Catherine had been exalting in out of body bliss but the flesh sucked back. I must get up. She rolled onto her belly and lifted dizzily onto hands and knees. She executed a wobbly circle on the futon that lay on the floor and pointed herself towards the kitchen. A kitchen made for one in a studio apartment made for one on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but just exactly like so many other such solitary places she had sublet around the world.
Catherine opened the little refrigerator and slammed her eyes shut. The lurid light pierced her brain. She groped amongst the cold. She took ahold of the distinct jar. Then in the door, the bottle. She pulled it out. So heavy. How would she get these things over there by the window where she wanted to be? Baby steps. Her favorite coach used to say that the only way to do the impossible is to break it down into its constituent parts and tackle one bit at a time. Of course, in the end, you simply had to forget all and just let the horse jump.
With her eyes still shut, Catherine put the bottle in one hand and the jar in the other and slid them ahead as she crawled behind along the narrow path between the futon and the television. When she felt she could go no farther, she opened her eyes and saw the dim dawn filtering through the pale curtains. Her head felt so heavy that she wanted to drop it and the whole endeavor but willed herself to want food and water instead. If she did not fight her body, her mind would surrender to the calm inevitability.
Thankfully, the bottle’s top had already been opened. It exuded a small sigh. She lifted it and drank an explosive sip. She put the bottle down and held the bubbly water in her mouth, afraid to swallow. She lay back carefully, pointing her knees up in defiance of the desire to be prostrate. She tapped the count, One. Two. Three. Swallow. She waited, fighting with all her might not to wretch. Please stay down. The water felt positively poisonous Trampling along her esophagus. It pushed into her lower organs. This was the crucial moment. Though some would argue with her, she did not want to die. It stayed down. Give that girl a ribbon!
She let go the bottle and, still lying down, took hold of the jar. It was an unmistakable shape, bought during her first exuberant week in Paris. She had been eating then. But as the empty days of writing-avoidance stretched on, the old familiar lack of hunger set in.
A Paris month had barely passed when she’d begun translating Baudelaire, even knowing that, though it was gratifying, it was not her novel, merely a diversion with dangerous pitfalls. Almost as soon as she’d started translating, she’d stopped going out. Catherine recognized the signs, but the feeling that she was accomplishing something became her drug and she would not have gotten out of bed without the dictionary and Le Spleen de Paris to draw her. She rationalized that she was preparing for her reimmersion into University life, but it had all been superfluity. The disgust and fatigue soon weighed her down and pressed her into bed. She stopped visiting her desk. Dangerous time had passed.
This was precisely what they—the doctors, her family, her few friends—had all been afraid of. The decision to go to Paris in the summer so long before her teaching position started, with nothing (as they saw it) to do seemed to them an eccentricity fraught with foreboding. For Catherine, it was the writer’s dream. Three months of solitude in the city of writers!
Eyes averted to the ceiling, she unscrewed the top and stuck her index finger blindly into the goo. Then, extending the soiled finger away from the jar, she screwed the top and let the weight of it drop to the floor. She folded her hands, right over left over her ribs. Except for her knees and the straightened finger, she might have been a corpse.
An unsought memory put her eight-year-old self with her friend Michelle at the kitchen table of her family home surrounded by grey paper and charcoal horse drawing efforts. They were eating Nutella and giggling. It must have been a rainy day. Catherine’s cracked lips parted into a painful smile as she remembered the paces she’d put Michelle to when the days were fair. Catherine would set up hurdles and time her friend over them, all the while judging as she would have been judged herself in the children’s competitions.
It had all been so much fun then. When did it turn ugly? It had been gradual, that shift from love to loathing, but the beginning arrived with puberty, when the coaches turned mean and the friends turned competitive and the competitions revealed their ludicrous pomp. When the dream of starting fresh in New York City became a reality in the form of a Columbia acceptance letter, Catherine quit show jumping, suddenly and without explanation. The insular world had been stunned. Secretly she wanted to be involved in what she naively thought of as the real world. She did not want to move blindly through college as she had through high school, thinking always of the next show or the last. Silently she had planned to reinvent herself as a writer and intellectual. But the triple major and endless clubs and activities put her into a fever pitch of excitement that was not unlike her final years of show jumping so that, if she were very honest with herself, her metamorphosis had been incomplete. The truth became undeniable when grad school was put off for the first of her hospitalizations.
