a small pocket of the city, where imported palm trees lined the sidewalks, where
tiny backyards of plum and lemon trees and occasional swatches of green lawn were
framed by steep wooden staircases, where old Victorians stood in various stages
of disrepair against the clear sky, painted brightly in pinks, blues, and purples,
there was heard every morning at the rising of the sun, a wail. This wail keened
out over a small courtyard, waking the inhabitants of the apartments that surrounded
it. It began like the whistle of a tea kettle, a thin ribbon of sound that grew
broader, heightening until it became a wide, wavering vibrato, a careening sheet
of noise, a bright flag flapping in a gale. Immediately, the Colombian construction
worker in the shotgun two-bedroom on the third floor rolled over and stretched
himself out of bed; his wife groaned and sat up next to him, listening for their
son. The newlywed computer programmers, whose bedroom windows overlooked the courtyard,
snuggled tightly for just a few minutes more, before they rose and jumped in the
shower together. The waitress in the first floor apartment who worked the nightshift
finished her cigarette and took a last bite of her sandwich before tucking herself
in for the morning. The earnest young yoga teacher went to stand by his kitchen
window, sipping his green tea, and gazed toward what he thought might be the source
of the sound, hoping to catch just a glimpse of the wailing woman. Though he tried,
he could not identify the source of the cry. It seemed to come from all around,
to bounce off his walls and high Edwardian ceilings, and to hang in the air like
the fog shrouding the Twin Peaks above.
lady, thought the Colombian woman as she fixed an egg for her sons breakfast,
shes been abandoned by her lover, left to care for her infant child alone.
The womans overworked, thought the waitress who worked the night
shift, as she fell into bed and closed her eyes, with feet that she cant
stand to lift. "I bet shes a crazy old hag, with a hunchback," said
the computer programmer through a mouthful of toothpaste, "who can hardly stand
up." His new wife laced her hands around his waist. "With sunken eyes," she said,
"and just one or two yellowed teeth." Oh, how lonely she must be, thought
the earnest young yoga teacher, how desperate, how empty.
single story was approved by the neighborhood as a cause for the wail, but they
did latch onto a name. The professor of Chicano Studies who lived two floors below
the yoga teacher dubbed her La Llorona, the wailing woman. As she told it, "There's
a Mexican legend about a wailing woman -- La Llorona, se llama. She bore children
she didn't want, and she drowned them in the river. But she was haunted by her
crime and now she wanders the streets at night, weeping for her dead babies. She
dresses all in white, like a ghost, and if you look at her face, you will die.
This woman wails like her." She dropped her voice to a whisper: "I think she's
done something terrible. Hay maldad en su casa."
view of herself was not quite so mythic. She led a balanced life. She ate well:
a bowlful of oatmeal cooked with apples and raisins for breakfast, a salad at
lunch, and a good balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, and vegetables at
dinner. She arrived at 8 o'clock sharp every morning at her office downtown --
she worked as a paralegal at Pearson, Ricker, & Stores, a corporate law firm
-- and she arranged her lunch in the staff refrigerator and attached the wrist
cushion to the base of her computer keyboard. She stood up to stretch her wrists,
back, and shoulders every hour and a half, to minimize the chances of developing
carpal tunnel syndrome. Every evening after work she set the Stairmaster at the
Wellness Center for twenty five minutes on Interval training, then took her pulse
as she walked to cool down -- a consistent 115 at the end of her workout, 75 when
resting. She was fit, trim, wore sneakers to work and took public transportation
as much as possible, and drank only one glass of wine a week -- with her dinner
on Friday nights -- to cut down on the risk of heart disease and help her sleep.
Every morning Nina
rose at 5:45, wrapped herself in a silver silk robe her mother had given her when
she was still alive, shuffled into the kitchen to put on the coffee, stretched
her back and hamstrings in four Sun Salutes, and stepped into the shower. As the
water hit her face, wetting her short blond bob and her upturned nose, she stretched
her mouth wide, stuck out her tongue as far as she could, opened her throat, and
said what she thought was, "Aaaaaa." This yoga pose was called the Lions
Roar, and its purpose was to stretch and strengthen the tongue, lips, throat,
and vocal cords, as well as to greet the day. Nina believed this "Aaaaaa" was
nothing more than an extended gutteral sigh. She was not aware of the way the
sound, once given the opportunity to escape, surged from her like a great freshet
breaking a dam.
the Christmas of her 28th year, she met Gladys. Nina had planned to
meet Tony at the firms year-end party. Tony -- also a paralegal, as well
as the self-designated matchmaker of the firm -- brought Gladys. Gladys's hand
was sweaty when Nina shook it. Nina looked for an inconspicuous place to wipe
off the sweat and Gladys handed her a towel she kept in her large black purse
-- one that reminded Nina of Mary Poppinss bottomless carpetbag.
