fiction from my head
The Lawrence family’s accident occurred on the dark and winding California coastal highway in 1974. Richard and Candace sat in the front of the van passing a joint as they made their way north from San Francisco. Their nine-month-old daughter, Skye, was asleep on an Indian print cloth spread across the brown shag in the back.
The van was their home. It held a tiny wood burning stove and orange crocheted pillows on a green banquet. There was a rocking chair with a bungee cord laced through its slats tethered to a cup hook on the wall. There was a photograph of horses in the snow. The loft punched through the roof made the vehicle top heavy, so they took the highway at a gracious lope.
They had been all over the U.S. in that van. They followed bands, marched with pickets and threw flowers at cops. They were stubbornly in love and unwilling to admit that the fun of it had unraveled a good bit with Skye’s birth. Still, neither of them intended to call it quits. Not then. Not ever.
And then a coyote had stepped out of nowhere into the road. There was a fall of rock on the right, a cliff on the left. It was inexplicable that the animal should be there, yet it stood in the dark with the moon crossing in front of it like a river. Richard saw the red eyes only two seconds before they would have hit the animal. His compassion was automatic. Without thinking, he jerked the wheel to the side and stomped the brakes. The van rolled onto the driver’s side and slid, in cinematic slow motion, through the metal guardrail, falling through forty feet of air before making impact with the smooth face of the rock and sliding down the cliff face. When the van stopped it was because a sturdy little bush had become impaled through a broken window.
Skye didn’t recall that she had crawled around the crumpled van for four hours in a soiled diaper where her father lay dead and her mother unconscious before another car’s driver decided to investigate the broken guardrail, saw the still steaming van below and called for help.
They took Skye into custody and began to search for adoptive parents for her because no one believed her mother would live. Candace’s coma lasted two months filled with surgeries that were thought to be useless. Each time Candace went into the operating room, her foster mother would bring Skye in to kiss her mother goodbye, but not take her back when her mother did not die as expected to kiss her hello again. In all, she kissed her mother goodbye six times.
It took almost a year and a half before the twenty-five year old mother had recovered enough to be reunited with her two-year-old daughter who had spent those many months in the crowded foster home where she was kept alive but was not loved. Ever after, Skye insisted that what she wanted of her mother was to never be apart. And she would like some baby sisters.
Even if she’d been capable, Candace had no interest. It took her many years to accept her wheelchair bound condition so that she would no longer quake with frustration at how difficult the simple things had been made. Did anyone know or care that she couldn’t reach into the kitchen cabinets? Did anyone care that she wanted her husband back?
Eventually, her spirit healed. Her present life, with her daughter, with the flocks of parrots overhead, the palm trees, its middle-aged peace had made her philosophical about it all. She had come to believe that life’s transitory nature made each passing moment as precious to humans as a great work of art, and yet to God it was no weightier than a barroom joke.
She would stand with God.
Candace had her own explanation for why Skye did what she did. She claimed that Skye taught children too sick for any other classroom: too psychotic or schizophrenic, borderline or oppositional, OCD or DID, dysthymic, neglected and/or abused because she’d been forced to spend her life fetching, lifting, retrieving, and caretaking for her mother. Skye had, according to Candace, made a career of her forced competence mixed with the wound of her two years in foster care, but all Skye remembered of that was a dullness, a loneliness, quick anger, and once kneeling on a chair to eat tomato soup with too few floating crackers, not daring to ask for more.
Skye’s explanation was simpler. She had taught regular elementary first but somehow didn’t feel needed enough, challenged enough–all those sweet, bright faces, their curiosity running continuous as a fountain. Only the ones who were sullen and shut down and angry really captured her. Perhaps that was the part that was similar to foster care.
Skye had woken early, opened her eyes in their little cinder block house, alone in her white childhood bedroom, under her white covers, with the blinds closed against the fierce morning sun. A wooden knob loosed from the white dresser rested in a dish on its top. Above the dresser, no mirror; instead, a large and riotously colored self-portrait in oil copied from a funhouse photo: blonde hair running along her face like water; eyes swollen in great sagging circles, forehead too broad, chin an afterthought.
She heard the familiar squelching sound as the tires of her mother’s wheelchair made their way down the short terrazzo hallway to the bathroom where Candace would start her morning routine: the stripping of her overnight diaper, the transfer to the toilet and back, the washing, the trundling back to her room and back onto the bed where it was easier for her to dress–bra, tee, panties, long skirt–then back into the chair. Everything Candace did during the day was as hard as that, though she insisted upon carrying on as if it weren’t, as if the life she’d been handed were the right one.
Skye was dressed for work, had the coffee made, eggs scrambled, toast buttered, and cantaloupe sliced before Candace called for her. She quit fitting the half-moons of melon rinds into the garbage disposal and went. In her bedroom, Candace wordlessly took the hairbrush from her lap as she usually did and held it out to Skye, who took it, and began to brush the night’s snarls from the thick, grey hair. Candace was not a morning person, and Skye worked in silence. When she had the entire waist-length tail of it smooth, she set the brush aside to separate it into three portions and braid it. Then she held her hand out over her mother’s shoulder, and Candace put into it the waiting hairband, stretchy and magenta. Next, she knelt in front of her mother’s wasted legs, to roll on compression socks. She smiled up at her mother as she did, and Candace smiled back. This was the routine they preferred, and with the new job it was theirs year round not just during the summer.
For the four previous years Skye taught in Everglades City, which had meant a six a.m. drive-through latté, and forty miles of lonesome Tamiami Trail between this island and that one. Candace had always managed okay alone, but every day a cloud of guilt had bloomed like exhaust behind Skye’s old Jetta. This year, finally, she had been able to transfer to a school just five blocks from home.
As Candace rolled herself up to the dinette’s old Formica, Skye poured coffee into a one of her mother’s handmade mugs and presented the prepared plate.
“Lovely,” Candace said.
Skye sat with only buttered toast on her plate and the coffee pot at hand.
“I have to leave soon,” said Skye. The past week had been the teacher’s work days, when she and her aides, Wanda, had met the other teachers, prepped the classroom and read the student’s files, thick as manuals. The kids started today, and she wanted to be there early.
“Play hooky,” answered Candace. “Stay home and work on that new painting. Go on a date for a change. Go swimming. Take off on some cross-country adventure. Look for a new job. A different new job.”
“Mom. Not one word you said sounds sane.”
“I know,” Candace held up her hand. “It’s fine. You’re fine. Everything is fine.”