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La Llorona
Amy Hassinger

In 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.

Poor lady, thought the Colombian woman as she fixed an egg for her son’s breakfast, she’s been abandoned by her lover, left to care for her infant child alone. The woman’s overworked, thought the waitress who worked the night shift, as she fell into bed and closed her eyes, with feet that she can’t stand to lift. "I bet she’s 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.

No 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."

Nina's 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 Lion’s 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.

On the Christmas of her 28th year, she met Gladys. Nina had planned to meet Tony at the firm’s 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 Poppins’s bottomless carpetbag.

"Here -- indulge yourself," said Gladys. "I know my curse."

"Oh, 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.

"Gladys and I have known each other for ages," gushed Tony. "I can’t even remember where we first met, Glad. Was it at Nero’s masquerade that year? When I went as Chiquita banana? Oh, no it wasn’t, no it wasn’t!" Tony grabbed Gladys’s 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."

"Tony 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.

"Gladys! 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.

"You're 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.

"I 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."

Nina 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.

"That you’re 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.

The 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.

"I'll 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?"

"Claude? Oh, I don't think he even drinks at all."

"He 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 we’re going to be friends. I can read minds."

"I 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 I’m slightly off, and they’re just going to humor me about it. Like it's not something I live with every day of my life for Christ's sake. It’s not easy, you know. It gets distracting. For example, I can hardly hold this conversation, because I keep hearing that man’s voice over there -- see him? The one swaggering over to the bartender -- you know what he’s thinking?" Gladys dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in toward Nina. "He’s rating every woman he passes on a scale of 1 to 10."

"No," laughed Nina, turning to see who she was talking about.

"I’m not kidding. I heard it when I passed him. I was a 4. Bastard."

"Oh, I can believe it," said Nina, playing along. "That’s Paul. He’s slept with at least five of the summer interns."

"I’ll tell you something else," said Gladys. She sat back in her chair.

"What? Are you going to read my mind?" Nina raised her eyebrows coyly.

Gladys bit her bottom lip. "You’re hard to crack. I’m 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.

Nina 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:

Eat out with Tony after work?


Social time**Will miss workout
T. won’t bug me about getting out moreExpensive
 What will we talk about?

She 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.

"OK, 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 -- "

"Actually, I have a room." Nina said, smoothing the wrinkled tablecloth.

"What?" said Gladys.

She blushed. "I have a room."

"Oh my God, this is Fate. I knew it. I knew you two would hit it off."

"Is it available?" asked Gladys.

"I don’t 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."

Tony gasped. "Nina. You're an angel."

"Can I come see it?" Gladys asked.

"Sure," said Nina.


Tony gasped again. "Oh, let me come, too, Nina," he said. "I can't stand to stay here with Derek and his waggling, wandering prick."

Gladys flared her nostrils at Tony. "Spare us, sir."

"Sorr-y." He said. Nina giggled.

The 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.

Tony 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? It’s 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 she’s going to consider living in this neighborhood."

Nina raised her eyebrows.

"Come on, you know who I’m talking about. The wailing woman? Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of her!"

"What?" asked Gladys.

Eyeing 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."

"Who told you that?" asked Nina.

"My friend Peter. And Jodie. And Clyde from the Café. Everyone. It’s a local legend. Anyway, I’m just saying you should know, Glad, just in case you have a particular aversion to loud weeping."

Gladys shrugged. "I don’t mind a little mystery in my life."

"Oh, 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 Nina’s 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!"

"Shut up, Tony," said Gladys. But Nina saw her mouth curl into a tiny smile.

Gladys 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.

Sunday 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.

As 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.

"What is that?" asked Gladys, coming up behind her.

"What?" She turned around.

"You were humming." Gladys repeated the melody.

"I guess I was," Nina said. She hummed the strain again. "It’s a hymn my mother used to sing to me as a kid. I can’t think of the title." She dipped her hands in the soapy water.

"It’s nice," said Gladys. Nina felt Gladys’s chilled hands against the nape of her neck, then on her shoulders. She prodded Nina’s muscles with her thumbs. "You’re tight," she said. "All that lifting."