-- indulge yourself," said Gladys. "I know my curse."
no," Nina said, shocked at Gladys's straightforwardness. "I must have spilled
something on my hand -- some water from my glass." She took the towel and wiped,
then folded it carefully in threes before handing it back.
and I have known each other for ages," gushed Tony. "I cant even remember
where we first met, Glad. Was it at Neros masquerade that year? When I went
as Chiquita banana? Oh, no it wasnt, no it wasnt!" Tony grabbed
Gladyss elbow. "It was Judy, she had us both over for that wine-tasting
party. I remember, I invited you, too, Nina, but you came up with some excuse.
Glad, Nina is a yoga goddess. You should get her to show you some of her
moves. She was the one I told you about who got that nasty kink out of my back
months ago -- remember? Oh, God, it felt so good, even though I was sore
for days afterwards. You should, Glad, you should try it."
always talks too much when he's trying to get people together." Gladys lifted
her bug-eye glasses, set them higher on her nose, and considered Nina, as if she
were a fruit with a small spot of mold.
I am not! I just thought you might be interested in one of Nina's major
talents -- just out of courtesy, at least. God. I swear, sometimes -- "
Tony stomped off to the bar in a huff, leaving the two of them together.
straight, aren't you?" Gladys said. Her eyes were sharp and small -- a bleak grey,
like a foggy morning. She had a wide nose with a flat bridge, and her heavy glasses
kept sliding toward the tip of it. Her black hair coiled like wires from underneath
a fisherman's cap, which she wore slightly askew. She chewed on her lips as she
watched Nina -- they were meaty and over-red, and constantly glistening. A mole
protruded from the corner of her mouth, and from time to time she stuck her tongue
out to touch it, almost involuntarily, like a frog feeding on flies. Nina was
slightly repulsed by her physicality, her sloppy clothing -- cotton sweater hanging
hip-length over a long, shapeless skirt and ankle boots with splashes of paint
on the toes. Yet she also immediately admired her in a childish way, the way a
young girl looks up to an older one.
knew it," Gladys continued. "Tony always pulls this one on me -- he doesn't seem
to get it that not everyone in San Francisco goes both ways." She sighed and put
her hand on her hip. "I warned him, I said, Look, Tony -- is that woman over there
a dyke? Because if she is, I want you to introduce me. But only if she is. I knew
he knew you. He knows everyone. But, I said, you'd tell me if she was straight,
or married, right? But all he would say was -- oh, Glad, she's perfect
for you, you're going to love her, Glad, please let me introduce you, please
-- in his eternally faggy way." Gladys rolled her eyes and picked a piece of lint
off her breast. "Ah, well."
blushed, suppressing a giggle. She felt all of a sudden like a maiden in a Renoir
painting, with porcelain skin and florid cheeks. "I'm sorry," she said.
youre straight?" Gladys raised one eyebrow. "Look, I'm famished -- are you
here alone, anyway? Because I hate mingling, and I really hate eating alone. Excuse
me," Gladys tapped a suited shoulder and wove a path through the crowd. She did
not wait to hear Nina's reply. Nina followed.
firm had rented out a hotel ballroom. The place had been empty when Nina arrived.
The clicking of her heels on the floor had echoed against the walls as she walked
to find her nametag on a table clothed in white linen. But now it was filling
up -- men in suits and ties moved to and from the bar like eddying water, holding
glasses of wine and cocktails above the heads of the crowd. Women stood in tight
circles, sipping and talking, glittering under the chandeliers. Splashes of red
marked the occasion -- red dresses, ties, sweaters, socks. A sprig of mistletoe
hung over the entry way, and one man stood directly underneath it, tapping every
woman who passed by, pointing above him, shrugging, like there was nothing he
could do but follow custom, and kissing the victim full on the lips. Nina felt
stifled. She removed her blazer and hung it on the seat behind her. She considered
checking it at the coatroom -- she did not want it to get stained by spilled wine
-- but the crowd was thick by now, and she was hungry.
tell you, I don't know why I came. Look at that idiot over there, under the mistletoe.
How much do you think he's had to drink already?"
Oh, I don't think he even drinks at all."
does that sober? Unbelievable." Gladys took a large glug from her bottle of beer.
She tucked a swatch of hair behind her ear and looked up at Nina over the tops
of her black frames. She reminded Nina of an animal -- some kind of woodchuck
or gopher -- the way her eyes wrinkled at the corners and scrutinized her shamelessly.
"I should tell you right away, if were going to be friends. I can read minds."
don't tell everyone I meet," Gladys continued, shoving forkfuls of salad and pasta
into her mouth as she spoke, "because you know how people get. They start asking
me for favors, or worse, acting like Im slightly off, and theyre just
going to humor me about it. Like it's not something I live with every day of my
life for Christ's sake. Its not easy, you know. It gets distracting. For
example, I can hardly hold this conversation, because I keep hearing that mans
voice over there -- see him? The one swaggering over to the bartender -- you know
what hes thinking?" Gladys dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in
toward Nina. "Hes rating every woman he passes on a scale of 1 to 10."
laughed Nina, turning to see who she was talking about.
not kidding. I heard it when I passed him. I was a 4. Bastard."
