In West Virginia in 1974 we were all in need of fortune-tellers. No one was sure what was happening in the outside world and no one thought about it much. We had no televisions and we bought few newspapers. Communal life in Morgantown seemed a continual dance in which everyone changed partners, a patient attempt at domesticity by children taking turns being parents. We were adrift but we were together. A group of us floated between several large ramshackle houses, houses arranged above and below each other on steep streets: a gritty version of terraced dwellings in some exotic Asia. The houses were old and comfortable, furnished with an accumulation of overstuffed chairs and velveteen sofas gleaned from rummage sales. There were no curtains at the large windows, whose rectangular sooty light was interrupted only by tangles of viney plants. The plants were fed haphazardly and thrived, like anything green in that town, enveloping sills and frames still fitted with the original wavy glass of seventy years before. The old glass was pocked with flaws and minute bubbles, distorting further the vision of a town already oddly displaced and dreamed in jagged pieces. Houses of the student ghetto were the landscape of the dream – a landscape often already condemned.
I lived in a house on Price Street with three male housemates: a Lebanese photographer from Rochester, New York, a Jewish instructor of transcendental meditation from Michigan, and a carpenter-musician, a West Virginian, who’d worked in the doomed McCarthy campaign and dropped out of Harvard Law to come home and learn house-building.
This story could be about any one of those people, but it is about Rayme and comes to no conclusions.
Perhaps the story is about Rayme because she lived in all the communal houses at one time or another. Intermittently, she lived with her father and stepmother and brother. Or she lived with one of her two older sisters, who had stayed in town and were part of our group of friends. Or she lived in her own small rooms, a bedroom, kitchen and bath in a house chopped into three or four such apartments. She lived alone in several of those single-person places, and in all of them she kept the provided mattress and box springs tilted upright against the wall. She slept on a small rug which she unrolled at night, or she slept on the bare floor with the rug precisely folded as a pillow. She shoved most of the other furniture into a corner or put it outside on the porch. Skirts and coats on hangers, swatches of fabric, adorned the walls. Rayme brought in large branches, a brick, a rock. Usually there were no utilities but running water; her father paid the rent and that is all that was paid. She wore sweaters and leggings and burned candles for light. She used the refrigerator as a closet for shoes and beads, and seemed to eat almost nothing. She kept loose tea and seeds in jars and emptied coffee cans which she filled with nutshells and marbles.
A long time ago her mother had committed suicide in Argentina. No one ever talked about the death, but one of Rayme’s sisters told me the suicide was slow rather than overtly violent. ‘She stopped eating, she’d been sick, she wouldn’t go to the hospital or see a doctor,’ the sister said. ‘It took her several months to do it.’ Rayme seldom mentioned her mother and didn’t seem certain of any particular chain of events concerning the past. The facts she referred to at different times seemed arbitrary, they were scrambled, they may have been false or transformed. It is true that her parents married each other twice and divorced twice; the father was a professor, the mother had musical talent and four children. Rayme told me her father wouldn’t let his wife play the piano; he locked the baby grand because she became too ‘detached’ when she played.
The first time her parents divorced, Rayme was six years old, the only child to go with her mother. They lived alone together in Kansas. Rayme didn’t remember much about it. She said sometimes she came home from school and the door was locked and she would sit outside past dark and listen to the owls in the trees. Once there was a tornado in Kansas; Rayme’s mother opened all the windows ‘so the wind can blow through the house instead of breaking it.’ Then they sat on the sofa wrapped in their winter coats, rather than hiding in the basement, so they could watch the rattling funnel cloud twist and hop across the flat fields behind the town.
In Kansas, Rayme said her mother kept things, like bracelets and rings, costume jewellery, under the pillows of the bed. They used to play games with those things before they went to sleep at night, and tell stories. Rayme slept by the wall because her mother sleepwalked, and needed a clear path to the open.
At the time of the second divorce, Rayme was twelve. She said her father stood in the middle of the living-room and called out the names of the children. He pointed to one side of the room or the other. ‘When we were lined up right, he said those kids would stay with him and those kids would go with her.’ Rayme went to Argentina with her mother and oldest sister. A family friend there paid airplane fares and found housing; Rayme’s father paid child support. Rayme learned some Spanish songs. Her sister went out on chaperoned dates; there was a terrace; it was sunny. Their mother died down there after a few months, and the two children came back on a boat, unchaperoned.
Rayme’s sister told me Rayme didn’t react when their mother died. ‘Everyone else cried, but Rayme didn’t. She just sat there on the bed. She was our mother’s favourite.’ The funeral was in Argentina, and the service was Catholic. ‘I was standing by the door while the priest was in the bedroom,’ Rayme’s sister said. ‘Rayme looked up at me wearing our mother’s expression, on purpose, to say I’d lost my mother but she hadn’t.’
Once Rayme sent her oldest sister a group of wallet-sized photographs in the mail. They were all pictures of Rayme taken in various years by public school photographers, and they were all dotted with tiny pinholes so that the faces were gone. Another time she came to her sister’s Christmas party with one eyebrow shaved off. Her sister demanded that she shave the other one off as well so at least they’d match, and Rayme did.