A new warmth thrummed in Nina’s thighs.

That 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.

On 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 Nina’s couch, huddled under a comforter, eating chips and salsa and watching films: "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" and "Casablanca" (Nina’s choices), "Heavenly Creatures" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (Gladys’s 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.

"Not really ever," said Nina, startled by the question.

Gladys squinted at her from over her heavy frames. "Not even as a teenager?"

"I had crushes, I guess. I went out on a couple of dates. But I was never really in love."

"Bullshit. You had to have some major heartbreak, Nina," Gladys said, a smudge of chocolate on her front tooth. "You’re 28! How could you have avoided it?"

Nina shrugged. "I’ve always been kind of shy. It just never happened."

"A secluded heart," Gladys shook her head. "That’s what you’ve got. Sad. Sad. Sad." With each "sad" Gladys touched the tip of the chocolatey spoon to Nina’s face.

"What is that? You sound like it’s some kind of disease." Nina batted the spoon away. She wiped the sticky batter from her cheeks and forehead.

"It is. Secluded heartitis. Either that, Nina, or --" Gladys narrowed her eyes, "you’re 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 prophet’s staff.

Nina laughed.

Nina 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 Gladys’s pancakes and fresh coffee at 9:30, she figured she’d 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. Gladys’s were ornate, raucous with vegetation: yellow speckled petals, prairie grasses swept with wind. Nina’s jars were decorated with stripes of solid color: red, blue, green.

"I always wanted to be creative," sighed Nina. "I guess it’s just not in me."

"Bullshit," said Gladys. She spattered blue paint on the table as she waved her paintbrush. "Everyone is creative."

"You sound like my mother."

"A wise woman then, your mother. Where is she now?"


Gladys painted, silent. "How did she die?"

"Breast cancer. It was a couple of years ago."

"What about your Dad?"

"High on heroin."

Gladys considered Nina over her frames.

"No, I’m just kidding," Nina said. "He’s in Massachusetts still. He’s fine. I don’t see him much."

"That was not funny. What if he was high? How would I know?"

"I thought you could read people’s minds."

"Ha," said Gladys. She pursed her rubbery lips into a cinched circle.

Nina touched her finger to Gladys’s mouth. "Hey," Gladys whispered. She leaned into Nina. Her breath tasted of citrus. Nina’s mouth felt tiny against Gladys’s full lips, almost breakable, as if she were a glass miniature of herself.

"There! I’m your first woman," said Gladys, her palm cupping Nina’s chin. "I’ve deflowered you."

"Well, hardly," said Nina. "My lips, maybe."

"The question is, will I be your first love? If I had to answer that myself, I’d say yes."

"A bit presumptuous!" laughed Nina.

"Still and all. It’d be yes."

That night, Nina and Gladys slept under the same covers. "What do you believe in, Nina?" whispered Gladys. She laced her right arm under Nina’s, and traced a fingernail across Nina’s nipple. Nina shivered.

"What? You mean God?"

"God. Beauty. Yoga, maybe."

Nina thought. "Can you believe in yoga? Mainly I do it to stretch."

"Well, 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 I’ve yet been."

"That’s something," Nina said, for lack of anything better to say. A tense silence rose between them.

Gladys propped her head up on an elbow. Her voice was brusque. "You’re telling me the only reason you do yoga is for physical exercise?"

"Are you angry at me?" Nina asked quietly.

"No!" Gladys shouted. She glared. "I just think you’re missing something. There’s more to it than that."

"Like what?"

"Like -- finding peace, or self-knowledge. I don’t know what! More than exercise, though."

"I don’t know, Gladys. I just do it because I do it. I guess that sounds pretty boring."

"Hmph," said Gladys.

"Uch," Nina said, suddenly indignant. "Why do you need to know what I believe? How do I know what to believe? Nothing! I believe in nothing."

"That’s 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 didn’t 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 Gladys’s question. To believe in nothing? It wasn’t 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.

On the fourth day, Nina went in to work.

