Admittedly, she scared me a little, too, because she was moody and quick to anger. Worse, the purity and the intensity of her self-esteem ensured that she would never doubt herself, that she could not con­ceive of suffering unpleasant consequences for any act that she might commit.
My father likes moody women in whom a perpetually simmering anger lies just beneath the surface. The more dearly that their moodi­ness indicates genuine psychological disorder, the more they excite him. Sex without danger does not appeal to him.
All of his lovers have fit this profile. He doesn’t appear to spend much effort seeking them; as if sensing his need, drawn by vibes or pheromones, they find him with dependable regularity
He once told me that the moodier a woman is, the hotter she will prove to be in bed. This was fatherly advice that I could have lived without.
Now, as I poured coffee into a gutful of Pepsi, he said, “Is this Llewellyn girl knocked up?”
“You’re too young for marriage,” he said. “My age - -that’s when it’s time to settle down.”
He said this for Britney’s benefit. He would never marry her. Later, she would remember this as a promise. When he ditched her, the fight would be more epic than Godzilla vs. Mothra.
Sooner or later, one of his hotties, during a bad mood swing, will maim or kill him. I believe that on some deep level, even if subcon­sciously, he knows this.
“What’s that on your forehead?” Britney asked.
“You fall down drunk or something?”
“You in a fight?”
“No. It’s an employment-related fork wound.”
“A flipped fork flicked my forehead.”
Alliteration seems to offend people. Her expression soured. “What kind of shit are you on?”
“I’m fully amped on caffeine,” I admitted.
“Caffeine, my ass.”
“Pepsi and coffee and No-Doz. And chocolate. Chocolate contains caffeine. I had some chocolate-chip cookies. Chocolate doughnuts.”
My father said, “Saturday’s not good. We can’t make Saturday. We’ve got other plans we can’t cancel.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “I understand.”
“I wish you’d have told us earlier.”
“No problem. I didn’t expect you’d be able to make it.”
“What kind of dork,” Britney wondered, “announces his wedding just three days before the ceremony?”
“Go easy,” my father advised her.
Her psychological engine didn’t have a go-easy gear. “Well, damn it, he’s such a freak.”
“That’s really not helpful,” my father admonished her, but in a honeyed tone.
“Well, it’s true,” she insisted. “Like we haven’t talked about it maybe three dozen times. He doesn’t have a car, he lives in a garage - “
“Above a garage,” I corrected.
” - he wears the same thing every day, he’s friends with every loser geek in town, he’s a wannabe cop like a water boy hanging around a football team, and he’s just a major freak - “
“You won’t get an argument from me,” I said.
” - such a major freak, the way he comes in here on some shit or other, talking about weddings and ‘employment-related fork wounds.’ Give me a break.”
“I’m a freak,” I said sincerely. “I acknowledge it, accept it. There’s no reason to argue. Peace.”
My father couldn’t quite fake a convincing note of sincerity when he said, “Don’t say that. You’re not a freak.”
He doesn’t know about my supernatural gift. At the age of seven, when my previously weak and inconstant sixth sense grew in power and reliability, I didn’t go to him for counsel.
I hid my difference from him in part because I expected him to ha­rass me into picking winning lottery numbers, which I can’t do. I fig­ured he’d parade me before the media, parlay my gift into a TV show, or even sell shares in me to speculators willing to finance an infomer­cial and a psychic-by-the-minute 900 number.
Getting off the stool, I said, “I think now maybe I know why I came here.”
As I started toward the kitchen door, my father followed me. “I really wish you’d picked another Saturday.”
Turning to face him, I said, “I think I came here because I was afraid to go to my mother.”
Britney stepped behind my father, pressing her nearly na*ed body against him. She put her arms around him, hands flat on his chest. He made no attempt to pull away from her.
“There’s something I’m blocking on,” I said, more to myself than to either of them. “Something I desperately need to know… or need to do. And somehow, some way, it’s related to Mother. Somehow she has the answer.”
“Answers?” he said incredulously. “You know perfectly well that your mother’s about the last place to find answers.”
