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issue 34: january - february 2003 

 | author bio

Care
Julie Orringer

How to cross the street with a six-year-old: take her hand, look both ways, wait until it's safe. Then stay within the crosswalk as you cross. Tessa does all these things as she guides Olivia across the street toward the cable car stop. There's a right way to take care of a child, she knows, and a wrong way. Many wrong ways. What you do not do: take the drugs that are in your pocket, the Devvies and Sallies in their silver pillbox. She can make it through the day without them. Even bringing them was wrong—another wrong thing. But it makes her feel better to have them close by.
      The heel of Tessa's left shoe is coming loose, so she's been walking on the ball of her foot ever since she left her apartment. She has a blister already. At the stop she sits on a bench and examines the broken shoe. The tips of tiny nails glint in the space between heel and sole. Olivia sits next to her, zipping and unzipping her lavender jacket.
      "What's wrong with your shoe?" Olivia asks.
      "Nothing," Tessa says, straightening the heel. She stuffs her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket —Kenji's jacket, actually, heavy and familiar and smelling of his cigarettes—and feels for the pillbox. There it is in the right-hand pocket, round and familiar, a relief.
      "Can I get a souvenir?" Olivia says, eyeing a shop across the street.
      "Maybe later. We have to wait for the cable car."
      "Can we just look for a second?"
      Tessa glances down the street in the direction of the car turnaround. A cable car is just beginning to make the climb up the hill. "We have to stay here."
      "I want a T-shirt and a light-up snow dome," Olivia says.
      "You'll get what I give you," Tessa says, and Olivia goes silent. She slides down the bench, as far away from Tessa as possible.
      Tessa tries to concentrate on the distant clang of the bell. She wills the cable car to hurry up. All her joints feel dry and sore, her mind whitely empty. She bites the inside of her cheek just for the distraction.
      The cable car glides uphill through the intersection of Post and Powell and comes to rest at their stop. It's packed with tall boys in green-and-white sweatshirts that read Bonn Jungenchor. The boys are belting out a peasant tune in three-part harmony. Tessa and Olivia squeeze onto the side-rail and grab the brass pole as the cable car begins to move. All around them the boys sing the lilting chorus with its repeating nonsense line, o-di-lon tee-lee, o-di- ion tee-lee. Tessa's head begins to pound. She wonders if Olivia is too young to be standing on the side-rail of a cable car, hanging onto a pole as they ascend Nob Hill. Maybe they should be inside the car, not standing here, where Olivia could fall onto the tracks or be jostled to the pavement The bell of the cable car is like a pickax inside Tessa's head. "Clay Street, Clay," the driver calls, yanking the wooden brake. For a long moment, a metallic screech drowns out the German boys' song.
      They roll through Chinatown, with its dead-eyed fish on ice and its mysterious herb stores, its smells of frying meat and fruity garbage and wet boxes. Farther along, the German boys stop singing. Olivia knocks and knocks her toe against the brass pole. Tessa wants to make her stop, but she can't move. There's a hot fast clawing inside her chest. She takes one hand off the pole and feels for the silver pillbox. With her thumb she flicks the lid open. She can feel the difference between a Devvie and a Sallie, the Devvie like a chalky little submarine, the Sallie hexagonal and coated. She works a Devvie out with her index finger. It calms her just to hold it. Clenching it in her hand, she wraps her arm around the pole and braces herself for the next hill.
      Her shoes keep slipping on the smooth side-rail, and the narrow skirt makes it hard to get her balance. God, if only her mind had been working that morning, she would have worn something different, more casual. Her plan had been to dress as if she'd otherwise be spending the day at a job. When she got to the hotel, though, Gayle was busy zipping Olivia into her jacket and folding her socks down and putting her hair up into a ponytail. She'd hardly glanced at Tessa's clothes. It was a good thing, too, because Tessa hadn't gotten it right. She couldn't find any stockings or a convincing jacket. And if she had a job, and this were really her day off, wouldn't she just be wearing jeans and a T-shirt? But Gayle had her mind on the lecture she was going to deliver that afternoon, something about Mrs. Dalloway, and Tessa left before she could notice much of anything.
      The German youths move on to another song, this one in English. Tessa doesn't recognize it, but it has the predictable swelling cadences of a show tune. One of the teenagers beside her belts out the baritone. Olivia stares at the rows of pink and yellow houses, at the blue expanse of bay opening before them. They can see an antique sailing vessel docked near Ghiradelli square, and the white masts of fishing boats bobbing alongside a pier. The cable car is going downhill now, mashing Olivia against the brass pole and Tessa against Olivia.
      "You're hurting me," Olivia says.
      Tessa pushes herself away, feeling the Devvie like a smooth pebble in her fist. "We're almost there," she says. "We can get some ice cream, okay?"
      Olivia rubs a hand under her nose. "I'm not allowed," she says. "It'll spoil my appetite."
      "Not today it won't. Not while you're with me."
      Olivia gives her a skeptical look.
      "I'm your adult today," Tessa says. "I make the rules."
