The half-naked girl is sitting on the edge of the curb, smoking. She’s right ahead of me, which is great because it gives me something to aim for. I still haven’t got used to this bike, and this bike hasn’t got used to this road, which looks like Jesus’ back after the Passion in that Mel Gibson movie.
Each time I hit a pothole my helmet slides down over my eyes. I have to adjust it quick or the next pothole might be fatal. It wouldn’t be the first time this pony’s bucked me. My daughter told me women aren’t supposed to ride bicycles. Lana is thirteen, an expert on all things women. My voice rose to challenge her, and then trailed off. She’s right, in a way–I’d rather be driven around by my husband–but I wouldn’t want her to know that. I muttered something about single mothers needing exercise too, and left it at that.
The girl is like a storefront. When I cycle past her the light catches me full in the face. Ten yards down, I stop.
“Hey!” I shout. “You okay?”
“I’ve been cast down from heaven,” she says.
This doesn’t surprise me. Where else would she have come from? Her white nightie is immaculate. Virginal look on her face. Gray-green cat-like eyes. He must have kicked her out before she had a chance to dress.
“You got someplace to go?” I ask.
I scan the street for prowling eyes. But the clapboard ruins are quiet. Nothing out of the ordinary. Though of course I register the contrast, which is a little depressing. What’s a girl like that doing in a place like this?
“I don’t know,” she says. “I think my father’s angry with me.”
Father, she says. Not daddy, but father. She flicks away her cigarette and does that thing you see in TV commercials, pulling on one of her corkscrew curls and making it bounce, just that when she does it the light in the street seems to shift.
I wipe a sweat-plastered lock out of my eye. It doesn’t bounce. I hate having to face the world before I’ve reached the office restroom and smoothed out my creases.
“Your man or your old man?”
She has to think on that one. “Both,” she says, finally. “He’s all men to all men.”
“Listen,” I say, “I don’t really care what you call him. Are you gonna go back in or do you need to borrow some clothes?”
My house is three blocks in the wrong direction, but I should at least offer to help. The situation is potentially dangerous. That silk see-through gauze could turn an impotent man steely.
“You don’t understand,” she says. “God has expelled me from His Kingdom. I don’t know what to do.”
I look at the sky. There’s a hurricane brewing. The clouds’ll break any minute. When my eyes settle on her she’s smoking again and I wonder where she’s conjured the cigarette from.
This is getting on my nerves. “I’m not gonna ask again,” I say and put my right foot on my right pedal, menacing-like. “Just watch your back,” I say. “This is not a place for a girl like you. Just last week the burning tires were piled ten feet high.”
As I cycle off I hear a door slamming, and then another and another, and shouting, and I just know it’s trouble. A pretty girl like that, dressed as if she’s auditioning for a lingerie commercial. Well, I know what the casting panel is going to say.
“You here again?”
“Not with my man!”
I’m half-thinking to bail on goldilocks, seeing as it’s her own damned fault, but I’m curious to see what’ll happen.
I stop to look around. I’d have thought this street had too many pockmarks for those pretty feet, but she’s soaring toward me like the wind. Before I know it she’s jumped on the carrier.
“Go!” she says. “Save me!”
Save her? But there’s no time to think. The neighborhood banshees are closing in. I’ll be her savior–for a block or two.
Of course she weighs nothing. But still the carrier creaks and with every bump I feel the rim connecting with the asphalt. She holds me by the waist to steady herself, her delicate hands tugging childlike at my poncho. All I can think of is the expense of the bike repair man.
After a few turns we enter middle-class suburbia, where the streets have neat bicycle lanes. A crossing is coming up ahead and I have to decide what to do with my charge. I’ve half a mind to drop her at Social Services but then that’s on the other side of town.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know…” I somehow knew she wouldn’t know. “You had better come up with something because I’m running late for work. If my supervisor catches me it’ll go in my file.”
“Take me somewhere safe.”
“Right–to Canada,” I mutter. But at the next crossing I see myself turning back home, as in a dream, and I wonder if it’s really me doing the steering. I know I’m doing the right thing–I know because I won’t get paid today, which means I’ll have to pass up that BJ’s dinner I promised myself and the kids. Doing good always hurts.
