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Chapter XI: Shells

[published in slightly different form in 1989]

Barbara opened a sliding closet door. The clothes she expected looked back at her. She went into the bathroom. It included a large sunken bath and a box shower with a glass door. She opened the glass door and observed shower nozzles on three sides and the ceiling. Well, that was interesting. Barbara was a member of a baby-sitting co-op. Whenever she sat at someone else's house she took an inventory of its decor and their lives. She paid most attention to the interior decoration, the paint and the surfaces, rough plaster, tough fabric, slick enamel, but she also always checked carefully the medicine chest. If the surfaces were the eyes of a house, the medicine cabinet was the heart. She had not at this moment thought of her survey of the Shahoskoy residence as like her inventory of the co-op houses because she stood in a different relation to Laura. The women in the baby-sitting co-op were people she knew only on the surface; she felt she grasped Laura somewhere else.


She opened the cabinet. A Rolls razor, a shaving brush, a bowl of shaving soap with the emblem of a college fraternity occupied the top shelf like objects in a Braque still life. She smiled at Karl a little derisively; it was his love of mechanical things. He was a little lovable. Mark used an electric razor. He was always talking about the stinging cool fluids that went with it, the before shave lotion, after shave lotion, always trying new ones, a little dissatisfied, commenting on whether they lived up to what the commercials said. On the next shelf down was a sealed carton of rubbers. Barbara wondered that a man like Karl had not chosen a more modern method of contraception. She wondered if that was why they had so many children, and smiled at herself. Maybe that was love of gadgets too. She returned to bedroom and looked in the drawer of a bedside table on Laura's side. It was filled with recipes. She looked in the second drawer, which was filled with seed packages and notes on the garden. She half bent to look in the bottom drawer, but somehow at this moment was embarrassed and went around to Karl's side. His top drawer was filled with many, colored pieces of plastic tube. The second drawer contained an open box of rubbers, three watches, two wrist and one pocket, and a pad of engineering paper thick with dusty sketches.


Satisfied on this point, Barbara went back to Laura's bottom drawer. It housed a little green, locked metal box. Barbara lifted the box and shook it. No sound, but from its weight and the unevenness of its weight, she did not think it was empty. "Well," she told herself, "I'm not so into prying I need to worry about this," and returned it to its place. She went back to the bathroom. The rest of the cabinet contained a modest assortment of minor medications, skin cream, topical disinfectant and topical painkillers, aspirin, Contacts, Cutex. On the next shelf was a tube of Prell shampoo and a kit of pale brown eye makeup with a lot of gray in it. Avon Wild Hazel. Barbara had not realized Laura wore eye makeup, but of course she did. How had she missed it? Barbara had a flash of anger. She did not like women who wore eye makeup. But on Laura it was different. Of course there was a slightly haunted quality to her and by using that subtle brown, like her skin tone, she slyly admitted it. Barbara picked up the kit and fingered some of the cream around her eyes, trying to reproduce Laura's subtlety. Barbara did not normally use eye makeup and did it badly. Her eyes looked back at her through flakes, as a stranger's eyes through a painted, peeling wall. She took a Kleenex out of her own pocket, removed the color, and returned the Kleenex to her pocket. On a separate shelf, that no one seemed to own, were Ex-Lax, Vaseline, and Di-Gel. There was only one prescription drug, a strong antihistamine prescribed to Karl for hay fever. She looked below the sink. Sani-Flush, pet shampoo, scouring powder, toilet cleaners, and objects like long twisted brushes that looked like another piece of flotsam from Karl.


She closed the bathroom door, wondered a moment if it had been closed, decided Laura would not care, walked back through the short hall to Karl's study, walked back through the living room where the light on the ceiling was moderately active, lending a light bluegrass color to things. A stairway climbed the opposite end wall of the living room. Three children's rooms were on the inside of this hall, which ran over the garage, laundry room, and kitchen. There was a bathroom at the end of the hall. The three bedrooms overlooked the patio with the swimming pool.


She had seen the room of the ten-year-old, John, when she came to pick up her own son. She skipped it and chose the middle room with the door nearest the stairs. Pictures filled it. The wall opposite the door was covered, every square inch, either with photographic posters or actual photos. A red sunset poster filled the center, a young teenage girl lying face down on the beach, her face in the sand, her legs up behind her, silhouetted against the sun, a red bikini, in red letters at the bottom, TELL ME ONLY YOUR OWN STORY and the call letters of a radio station. Barbara considered that she had that to look forward to, and wondered how Mark would take a daughter like that. With an uneasy smile and bit of blame on her, she decided. The rest of the photographs were almost all of young women, or of men of scattered ages. Several were of Karl and some, Barbara supposed, were made by him, for they included family and were set at home. She looked at Laura in earlier years. She did not think of Laura as a worried person, but when she saw the smooth faced young woman that held the little girl, she thought, "There's something on her mind." The pictures were arranged in neat rows.


