know. For
a moment, I think we can prevent what Dad had just called total war. I am
“I also have an announcement,”
Quentin says suddenly, clearly copying his sister. Quentin is a detective in
the Albuquerque Police Department, in charge of special situations. That means
if someone is threatening to throw himself off a highway bridge directly into
traffic, Quentin is the one who gets to talk him down. It’s a stressful job.
“Christ!” Grandpa moans again. “I
lose both of you on the same day?”
“Christ has nothing to do with it,”
Quentin continues. “Christ can do nothing to stop the endless cycle of
suffering on this earth. We both have become active Buddhists.” Quentin gently
touches the shoulder of my Aunt Wendy, who slowly nods to show her agreement.
Wendy is a massage therapist, and I can tell Quentin is going to need her
attention once they all get home. I can see Grandpa’s veins pulsating on his
neck. All I want to do is stop the conflict. Why can’t they all get together
and watch football? Denver and Dallas are playing each other. People in
Albuquerque usually root for one or the other.
“The devil has taken you,” Sarah
tells Quentin with an air of total conviction.
“You are a spiritual glutton,”
Quentin tells Sarah with equal conviction.
Grandpa grunts something I can’t
understand, but with equal conviction. I look around for our dog Muffin and
finally see her shaking and whimpering under a chair, with absolutely no
“It’s all spiritual evolution,”
Margarine says, “going on right before our eyes.” I cringe at this and slump
back into my chair, Rev rolls her eyes at me as our usual signal, but my mother
just keeps at it. “It’s just wonderful to see!” A quiet falls onto the table as
Sarah, Quentin, and Grandpa glare at Margarine, then at each other, and
finally, running out of emotional energy, into their cake. Margarine doesn’t
get the message. She has no off button. “Why don’t I do a tarot reading for us
all?” she suggests, almost magically producing the cards.
“Why don’t you?” Grandma adds,
feeling the time is right for dipping into her small supply of words. Grandma’s
active silence isn’t a suggestion but a command, which is obeyed, not only for
this family gathering, but over the years whenever we all sit together at the
table. Grandma is a rock, solid as anything.
Sarah and Cal tune out of the tarot
reading. Quentin listens in a gloomy silence. Wendy seems to have gone to
sleep. Grandpa is bored, while my dad delights in everything Margarine says. When
she pulls out those cards…well, I hate it. I turn my head and look at anything
but those ridiculous cards. I may not be a brain like Norbert, but I have real
trust in what I can see and make judgments on, rather than any of my mother’s
New Age weirdness. I mean…it can go one way or the other, depending on
someone’s mood. You don’t get knowledge that way. No one remembers the content
of Margarine’s reading afterward, but everyone leaves the gathering knowing for
absolute sure that Grandma won’t tolerate squabbling in the family.
As I’ve said, we Greens don’t take
religion very seriously, but I do go into a church now and then, just in the
off hours when there is no service going on to feel the coolness inside and to
enjoy the flicker of the sun through the stained glass. I sit in the back. I
must have been at one time or other in nearly every church in northeast
Albuquerque (the Postal Service divides us into quadrants). One time I think I
see my grandmother sitting in a pew up in the front. I can’t be totally sure
because there are a lot of people sitting between us. The woman wears the same type
of floral print top Grandma prefers and has her hair in the same simple style.
She doesn’t see me, and I don’t bring attention to myself. It’s a Catholic
church and we don’t have any Catholics in our family that I know of. The woman moves
out into the aisle, and then kneels at the altar and crosses herself. I
suddenly feel awkward staring and turn my head to look up at the stained glass
windows. I force myself to slip out of the church without looking back. If it
had been Grandma, she wouldn’t have wanted me to see her. I give her that, but
now I don’t know what to think.
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