I can believe it," said Nina, playing along. "Thats Paul. Hes slept
with at least five of the summer interns."
tell you something else," said Gladys. She sat back in her chair.
Are you going to read my mind?" Nina raised her eyebrows coyly.
bit her bottom lip. "Youre hard to crack. Im getting some foggy signals.
I sense intelligence, stubbornness, even obsession. One thing I can see: you like
me." She spat the pit of an olive into the palm of her hand.
had never met someone so forthright, so ready to say the first thing that came
to mind. She was enjoying it. It was a nice change of pace from her own prison
cell of a mind -- the neatly arranged cell, with its bedspread smoothed and its
sheets hospital-cornered, and the sink and toilet scrubbed daily. Nina walked
through life with a vague sense of claustrophobia, no matter where she was. Her
thoughts paced. She obsessively arranged, planned, and parceled. She made lists:
to-do lists, lists of videos to rent, of books to read, lists of possible birthday
gifts to get her father or her boss, lists of pros and cons for every decision
she had to make:
out with Tony after work?
wont bug me about getting out more||Expensive|
will we talk about?|
made lists until every choice loomed like a growling beast in the hall, until
she learned to simply remain in her cell, behind the barred door, sitting with
her hands folded on the edge of her small bed.
Glad, I've forgiven you," Tony sat down next to Gladys. "There's absolutely no
one interesting here tonight. I've tried, I really have. Derek is being a complete
flirt, as usual, and he's making me so jealous I just feel like biting everyone
I see him with -- but, of course, I won't, because I'm a gentleman. Unlike some
people. Push over, will you?" Tony scooted closer to Gladys, tugging the tablecloth
with his elbow. "Nina, did Gladys tell you she's looking for an apartment? And
she's been looking for only -- three months! It's so depressing,
isn't it? I mean, if you can't find a place after three months of looking, and
they're all so expensive anyway -- why do we live here? Don't answer that -- it's
because of the boys. I know -- "
I have a room." Nina said, smoothing the wrinkled tablecloth.
"I have a room."
my God, this is Fate. I knew it. I knew you two would hit it off."
it available?" asked Gladys.
dont know. I guess it could be. I've been using it as storage space. But
I guess I could consider renting it out. To you."
gasped. "Nina. You're an angel."
I come see it?" Gladys asked.
gasped again. "Oh, let me come, too, Nina," he said. "I can't stand to stay here
with Derek and his waggling, wandering prick."
flared her nostrils at Tony. "Spare us, sir."
He said. Nina giggled.
room Nina had was small. There was a closet -- a sliding door opened onto racks
of rarely worn clothing. Old scarves, hats, and gloves lay on a high shelf --
relics from her days back east that she hated to throw out. Several overstuffed
pillows were piled in the corner next to an antique spinning wheel, empty of wool.
A roll-top desk abutted a single window, which looked onto a brick wall. Against
the far wall was a narrow bed with a bright orange spread pulled tightly over
the mattress. The floor was finished hardwood, the ceiling high.
flopped onto the daybed and laced his fingers around the back of his head. "This
is amazing," he said. "Total serendipity. Who would have thought that Nina would
just happen to have a room sitting empty in the land of astronomical rents?
Its like you were just waiting for Gladys, Nina. I told you one of these
days I would turn your life around, if you just let me." Tony propped his weight
on his elbow. "Now, Nina, in all fairness, you should tell Gladys about La Llorona
if shes going to consider living in this neighborhood."
raised her eyebrows.
on, you know who Im talking about. The wailing woman? Dont tell me
you havent heard of her!"
Nina doubtfully, Tony said, "Glad, everyone in this neighborhood talks about this
woman who wakes up every morning and cries. Early. And I mean she cries --
not just like a little whimper. This woman has lungs."
told you that?" asked Nina.
friend Peter. And Jodie. And Clyde from the Café. Everyone. Its a local
legend. Anyway, Im just saying you should know, Glad, just in case you have
a particular aversion to loud weeping."
shrugged. "I dont mind a little mystery in my life."
I can see it now. You two are going to become two old maids together, loving each
other in secret, acting all proper and straight in public. Like Virginia Woolf
and Vita de Sackville-West. Like Sarah Orne Jewett and what's her name. One of
those Boston marriages. Can't I join in?" He sat up, grabbed Ninas hand
with both of his. "I'll build a little bedroom alcove in your back room, Nina.
I'll be so quiet and serene. I'll make breakfast and you two can wander out of
your love-nest and look out at the city, holding hands. Won't it just be divine?
