As Lizzie walks across the concrete parking lot of the Hinky Dinky to buy three bottles of two-quart Cokes and Ragu spaghetti sauce, a female radio personality with a cobbled voice holds a gray Styrofoam microphone to her face and asks, “What should happen to a person who attempts to assassinate the president of the United States?” Like a child in first grade when her teacher asked her to sing the alphabet song and she wanted to get all the letters correct but stumbled at “o, p, q,” she prays to sound knowledgeable, She forgets the great discussion she and her new-found graduate school friend Mary held on the same subject, and she responds, “The same as everybody else.”
On the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite has given up-to-the-minute nightly reports about the woman who attempted to shoot President Ford. Lizzie collates in her mind what little else she knows about Squeaky Fromm, the girl who deliberately released a bullet from her gun's cartridge and knew she would not kill the unelected Commander-in-Chief. Still, the news says Squeaky diligently adheres to the teachings of Charles Manson and will follow him to the ends of whatever world they have.
The on-the-scene reporter whisks herself away to another person where she will ask the same question. Lizzie intuits her statement will not be released on whatever radio station the woman works for. Lizzie slinks toward the Hinky Dinky grocery store. The faded orange and green letters protrude from rows of windows as she shoves open a door and dislodges a shopping cart.
Like Yeats's widening gyre where a falcon fails to heed the voice of his falconer, Lizzie's world has begun to unravel. Her center has changed. Her modern drama professor asks the six students in his graduate seminar to write about their gut reactions to Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal.
The black plague ravages through the confines of Europe. Many die while the remaining kill each other in blind fear that this all-enveloping death will soon envelop them. The title refers to a quote from the Book of Revelation. The Lamb—presumably Jesus—opens the seventh seal, presumably a symbol of death. The film is considered a classic.
Lizzie has just finished reading this passage from the journal the professor requires them to keep. “But what the hell does the play say to you about the nature of life?”
She answers, “The disillusioned knight prays to Death in the end, 'Have mercy on us, because we are small and frightened and ignorant.' I often think I am the same.”
“You think? Tell me what you feel!”
She doesn't know what to feel, having never been given this command before. “You have your father's temper,” Mother often lectured her.
She and Mary trudge down Dodge Street to the Prom Town House Hotel. “He shouldn't have lit into you like that,” Mary says.
“I don't know,” a deflated Lizzie answers. “Maybe I was wrong.”
“There are no wrong answers about literature.”
Lizzie recites lines of poetry from Yeats in her mind, The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are the worst for Lizzie. She tries to prepare class discussion questions, which none of her students care to discuss. For example on the first day of class, she prepared a question sheet to lead students into a vague discourse about why they write. What do they hope to accomplish?
A girl answered, “Because I have to.” This constituted the only response from the class. Her purple fishnet stockings led Lizzie's eye to the center of the girl's legs. Lizzie attempts to challenge the student: but what does writing mean to you? Who is your audience?
“You are,” the girls responds.
Because of the girl's coarse flaming red hair and scarlet lipstick, Lizzie easily memorizes the student's name: Rosalind Jewell.
After this class, Lizzie has the rest of the afternoon free. She thinks she will take the bus to West Roads Mall and order a charbroiled hamburger at the London Grill, where when she says she wants her burger well done, the guy asks, “Don't you mean burned to perfection?” Lizzie's complexion will then turn lipstick red at his flirting.
This day, though, she leaves the library. She walks the loosely leveled steps. A girl with dull blonde hair and uneven bangs tugs at the sleeve of Lizzie's pale green polyester double knit jacket. Her mother bought her two pastel pants suits that no one in their right mind would wear—or at least that's what Lizzie thinks and wishes Mama had given her something fashionable. Still, Lizzie has not done the laundry in a week, so she wears the fashion faux pas to class that day.
“If you have a few minutes, I'd like to ask you a question. It's a survey we're taking.”
Lizzie boosts her purse higher on her shoulder. She wavers. A man with stringy, ash brunette hair stands next to the girl. He thrusts a pamphlet into her hands and commands her to take it. She barely has time to read the title, before the guy proclaims to the broad open space in front of the library, “You have a mind. Use it!!”