A rather narrow single bed with a thick mattress; on the dresser only three objects. The whole room painted in black and white, apart from the poster; it was almost a decorator effect. Bold, rigid, bright. One bureau drawer ajar showed color. Somehow Barbara's conscience frightened or pricked her more at this step than before. She certainly would not do it to her own daughter when she was that old. Yet she put her hand on the drawer pull. The face of young Laura in a photo prompted her. As the drawer slid, she thought she heard a sound below. She froze. In her startled moment she thought it might be the sound of the liquid light dancing on the ceiling. She went to the window and peeped down at the pool and patio. Empty. After a minute, while she constructed stories, no second sound followed. She pulled the drawer wide open. It was filled with socks and underwear. Each item was folded into a square, square folded socks, bright slick panties, tiny bright brassieres, and stacked, and the square stacks of soft cloth arranged in rows. Barbara remembered the song about the skeleton, how the head bone is supported by the neck bone, and so on, but she did not remember them as connected but as stacked, and the arrangement seemed unsatisfactory, or someone found her arrangements wanting. A corner of plastic stuck out from under a stack of panties. Barbara gently pulled them back. There was a bag of something like green tea. This must be pot. She carefully lifted it out, remembering the disposition of the clothes; a person who kept this sort of clean, bold, and squared decor would notice if something were out of line. She held it in her hand. There was about the volume of half a pack of cigarettes in a plastic bag, neck drawn tight with a rubber band. Barbara looked back for cigarette papers. She found them under the neighboring stack. This, then, was pot. She was sorely tempted to take some. But there was not a great deal there...if she took enough to really know if it affected her it might be noticed. What would happen then? Marguerite would suspect her siblings or her mother. It never entered her mind that Marguerite would suspect Karl. But Marguerite would be unable to charge Laura, at least. Barbara imagined herself responsible for Marguerite nursing a secret grudge against her mother, and put the pot back in its place. She went back to the hall and looked at the doors. Who was Bluebeard for her? Mark? But Mark had no dead wives, nor did he want to show her or anyone the rooms of his soul. Anger kept the key. Yet Bluebeard did not want to show his room. Mark, there is a black-wrapped mummy somewhere.


Barbara walked to the end of the hall and opened the door there. This room was lighter than the others because it had windows on three sides. On the wall opposite the door, which faced the hillside was a clerestory, which viewed the base of bushes and in the distance a glimpse of the flat, semi-wild garden area on a terrace up the hill. On the left a window overlooked the back yard of a neighboring house. Barbara walked toward it. Had she ever been there? Did she know them? No, she thought not. There was a pool, a lawn, perfectly raked, obviously kept by a Japanese gardener, with white lawn furniture and dark shade trees. It seemed distant, a photograph of an English garden. The other window looked back down on the pool. This room was all athletics. Two trophies dominated the dresser. On the wall were crossed baseball bats and an outfielder's glove, on another wall a basketball net. No photographs in this room. School textbooks on a table beside the bed, under a study lamp. She gave in and looked at the writing on the trophies, high school baseball and basketball championships. Team sports. Karl Jr. was tall. No pictures of handsome men or women, no sense of particular other people. There was nothing in this room that hinted at a future home with people; it was a dormitory room. This is the typical room of a young American male, she thought with surprise; Mark must have had a room like this, except swimming...what could you hang up for swimming, your towel? Gilt tank trunks? Yet this is just the people who go on to be homemakers.


She went to the middle room, which belonged to Sophie, the oldest girl. Barbara had never met her, although she still lived at home and Laura often spoke of her. Her window looked over the pool. The room was littered with clothes. A bed, two chairs, and a desk, all piled with blue jeans, other kinds of slacks, plain shirts in various shades, plain cotton underwear, shoes, sweaters, three leather jackets, one black, one brown, one suede. When Barbara turned around, she found the back of the door was covered with photographs and posters, all black and white. The largest was a glary black and white photo of an old Indian drilling or lighting a fire with a bow drill. ISHI stood out in large white letters near the bottom, the name of the Indian, she supposed. Most of the other photographs were of Indians or of Polynesians caught in their own way of life. Men in elaborate costumes standing up to the camera as we might stand up to a flying saucer; at work usually; both genders dancing; in strange looking dwellings or meeting houses, all made by the black and white photography somehow the objects of our admiration or interest. Barbara, however, noticed one photo that was not of some pre-technological civilization. It showed Karl and a little girl who must have been Sophie herself. It was in a woods. Sophie was holding a tent pole and Karl had a heavy hammer and was about to whack it; Laura, her back partly cut away by the edge of the picture, stood a little off, watching with a puzzled expression. Barbara suddenly had a new feeling about how she had been looking through Laura's house. She had somehow been pretending to be Laura without knowing it. Sometimes when she surveyed the house of people where she cared for the child, she tried to imagine being that woman or man. Sitting at this table, this toilet, lying in that bed, escaping her own circumstances, imagining being the other with the additional pleasure of knowing that the other could escape because she was only Barbara imagining her. Sometimes Barbara thought everyone in the world was always aware of everything, not everything in the universe, but everything that touched the, like a gigantic encyclopedia of each person's life, from which our eyes have always just been diverted. She should do this in her own house sometimes, survey it as if she were a stranger but yet knowing herself, seeing with her own eyes, escape herself, her house, in her house, her self.


