Originally published on The Fiction Pool (Oct. 2017)
My name is Ann Bowers.
I was raised in a strict Lutheran household. Any shimmer of joy I felt was leavened with dogma, scripture, and the abhorrence of worldly vices. Born two weeks late, past fully formed, hungry all the time, I was eager to experience what my senses said was for the taking. Every desire felt urgent. To my ears, the morning dove’s song magnified to a higher sometimes unbearable pitch. Cold river water spilling across my legs drove me into a fit of glee and giggles. The smell of soil summoned memories of night picnics that I never actually experienced. I couldn’t breathe unless I was consuming all that the world offered. My father recognized that his daughter was curious and, as he said, “possessed of an over-ripened mind.”
Taking stock, he decided I had to be spiritually hogtied. Discipline just short of thrashing, though thrashing would have been preferred for a host of the wrong reasons. Punishment, the sole excitement of my flesh. Lessons on the saving power of the Holy Ghost. Prayer meetings that ended at four in the morning. Chores at six. Sinfulness everywhere I cast my gaze. I tiptoed upon a tightrope of fear, balancing good and wicked. One gentle tickle of temptation could tip me into the maw of eternal hell.
Though we were humble people, we always had enough food to eat, a warm bed, right-fitting clothes, clean faces.
Self mortification preoccupied my family. I was told repeatedly that the all-seeing God would hold me to account for my transgressions. It was even an offence to speak of one’s good deeds. I was once handed a five-dollar bill in change at the grocer where it should have been a one. I later told my mother that I brought the error to the attention of the grocer and returned the money. She slapped me across the face to strike out my coarse and boastful pride.
From then on, I never sought attention, not even when at 14, I felt my curiosity pull me over some kind of watery current. Sex was never discussed unless in the context of sinfulness and filth. I liberated myself from all that when my parents died in a car accident. I had my first sexual experience on the day of their funeral. With a stranger who attended. He said he knew my parents when they were young. I was fascinated by him and the secrets he told about my mother and father. From then on I associated sexual pleasure with death. This is nothing new. The French know all about it. La petite morte. Each climax a small death and worth whatever risk it might take to reach. It’s actually quite a wonderful thing, that connection, that contradiction, that paradox of desire. A liberation from the tracts.
This is the story that the man I met at the funeral who told me about my mother, Sophie. His name was Henry. He had met her when she was 19. He, a young man of 25 contracted to skim coat the walls of her house outside of San Francisco with a view of the Pacific that could make you seasick or rapturous at the same time. One day while he was painting my mother’s bedroom robin’s egg blue, she decided to go for a swim. She changed out of her skirt into a white one-piece leaving the bathroom door ajar just so that Henry could glimpse the scrunch of her alabaster ass cheeks as she shimmied in and out. This little show went on for three days. Each day, the door opened just a crack more. She stood before the mirror so as to reflect her raised arms, hands thumbing straps, her lips humming. She then wrapped herself in a towel and ventured outside toward the beach alone.
Henry continued his tasks through the afternoon, focusing his attention on gilding the boiserie in the dining room, though he had not quite finished Sophie’s bedroom.
Returning damp and flushed, brushing her hair, stiffened and tousled by the salt water and wind, Sophie asked if she could watch him work. Imagine Michelangelo subjected to the gaze of a temptress while on his back in the chapel. Henry didn’t know what to do with himself; didn’t know what to make of this beautiful girl who had no trouble looking straight into his parched blue eyes.
Her father would be delayed with pressing business. An opportunity in Texas would keep him for weeks.
The paint job became something of a Scheherazade. Henry slowed the stroke of his brushes, volunteered to detail the plaster ribbons on the library ceiling for no additional charge and always seemed to find a crack, a nagging imperfection in Sophie’s bedroom that required a few more hours of labor. August brought blistering heat and clouds swollen with the threat of rain. Afternoon shadows liquified on unfinished corners. And, as for my mother’s piety, at this point in her life, there was none. God did not exist for Sophie. It was not an outright rejection of the Almighty, merely a life in which power and privilege had nudged out any need for spiritual succor.
Her father was a widowed railroad man, prosperous enough to speculate on the gushers in Spindletop. He never needed a prayer to strike crude. Towering waterfalls of thick black soup covered the drillers head to toe so that only their white eyes blinked in the sun. His ambition was the Gospel from which wealth and all of its appurtenances sprung forth–feathered beds, domestics, tickets to the opera. He spoiled his daughter hoping the goods would somehow provide a substitute for her life without a mother’s embrace.
On the seventh day of Henry’s painting, a light rain pelted the seeded windows. Briny waves flopped against the dark shore. The wind carried particles of sand that stuck to the wet paint and corrupted and blistered Henry’s sleek oiled finishes.