This morning Lana had her first period. As I’m soaking the blood-soiled sheets in the tub, Greg walks in wide-eyed and begins to call his sister a “shark attack.” Then Louie breaks down thinking one day he’ll bleed like his older sister. “Don’t worry, Louie,” I told him, “if you do your homework, you’ll be alright.”
And now this. It must be my lucky day–providential, there’s no two ways about it.
As soon as I’ve parked the bike in the front yard, Martha, my overweight neighbor, comes wheezing toward me.
“Didn’t expect you till six,” she says, ignoring the half-naked girl beside me.
She hands me a package and gives me her scrunched-up “guess what?” look.
“Him?” I say, my heartbeat picking up.
“Says he wants his amp back.”
“His amp don’t work!” I say. “It hasn’t for years!”
Corey, my ex, used to play in a band in the idle days of his youth. Now he’s quit me, he wants to get back to his music–his first love, he calls it. As if she ever loved him back.
“I had a peek,” Martha says, “I know you don’t mind. Let me guess–heirlooms?”
Who said I didn’t mind? But I’m too overwhelmed to set her straight. I rip up the carton with both hands and there it is–a cranberry-colored three-ring binder. I finger the faded carton, the rings clawing at the yellow pages. It’s my mother’s cookbook.
Martha goes on talking about Corey and his stupid amp. She doesn’t get it. He just needed an excuse to do something nice. This whole morning I felt like I was being followed around by a ghost, but now I get it. It’s my mother’s birthday–she would have turned sixty-three–and here’s Corey, my ex-husband, remembering it for me.
The girl is sitting on the curb again, smoking, and I realize I don’t know her name. “Are you coming in?” I say.
I take my key to what my son Greg calls the prison door, rattling the bolts and latches until they come undone. There’s no need to pretend this is a good neighborhood, but a stranger’s eyes always have that effect: you regret what you’ve grown used to.
“Do you want to tell me your name?”
She has a shifty look in her eyes and I know there’s no trust. The shame I suppose. When a man lays hands on you, he lays his hand over your mouth first.
“Mind if I call you Porcelain?” I ask.
The name is as graceful one as I can think of. She’s long-limbed like those girls on the runway. Skinny too. There’s no sassiness in her walk. This here is modest beauty–the kind that’s been kept away from mirrors.
Greg’s been playing Xbox with his friends in the living room and there are cans and candy wrappers everywhere. Since Corey’s taken his TV with him, I’ve had to claim mine back from Greg.
I clear the table and give Porcelain a glass of water. After I’ve called in sick, I go upstairs to run her a bath.
The bathroom looks like a crime scene. Lana’s bloodied bed sheets are soaking in the tub where I left them. Water the color of a crushed fig. I kick the broken top loader and punch the air for good measure. Nothing in this house is whole.
When I go downstairs I catch Porcelain staring at the embroidered crucifix over the TV. Her blank look has acquired a color and a feeling. I admit I’m not very religious, but it’s a good quality in house guests. I give her a moment. But the moments pass and she doesn’t move.
“Let’s go upstairs,” I say, and nudge her along.
I close the bathroom door behind us.
“Let’s see it,” I say.
“Pull down your panties.”
She doesn’t make a fuss about it. As far as I can tell everything is in mint condition. In fact, it’s as though it’s never been used.
“Take a bath,” I say, “it will make you feel better.”
The tub looks pristine the way I scrubbed it with liquid bleach. I pour out some bath salts I was keeping for a special occasion. The foam, the scent–the whole set-up looks inviting. The only thing missing is incense. It reminds me of Corey, of when we had something good going.
“I’ll be downstairs,” I say. “Shout if you need me.”
I plonk down on the sofa with the cookbook in my hands. Finally a moment to myself. The dog-eared leaves are grubby with thumbprints. My mother told me it was her great-grandmother who started the collection. The recipes were passed down like charms until someone had the good sense to write them down.
I flip over the tossed mung bean with jalapeños, the smoked lard with yoghurt-dill drizzle, until I get to the meat of the book. The pages thicken with loose pieces of paper and envelopes. One of them has my name on it: “Joyce’s chocolate fudge cake.”