Grad school was reclaimed, but from then on, each time she moved, from New York to Russia, China to Honduras, she would think the loneliness and anorexia were gone for good. It was her fatal flaw to believe she was cured. That hubris that suggested sovereign power over self had been inherited from her father. But what fueled Mr. James Mirth, CEO extraordinaire, consumed his daughter. Inevitably, almost without her being aware, the evil twin pillars would rise again out of the seemingly smooth sea of activity and bar her way to happiness. Finally, again, she would have to be rescued from her far-flung existence.
Her family attributed her troubles to her excitable nature, and constantly tried to dampen it. They were not misguided. She had seen for herself on countless occasions that her enthusiasm was off-putting to people who did not know her well. And worse, though she felt it to be right to be passionate, her passions too easily turned into the flames of an insatiable furnace that burned up all mundane appetites.
Catherine had no religious convictions to speak of, but she sometimes felt like her anorexia had more in common with her saintly namesake than might be expected from the average intelligent, cosmopolitan, twenty-first century woman. As a self-examining humanist type, she hated that she did not understand this part of her. She considered her Nutella dipped skeleton finger. She considered her literary ambitions. She felt a failure. She was thirty-three and on the verge of dying a starved virgin in the city of food and love.
Catherine rolled her burning eyeballs to the left at the neglected desk. Could she ever admit this to her pen? Was it somehow lack of honesty that made writing so hard? Her novel suddenly seemed false, a translation of her show jumping prodigy childhood into a concert pianist prodigy childhood. Was it subterfuge or merely an attempt to write fiction rather than memoire? A lesser genre if you asked her.
Her head ached. She could not figure this all out now. The important thing was to fight the urge to give up. She did not want the story to end here.
Letting go of intention, Catherine lifted her hand and kissed the back of it, as you would that of an Orthodox priest, her hand even more boney than those consecrated Russian ones. Thrice she lifted and kissed and then, thoughtless, she put the Nutella into her mouth. Please. Stay down, she prayed to her body. Beneath the waves of nausea that threatened negation, she felt a feeble acquiescence echoing deep in her hollowness.
When they found Leona’s body it was curled about an old grey cat, also curled and stiff. The funeral director’s assistant (who did all the dirty work with the fluids and convex plastics to keep skin from sagging, while the funeral director–the artist, he called himself–fussed with lipstick and wigs and hands folded just right) said he’d never had such a hard time prying two bodies apart, said he’d almost given up and buried them together, “but of course one can’t find a casket shaped like that.” He was telling his cronies at the bar after work and they all laughed to hear how the cat’s stiff paws would not let go of the human hand. “The thing that gets me is how they must have died at the same damn time,” he said and drank his whiskey dry. “That’s some crazy bond.”
[Mama and Papa, 1910]
Mama was born Katherina Wiget, of the original Canton Schwyz Wigets who boasted a family crest of gold wheat on a field of blue. If she had been a joyous child, nobody in America knew, for her unhappiness blossomed with her youth when she was unceremoniously shipped off to distant relatives after her father married a younger woman to replace her dead mother (the young wife having no use for her predecessor’s children). At age twenty, Mama found herself working as a seamstress in St Louis, where she met Albert Beynon , another Swiss, but from the other side. He spoke no German and she no French. Their common language was their adopted tongue of English.
A young and charming rake, whom the Americans called Frenchie, Papa worked as a mechanic on the ford Model T for much of Leona’s childhood, first in St. Louis and then in San Francisco. Not the factory type, Papa managed always to steer clear of the assembly line, working independently as a mechanic who fixed cars for the youngsters who’d grown up wanting them, not making them. Having apprenticed in Geneva in the early days of the internal combustion engine, he was a tinkerer at heart. If he had not the temperament nor genius nor entrepreneurial spirit of a Ford or a Benz, he shared with them a great facility for putting things together and taking them apart, as well as a soft spot for the new and ingenious which found expression in his trade of mechanics and his hobby of photography.