Before Sophie’s father left, he had given he a stern warning that she should report to Nessie the cook who would be there well before supper each day. Henry was finished with his painting. There was nothing left but brushes to rinse, the oily residue soaked in turpentine. The smell of pine resin roamed through the house like a potion released from a genie’s bottle. Once again, Sophie changed from nightgown to swimsuit, and Henry watched in silence. He locked upon her body spilling into the suit, filling it like milk in a pitcher. By late morning, the rain was more spit than droplets. The sand on the beach swirled around her, stinging her legs. Out further into the sea, the water churned to froth. She thought of her own mother, wondered what secrets she took with her when she had drowned five years to the day.
Her body muscled into the waves, her eyes burned with salt. She dove under, tasted the foam, the weeds and reached the bottom, then, holding her breath, emerged on the surface. Sophie was strong and sure. But she was alone. Suddenly, a wave blindsided her. Water shot into her left ear, whiplashed neck to shoulder. It was all blackness until she shot up again, then tumbled, vomiting. There was no air. Desperation filled her lungs. “This is where I die. Motherless, Father faraway, no sister, or brother, no God.” She struck a bargain. “Lord, save me. I will believe you are real, that you are god. I will live in humble purity, just save my life.” In those moments, she believed in nothing but her hopelessness, nothing but the shallowness of her life, the shallowness of water in the depths.
Henry saved her.
He had taken his time to follow her. When he saw that she was but a doll on the waves, Henry tore his clothes off and ran towards her. He dragged her to the shore, turned her on her belly, drove the water from her lungs. Watched her gulp invisible air as if it were some sweet elixir. As her eyes opened, she saw Henry standing above her. Beyond him dark clouds and splinters of lightning. She owed him her life. As is often the case in these circumstances, they became slave and subject.
She said, “You are god’s vessel in the flesh.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck, wept and wailed. He felt her breath on him, snot, tears, spit. This did not taste like a pious woman.
Wasn’t she the one who cupped her breasts, undressed, teased, and now what of this sudden piety? He carried her back to the house. She was as light as a bird, the droplets on her skin moving like tears across her shoulders.
By this time Nessa would be there. Once inside, they heard someone singing from the kitchen. “Nessa,” Sophie called out weakly. The singing stopped, a spoon clattered to the floor. At the threshold, a young woman with dark hair tied in braids across her head like loaves of twisted bread, appeared. Her dress was purple with a hem of white ribbon. “Tatiana,” Sophie said, “it’s you, back from the ranch two winters passed.” Tatiana was Nessa’s youngest daughter, 19 as well, burnt cheeks, black eyes with bursts of copper, a shy smile, big hands. She took her from Henry’s arms, brought her to her bed, made her tea from berries and juniper pine. Nessa, Tati, explained, had been called away to take care of her ailing father. The house was theirs. Alone.
Henry, Sophie and Tatiana lived in the house together for three months, until the shortest days of the year drew close. Henry’s desire for Sophie was strong, but she demurred, quoting Bible passages, referring to harlots and Mary Magdalene as cautionary tales. She burned her bathing suit. But Tati, Tati had no such conversions. You see, it was Tati’s belief that God was here, indicating her head, here, indicating her heart, and here, indicating her vagina. And God was love.
Within a few weeks, Henry found comfort in Tati’s arms. She needed no redemption, no rescue, never went near the ocean. She didn’t need heaven, scoffed at the idea of hell. Laughter was prayer. She lived in a room in the basement in that house which Henry painted scarlet. The room’s vents led to pipes entwined throughout the house and as Sophie prayed, she heard every sigh, moan, sweet wet slap through those pipes as Tati and Henry found God again and again. One morning six months later, Tati encountered Sophie in the kitchen while dawn clawed through the darkness. Sophie was praying in a pitch of fever, but her tears belied the love she felt she had lost.
“Take him,” Tati said. “I’m going up north to Merkumi River to meet my mother, bury my grandfather.”
Sophie startled, said nothing.
By evening Tati was gone. It was New Year’s Eve, the ground swollen with ice, dead silence. In the afternoon, Sophie began to pack having received word that her father was ill. She would take the next train east in the morning. Henry burst into the bedroom pushed the suitcase off the bed. She struggled as he grasped her wrists.
“Go with Tati!,” she screamed. Henry damned her, told her God hadn’t saved her from the ocean, he had, and she was never far from his mind even in Tati’s embrace. “I see you everywhere I turn, Sophie,” and he pinned her to the bed, his body scorching with rage, and he took her there. She stopped struggling, and all the light of that new day, that new year, bent toward their pale damp bodies.
Before she left, Sophie asked Henry if he believed in God.