Oh, Nina, honey -- you're blushing. It's too sweet!"
up, Tony," said Gladys. But Nina saw her mouth curl into a tiny smile.
moved in the next day. She had been living at the youth hostel for the past few
months, so much of her stuff was in storage. Nina helped her pack, running back
and forth from the storage unit to the U-Haul trailer, where Gladys stood. She
had a way of just standing that seemed chaotic and maniacal-pencils sticking out
of her weedy hair, her hands waving over boxes, steadying them. Nina did the heavy
work, cowering at Gladys's commands: "Not there, Nina! Put it here -- that's a
fragile one." More than once, as she trudged up the several flights of stairs
under the weight of yet another box of books, Nina felt her throat clutch with
an emotion she could not quite identify: Fear? Apprehension? Excitement? Here
she was, inviting a near stranger to move in with her. It was without a doubt
the most reckless thing she had ever done. She had given it no forethought, made
no lists. It had simply happened. She had been compelled.
night, after Gladys and Nina had spent the day lugging boxes up three flights
of stairs, unpacking various articles of clothing, dozens of books, piles of old
magazines, scraps of tin and bottles of glue, and a bronze sculpture of a satyr,
after they had shoved all of it into every corner of the small room, and had closed
the door on the mess for the evening, they sat down at the kitchen table, and
shared a bottle of wine and a pizza. Chaos lurked just beyond the kitchen threshold,
yet Nina was amazingly content. She listened to Gladys talk with shy admiration,
and did not protest when Gladys refilled her wine glass. Her cheeks glowed.
Nina rinsed their dinner plates in the sink, she looked out over the small courtyard
at the moonless black sky, pricked with starlight. The whole neighborhood was
quiet. A song boiled in her: she hummed.
is that?" asked Gladys, coming up behind her.
She turned around.
were humming." Gladys repeated the melody.
guess I was," Nina said. She hummed the strain again. "Its a hymn my mother
used to sing to me as a kid. I cant think of the title." She dipped her
hands in the soapy water.
nice," said Gladys. Nina felt Gladyss chilled hands against the nape of
her neck, then on her shoulders. She prodded Ninas muscles with her thumbs.
"Youre tight," she said. "All that lifting."
new warmth thrummed in Ninas thighs.
week, it rained. The sky hung like a grey pall over the neighborhood. Colors intensified:
the pink stucco of the yoga studio across the street grew rosy, the green of the
median strip became deep, oceanic under the white-grey sky. Even the lemons on
the tree in the courtyard seemed to cast their own yellow light. Rain blackened
the streets and lifted the smell of wet tar into the air. Stray flyers, cellophane
wrappers, Styrofoam containers, and scattered leaves that had collected in the
gutters washed into sewers, down alleyways, out of sight. Most people stayed indoors
if they could, their windows shut to the blowing rain. La Llorona fell silent.
The neighborhood hardly
noticed her missing cry. If they thought of the wailing woman at all, it was in
passing. The rain must soothe her, thought the earnest young yoga teacher
as he sipped his tea and watched rivulets stream down his kitchen window. It
drowns her out, decided the newlywed computer programmers. The professor of
Chicano studies lifted her head from her desk: She must have nowhere to go.
She is huddled somewhere beneath a bridge, a newspaper her only shelter. Tormented
soul. She mouthed a silent prayer.
the first day of the storm, Gladys suggested that Nina call in sick. She and Gladys
pressed against each other under a single umbrella, pointed it into the driving
rain, and ran together to the video store. They rented four movies, and spent
the day on Ninas couch, huddled under a comforter, eating chips and salsa
and watching films: "Breakfast at Tiffanys" and "Casablanca" (Ninas
choices), "Heavenly Creatures" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"
(Gladyss choices). The second day of the storm, Nina called in sick again,
and they spent the morning making deviled eggs and chocolate brownies, then spent
the afternoon eating them. "How many times have you been in love?" asked Gladys,
licking batter from the spoon.
really ever," said Nina, startled by the question.
squinted at her from over her heavy frames. "Not even as a teenager?"
had crushes, I guess. I went out on a couple of dates. But I was never really
You had to have some major heartbreak, Nina," Gladys said, a smudge of chocolate
on her front tooth. "Youre 28! How could you have avoided it?"
shrugged. "Ive always been kind of shy. It just never happened."
secluded heart," Gladys shook her head. "Thats what youve got. Sad.
Sad. Sad." With each "sad" Gladys touched the tip of the chocolatey spoon to Ninas
"What is that?
You sound like its some kind of disease." Nina batted the spoon away. She
wiped the sticky batter from her cheeks and forehead.
is. Secluded heartitis. Either that, Nina, or --" Gladys narrowed her eyes, "youre
hiding something from me. In which case, there will be hell to pay." She roared
the end of her sentence, brandishing the spoon as if it were a prophets
had planned to go to work on the third day, but for the first time in her life
she forgot to set her alarm the night before, so when she awoke to the smell of
Gladyss pancakes and fresh coffee at 9:30, she figured shed already
missed one meeting, and if she stumbled in this late, any excuse would seem transparent,
so she might as well just take one last day off. They spent the day painting glass
jars and bottles, and when they were through, they lined them up on the windowsill.