Smiling wickedly at me over my father’s left shoulder, Britney slid her hands slowly up and down his muscled chest and drum-flat belly.
“Sit down,” my father said. “I’ll pour you another coffee. If you have a problem you need to talk about, then let’s talk.”
Britney’s right hand moved low on his belly, fingertips teasing un­der the waistband of his hip-slung shorts.
He wanted me to see the desire that he inspired in this lush young woman. He had a weak man’s pride in his status as a stud, and this pride was so fierce that it filled his mind, leaving him quite incapable of recognizing his son’s humiliation.
‘”Yesterday was the anniversary of Gladys Presley’s death,” I said. “Her son wept uncontrollably for days after losing her, and he grieved openly for a year.”
A faint frown made the shallowest of furrows in my father’s Botoxed forehead, but Britney was too engrossed in her game to be listening to me with full attention. Her eyes glittered with what might have been mockery or triumph as her right hand slowly slipped deeper in his khaki shorts.
“He loved his dad, too. Tomorrow is the anniversary of Elvis’s own death. I think I’ll try to look him up and tell him how lucky he was from the very day he was born.”
I walked out of the kitchen, out of the house.
He didn’t come after me. I hadn’t expected that he would.
MY MOTHER LIVES IN A LOVELY VICTORIAN HOUSE IN the historical district of Pico Mundo. My father had inherited it from his parents.
In the divorce, she received this gracious residence, its contents, and substantial alimony with a cost-of-living adjustment. Because she has never remarried and most likely never will, her alimony will be a lifetime benefit.
Generosity is not my father’s first or second - or last - impulse. He settled a comfortable lifestyle on her solely because he feared her. Although he resented having to share his monthly income from the trust, he didn’t have the courage even to negotiate with her through attorneys. She received pretty much everything that she de­manded.
He paid for his safety and for a new chance at happiness (as he de­fines it). And he left me behind when I was one year old.
Before I rang the doorbell, I brushed my hand across the porch swing to confirm that it was clean. She could sit on the swing, and I would sit on the porch railing while we talked.
We meet always in the open air. I had promised myself that I would never enter that house again, even if I should outlive her.
After I’d rung the bell twice without a response, I went around the house to the backyard.
The property is deep. A pair of immense California live oaks stand immediately behind the house, together casting shade that is all but complete. Farther toward the back of the lot, sun falls unfiltered, al­lowing a rose garden.
My mother was at work among the roses. Like a lady of another era, she wore a yellow sundress and a matching sunbonnet.
Although the wide brim of the hat shaded her face, I could see that her exceptional beauty had not been tarnished during the four months since I last visited her.
She had married my father when she was nineteen and he was twenty-four. She is forty now, but she might pass for thirty.
Photographs taken on her wedding day reveal a nineteen-year-old who looked sixteen, breathtakingly lovely, shockingly tender to be a bride. None of my father’s subsequent conquests have matched her beauty.
Even now, when she is forty, if she were in a room with Britney she in her sundress and Britney in that thong bikini, most men would be drawn to her first. And if she were in a mood to rule the moment, she would enchant them such that they would think she was the only woman among them.
I drew near to her before she realized that she was no longer alone. She raised her attention from the flowers, stood taller, and for a mo­ment blinked at me as though I were a heat mirage.
Then: “Odd, you sweet boy, you must have been a cat in another life, to sneak across all that yard.”
I could summon only the ghost of a smile. “Hello, Mom. You look wonderful.”
She requires compliments; but in fact she never looks less than wonderful.
If she had been a stranger, I might have found her to be even love­lier. For me, our shared history diminishes her radiance.
“Come here, sweetie, look at these fabulous blooms.”
I entered the gallery of roses, where a carpet of decomposed gran­ite held down the dust and crunched underfoot.
Some flowers offered sun-pricked petals of blood in bursting sprays. Others were bowls of orange fire, bright cups of yellow onyx brimming with summer sunshine. Pink, purple, peach - the garden was perpetually decorated for a party.