Sometime late that winter, Rayme went to stay in the country at the cabin of a friend. She was living there alone with her cat; she said she could marry the snow. The cat wandered into the woods and Rayme wandered down the middle of the dirt road six miles to the highway. There was rain and a heavy frost, sleet flowers on the pavement. Rayme wore a summer shift and a kitchen knife strapped to her arm with leather thongs. She had hacked her waist-length hair to the shape of a bowl on her head and coiled her thick dark braids tightly into the pockets of her dress.
She had nothing to say to the farm couple who found her sitting on the double line of the highway in a meditative pose, but she did nod and get into the car as though expecting them. They took her to the university hospital and she committed herself for three weeks. I visited her there; she sat stiffly by a window reinforced with chicken wire between double panes, her back very straight, her hands clasped. She said it was important to practise good posture, and she moved her head, slowly, deliberately, when she looked to the right or left. Her skin was pale and clear like white porcelain. Before I left, we repeated some rituals evolved earlier in half-serious fun: children’s songs with hand motions (‘here is the church and here is the steeple…I’m a little teapot, short and stout…along came the rain and washed the spider out’), the Repulse Tiger movement from T’ai Chi, a series of Chinese bows in slow motion. She said the hospital was like a big clock and she was in the floor of the clock; every day she went to Group, and played dominoes in the common room. She ate her lunch in a chair by the nurses’ desk; she liked their white clothes and the sighing of the elevators.
By the time she was released, the TM instructor living at Price Street had moved to Cleveland. Rayme moved in with me, with the Harvard carpenter, with the Lebanese photographer. She wasn’t paying rent but we had the extra room anyway and sometimes she cooked meals.
Once she cooked soup. For an hour, she stood by the stove, stirring the soup in a large dented kettle. I looked into the pot and saw a jagged object floating among the vegetables. I pulled it out, holding the hot thin edge: it was a large fragment of blackened linoleum from the buckling kitchen floor.
I asked Rayme how a piece of the floor got into the soup.
‘I put it there,’ Rayme said.
I didn’t answer.
‘It’s clean,’ Rayme said, ‘I washed it first,’ and then, angrily, ‘If you’re not going to eat my food, don’t look at it.’
That was her worst summer. She told me she didn’t want to take the Thorazine because it made her into someone else. Men were the sky and women were the earth; she liked books about Indians. She said cats were good and dogs were bad; she hated the lower half of her body. She didn’t have lovers but quietly adored men from her past – relatives, boyfriends, men she saw in magazines or on the street. Her high-school boyfriend was Krishna, a later one Jesus, her father ‘Buddha with a black heart’. She built an altar in her room out of planks and cement blocks, burned candles and incense, arranged pine needles and pebbles in patterns. She changed costumes often and moved the furniture in her room several times a day, usually shifting it just a few inches. She taped pictures on her wall: blue Krishna riding his white pony, Shiva dancing with all her gold arms adorned, Lyndon Johnson in glossy colour from Newsweek, cutouts of kittens from a toilet-paper advertisement. Her brother, three years younger than she and just graduated from high school, came to see her several times a week. He brought her a blue bottle full of crushed mint, and played his guitar. He seemed quiet, witty, focused; he looked like Rayme, the same dark hair and slender frame and chiselled bones. She said he was the angel who flew from the window with sleep-dust on his shoes; he used to tell his sisters, when they were all children, that he was the one who’d sealed their eyes shut in the night, that they would never catch him because boys could be ghosts in the dark.
On an afternoon when we’d taken mescaline, Rayme sat weeping on the couch at Price Street. The couch was brown and nubby, and people had to sit towards its edge or the cushions fell through to the floor. The cushions had fallen through, and Rayme sat in the hole of the frame comfortably, her legs splayed up over the board front. She sat looking at the ceiling, her head thrown back like a woman trying to keep her mascara from running. She remained still, as though enthroned, waiting, her face wet, attentive. I watched her from across the room. ‘Yes,’ she said after a long while, as though apprehending some truth, ‘tears wash the eyes and lubricate the skin of the temples.’
All of us were consulting a series of maps bearing no relation to any physical geography, and Rayme was like a telephone to another world. Her messages were syllables from an investigative dream, and her every movement was precise, like a driver unerringly steering an automobile by watching the road through the rear-view mirror.