Gladyss were ornate, raucous with vegetation: yellow speckled petals, prairie
grasses swept with wind. Ninas jars were decorated with stripes of solid
color: red, blue, green.
always wanted to be creative," sighed Nina. "I guess its just not in me."
"Bullshit," said Gladys.
She spattered blue paint on the table as she waved her paintbrush. "Everyone is
like my mother."
wise woman then, your mother. Where is she now?"
painted, silent. "How did she die?"
cancer. It was a couple of years ago."
about your Dad?"
Nina over her frames.
Im just kidding," Nina said. "Hes in Massachusetts still. Hes
fine. I dont see him much."
was not funny. What if he was high? How would I know?"
thought you could read peoples minds."
said Gladys. She pursed her rubbery lips into a cinched circle.
touched her finger to Gladyss mouth. "Hey," Gladys whispered. She leaned
into Nina. Her breath tasted of citrus. Ninas mouth felt tiny against Gladyss
full lips, almost breakable, as if she were a glass miniature of herself.
Im your first woman," said Gladys, her palm cupping Ninas chin. "Ive
hardly," said Nina. "My lips, maybe."
question is, will I be your first love? If I had to answer that myself, Id
"A bit presumptuous!"
and all. Itd be yes."
night, Nina and Gladys slept under the same covers. "What do you believe in, Nina?"
whispered Gladys. She laced her right arm under Ninas, and traced a fingernail
across Ninas nipple. Nina shivered.
You mean God?"
Beauty. Yoga, maybe."
thought. "Can you believe in yoga? Mainly I do it to stretch."
I can tell you what I believe in," Gladys said. "I believe in chance. Fate, if
you like. A mysterious force of some kind. Chance brought me everywhere Ive
something," Nina said, for lack of anything better to say. A tense silence rose
propped her head up on an elbow. Her voice was brusque. "Youre telling me
the only reason you do yoga is for physical exercise?"
you angry at me?" Nina asked quietly.
Gladys shouted. She glared. "I just think youre missing something. Theres
more to it than that."
"Like -- finding
peace, or self-knowledge. I dont know what! More than exercise, though."
dont know, Gladys. I just do it because I do it. I guess that sounds pretty
said, suddenly indignant. "Why do you need to know what I believe? How do I know
what to believe? Nothing! I believe in nothing."
sad for you," murmured Gladys. Soon she fell asleep. Nina lay awake, listening
to her light snore. She was virtually buzzing with anger and humiliation. How
could Gladys assume such an intimacy with her this early in their friendship?
Just because they were in bed together didnt mean Gladys had the right to
know everything about her. Asking her what she believed? It was invasive. And
yet she was mortified at the way she answered Gladyss question. To believe
in nothing? It wasnt fully true, she knew, and yet she did not know what
else to say. She did not know what she believed. Was that the same as believing
in nothing? Nina turned over on her side, away from Gladys. She stared at the
small patch of sky that she could see through her bedroom window. A thought looped
through her mind: This woman is important. This one thing is important.
Toward morning Nina slept.
the fourth day, Nina went in to work.
rushed to her cubicle and leaned over the divider, spilling coffee on her desk.
"Nina," he said, whispering so everyone could hear him. "What has gotten into
you? Dont even try to tell me you were sick. Did you guys get it on? I'm
amazed at you, really. I never thought in a million years you would let another
person move in there."
swabbed the coffee from her desk with a handful of Kleenex. "I know. But why should
I worry? Should I worry?"
no, not at all. No, I think Gladys is a doll -- you guys are going to be a great
Nina did not
"I mean, by
now, I guess you know something about how she can be, of course. I wouldnt
call her a tactful person, Nina. But, you know, she has a good heart. It's
just only sometimes she goes a little nuts. What Im saying is, well, she's
got kind of a weird past."
do you mean?" said Nina.
pulled at his nose, looked around, and noticed a man in a brown suit standing
at the front desk. "Oh, shit -- first client. I've got to go take care of him,
doll. We'll talk later -- lunch, OK?"
when Nina went to find Tony at lunch, he was gone, no note. Nina sat by the fountain
in the lobby alone, unpacked her brown bag, and spread a cloth napkin on her lap.
She wondered what Tony had been referring to.
she got home, the door to Gladys's room was closed. Nina slammed the front door
behind her, and walked by Gladys's door, yawning loudly. Gladys did not emerge.
She dropped her gym bag heavily on the living room carpet and pressed play on
the message machine. A low female voice spoke on the tape: "Gladys. Come on. Pick
up, honey. I know you're there. Gladys!" There was a thudding sound, as if something
had been thrown against a wall. "Goddammit!" Click.
door opened when the message ended, and she emerged. Her eyes were flittish, her
hair matted on one side, as if she'd been lying down all day. "I didn't want you
to hear that," she said, her voice heavy with resignation.
onto the couch and stared at her hands. Her face held an exaggerated expression
of pain, tragic and austere. "I suppose I can't keep it from you much longer,
Nina. Sit down." Nina sat next to Gladys. "That was my ex. Athena. She found me
here. I don't know how, but she did."
do you mean found you?"
looked at Nina wearily. She took a deep breath. "When I was sixteen I ran away
from home. I grew up in rural Missouri, where they don't take too kindly to lesbians,
if you know what I mean, and I knew what I was -- so when I could look eighteen
if I wore just a little of my older sister's lipstick, I took off. Snuck out one
night and hitchhiked to the nearest Greyhound station in Gilman Falls, where I
took the next bus to Nevada. I started working for this carnival there, as the
mind reader and fortune teller. Thats where I met Athena. She was the strong
man -- she used to dye her mustache hairs black and twist the ends with hair gel.
