THE THEORY OF MOVIES
On the last day, the day before everything changed, my mother told me her theory about the movies. It could have been a theory about anything else . . . Mother was always bursting with ideas. A few weeks earlier, she had expressed her thoughts on evolution, which included her conjecture that the towering dinosaur remains in the Museum of Natural History were not dinosaurs at all, but a hoax—a man-made likeness built from human bones.
On this day, however, the subject was movies. I was guilty, I think, of not listening closely enough; I was only seven years old, and greater things beckoned to me. I was busy awaiting the arrival of an insect, concentrating on the sodden strip of bathroom tile—the one just alongside the tub's foremost clawfoot— from which earwigs or silverfish might emerge. Balanced on my haunches, head lowered till my face grazed the floor, I whispered this urgent enticement into the cracks:
"Come out, you big bug."
Above my head but below the lip of the tub, my mother's hand agitated the water. She had a habit of spreading her fingers and raking through the bubbles as if they were in her way.
"Turn the page for me, Asta," my mother said. "I'm about to reach the ‘All the world's a stage' speech. Try saying it with me."
I hopped up to stretch my arm over the rim, to reach over the white crop of bubbles that foamed to my mother's shoulders. She kept a tea tray perched on her knees and had positioned her book (a compact Shakespeare that morning—it had been compact Shakespeares for more mornings than I could count) atop the tray with one dry hand.
As was customary, I'd been enlisted to provide the second hand. This task was not bothersome to me. I liked to be in the bathroom at that hour, for the bugs most often emerged just after dawn; I also liked the simmering sound of the bubbles, the sticky presence of steam and vapor in that enclosed space. I even had a fondness for the pages of As You Like It, yellowed and softened to the exact texture of muslin. I knew that my touch—my turning—had contributed to that.
"Smooth it down, I can't quite read it," Mother instructed once I'd flipped the page in question. I smoothed it, and she shifted in the water, placed her limbs in better alignment—better to PROJECT THE VOICE, she'd often told me—and began to read aloud.
"‘All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,'" she quoted with a piquant trilling of Rs. "Go ahead, Pork Chop, try saying it with me."
I didn't respond. Instead, I lowered myself till I lay flat on my stomach and peered aggressively into the rotted tile; I poked at one corner and found it pliable, claylike.
"Is it just me, Asta, or does that line contain a falsehood? Something a little bit off? What word in this line sounds phonybaloney to you? ‘All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players?'"
That got my attention. I turned my head in her direction, liking a challenge, as well as the wordbaloney (I was hungry), and found myself wishing I had a smart-sounding answer to give.
"Stage?" I hazarded.
"No, merely," she said. "Do you know what merely means, Asta? It means nothing more than. You are merely seven years old, and that is one way of looking at it, a correct way to use it in a sentence. But in this context, doesn't it seem fallacious? It is no mere thing to be a player in these hard times. I know that Mr. Shakespeare had no good reason to anticipate the coming of movies, but still, it seems awfully shortsighted, writing a thing like that."
From the corner of my eye I saw something stirring under the crack: first two pincers and then a long and shining body. Something resembling a shell.
Something resembling EARWIG.
I lay my finger before it and hoped that this creature would take to me, as I'd once seen a caterpillar take to a stalk—on TV.
"Wiggy!" I hissed between my teeth.
"What's that?" My mother's head surged over the edge of the tub; within a split second she spotted my visitor, dipped her fingers into the suds, and sprayed him in one efficient wrist flick. He twitched once, twice, before scuttling back into the tile.
"Foolish things crawl in your ears and eat the insides of your head," Mother said. "You don't want to be courting those."
I considered her words. "They eat heads?" I asked.
"They're not as bad as termites, but still pretty darned pesky," she went on meditatively, as if I hadn't spoken. "What use are earwigs to anyone? It'd be more useful to be a—a fly. Not to court flies, mind you, but actually be a fly! A fly on the cellular wall of somebody's brain! The pest, and not the one to whom the pestilence comes! Now wouldn't that be a switch?"