      At last the cable car reaches its turnaround. Tessa and Olivia get off and walk toward Ghiradelli Square, leaving the German choir-boys behind. Each step sends a burning jolt through Tessa's foot. She'll never make it through the day in these shoes. There's a line at the ice cream shop entrance, of course, and they have to wait outside in the wind and the blinding sun. The other people in line are parents and children, shivering in their bright T-shirts and shorts. They're all strangely quiet. They edge against the brick wall of the ice cream shop, away from a man with dun-colored dreadlocks and milky eyes. Around his neck is a sign that reads, simply, "AIDS." He moves in Tessa's direction, shaking a coffee can. Tessa takes a crumpled dollar from her pocket. When the man reaches her, she drops it in his can. He grins and says, "Thank you, beautiful." Though she's never seen him before, something seems to pass between them, a kind of uneasy recognition. Tessa pulls Kenji's jacket tighter around herself as the man moves off down the line.
      "He smelled like pee," Olivia says.
      "You would too, if you were him," Tessa says. It gives her a strange satisfaction to see how much this disturbs her niece. Olivia takes another look at the man, then moves behind Tessa, out of sight.
      It's another fifteen minutes before the host shows them to a booth. As soon as he leaves, Tessa slides her shoes off and tucks her throbbing feet under her thighs. Olivia seems nervous, glancing at the families in other booths, humming a tight little song to herself. Will no one quit singing? Tessa lowers her forehead onto her fist.
      When the waiter comes and asks what she'll have, Olivia shakes her head and looks down at the table. Tessa orders a hot-fudge-and-Oreo sundae for her, and coffee for herself. As they wait, Tessa takes sugars from the little ceramic sugar-holder and rips them open one by one, lining them up on her napkin. She's not thinking about it, just getting into the rhythm of it, the feeling of paper in her hands, the sound of tearing. Olivia stares at her. Tessa looks down at the row of sugars, the little nest of torn-off strips of paper. This is not normal behavior. She puts a hand in her pocket and rolls the Devvie between her fingers, thinking how easy it would be to take this one white pill. Olivia would never even notice. It couldn't hurt anyone. In fact, she'd be worse off without it. And Olivia would be worse off. Olivia needs her to take this Devvie. Who knows what will happen otherwise?
      The waitress brings the ice cream and the coffee, and Olivia seems relieved. She picks up the long spoon and lifts a delicate peak of whipped cream from the sundae. When she tastes it, she smiles and then scoops up a bite of ice cream and hot fudge. Quickly, with a feeling of inevitability, Tessa puts the Devvie on her tongue and washes it down with coffee. She takes a long breath and leans back in her chair. In a few minutes she'll begin to feel it. She glances at her wrist where she once wore a watch. She remembers the watch, an oversized Swiss Army chronometer, and wonders how it got away from her.
      Across the table Olivia eats her ice cream with deliberation, spooning hot fudge and whipped cream with each bite. Tessa watches her, waiting for the first quickening of the drug, that flutter at the center of her chest. Soon she will be able to handle anything, including taking care of her niece, her sister's child. She squints at Olivia, trying to imagine her as a six-year-old Gayle. But Gayle was a thin, sly-eyed girl, her mouth full and pink, her hands agile. This girl is sturdy and round-faced. Pure Henry.
      Oh, her brother-in law is valiantly good, doesn't smoke or drink; he is devoted to the study of imaginary numbers and to the building of handy gadgets. In his house, each family member's preferred bathwater temperature is programmed into a special faucet, and the toaster-oven responds to voice commands. "Black," Tessa said, last time she visited, and the toaster complied. Henry's responsible and compassionate, a good father. Right now he's back home taking care of Ethan, the younger child, who has chicken pox. He's the kind of husband who can be trusted to take care of a sick child. Tessa can almost stand him, though for a long time she wanted to kill kim. Gayle had met him in college. For years Tessa felt like he was the one who'd taken Gayle away, made Gayle forget that she and Tessa were supposed to go to Barcelona when they finished school, get a tiny apartment there, teach English, go out with dark-eyed men, give the world of careers and babies and husbands a grand and permanent adios.
      Of course, if it hadn't been Henry, it would have been someone else. Or something else. Tessa understands that now. Gayle started talking about graduate school when Tessa was still a freshman. She applied and got in right out of college. Stupidly, Tessa kept talking about Barcelona as if they might still go, as if Gayle might ditch her boyfriend and her PhD in favor of a wild life in Catalonia. When Tessa was a senior herself, she asked Gayle what she was supposed to do next. She'd majored in computer programming, but she couldn't imagine getting a normal job, working in an office. Gayle suggested Tessa go to Barcelona and teach English, just like they'd talked about. But that wasn't what they'd talked about, and Gayle knew it. Instead, Tessa dropped out of school and moved to San Francisco. And just look at her now.
      Tessa can feel the Devvie coming on, the flush in her face that means her veins are dilating, the flutter in her diaphragm as the drug gets down to business. She can't avert her eyes from Olivia, sated and pale, the empty ice-cream bowl in front of her. They'll go look at the sea lions, they'll shop for souvenirs. She can do those things.