Once I saw her bend the barrel of a shotgun like it was a paper clip. I'm telling
you, she was the real thing. Anyway, she took care of me -- let me sleep in her
tent, paid for my food, bought me new clothes. She was the first woman I was ever
with. And I loved her for a while, I guess. Needed her, anyway." Gladys sighed
together with that carnival for three years. Until one day, I found out that our
next stop was Gilman Falls, Missouri. I didn't know what to do. I knew that my
parents would go to the carnival, you know, bring the kids -- I had six younger
sibs, besides me and my sister -- and I worried that my mother would come to get
her fortune told. I had seen her do it before. But where could I go? You see,
there were these heavies at the carnival, guys who carried clubs around and looked
at you with tiny smiles in their eyes, like they were just waiting for you to
Nina was doubtful.
the whole place was a front. For drug running. It was a huge business, really.
We transported the stuff all over the country. Every booth had some kind of compartment
where the stuff was stashed. They made deals after hours. I remember walking to
Athenas trailer one night and seeing Grimes, the guy who operated the Ferris
wheel, loading some boxes into a pickup truck with local plates. I kept walking,
pretending I hadnt noticed anything, but he saw me."
"I knew they
would go after me if I decided to take off, you know, and I didnt really
know how to protect myself. And I suppose at the time I didn't want to leave Athena.
Anyway, I decided to keep on, do the job, and just try to keep a low profile.
I stayed in my booth the whole time I was on duty, so the only way I'd be screwed
is if my mother decided to get her fortune told. Which, of course, she did."
did you do?"
I knew it was her right away when she set her foot in through the curtain. My
mother is a large woman -- three hundred pounds large. I felt the whole booth
shake and I saw the purple flowered housedress she always wore, and I had no doubt
in my mind. So I ran out the back. I jumped through the back curtains, but I couldn't
leave right away -- I had to peek, I had to just get a glimpse of my mother, for
God's sake -- and I tried to do it by just pulling back the curtains the tiniest
bit -- but she saw me. So I tore off. She was shouting -- 'Gladys! Come back to
your Momma! Come back to the righteous path!' But I kept running, all the way
to Athena's booth. We didn't even stay to get our pay. We just took off on her
Harley, beaming that light toward the west, toward San Francisco, the Promised
"What about the
"Yeah, well, they followed us all right. But they didn't count on Athena. She
used to race her bike on off-weekends, and she tore up the ground like you've
never seen. They tried to keep up, but she lost them on a back road. At least
one of them bit the dust, and maybe the rest of them decided that it wasn't worth
it. I mean, why run after two dykes who just disgusted everyone anyway?"
Nina was entranced.
we settled down. I guess we were happy for a few years. Athena got a job as a
bouncer and she worked every night until 3 or 4 in the morning. I temped and went
to movies at night when she was at work. I started messing around. She was never
home, and it was the first time I had been around all these beautiful women who
liked other women and didn't even try to hide it. Athena came home early one night
and found me with someone. She broke the woman's arm over her knee."
"I was scared
to leave for a while, but I finally did. I finally just packed up my stuff and
left. I moved around from hostel to hotel to friend's floors, just kept mobile
for -- God, almost seven months now. Hasn't been much fun. I thought finally that
Athena had lost track or had given up. Thought it might be safe to find somewhere
more permanent. But, I guess not. She's found me."
Jesus, Gladys, I mean, what are we supposed to do?"
phone rang and Nina jumped up, hugging one of the couch pillows to her chest.
She stared at Gladys. "What should I say? If it's Athena? What should I tell her?"
me answer it," Gladys said. She walked over to the phone and picked up the receiver.
She lifted it, waited a beat, and then placed it back down in the cradle.
What if that was someone else?"
looked at Nina over the tops of her glasses as if to say, please, be sensible,
we know who it was. "Now," Gladys said, pacing meditatively around the room. She
ran her fingers over items she passed: the lopsided bowl Nina had made in her
high school pottery class, her Nancy Drew books with their blue and yellow covers,
her crimson silk scarf with the long fringe that covered the table, on which sat
her collection of tiny glass figurines -- a collection she had begun when she
was eight and had continued to add to as an adult. "We have a few options, the
way I see it. One: we can leave, go on the run, borrow Tony's car or something
and just take off for Mexico."
her. "Two: I could run, get on the next bus out of town."
leave me to face her? Great idea."
we could outsmart her. Which, I might add, would not be terribly difficult." Gladys
turned abruptly to face Nina, put her hands on her hips and said, "I say that's
what we do."
going to show up here furious. She probably won't even ask any questions -- she'll
just haul off and hit me once I answer the door."