She placed the book flat on the tray, raised both tremulous hands above the water, and clasped them enthusiastically at her bosom. "It is exactly the thing I wish for you to understand about the movies. This is something my own mother used to tell me. Of course, the world's concerns are different than they were during her time—the Silent Era—but our overriding choices remain the same. And there are only two—there have never been more than two.
"Are you listening, Asta? You can conduct yourself as if you are watching a movie—with darkness closing in on all sides—or, choice number two, you can conduct yourself as if you are acting in a movie, with your inner light guiding you all the way. Given those two choices, and knowing that these are the only two you will ever, ever have, which would you deem the better one?"
"Acting in a movie?"
"Yes! The better one. We can't afford to reduce ourselves to being mere witnesses. There are times when we must take actions that are entirely of our own making." My mother's eyes fixed on the overhead light above the bathtub. The light wasn't on, but she seemed pleased by whatever she saw up there—as if that dull glass circle had nodded its assent.
"Time flies, but I cannot," my mother murmured, staring at the light. She let both arms slump below the fading bubbles, and the tea tray toppled dangerously to one side. I steadied it, and that seemed to revive her a bit.
The wall-eyed look that sometimes overtook her was replaced by a penetrating one.
"Take that away, would you? And hand me my towel, yes, there's a good girl," she said. "Remind me to take a look at you this morning. Your face is almost as peaked as your brother's. I don't like seeing my children looking so pinched." She pressed the drain lever with her foot, and the pipes gave a great belch as the water hurtled toward the eye of the drain. I leaned forward to watch it disappear.
"For heaven's sake, don't let that water touch you," Mother scolded, prodding at my chest with a dripping toe.
Once Mother had toweled off and slipped into her robe, she took me downstairs to the kitchen, and the daily business commenced.
"Really, Asta," my mother said, giving my skirt a yank. "Your dress. Would it kill you to pull it up?" Though I didn't protest, I always disliked the way her fingers went from the lymph nodes under my jaw and armpits to the even more tender ones around my pelvic bones. I'd developed the practice of avoiding her gaze during such probes; I usually stared at the windows, studying the black drapes that were parted to reveal the tar paper on the opposite side of the glass.
The fingers traced and retraced the same circle around my hip bone. "What?" I asked once their motion stopped. "What is it?"
"A lump. You've got a lump here."
Her eyes shone with something like satisfaction. Or was it impudence? It made me think of the nature show my brother, Orion, and I had watched the week before. The show had featured seagulls, and the plummy-voiced narrator had said that gulls sometimes liked to pluck the eyes right out of dead things, as if extracting pearls from oysters.
Mother touched my cheek with her silky, sallow hand.
"I knew you looked peaked. What did I tell you? This time I knew it."
I released the hem of my dress. The wool fabric swatted my ankles with the force of an indictment.
"Can you imagine how such a sickness comes into my house when I've done everything in my power to keep you safe? It isn't right." Her voice had a musing quality, and aggrieved softness. She stood and disappeared for a moment into the pantry, returning with her fingers looped in the handles of pinking shears. "I guess I should take care of your hair before work, if nothing else."
I looked at her uncomprehendingly. True, I was used to Mother's brushing my hair in the morning before she left for work; she raked over tangles until my loosened hair fattened the brush and my head jerked backward with the vigor of her strokes. Pain aside, I rather enjoyed this. With my neck so angled, I could study the ceiling and the cumulous cloudshapes (which sometimes transformed into man-shapes or tree-shapes, as clouds often will) that had collected where the paint had peeled away.
But the scissors were unfamiliar.
I felt something cold and solid against the nape of my neck— a crisp snip. My hair fell free, tumbling over my dress front and around my feet; I blinked as wisps caught in my eyelashes, then shut my eyes completely as the scissors edged closer and closer toward my scalp.
My mother stepped back. "There, that's a help," she said. "Hair is the worst hive of germ activity."
I felt my affronted hair, or what was left; it had become spare and bristly in a matter of minutes. I wanted to ask if she'd hold me up to the mirror so I could see the results but thought better of it. Don't be vain, Asta—this is hygiene, not beautification, my mother would be inclined to say. Besides, you had scraggly little witch's hair. Now you're a pixie, neat and trim.