In Leona’s photograph of them, Mama dwarfs Papa, whose head is nearly level with (and not quite as big as) her enormous breasts. Dressed in calico, she seems painfully aware of how ludicrous they must appear in the eyes of posterity and hence refuses to meet our gaze. She stares off camera and away from her husband. For his own part, Papa adored posing for pictures almost as much as he loved taking them. Hence he looks directly into the camera, seeming almost to delight in his new wife’s embarrassment. The result is a portrait of a couple whose eyes’ trajectories form an acute angle, symbolic of their married life.
Papa left on his first solo sojourn when Leona was thirteen. She cherished the photograph he sent back in which a swashbuckling Papa wearing tilted hat and lace-up boots is surrounded by otherworldly trees with knotted flowered arms that stretch to the sky, on the back of which he wrote, “6 November, 1923, Mojave Desert Love Papa.” Leona felt not the least resentment towards him for leaving (Mama felt enough for the two of them) and rather admired the rugged jauntiness of his likeness, as well as the cleverness of the timer-camera and the hand-built automobile, which, though they did not make it into the frame, add greatly to the charming picture of independence.
As the ’20’s roared along, Papa spent less and less time in San Francisco, so that when the Crash of ’29 hit, his absence was more fixed than his presence. The sporadic letters wrapped around small bundles of cash had also grown scarce then vanished altogether, but by then Leona was a woman. She took jobs cleaning Nob Hill houses to help support the family, which also included her little brother Arthur who, being eight years her junior, was almost more son than brother.
Mama had a tyrannical disposition which, if it were not for Leona’s being her equal as a workhorse on the one hand and impervious to black moods on the other, would have made the double-mother household unbearable. As it was, the two balanced each other out, and raised Arthur with much discipline and coddling respectively. Arthur rewarded their ministrations by being the first in their family and their acquaintances to go to university. Good at math and eager to travel the world like Papa, Arthur studied mining, a subject which had, since the Gold Rush days, become a marvel of science and engineering, while it maintained its adventuring mystique.
[Alcidos and Leona, 1939]
Working and helping Mama to Raise Arthur had left Leona no time for socializing or finding a husband until Arthur went to work in the Nevada City mines and began sending money home. By then she was no longer young–nearly thirty–so of course she thought herself very lucky when she found Alcidos at the William Tell, where they offered Swiss fare and nightly dancing.
Alcidos Goodin, of French Canadian ancestry, was born with surname Godin, but followed in the footsteps of several of his twelve elder siblings by adding the additional ‘o’ in order to avoid the unfortunate American pronunciation. A construction worker who followed WPA jobs from Minnesota to San Francisco, Alcidos proved a perfect gentleman and a brave worker too. He’d helped build the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as its younger and more splendid sister span, which had opened just before Leona and he met. Alcidos would have good, if dangerous, work for years to come. Best of all, he also loved to dance and wanted lots of children.
Unlike the portrait of Mama and Papa, the photograph Alcidos and Leona had taken at the Golden Gate International Exposition shows two bright-eyed smiling faces, serene and confident in their future happiness together.
Thus, as you might imagine, the first time Alcidos returned, Leona did not recognize him. She was so big, the baby due any day, that she mistook him for an angel. She had been resting for a moment on the little back porch of their new home in Visitacion Valley, when the hummingbird flew to her and hovered, drenched in sunlight. Her heart sang with joy. The baby would be swaddled in love and happiness as voluminous as any babe could want.
It was not long after that, friends of Alcidos who had been working on the job with him, and his foreman knocked on her door. The darkness that encompassed them chilled her. It was an unthinking certainty of doom. Probably the foreman spoke first, clutching his hat, “How sorry we are to have to bring you this sad, very, very, sad, dreadful news…And, especially as you are in your condition, Mrs. Goodin…We are not sure how it happened…” He did not want to say it right out. He wanted to prepare her.
Strangely, she was suddenly the calm one. She asked, “My husband has been hurt?” Their hesitation and furtive glances told her what they could not say. “Alcidos is dead,” she whispered, to herself or them it didn’t matter. They were relieved. They continued as if it had been one of them that had braved the evil words. Leona let them prattle on, condolences and regrets piling one atop the other, a rubble heap as tall as at one of their construction sites.