Which is why I'll answer the door."
brilliant. And then what, Gladys?" Nina's pulse had quickened now, and she, too,
was beginning to pace, although her steps were not meditative, but brisk, almost
military. She hugged the pillow tighter.
I'll introduce her to you, my mentor Madame Genevieve, the renowned fortune teller
and mind reader, who taught me all I know."
Nina. It's perfect." She grabbed Nina by the shoulders. "Athena is very superstitious.
She was always trying to get me to tell her fortune, but I never wanted to --
I put her off by saying your loved one couldn't do it, it was too dangerous, whatever.
I made up some excuse. But you can be my mystical teacher, who I've come to for
help. There's something that's been haunting me about my lover, Athena, and I
had to come to you, because you're the only one I know of who can tell me what
it is. We decide together that the only way to break the curse that I sense, the
foreboding I feel in every bone in my body, is for you to tell Athena's fortune.
You know, tell her what she's really feeling -- that she no longer loves me. She
will absolutely fall for it, no question."
not really an actress, Gladys."
figure that out later. But she could be here any minute. We've got to fix things
up." Gladys swept the collection of glass figurines off the crimson scarf and
draped the scarf over the floor lamp, which cast a reddish gleam. Nina yelped
and ran to inspect her figurines. "Put those away somewhere, Nina. Those are not
the trappings of a princess of mystery."
moved from item to item, carrying the TV and the VCR into her room, pulling the
table out and draping it with another scarf -- this one turquoise, with threads
of gold wound through -- setting candles up at the corners of the room, clearing
the shelves of the Nancy Drew books, and instead placing a grapefruit on one shelf,
surrounded by inches of space, an orange on another, a blue-glass bottle on another.
She ordered Nina to remove all the furniture except a wooden stool and several
pillows, which she placed around the room against the wall.
she said, appraising the glowing room. "We just need the final touch." Nina followed
Gladys into her room and watched her step behind the spinning wheel, bending to
lift it from below.
is the wheel for, Gladys?" Ninas voice wavered with anxiety.
you, Nina. It'll be like the Fates. You can sit there, spinning out Athena's fortune.
And you've really got to change out of your jeans before she gets here." Nina
heard the sound of wood splitting. "Shit," said Gladys.
a tiny crack," Gladys said from her half-bent position, her wild hair springing.
the perfect thing --"
up and placed her hands on her hips. "What on earth is wrong?"
was trembling. A pulse beat in her head. "This was a mistake. You coming. I never
should have asked you. I want you to leave."
tearing everything up, youre destroying my living room, youre tossing
my things around like they were just -- pieces of garbage you dont
even care about!" Ninas voice broke into a sob. "Now you broke my spinning
wheel that was my mothers -- and you! You act like you know so much about
the world -- "
"You think you
have some kind of sense about who I am. Well, dont assume, Gladys. Dont
assume anything. You dont know anything about who I am. You dont know
the first thing about me!"
for Gods sake. Tell me what I need to know!"
opened her throat --
the wail came -- thin at first, but growing broader. It echoed against the walls
of the small room, and keened out through the open windows over the small courtyard
and into the neighborhood. It swelled with more fervor than ever, and in it were
strains that the neighborhood had not heard before. Loss was there, like the whine
of an oboe, and fear -- a caterwauling soprano fear of loving and of dying. Despair
echoed through it -- a deep, hollow pitch -- and some heard the sweet overtones
of nostalgia. But above all, it was filled with the sound of loneliness, an ethereal
moan of a melody that pierced the hearts of those who heard it.
startled the earnest young yoga teacher, who was teaching a class in his studio.