If Sophie came in while Barbara was surveying her room she would not be offended, she would instead clear a space for herself and her guest and say something. "Yes," she would say in a modest friendly voice, just repressing the trace of a giggle, "those are the so-and-so, have such crafts, they live in such dwellings, they are doing the such-and-such ceremony," and in the background would lurk her assertion that the such-and-such ceremony criticized our values and that they, Sophie and her guest, shared the criticism and that is why they were comfortably here together. Barbara cleared a space on the bed. She sat on the bed. If she were Goldilocks she would sleep in this bed. She stood.


Would there be brassieres in her drawers? Barbara looked in the top drawer of Sophie's dresser. It was filled with clothes just like the clothes piled around the room. Sophie must have a ton of clothes, all unremarkable. Barbara poked carefully under them. She found something wrapped in a plastic bag. She drew it out. It was an Indian pipe, dirty, old, but recently used. A kind of beadwork tail was attached to it. Nothing else. She looked in the next drawer. It was filled with photographic supplies, and expensive camera, lenses, paper, chemicals; they looked unused. Barbara looked in the bottom drawer. A flower press occupied most of it, boxes of letters. Barbara was beginning to feel she was spending out her store of time, or she might have read the letters.


She went again into the hall and opened the door of the upstairs bathroom. This little space was grayish dark, lit only from a small, high window with frosted glass. She switched on the fluorescent light. The room was long and narrow, the window at the far end. Little curtains with printed strawberries embraced the window, silly and out of place. On the right was a separate bathtub and stall shower. On the other side was a double sink, and over each sink a separate mirrored medicine cabinet. Why do we hide our drugs behind our faces? She opened the nearer door. The bottom glass shelf was piled with tooth brushes, an open tube of paste with a pink dragon on it, squeezed every which way; bubble bath; cough syrup; a prescription bottle of aureaomyacyn; and tablets for a CO2-powered toy. Two shelves were empty and the third had plain white soap, two electric and two blade shavers. So Karl shaves unlike his father. She thought of the rolls razor. There was also an ace bandage, rubbing alcohol, more witch hazel, more Prell shampoo. She opened the cabinet below. There were two stacks of towels, one with animals like drawn teddy bears, the other very austere, the set of towels that might be found in a school athletic department except without marking. This was a house of individuals. Below the towels were more plastic toys, and a bottle full of chocolate flavored bubble bath and a matching bottle of chocolate shampoo. She looked in the other cabinet. Whereas the first was plain white metal inside, this was lined with contact paper exhibiting rose-red Rubenesque women from etchings. The bottom three shelves were filled with hand creams, face creams, eye drops, nose sprays, suntan creams, ski creams, pills like vitamins, protein capsules, rose hip vitamin C's, also pain killers, aspirin, Excedrin, Demolin, and painkilling creams and insect repellents. The top shelf had a deodorant stick, deodorant soap, a tube of lipstick, a large comb of tortoise plastic, and something that looked like ivory and had the design of some sea mammal on it. Barbara opened the shelf below the second sink. There was more make-up. A kit of a dozen colors of eyeshade, all used, a bag of eyebrow shading dyes and media, artificial eyelashes and eyelash curler, a bottle of "pre-menstrual relief." Barbara paused at that and considered looking to see if the daughters had contraceptives hidden somewhere in their rooms. If she were on a baby sit and had a quiet evening before her with nothing to do, she would have looked carefully as if looking for her lost childhood. The other shelf contained tile disinfectant, the scouring powder and rags, and a supple of flowered toilet paper.


Barbara wandered back downstairs, feeling stuffed. Almost as an afterthought she recalled the hint of an upper terrace garden she had seen from the clerestory in Karl Jr's room. She wondered about the preoccupation of their house with clerestories; they wanted light without seeing or being seen. Perhaps the vegetable garden was up there. She had a feeling that if it was, she would learn something else about Laura...maybe it was just a sports place.