Lizzie looks down at the lightning cracks in the gray cement. She is not able to make out the first word, but the first word in the title contains the consonants d-n-t-c-s. “This provides a complete guide to mental health. It is YOUR owner's manual.” The guy's piercing blue eyes scare Lizzie, and she moves toward the sidewalk, hoping they will not follow. The girl says, “It's just a survey. Nothing more—okay?”
Lizzie holds tighter to her bags, but she stays to answer the questions.
“If there was one thing you wanted to know, what would it be?”
Lizzie remembers one time on a Wednesday night service before Thanksgiving. The preacher asked everyone to tell the one thing they were most thankful for. Lizzie sat with her mother and sisters at the back of the church. When it came Mama's time, she was most thankful for her daughters. Lizzie had to answer next, and to show off her barely basic knowledge of philosophy, she answered, “Life and hope through thought.”
This time Lizzie gives a similar response: “Is there a god?”
The girl announces to Lizzie and anyone passing by, “You have asked the right question. This is one of those points of life we consider at length, and still we ponder.”
The guy repeats as if he has quoted a Bible verse, “What is true is what is true for you. No one has any right to force data on you or to command you to believe it. If it is not true for you, it isn’t true.”
The girl shifts her body closer to Lizzie and in a soothingly commands, “Come with us. We will answer your question.”
Lizzie directs her attention to the long vista that ends with a view of a monument she has never walked near before. The girl's voice lures Lizzie to feel safe in following them to a parking lot near the car. They trudge up the hill and stop at a red Gremlin, a car whose very name signifies the monster in Beowulf. The guy opens the passenger seat door and contorts his small frame to fit into the back seat.
As the girl navigates past a Bohemian restaurant and then a bar with a statue of a frog holding a platter of drinks and small squares of food, Lizzie can not help but laugh at the name of the bar: Mr. Toad's Library.
Lizzie twists her head and catches a side view of the guy as he scrunches himself into a space designed to hold small children when their mothers take them to their babysitters. And once again, he quotes from memory, “There is nothing unhappier than the individual who attempts to live in the chaos of lies.” His assertion reminds Lizzie of the schizophrenic guy in an upper level Milton class. On the day of his presentation, he donned a wizard's cap and a purple robe, and then he rambled incoherently as he recited chants from alchemy. When an individual possessed the philosopher’s stone, he could could cause the transition of the base element into gold. Yet because of the human need to claim the stone as his own, he lost the true faith. Thus, the straw remained the same. Lizzie's study friend poked her in the back with a pencil as the student reenacted another chant and sounded like all three witches in Macbeth.
By this point, the girl tells told Lizzie, “My name's Janna, and this is Tommy.” Janna pulls the Gremlin over the curb while the guy in the back seat moans. “I never knew my mother who died of a drug overdose when I was three. My daddy drank, and he left me and my four brothers in the hands of relatives. We got so scattered that when I was little I never knew which of my relatives were my brothers and which were my cousins.” Lizzie's read newspaper stories about young people like this, but she's never met one before, even though there was Emilee Peters who was adopted and whose mother beat her with a black belt and/or tree limbs when she took too many squares of toilet paper. Emilee's mother committed suicide when she was sixteen, and she wore bright blue eyeshadow that made her look like a whore. No one knew how to help her since the social work lady said children like her were better off in any home rather than no home at all.
Now, the secret compartment Lizzie holds deep inside transmutes itself from cold water into icicles. When she was twelve, thirteen, and early fourteen, her grandmother's husband singled her out to “take the short cut” from her grandmother's house bordering Meacham Field to the Dairy Queen in Saginaw, where he bought malts or milk shakes that they would bring back for everyone. Each time, he positioned her body close to him like a girlfriend and his knobby carpenter hands slid down the front of her blouse as he swerved across the center lane in her grandmother's 1949 pickup.
Janna turns off the ignition, and Lizzie shakes the door open. Tommy pushes the front seat to the forward position, stretches his lank body, and like a lizard, slides out of the backseat. Janna enumerates all the times she has felt abandoned: she moved from foster home to foster home and often worried where she'd spend the next night. When her baby Crystal arrived, more than all the stars in the night sky, she wanted to shield her daughter from a backstreet life.