My mother kissed me on the cheek. Her lips were not cold, as I al­ways expect them to be.
Naming the variety, she said, “This is the John F. Kennedy rose. Isn’t it exquisite?”
With one hand, she gently lifted a mature bloom so heavy that its head was bowed on its bent stem.
As Mojave-white as sun-bleached bone, with a faint undertone of green, these large petals weren’t delicate but remarkably thick and smooth.
“They look as if they’re molded from wax,” I said.
“Exactly. They’re perfection, aren’t they, dear? I love all my roses, but these more than any other.”
Not merely because this rose was her favorite, I liked it less than the others. Its perfection struck me as artificial. The sensuous folds of its labial petals promised mystery and satisfaction in its hidden center, but this seemed to be a false promise, for its wintry whiteness and waxy rigidity - and lack of fragrance - suggested neither purity nor passion, but death.
“This one’s for you,” she said, withdrawing a small pair of rose snips from a pocket of her sundress.
“No, don’t cut it. Let it grow. It’ll be wasted on me.”
“Nonsense. You must give it to that girl of yours. If properly pre­sented, a single rose can express a suitor’s feelings more clearly than a bouquet.”
She snipped off eight inches of stem with the bloom.
I held the flower not far below its receptacle, pinching the stem with thumb and forefinger, between the highest pair of thorns.
Glancing at my wristwatch, I saw that the lulling sun and the per­fumed flowers only made time seem to pass lazily, when in fact it raced away. Robertson’s kill buddy might even now be driving to his ren­dezvous with infamy
Moving along the rosarium with a queenly grace and a smile of royal beneficence, admiring the nodding heads of her colorful sub­jects, my mother said, “I’m so glad you came to visit, dear. What is the occasion?”
At her side yet half a step behind her, I said, “I don’t know exactly. I’ve got this problem - “
“We allow no problems here,” she said in a tone of gentle remon­stration. “From the front walk to the back fence, this house and its grounds are a worry-free zone.”
Aware of the risks, I had nonetheless led us into dangerous terri­tory. The decomposed granite under my feet might as well have been sucking quicksand.
I didn’t know how else to proceed. I didn’t have time to play our game by her rules.
“There’s something I need to remember or something I should do,” I told her, “but I’m blocked on it. Intuition brought me here because… I think somehow you can help me figure out what I’ve overlooked.”
To her, my words could have been barely more comprehensible than gibberish. Like my father, she knows nothing of my supernatu­ral gift.
As a young child, I had realized that if I complicated her life with the truth of my condition, the strain of this knowledge would be the death of her. Or the death of me.
Always, she has sought a life utterly without stress, without con­tention. She acknowledges no duty to another, no responsibility for anyone but herself.
She would never call this selfishness. To her it’s self-defense, for she finds the world enormously more demanding than she is able to tolerate.
If she fully embraced life with all its conflicts, she would suffer a breakdown. Consequently, she manages the world with all the cold calculation of a ruthless autocrat, and preserves her precarious sanity by spinning around herself a cocoon of indifference.
“Maybe if we could just talk for a while,” I said. “Maybe then I could figure out why I came here, why I thought you could help me.”
Her mood can shift in an instant. The lady of the roses was too frail to handle this challenge, and that sunny persona retreated to make way for an angry goddess.
My mother regarded me with pinched eyes, her lips compressed and bloodless, as if with only a fierce look she could send me away.
In ordinary circumstances, that look alone would indeed have dis­patched me.
A sun of nuclear ferocity rose toward its apex, however, rapidly bringing us nearer to the hour of the gun. I dared not return to the hot streets of Pico Mundo without a name or a purpose that would focus my psychic magnetism.
When she realized that I would not immediately leave her to the comfort of her roses, she spoke in a voice as cold and brittle as ice: “He was shot in the head, you know.”
This statement mystified me, yet it seemed to have an uncanny connection to the approaching atrocity that I hoped to prevent.
“Who?” I asked.
“John F. Kennedy.” She indicated the namesake rose. “They shot him in the head and blew his brains out.”
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