Sometimes Corey isn’t the unfeeling sonofabitch I take him for. I can’t believe I forgot my mother’s birthday. She would have turned sixty-three. But there’s nothing a cancer can’t kill. It doesn’t matter whether you lived by scripture or not. All that goes out the window.
A few days before she passed she pointed a shaky finger at my favorite recipe. There was something in that envelope she wanted me to have–nothing to do with chocolate fudge as it turned out. Money. Ten thousand dollars in brand new bills, none of that grime and patina, but unsullied and uncreased–a blind man’s delight.
When I think about it I get the urge to feel it again–the smooth texture, the slow crackle. Mom told me to keep it safe, by which she meant safely stowed in a sock or a mattress. But I came up with something better.
I take down the embroidered crucifix to look at my makeshift safe. It’s just a hole in the wall, hewn out with the wrong side of a claw hammer. It’s not much protection, I admit, but I’m banking on the Lord’s assistance. The bills are there, still crisp and unfolded, in two neat stacks, almost making a square.
I walk to the back of the house and look at the yard. A sunbeam strikes the grass, almost turning it green. The border, which used to sit like a scented frame around the lawn, is overgrown with weeds. I picture an inflatable pool in the middle of the lawn, bright blue and brimming with water. But maybe the kids are too old now. I need a car to drive Louie to soccer practice. I need to pay my legal bills. I need to fix the washing machine. Ten thousand is a lot and it’s nothing. It’s all I have.
Corey didn’t know about the money, I never told him. It’s a strange thought but I wonder if it could have saved us. Who knows–the money might have bought us a little time to patch things up. It might have cocooned us from worry and failure.
I sit Porcelain down on the sofa with a cup of tea and an avocado sandwich. I was right about the avocado. I knew it from the glow on her skin–she must eat basketfuls, truckloads of them.
She nods again.
I go back to the kitchen.
I’ve grown talkative with relief. The girl seems to be alright. And I’m reminded I got ten grand in the wall, waiting to be invested in something worthwhile.
“I’m gonna buy myself a new washing machine,” I say, thinking aloud. “Things have been falling apart in this house. I’m gonna get myself a new bed too.”
I don’t know if Porcelain is listening but I have an urge to talk about my plans, to give them a shape and reality.
“There’s going to be a change,” I say. I like the sound of that so I say it again. “There’s going to be a change.”
I pour the tea and plate the sandwich. I think she might like a bit of mayo with that–she sure doesn’t have to worry about her figure. I put a dollop on the edge of her plate and return to the living room.
It’s funny I think of Corey first. He once told me it’s impossible to see the absence of something, to see that something isn’t there. “But I do it all the time,” I said. “I notice the things you don’t say, the flowers you’re not buying me.”
But he insisted. “There’s nothing like that,” he said in his self-serving way. “What you’re seeing is my hands, what you’re imagining are the flowers. Keep your imagination out of it.”
I suppose the first thing I see is that Porcelain’s gone. Then the couch and the cushions, crumpled and depressed where she was sitting. Then the embroidered crucifix flung on the ground and the hole in the wall it’s supposed to cover. But what I see most clearly is the money. The money that isn’t there.
The mug falls and shatters on the floor and I feel the lick of heat on my foot. The front door is still open. I didn’t hear anything while I was in the kitchen, not a click. I look down the street. Porcelain’s nightie flutters in the wind. And she’s pedaling hard. I think of Lana and her teenage wisdom–women aren’t supposed to ride bicycles.
In the distance purple bolts cleave the sky. The clouds have gone slate gray. I can feel the first drops of rain. Leaves take to the air, whirling like little twisters over the roofs. Porcelain has nearly reached the end of the street. There’s no point in giving chase or raising hell. Certainly no point in calling the police. And then I notice–and this is what riles me most. This thief is so careless she doesn’t even hold on to her loot. The money sprays after her like exhaust fumes. I imagine my neighbors coming home to find a clutch of hundred-dollar bills on their doorstep–their prayers finally answered. Money falling from the sky, not food stamps but the stuff of dreams–as if an angel had dropped by.