My mother turned her back to me and crossed the kitchen floor, trailing bits of my hair behind her, bits that clung to the soles of her feet. She stroked her own hair—dark, lank hair that hung to the small of her back—until the touch became an absent caress.
As soon as she was gone I pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and clambered up on it. There, in the dusty mirror framed by silver embossed roses, a truculent little boy—my brother's face—looked back at me. Although I was a skinny child, my cheeks had remained obstinately moonchild-round, exactly as his were. And now I had his short hair to boot. I watched my expression change from truculent to grave to amused, till at last a small smile ghosted the corners of my mouth.
I could hear them—Mother and Orion—going through their usual Morning Recitation.
"Anne Bradstreet, ‘The Flesh and the Spirit.' ‘Dost dream of things beyond the Moon . . . and dost thou hope to dwell there soon?'"
And then Orion's echo, weak but obedient: "Dost dream of things beyond the Moon . . . and dost thou hope . . . to dwell there soon?'"
And Mother, prodding: "Vachel Lindsay, ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.' ‘And who will bring . . . '"
"‘And who will bring . . . '" Orion began. He coughed then. My expression in the mirror faltered. Unconsciously, my hand went to the hollow in my throat.
"PROJECT THE VOICE," Mother warned.
"‘And who will bring white peace,'" I whispered, for this line was my favorite. "‘And who will bring white peace, that he may sleep upon his hill again?'" my brother asked. There was silence. I suppose she kissed him in that silence. I smiled again, greatly relieved, and moved my hand from my throat to the nape of my neck, to feel the new stubble there.
By the time Mother returned to the kitchen, I'd hopped down and tucked myself into the table. She now wore a blue cleaningwoman's smock over a pale green dirndl skirt. And work shoes, of course. "Asta," she said. "I have to be at work in fifteen minutes so I'll only say this once. You're not to do any homework today. Well—" she amended, seeing my disappointment, "you can do your Bible readings, but there's no need to bother with any of the other books."
"Not even the primer?" I asked.
The primer was the same one my mother had used in her girlhood, with The Assumption Girls' School stamped on the flyleaf and her first name, Loretta, indelibly lettered in pencil. I could read from it only a little, but I liked the pictures of children who wore proper-looking hats and were always giving tips on how to avoid unpardonable breaches of manners, such as never to take the largest slice of cake off a platter. To do so would be greedy.
"No primer," my mother said. "You need to focus on getting well. I'd prefer you stay in bed and rest."
"Orion and me both," I said after a thoughtful pause.
"Yes, Orion and you both, in your own little beds."
She put on her fox-collar coat and her red rubber zip-up boots (I loved those boots, loved their unabashed cherry-redness) and stuffed a pair of rubber gloves into her coat pocket. While she was distracted, I groped under my dress to feel this accursed lump. I felt a tender pang by the jut of the pelvic bone and then the swollen gland responsible for the pang. A mere kernel of a thing!
"Mother," I said, "what would you say are my chances of getting better? Would you say they're not very high?"
She paused at the front door, one slim hand on the knob. "Silly," she scoffed. Her serpentine neck craned against the fox collar. "Come here."
I pushed away from the table and stood before her, under the shadow of her breasts.
"Give me your cheek, Pork Chop," she said, and I did. Her lips brushed my face; they were chapped, dry from the aridity of the house, but her breath was moist. I wanted nothing more than to burrow into such moist warmth and live there like an earwig hidden under the tile. I put my arms around her waist and buried my head against her rib cage, but she extricated me, gently.
"Have a healthy lunch. Orion can help you make it. I'll bring you both something nice for supper later on, all right?"
"And who will bring white peace?" I said, expecting a smile. None came. Mother reached around and adjusted the clip in her hair—an unnecessary gesture, for the clip was already deadcentered as far as I could tell—and with that she was out the door, closing it before I could get so much as a whiff of air.
I must have waited for the rattle of the bolts she'd put on the outside of the door. When the rattling stopped, I probably jiggled the knob. I feared a day when Mother might fail to lock us in properly.
But our condition was assured. We were safe within the walls that protected us from the inscrutable outside world.