She walked around the pool and found a path leading through the growth of red-sinewed mesquite, oleander, and holy-green ceanothus up slope. After a moment she emerged. She stood still. Before her was a clearing with no building visible, as if in a scrub forest. At her feet a vegetable garden. Beyond it was a cleared, hard packed space around a pole with a basketball hoop at the top. Laura was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the pole, wearing a dress over jeans as she often did, looking at Barbara a little oddly. Her clothes were dirty as if she had been gardening, or even rolling in the dust like a hen.


"Hi."


Hi," Laura said, after a moment's pause. "Come over here."


"Hello," Barbara said, "I'm not disturbing you?" She began to walk around the vegetables toward her friend.


"Well, I didn't expect to see you, but perhaps I did? Laura said.


When she got round the vegetables Barbara could see on the ground that Laura or someone had drawn in the dust concentric half circles, like the concentric shells of the Hollywood Bowl or half the orbits of the planets.


"What are you doing?" Barbara asked.


"Have you heard of LSD?" Barbara's expression changed. "Well, I've taken it."


A dangerous animal appeared for a moment. Barbara had thought such drugs were interesting and attractive when she read about them, but seeing someone she knew was very unsettling.


"Are you all right?" she asked.


"Basically I'm well, although I don't know why," Laura said. "But there are some problems on the surface."


"How am I to take that?" Barbara said.


"You are not to worry," Laura said. "I have looked into the vegetable garden and seen what will grow there; there are some very worrisome things there, but now...look," she pointed at the rainbow lines around her on the dust. "I am the American people, see, go west young course of empire, to the parched deserts, oceans whit e with foam, distant tropics and frozen graveyards -- see, our walls are dust, have you ever noticed there are no stone walls in Los Angeles?"


"Yes," Barbara said.


"Good girl," Laura said.


Barbara was beginning to slip back from panic to wariness. "Have you taken it before?" she asked.


"Yes, twice, Barbara, I even kind of know what I'm doing. I thought you would understand? Don't you understand?" Laura looked up at her with an expression of puzzled cheerfulness.


"I think I do," Barbara said. Somehow she remembered that when she had been going through Laura's house she had seen afar off some ugly thing about her own life, and seeing it, gone confidently ahead.


"These are sea shells I like. West Coast beach shells. These are the shells of my life," Laura said. She pointed at one not near her but not at the edge. Barbara saw that the lines in the dust had not been casually drawn. Each one was made up of one, two, or three parallel lines with the distance between them carefully set and the earth had been patted down between the pairs of lines and on each side, sometimes flat, and sometimes with designs made by holding the fingers one way or another in action.


"That is the level, say, of my children's schools and their friends, where we met. Beyond that is the organizations I belong to, and beyond, shopping, and farther out..." Barbara saw a single dotted line drawn afar "...the letter I write monthly to my mother, and beyond that, if we could see it, it my mother showing it to her friends. One of them raises a tropical flower alone in a room in the Badlands. And here, "pointing to a line inside of where she'd started, "is what I do for my children and her," she pointed to the next line, "is my life with Karl, and here," she pointed to the inmost circle, "is the house I have made and keep for them. And here am I." She said that without making any gesture. Then she raised her face to Barbara. "Do you have shells like that?"


"I suppose I do. I think of them as things I do."


"And the tragedy of it is," Laura said, "they are all for someone else. None of it is mine." She gestured to the circles with the flash of her hand, "It's all something I do for someone else."


"It's your house too," Barbara protested.


Laura shook her head, "No, I do it for them. Like a painting."


Barbara walked around and sat down opposite her, careful not to disturb the lines.


"Well, I do it pretty well, you see," Laura said, gesturing toward the shrub forest and the invisible house below and the world beyond that.


"You do it well," Barbara said. She felt she should reassure her, like a sick person. At the same time she felt it was she who needed reassurance, and Laura could give it.


"But that is not the worst part," Laura said.


Barbara did not know what to say. She suddenly felt embarrassed to be learning Laura's domestic secrets, though she had been prying for an hour. It was an old fashioned emotion.


"The worst part is I am ashamed," Laura's face flushed.


"Because it's not for you?"


Laura nodded, her face bright pink, holding back tears. "Someone, everyone, each person," she said haltingly, "ought to do something for themselves." She began to cry. The two women embraced, awkwardly, sitting on the ground side by side. Barbara felt afraid again and a little disgusted, but she held on. "I'm so ashamed of myself," Laura said, chanted, several times, crying, holding on to Barbara. "Everyone SHOULD have something for themselves." Barbara began to be afraid someone might find them. If she had been able to wander in... How would she then explain what was happening?


CHAPTER XIII