Lizzie nods in sympathy. She wants to expand herself beyond the graduate school competition to make the most profound analysis of the literature vanishes. She tries to cease fretting about the knight who plays a mean game of chess with Death and who reminds her of the song about the enigmatic horseman riding through the desert on a horse with no name.
“I had to find my dark spot,” Janna says as she shakes open the thin-glass door to a storefront painted neon blue. With a bright orange and red outline, the white marquee reads Knopik Galleria of Fine Arte. A girl with stringy strawberry blonde hair hunches on a stool and reads Mademoiselle. Lizzie had never heard of the magazine until Mary explained Sylvia Plath's angst as she wrote her semi-biographical novel The Bell Jar and was befriended by the publisher of that magazine, but later Sylvia cast her benefactress as a power hungry bitch in the novel. Struck by the fact Plath was born in 1932, Lizzie feels more kinship to the writer than to her mama who was born the same year. In Lizzie's mind, her mama wears polyester-double-knit pants with a sewn in crease down the front and marches out of tune with the changing 1970s world.
The bleak photos feature black, white, and muted sepia tones and depict views of aged China men who labored to link one coast of America to the other. Lizzie twists her body away from this current exhibit. Her spine crackles as she walks. Mama blames these strains on the fact that Lizzie limps ands favors one foot over the other. Regardless of her physical distress, she follows the couple up a wavering staircase. Before they start, though, she can't turn away from a picture at the bottom of the stairs of an old lady with coarse black hair streaked with silver lying on a gurney with her stuffed penguin and a Raggedy Ann on the other side. The old woman appears to nurture both the doll and the penguin. In Lizzie's mind, the woman soothes them: “Oh, baby, it's going to be all right.” This scene petrifies Lizzie since her grandmother, whom she calls Mrs. Joiner because her daddy called her that, often talks about her husband losing his mind and accusing her of giving favors to other old men at church.
At the landing of the staircase, another girl with thin matted hair splashes paint onto a huge canvas—red, blue, purple, and orange designs that make no sense. She ignores them and sprawls more paint onto the canvas. Lizzie follows behind Janna while Tommy stands in the backdrop, appearing to almost block Lizzie from bolting down the stairs.
The couple lead Lizzie to a shabby room with a cheap, overstuffed, yellow-orange velvet couch. A man with premature wrinkles and hallowed cheeks that look like a pitted pancake sits at a desk. “Dirk, we've brought a friend,” Janna announces.
“So you have,” a man in a lime-green leisure suit responds as he writes on a legal pad. Next, he shifts the yellowish sparkled satin shirt to make sure it covers his stomach that reminds Lizzie of the rotunda of the Texas state capitol that centers upward to a point. He invites Lizzie to take a seat in one of the two mismatched straight-backed chairs. Lizzie chooses the one closest to the door. He wheels his chair and stares directly into her hazel eyes. “So you want to know if there is a god?”
She recognizes he has not been told her earlier question. As he repositions his chair, he rubs his fingers against her shoulder. With her sensitivity to colognes, her left arm retains the fragrance of his Jovan Musk. She sneezes. He rolls his chair backward to a distance that is intended to make her feel more at ease. Instead, she re-envisions scenes from her past where she retreated from whatever it is that teenage girls crave and transformed herself into a sea creature crawling like Prufrock on the bottom of an ocean floor.
In 1967, Lizzie graduated from Allard's Crossing Community School and began her freshman year at Lindsey High. In health class, Lizzie learned about the perils of syphilis: “it sometimes goes undetected. Girls might develop ulcers in their mouths—or on their private parts. Left untreated in its latent stage, the symptoms disappear, but the disease can still attack internal organs, including the brain.” That summer, Lizzie's friend told her about a senior girl who contracted the disease. Her friend called the girl a slut who slept with other girls' boyfriends and who got exactly what she deserved, even if her father was the Texaco distributor and the family put on airs.
“If any of you suspect you might have contracted this disease, tell your parents. If not that, tell someone you trust.” Mrs. Leatherwood told the class. Lizzie trusted her teacher . . . there was always a but. Lizzie could not confess her sins to her mother, who had too much to bear—what with Lizzie's younger sister Lana suffering from mysterious headaches.