He was in the midst of demonstrating the downward-facing dog pose when it began,
and he slipped and knocked the crown of his head against the floor. He sat up,
dazed, and looked out at his classful of students, who were frozen in various
stages of the pose. He rubbed his head and was surprised to feel the prick of
tears come to his nostrils, and before he could decide whether to allow them to
come, they came, and with them came a sound that had never before come from his
throat -- an echo of La Llorona's wail. The yoga teacher wept in front of his
Beginning Iyengar Technique class and as he wept, he heard his cries mingle with
the wailing woman's in a sweetly dissonant harmony. He wept more loudly, opening
his throat and braying like a saddled animal. Several members of his class believed
he was demonstrating the next pose, and they watched, practicing his form -- the
eyes clenched closed, the mouth yawning wide, the vocal cords stretched -- a few
of them even wept with him, feeling as though they were freeing the demons that
clutched at their hearts and choked their most dear and limber thoughts and feelings
and locked them into cubbies of time and space, stifling compartments of right
and wrong and yes and no. The weeping welled up in the yoga studio and joined
Nina's wail, creating a tidal wave of sound. It crashed into the evening traffic,
making drivers stop their cars, get out, and wonder at the echoes of pain rustling
through the leaves of the palm trees that lined the street. One driver wondered
if he was hearing the bells ring in the tower of the Mission Dolores church on
the corner, and it reminded him of his mother, who had come to San Francisco from
a small town in Italy, and how she used to tell him of the church bells in her
town, which rang every morning and summoned the townspeople to morning Mass to
pray and ask forgiveness, and he, too, began to cry -- the tears dropping onto
his polyester pants, his hands gripping the steering wheel -- and as he leaned
forward, resting his forehead against the wheel, his chest pressed the horn, which
bleated out its own wail in accompaniment. The Colombian woman in the shotgun
two-bedroom slipped in her ironing and burned her hand, and as she rushed into
the kitchen to run cold water over the burn, she realized she had left the iron
flat on her husband's last collared shirt, but as she ran back to save it from
being singed, she heard her son call for her from his room, and finally she just
stopped in her tracks and wept, letting the shirt burn and her hand pulse with
pain and her son wander out into the dining room. He, too, bawled at the sight
of his mama weeping. The newlywed computer programmers gripped each other tightly
in the midst of their love-making, and the woman, in the throes of ecstasy, overcome
with joy at the sweet gift of the man she held inside her, also allowed her wail
to rise over the neighborhood, through the leaves of the lemon tree in the backyard,
and mix with the general melee of sound that filled the air. Gladys listened to
all of this, frozen, her eyes fixed on Ninas wide mouth and trembling tongue.
Finally, Nina ran out of breath. The wail became a whimper, the wave of sound
subsided, and Nina fell to the ground with a shuddering gasp. A sudden and deep
quiet reigned over the small pocket of the city.
stayed quiet like that for some time. Everyone who had heard or contributed to
the wail rested, stunned. After a moment, the yoga teacher asked his students
to assume the corpse pose, and he used the rest of the class time to speechify
over their prostrate bodies, lauding the depth of the human soul and admonishing
his students to remember what they experienced today -- that the wailing woman
embodied a humanity that was all but lost to society in its breakneck pace, that
all of them, everyone in the neighborhood, in the whole city, all of them should
follow her example and listen to the voices of their souls. The Colombian woman
went to sit with her son, who had been frightened by the sound, and she brushed
his hair off his forehead with her fingernails, and rocked him back and forth,
hugging him to her bosom, whispering to him "Mi cariño, mi cariño,"
because she had felt in that one moment of deepest misery that her son was all
she had in this world, all that was her very own, her flesh and her blood, and
that her time with him would be entirely too short, that sooner than she could
imagine she would be nothing more than the flicker of his eyelash, the flitting
of memory in his consciousness. The newlywed couple lay in bed, holding each other,
still entwined, still united, but shuddering now, trembling in voluptuousness
and fear as to how deeply in love they were with each other, and how fragile and
powerful it was. They lay, staring into each others' eyes, the woman dropping
a silent tear now and then, the man stroking her shoulder, her hair, kissing each
tear away as it fell. The traffic remained unmoving at the corner, as if stopped
at the scene of an accident. The driver at the front of the line looked around,
hoping to hear some kind of an explanation. None came, of course, only silence.
Gladys still knelt by the spinning wheel, her hands clutching her knees, watching
Then, the doorbell
Nina raised her
head. "Oh, no," she whispered. "Athena."
did not move. "Jesus," she said.
fist pounded against the door. "Nina! Gladys! Did you guys hear that? Unbelievable!
Come on, open the door!" Tony.
did you do that?" Gladys whispered, leaning in toward Nina.
exhaled sharply, a stunned laugh.
pounding again. "I know you guys are in there. I can smell you. Come on.
Ive got good news! Open up!"
dont know," said Nina.
Listen -- I just saw Athena at the Café. She was bragging about how she had
found out where you were, and was going to come rescue you, or some bullshit
like that -- and by the way, I just want you to know that I do not know how she
found out, because I did not breathe a word to anyone -- I only mentioned
it to Greg, who so wanted to know how you were doing. Anyway, guess what
I did? Youre going to love me forever. I told her that you and Nina had
a fight, that she had thrown you out, and that you had decided to go back home
to make up with your mom. Isnt that the most? Shes on the Greyhound
to Missouri, as we speak!"
God, Nina. That was you," said Gladys. She crept to Nina on her knees, flattened
her palms against Ninas thighs, and rested her forehead against Ninas.
"Fine, you guys. I
guess Im probably interrupting something. I know when Im not wanted.
You can just call me later to thank me." Tonys shoes knocked against the
stairs as he descended.
sat, her forehead pressed against Gladyss. She closed her eyes, felt the
warmth of Gladyss skin against hers, smelled the faint citrus flavor of
God," whispered Gladys. "Where on earth does it come from?"
who did not know, only breathed and listened deeply, joyfully, to the silence
she had created.