Tony 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? Don’t 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."

Nina swabbed the coffee from her desk with a handful of Kleenex. "I know. But why should I worry? Should I worry?"

"No, no, not at all. No, I think Gladys is a doll -- you guys are going to be a great couple."

Nina did not protest.

"I mean, by now, I guess you know something about how she can be, of course. I wouldn’t 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 I’m saying is, well, she's got kind of a weird past."

"What do you mean?" said Nina.

Tony 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?"

But 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.

When 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.

Gladys's 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.

"Who was it?"

Gladys fell 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."

"What do you mean found you?"

Gladys 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. That’s 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 heavily.

"We traveled 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 try something."

"Heavies?" Nina was doubtful.

"Oh, 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 Athena’s 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 hadn’t noticed anything, but he saw me."

Nina nodded.

"I knew they would go after me if I decided to take off, you know, and I didn’t 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."

"What did you do?"

"Well, 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 Land."

"What about the heavies?"

Gladys snorted. "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?"

"Wow." Nina was entranced.

"So, 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."

"Oh my God."

"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."

"Well, Jesus, Gladys, I mean, what are we supposed to do?"

The 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?"

"Let 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.

"Gladys! What if that was someone else?"

Gladys 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."

"We?" asked Nina.

Gladys ignored her. "Two: I could run, get on the next bus out of town."

"And leave me to face her? Great idea."

"Or, 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."

"How? She's 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."

"Exactly. Which is why I'll answer the door."

"Oh, 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.

"Then, I'll introduce her to you, my mentor Madame Genevieve, the renowned fortune teller and mind reader, who taught me all I know."

"That is ridiculous."

"No, 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."

"I'm not really an actress, Gladys."

"We’ll 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."

Gladys 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.

"Now," 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.

"What is the wheel for, Gladys?" Nina’s voice wavered with anxiety.

"For 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.

"You broke it."

"It's just a tiny crack," Gladys said from her half-bent position, her wild hair springing.

"Don't touch it."

"Nina, it’s the perfect thing --"

"Put it back!"

Gladys stood up and placed her hands on her hips. "What on earth is wrong?"

Nina 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."


"You’re tearing everything up, you’re destroying my living room, you’re tossing my things around like they were just -- pieces of garbage you don’t even care about!" Nina’s voice broke into a sob. "Now you broke my spinning wheel that was my mother’s -- and you! You act like you know so much about the world -- "

"Nina -- "

"You think you have some kind of sense about who I am. Well, don’t assume, Gladys. Don’t assume anything. You don’t know anything about who I am. You don’t know the first thing about me!"

"Well, for God’s sake. Tell me what I need to know!"

Nina opened her throat --

And 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.

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 Nina’s 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.

It 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 Nina.

Then, the doorbell rang.

Nina raised her head. "Oh, no," she whispered. "Athena."

Gladys did not move. "Jesus," she said.

A fist pounded against the door. "Nina! Gladys! Did you guys hear that? Unbelievable! Come on, open the door!" Tony.

"How did you do that?" Gladys whispered, leaning in toward Nina.

Nina exhaled sharply, a stunned laugh.

The pounding again. "I know you guys are in there. I can smell you. Come on. I’ve got good news! Open up!"

"I don’t know," said Nina.

"Gladys! 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? You’re 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. Isn’t that the most? She’s on the Greyhound to Missouri, as we speak!"

"My God, Nina. That was you," said Gladys. She crept to Nina on her knees, flattened her palms against Nina’s thighs, and rested her forehead against Nina’s.

"Fine, you guys. I guess I’m probably interrupting something. I know when I’m not wanted. You can just call me later to thank me." Tony’s shoes knocked against the stairs as he descended.

Nina sat, her forehead pressed against Gladys’s. She closed her eyes, felt the warmth of Gladys’s skin against hers, smelled the faint citrus flavor of her breath.

"Well, God," whispered Gladys. "Where on earth does it come from?"

Nina, who did not know, only breathed and listened deeply, joyfully, to the silence she had created.




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