Even so, Lizzie once lingered at the door as class ended. “Yes, Dear.” The teacher looked up from the notes she had for the world history class for second period.
“Nothing.” Lizzie stood at the top of the slick stairs, which were arched by that time. Mrs. Joiner had once sat in one of these classrooms and taken geometry notes. Lizzie clutched the wood banister and walked to her algebra class in the other building.
The next weekend, Lizzie's sister Lana almost choked to death at Fort Worth Children's Hospital when she drank a Dr. Pepper. Doctors waited to have her parents sign their names on some vaguely dotted line so they could perform an emergency tracheotomy on the anterior of Lana's neck. After Mother and Daddy signed their names, Lizzie curled up in a chair. Daddy and Mother with puffed eyes and cheeks paced the white ammonia coated floor, and they argued.
This place ain't doing her no good, Daddy must have said.
I've always followed your pace. This time, we need to stay here.
No, we got to do what keeps our little girl alive.
We don't have a promise the Temple hospital will save her. The doctors are just as good here.
Three surgeries to place a shunt in her neck. Now this!! We ain't staying here.
At six in the morning, Lizzie stretched her arms into the sterilized, vacant hospital air. Mother decided Lizzie needed a bath and a change of close before she went to the orthodontist. “Mr. Ferrill is coming to pick you up.”
At all costs, Lizzie did not want to cringe into the corner of the door of the old pick-up. But when you're fifteen and the world appears beyond your control, when you don't want to add to your parents' burdens by revealing what you've just learned in health class about syphilis and gonorrhea, when you're driven to paroxysms of fear when the teacher explained, “If you think you have a sexually transmitted disease, talk to someone. And soon.” You keep quiet.
Lizzie sat on her side of the pickup, hugging the door handle, determined to open it if she needed to. Before this drive, he had prayed to his God to forgive him. He had said spewed many times as he sat in the living room, “If God forgives me, why can't you?” He could not comprehend how alienated and cut off from the whole wide world Lizzie felt.
He veered out of the near empty garage into the traffic. He almost ran into oncoming traffic; he honked at cars perched in parking lots. Again, he railed, “God forgives the transgressor. Why can't you?” He almost ran over a Mexican kid on a bicycle who threw newspapers onto lawns. “Christ died on the cross,” he lamented like one of his Pentecostal preachers. Lizzie stammered, but failed to answer: she could never forgive him: if she did, he'd just start all over again. They arrived at Mrs. Joiner's house next to Meacham Field. Someone—probably his daughter—took Lizzie to the doctor.
And this was Lizzie's ruin. As she contorts her limbs to fit into the plastic orange foam office chair, she envisions Mr. Ferrill in church, patting the side of his thigh and clapping in tune with “When the Roll is Called up Yonder.” She changes the words to “When the roll is called down yonder.” And for some reason, she also recaptures one specific hot August day when they stood at the white Formica counter and ordered seven malts and shakes at the Dairy Queen. A pimpled boy rushed into the store to start his shift and announced: “There's a shooter in the tower.” He was talking about an angry young gunman in Austin, a city far, far away from Meaccham field. Mr. Ferrill lamented, “Armageddon is at hand.” Lizzie winced and wished to join the boy—anything far, far away from Mr. Ferrill and being positioned to appear liked his girlfriend.
Dirk directs her to envision a time when she felt surrounded—safely ensconced by happy feelings. Lizzie realizes she has never felt; instead, she has murdered to dissect. “Surely, there had to be a moment a time—perhaps a scene from her childhood that she might have failed to capture.” He moves his chair even closer; she inhales his Scope mouthwash; she pulls away. He lowers his voice and murmurs, “ We all have times we want to forget, but tell me your story. What is your Lizzie story?”
“I have no story.”
He combs the hairs on her left arm. She positions her chair three tiles away from his, but he rolls closer. “You have a story only you can tell.”
Because of his Southern accent, she almost confesses—just like she almost decided to confess to her health teacher—and sometimes craves to pull the stop-cord on the city bus as it passes the hospital on its route to Westroads Mall. She holds her secret close and fears too much the results of a blood or urine test that could declare she carries a disease that Mr. Ferrill transmitted to her when he positioned her body next to his and plunged his warty hands down her shorts and into her pubic hair.