Others, tongue-tied or talkative, came and went. The parlor filled with the sounds and scents of birth and death. Gifts of baby booties and tiny crocheted hats sat alongside impossibly dense clusters of flowers and baked goods. Cards of happy congratulations mingled with those pronouncing sorrow. Mama took care of her in the four days between death and birth, and remained with her thereafter. Alcidos Goodin Junior (Alci) was born while his father rumbled away on an eastbound train; his family wanted to bury him in their Minnesota plot. Leona was too shocked by the first loss to protest the second, but it developed that his body was inconsequential.
Alci’s first years passed while the Second World War raged in Europe, and many in Visitacion Valley (which resembled more closely the ranch it had once been, than it did the rest of San Francisco) went back to their roots to survive. One day Mama came home with a crate of chickens and soon thereafter bartered eggs for goat’s milk from the neighbors across the fence.
In this way, Alci grew up chasing chickens and looking, with his hand-me-down brass-buttoned coat and handmade knit cap, “just like Papa as a boy,” said Arthur chuckling, and snapped a picture of the funny little Old World child. When she saw the photograph Leona thought how her son had been born in mourning and was being raised in calamity, but that somehow his cheeks remained flushed with a happy rosy glow.
It was around then that Leona recognized her husband in the figure of a chicken. He had not been one of those Mama had brought home but rather sauntered into their yard from nowhere it seemed, and made himself right at home, laying more eggs than the other three together. Leona couldn’t say for certain when she recognized the chicken as her beloved husband exactly, but when it came to her, she’d known it as a fact. She’d felt that her dear Alcidos hovered near, watching over them, almost from the moment her son had been born, but now it appeared to her as a comforting and certain truth, as if an unseen hand gathered in all that was good and kept everything else out. From her moment of revelation, Leona lived with the father and the son in a trinitarian paradise, while Mama hung in the background like a reliable, if disagreeable, clock.
After the chicken Alcidos returned as a dog. Actually two dogs. Alci found the first on the street on his way home from school. The pup grew monstrous in size and in his devotion to Alci. For a few years he was bigger than the boy, and the two were inseparable. The second, a spotted brown runt, Leona herself found sniffing around her front stoop petunias. Leona realized that although Alcidos wanted to watch over his son, he understood that the boy had become a young man whose every care was not about pups. It was Leona who mostly took care of the second dog and she was grateful that it was small, almost no trouble at all. Her husband seemed to be conforming to their ever-changing situation.
During high school Alci (or as he preferred, Al) was hardly home. When he did come home, he merely patted the dog as he went to his room and on his way out again. He was very popular in school, a yell leader surrounded by other fine young men and a bevy of pretty cheerleaders. He told her, “yell leaders are as popular as football players but without the bruises.”
In his graduation picture he wears a sweet smile and glasses that enlarge his hazel eyes, twinkling with a touch of the devil, just like Papa.
Alci graduated from SF State with a degree in sociology and, after bouncing around the city with a few odd jobs, decided to join the military. Leona could not be surprised; the wanderlust was in his blood, but her future loneliness and uselessness blanketed her in a black fog. She forced herself to play a part, acting happy although her heart was breaking. A handsome young officer off to see the world, She did not want to dampen his excitement. On the day of his departure, his taxi arrived and she kissed him goodbye. When he was truly gone, she crawled back into bed and indulged in self-pity for the first and only time in her life.
All were gone and it was February. The previous February had seen the death of Mama. In February, twenty-three years earlier, her husband had died and her son had been born. How many anniversaries can a person cram into one dark month? She lay in her tiny creaky bed and cried until she could not cry anymore. She watched the ceiling turn gold to black. Looking back on that day with no little shame she thought perhaps she had feared her husband would leave too.
That night, Alcidos visited her as a man. He walked into their room just like he had done in the short precious year they’d had together so long ago and lay down next to her. She nestled into him and he folded her into his warmth. They did not talk for a long time and when they did it was in whispered breathless phrases punctuated by sweet kisses. He told her how he’d been walking the roof of the Rincon Annex, whistling a silly medley of popular “baby” tunes: “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” “Yes Sir That’s My Baby,” “When My Baby Smiles at Me,” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” and thinking of his wife glowing with their baby inside her.