“As a child, I did,” he said. “then came loss after loss, suffering I could not justify in a world where God reigned.”
“Will you pray with me for faith?”
He shook his head, kissed her but saw already that her eyes were brimmed with tears. She had to leave.
In Beaumont, Texas, Sophie, my mother became engaged to Samuel Bowers, a man her father employed on the oil fields. Samuel was proper, prosperous, and pious-the last quality not of any use to Sophie’s father, but to her a sign of portent. He was a Virginian from a family of slaveholders, lovers of scripture for in those holy pages they discovered words that ordained slavery as part of the natural order, part of a white man’s duty and honor. Samuel often reminded Sophie of this: Jesus, though he repeatedly denounced sin as a kind of moral slavery, said not a word against slavery as a social institution.”
It would take a year for Sophie and Samuel to marry. An estate dispute among Samuel’s family preoccupied him. During that year-long engagement, Sophie found reasons to return to San Francisco. First, it was the city where she had chosen her wedding dress which needed several fittings, covered buttons, matching tufted gloves with blue tulips embroidered on the back of the hand. Secondly, she needed to tend to the house by the sea which was up for sale and needed a fresh coat of exterior paint.
Sophie told her father that Nessa would be there to help. On those long train rides back to California, she prayed for goodness, prayed for Samuel, prayed for her own eternally soiled soul. And she prayed finally for Henry. For his strength and her strength to resist the temptation that burned through her like brimstone, that Henry would not be waiting at outside the seamstress shop, holding in his hand, laced leather booties with a turned heel. That he would not in short order, demand that she wear those boots along with a new white bathing suit in that robin’s eggs blue room. And nothing more. That she would not invite him to swim in the cold ocean as spring turned to summer. She returned to Samuel in July, settled into the comforts he supplied–righteousness, her father’s warm blessings, reading the Bible in the evening as cold spring light lingered past supper. Sophie told Samuel about her conversion, her promise to God, how she was saved, saved so miraculously. Unneeded details were omitted. A gentle wave replaced Henry, a wave that brought her back to shore. Sophie and Samuel were married in Dallas, honeymooned in Paris, a city which they both found profane–an excess in food, too saucy and of a detestable worldliness in artistic expression.
I was born almost nine months after the honeymoon, nine months exactly after the last bridal fitting. Me. And, as I have said, into a household of solemn prayer, sacrifice, renunciation of the flesh. Severe, one might say. Enough to eat, but never more than enough. And I lived in the Lord’s light, till I was about 15.
The man who came to my parent’s funeral, the man I fell in love with, or at least found some deep and mutual passion, that man mystified me. The one for whom death and sex and family and love and desire boiled over into a sacrilegious stew. It was Henry.
We continued to see each other for the length of my grief-a year and a half Henry and I saw each other every evening. I was living in my parent’s home then, left everything untouched, even the dirty dishes in the sink.
He’d get there around 6 or 7pm, still in his white painter pants and shirt splattered with the day’s work. Dove gray, icy lavender, bone, butter, steel. He’d shower in the almond tiled bathroom and try to scrape every spot of paint from his body, but no matter. At our simple no-cook dinners of bread and cheese, cold tomato soup, chocolate donuts, I’d find flecks of paint in his hair. He was skilled at interiors, the detailed work of window casings, floorboards, cornices, wainscoting. He used thick oil based whites that seeped into the scrapes of his fingertips. When he touched me, I felt the care and focus of his work. It takes patience to finish a room
I found the story of Henry and Sophie a year later in my mother’s letters and diaries, then it all fell together, so to speak. Or fell apart. Or perhaps I knew already.
Before he left, Henry told me that he would always love my mother more than he loved me. That he had a daughter named Stacia in Mill Valley, California who actually painted fine art on canvases. That she was a fine swimmer where as I never went near bodies of water. That he was there to grieve and he was now done with grieving. That I should be done as well.
I was grateful that he loved me at all. But I wasn’t done with grieving. I had no next step, no plan. I resorted to paper plates after he left.
I realized that my mourning time for my parents had been cut in half because of the time Henry and I had spent together. This was before I read the letters and counted time backward and forward and stitched a story from the loose threads of a long ago life.
A week later, a woman arrived at my door, about my age. Her hair was thick and wooly and she seemed to have come from a long way. She gazed at me with the blue of Henry’s eyes.
“I’m Della, Tati’s daughter,” she said. “I’ve come to clean out the house, do the dishes, get you ready to move out of here.”
She was ruthless in sorting and disposing of my past. There was nothing to save, she reminded me.
I began to tell her that I felt sinful, but she shooed me away as she shoved boxes of empty picture frames to the curbside. “Put the house up for sale tomorrow,” she told me. “The walls will never look fresher.”