Against her will, Lizzie inhales the false comfort of Dirk’s Jovan Musk. Once at a Tri-Delta rush, she brought into her lungs the musky remains of the marijuana joint that circled around the barn as the sisters took turns inhaling. She choked and then sneezed four times. A girl ushered her away from the circle—and now she chokes and sneezes because the man's cologne almost transports her back in time.
In no moment has she ever retained a memory, not contaminated with the memories of times past—those moments when, because of his own selfish cravings, Mr. Ferrill transformed every rite of passage into a fear of growing into a normal woman with needs, lusts, and desires beyond Mr. Ferrill's Pentecostal narrow interpretation of the world. Shit, damn, hell, she utters in her mind.
Dirk interprets her fear. “Our system will cause you to transition into the person you were meant to be. We will not detach you from your religious views. No!! We will enhance your belief systems. But you are not quite ready yet. That much I can see from your eyes as they skit away from me. We will meet again.”
“When?” she asks. When will she free herself to live in the world of reality? Dirk sounds like Officer Friendly on an after-school TV show Lizzie watched when she was in second grade. “Tomorrow we will handle what needs to be handled.”
Bundled with shame for allowing herself to be transformed into a prostitute for a DQ malt, Lizzie shivers. Yes, tomorrow, she will share her burden. Today, she rides in the front passenger seat of the red Gremlin. This time Tommy slams on the brake three lights before they reach the hotel. He throws his arm into the vacant air, but avoids directly cussing at the driver who will not allow him to slide through a yellow light as it turns red.
Janna rationalizes, “Tommy has his ruin, too. His daddy in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, pimped him out to other men, to old women. Anyone who'd pay the price.”
Tommy glides through the next light as it turns red. “We've all got to handle what needs to be handled.”
In her mind, Lizzie corrects Dirk's awkward use of the passive voice. Still, there remains her secret. She must handle it in her own feeble manner.
When Tommy shoves on the brakes of the Gremlin, Lizzie exits the vehicle, not able to express in words the inner angst of the knight as he attempts to forestall death, but instead experiences God's silence.
God does not direct her when Tommy and Janna with glib gestures move their hands to say good-bye. “See you tomorrow,” Janna says. Tommy nods. Lizzie walks into the plexiglass entrance and pushes the four numbers to allow her to enter the hall that leads to her room. She transposes a three and a one and must start over. On the second attempt, she succeeds and heaves a sigh of false release like an actors in her afternoon soap opera.
She enters her room, and hears the phone ringing. It could be her mother, her new friend Mary—whoever it is, she does not want to talk. Why didn't Mama see? Why? Wherefore? What? All questions she can not frame.
She boils water, adds thin noodles, mixes them with Ragu and white cheese—and thinks of eating. But questions haunt her. Tomorrow, she will confess her ruin. She spits up phlegm and pulpy noodles.
She sleeps in the same polyester-double-knit pink pants and flowered blouse. Relieving herself of Mr. Ferrill's ruin appears palpable, even possible. But . . . the next morning she pulls an English muffin apart, toasts it, extracts Smucker's apple butter from the mini-refrigerator in her room, and spreads the jam over both slices. Oops! If this were a process essay she assigned her students, she has neglected to include taking the oleo from the refrigerator. Her life is soggy, complicated by the fact that she over-thinks. She can't enjoy a television show with her parents. “Little House on the Stupid Prairie,” she has told her mother.
“Your grandmother loves her books.” Neither have to say the author's name. “Don't let her hear you say that. You take the fun out of things.” Lizzie's mother doesn't say what things, but Lizzie knows what Mama thinks. People have always known what Mama thinks, and Lizzie disparages ever knowing what she herself thinks without the aid of Cliff Notes to lead her into seeing what the critics say, not that she relies on the printed cheat sheets alone, but they help.
Now as she waits, she muses, “Why can't there be Cliff Notes for life?” A preacher might caution her to read her Bible; it presents all the answers to age-old questions.
The phone rings. Janna says, “I'll pick you up in fifteen minutes.”
“I've decided not to go.”
“That is your decision. We will talk some other time—when you are ready.”
“Yes,” Lizzie answers, realizing she will never hear directly from Janna, Tommy, and Dirk's world again.