“I was in bliss over the idea of having two babies to love when my foot stepped onto a loose board in the scaffolding. Heaven knows how many times I’d stepped on just such rickety things before and not gone tumbling over the side like a klutz! I worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge and it was a post office on Market Street that did me in!” He chuckled and Leona let out a little laugh that turned right into a sob. He continued, “That time I went flying because my mind was not on my work but on my love. Do not cry darling Leona,” he hugged her tighter, “for it was meant to be. You see, I have been able to stay with you and our boy all these years. I have always been here whether or not you have recognized me.”
“Will you go overseas with Alci?”
“I will be with you forever.”
When Leona woke the next morning, her eyes were burning and she felt bereft of her husband all over again, but then she washed her face and bustled about the house, cleaning and humming those happy songs from between the wars.
That evening, when she opened her kitchen door onto the back porch, a tabby cat came running in meowing. She laughed and picked him up and kissed him on the head. Then she opened a can of tuna for him. That began the age of the cats.
[Alci and Demi, 1968]
Alci returned home to San Francisco, which he had done periodically through the years, but this time it was for a purpose. He planned “to get hitched.” He had received a promotion and, after five wild years in the Far East, would be living on a base in Virginia surrounded by families. He told his mother, “A wife is vital in a place like that. Everyone will be married. A nice girl will keep me out of trouble.”
He took the old high school sweetheart, whose name was Demi, out a few times, then got drunk one afternoon and called her at The Emporium where she sold cosmetics. Leona almost dropped the dish she was drying when she heard him say, “Do you have a dowry? A dowry, yes. How much will your father give me for you?” The wry smile could be heard in his voice and the woman seemed to understand he was joking, for Leona could hear her laughter through the phone line before she hung up.
She called him back though, and they went for dinner that night. Alci returned home with her and announced to his mother that they would drive to Reno on the weekend to tie the knot.
“You’re eloping? Can’t we at least have a party?”
“There’s no time Ma. I ship out next week. When we get settled, we’ll fly you out.”
In their wedding portrait Demi wears a white lace mini-dress with a hem appropriately short for the times and startlingly prophetic regarding their marriage. The bride appears shy, perhaps embarrassed by the brevity of the dress and the recent courtship, while Alci looks like a rooster preparing to crow.
After five years of military sojourning and the creation of a girl child, they separated. Alci called to say that the marriage was kaput. It was a distant event since they were stationed in Holland, but still Leona felt it to be dreadful: the slow dissolution of her parents’ union by inherent unsuitability, the abrupt termination of her own by tragedy, and now the divorce of her son–Were the marriages in her family under some kind of curse? No, she decided, Alcidos and she were different, for their love tethered them despite universal laws.
One wonderful repercussion resulted from the breakup; the wife returned to San Francisco bringing with her the granddaughter. For that Leona was grateful. Michelle, that was her granddaughter’s name, was as clever and eager to please as Alci at her age and it was a joy to have her around. Whenever she visited, she would ask, “Where’s Kitty?” and would poke around until she found him. (Leona had named all the kitties Kitty so as not to slip up and call them by her dead husband’s name and cause people concern for her.)
Michelle loved to run around the house trailing string for the cat to chase. Leona chuckled at the way Alcidos teased his granddaughter. He clutched at the string and jumped and pounced. Then just as the little girl ran down the hallway, he pretended to lose interest so that she was forced to peer around the corner to see where he was.
Leona had a camera of her own now, a Polaroid Instant that her son had given her, and managed once to catch that sweetly expectant expression. After the image emerged, Michelle asked if she could put it up on the mantle with the other photographs, which stood like sentinels in little gilded frames.
Her last cat grew all white about the whiskers while he waited patiently, watching as Leona taught Michelle how to make Christmas ornaments, pancakes and apple head dolls. The little girl grew, but had not yet reached an age to leave her grandmother when her grandmother left her. One evening Leona lay on the couch curled around the cat, the cat curled around her hand, when she whispered into one furry ear, “Please Alcidos, do not leave me again. Take me with you this time.”
Above on the mantle, the family photographs would remain, innocent of death, the likenesses nearly as slender as the life lying coiled before them.