I’d met her when we were both working at Bonanza Steak House as servers. She liked the cowboy hats and the plaid shirts with the braid trim, and she insisted on completing the outfit by wearing her brother’s high-heeled boots and a string tie from Carlsbad Caverns emblazoned with a tiny six-gun. She got away with these embellishments of restaurant policy because her compulsions seemed harmless. She would stand erect behind plates of crackling steaks bound for numbered trays, looking intently into the vacuous faces of customers shuffling by in the line. She did tap-dance steps in place, wielding her spatula and tipping her hat, addressing everyone as Sir or Madam. She liked the ritual of the totally useless weekly employee meetings, in which skirt lengths and hairnets and customer quota were discussed. She admired the manager and called him Mr Fenstermaker, when everyone else referred to him derisively as Chester, after the gimp on Gunsmoke. He was a fat doughy boy about thirty years old who walked around what he called ‘the store’ with a clipboard of names and work hours. During meetings, Rayme sat at his elbow and took down his directives in careful, cursive script, posting them later on the door to the employees’ bathroom. She also posted the covers of several True Romance comic books. She got in trouble once for mixing the mashed potatoes with nutmeg and banana slices, and again when she arranged the plastic steak tags across the raw meat in a mandala bordered by white stones. In the centre of the mandala was the small, perfect egg of a bird. The egg was purely blue; on it Rayme had painted a Chinese word in miniature gold characters. Later she told me she’d looked the word up especially in a language textbook; the word meant banquet.
Rayme was protected at Price Street. She stopped losing jobs because she stopped having them; instead, she worked in the tumbledown garden, tying tomato plants to poles with strips of heavy satin and brocade – draperies she’d found in a junk pile. Meticulously, she cut the fabric into measured lengths and hemmed the pieces. She kept the house full of wild flowers and blossoming weeds, and hung herbs to dry in the hallways. The summer was easy. No one expected her to talk on days when she didn’t speak. She was calm. She pretended we were mythical people and brought us presents she’d made: a doll of sticks and corn silk, with a shard of glass for a face, or the skeleton of a lizard laid out perfectly in a velvet-lined harmonica box.
In late August we were told that Price Street and the abandoned houses near it would be demolished by the city, ‘to make the city hospital a more attractive property.’ The rest of us complained resignedly but Rayme made no comment; quietly, she began staying awake all night in the downstairs of the house. Day after day, we awoke to find the furniture turned over and piled in a heap, the rugs rolled up, pictures turned upside-down on the walls. She took personal possessions from the bedrooms, wrapped them in her shirts and jeans, and tied the carefully-folded parcels with twine. We called a house meeting to discuss her behaviour, and Rayme refused to attend. She went upstairs and began throwing plates from the windows.
We asked her brother to come to Price Street and talk to her. They sat in her room for a couple of hours, then they came downstairs. Rayme said she didn’t have any money, maybe she’d live with her sister for a while. She unwrapped the stolen possessions with great ceremony and gave them back to us as gifts while her brother watched, smiling. At midnight, we made wheat pancakes and ate them with molasses, Indian-style, on the dark porch.
Several years later, when all the houses we’d lived in together had been torn down, Rayme’s brother would shoot himself with a pistol. He would do it beside a lean-to he’d built as a squatter at an isolated camp site, five miles up a steep mountain trail. He would leave no notes; his body would not be discovered for some time. When they did find him (they meaning people in uniforms), they would have trouble getting a stretcher down the path and over the rocks.
But this was before that. It was September of 1974, most of us would leave town in a few weeks, and I had been recently pregnant. Some of us were going to Belize to survive an earthquake. Some of us were going to California to live on 164th Street in Oakland. A few were staying in West Virginia to continue the same story in even more fragmented fashion. My lover, the carpenter, was going to Nicaragua on a house-building deal that would never materialize. We’d had passport photos taken together; he would use his passport in the company of someone else and I would lose mine somewhere in Arizona. But on this day in September I had never seen Arizona, and we all went to a deserted lake to swim despite the fact the weather had turned.
I remember going into the lake first, how the water was warmer than the air. On the bank the others were taking off their clothes – denim skirts and jeans, soft, worn clothes, endlessly utilitarian. Their bodies were pale and slow against the dark border of the woods. They walked into the lake separately, aimlessly, but Rayme swam straight towards me. It was almost evening and the air smelled of rain. Noise was muffled by the wind in the leaves of the trees, and when Rayme was suddenly close the splash of her movement was a shock like waking up. Her hands brushed my legs – her touch underwater as soft as the touch of a plant – and she passed me, swimming deeper, swimming farther out.
I wanted to stand on something firm and swam to the dock, a stationary thickness for mooring motor boats. It stretched out into the water a long distance. Who had built it in this deserted place? It was old, the weathered black of railroad ties. I pulled myself on to the splintery wood and began to walk along its length, touching the pylons, hearing the swak of stirred water as the storm blew up, hearing my own footsteps. Where were we all really going, and when would we ever arrive? Our destinations appeared to be interchangeable pauses in some long, lyric transit. This time that was nearly over, these years, seemed as close to family as most of us would ever get.
Now the rain was coming from far off, sweeping across the water in a silver sheet. The waiting surface began to dapple, studded with slivers of rain. Rayme was a white face and shoulders, afloat two hundred yards out.
‘Janet,’ she called across the distance, ‘when you had your abortion, did you think about killing yourself?’
‘No,’ I yelled back. ‘Come out of the water.’
Photo © Des D. Mona