      She pays the bill and wipes Olivia's face with a napkin, and then they're back out into the wind and sun. The light has become brighter and hotter and she's drinking it in like milk. Now she's the one who's singing, a hand-clapping song from when she and Gayle were little girls, Miss Lucy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell. It's a song where you say all the bad words but not really, Miss Lucy went to heaven, the steamboat went to hell-o operator, please give me number nine... She and Gayle used to sing it at the top of their lungs when their father wasn't home. She should teach it to Olivia. Behind the frigerator there lay a piece of glass, Miss Lucy sat upon it and broke her little ass me no more questions, tell me no more lies... but she can't remember what comes after that. And these shoes are killing her. Why is she still wearing them? She pauses to take them off, and the sidewalk is mercifully cold against her burning feet.
      "You're barefoot," Olivia says. "You can't go barefoot."
      "Why not?"
      "You might step on glass. Or a bee. Or doody."
      "I'm not going to step on doody," Tessa says. "Believe me."
      "You could get an infection," Olivia says, pausing at the door of a crowded T-shirt shop. On a tall rotating stand beside the door, pink and turquoise and yellow novelty flip-flops hang on individual hooks. Tessa turns the stand, looking. Maybe Olivia is right. Maybe what she needs is a new pair of shoes.
      "What do you think of these?" Tessa pulls off a pair of pink flip-flops with palm trees stenciled in black on the footbed. California Dreamin', they say in looping script.
      "You should get them," Olivia says. "And I could get a souvenir."
      "I just got you ice cream," Tessa says.
      "I'm going to look in here," Olivia says vaguely, and wanders inside toward a shelf of plush toys. Tessa glances at the price tag on the flip-flops. Twelve dollars, but maybe they're worth it. She goes to the register and waits in line, shifting from foot to foot, biting her nails. When she gets to the front of the line, she pays for the shoes with the twenty Kenji gave her that morning. There are still a couple of crumpled bills in her pocket. How much does she have left? Ten bucks? Fifteen? She doesn't even want to check. She still has to buy a present for Olivia and lunch for both of them and the cable car ride back, and her bank account is history, and her credit card won't accept new charges ever again. The rush in her chest becomes a pounding, the beginning of panic. Tessa takes her flip-flops and goes to get Olivia, who's struggling with another child at the rack of plush toys. The child is a blond boy, perhaps three inches taller. He pulls a toy otter away from Olivia and holds it against his chest.
      "I want that bear," Olivia says.
      "That's not a bear," Tessa says.
      "I want him," Olivia says, her voice low and dangerous. The boy takes a step back, holding the otter. His hair is cut like a hockey player's, short and scruffy on top, long in back. A thin blond woman rushes toward him and grabs him by the wrist.
      "Wayne Christopher," the woman says. "You put that thing back where you got it"
      Baring his teeth at Olivia, the boy shoves the otter back onto its shelf, deep behind the other animals. His mother takes his wrist and pulls him out of the store, scolding. Olivia goes to the shelf and digs through the animals until she's found the otter, a glossy brown thing with deep, live-looking eyes. "I want him," she says, holding the toy against her chest.
      There's no way Tessa can afford the otter. She's sure it must cost fifteen dollars, at least. But she doesn't feel like arguing about it. What she wants is to get outside and put on her new flip-flops. She glances around the store and takes Olivia's hand. Nothing is going to make her drop the otter. Tessa leads her toward the door, through a group of women in sun visors, past the racks of magnets and postcards, then out onto the sidewalk.
      Olivia glances back over her shoulder toward the store. "Hey," she says. "Stop."
      Tessa pulls her along. Without a word, they walk toward Pier 39, Tessa still barefoot, the new flip-flops in a plastic bag in her hand, the broken pumps forgotten somewhere inside the store. When they've gone two blocks, Tessa sits down on a bench and puts on the flip-flops. They feel so much better she wants to cry. Olivia looks down at the otter she's still holding in her arms.
      "You made me steal him," she says.
      "No, I didn't," Tessa says. "You stole him all by yourself."
      Olivia draws her eyebrows together. "You made me leave while I was holding him."
      "You could have dropped him," Tessa says.
      Olivia says nothing, looking down at the otter. Tessa feels a kind of triumph.
      "It's time to go now," she says. "We have to go see the sea lions."
      "I have to put him back," Olivia says.
      "No, you don't. You said you wanted him. Now you have him. Give him a name or something." Tessa stands and puts a hand on the back of Olivia's neck. "Let's go," she says.
      "You're pinching me," Olivia says, squirming out of her grasp. She hides the otter under her jacket and holds it there as they make their way down the wharf.

___________

The flip-flops do the trick. It's crazy how much better Tessa feels. She could walk for miles, for hours. Olivia trots beside her, trying to keep up, the otter concealed beneath her jacket. She keeps glancing back in the direction of the store as if someone might still come after them. Tessa knows she should be worried about what Olivia will tell her mother, and what Gayle will believe. But she almost wants Olivia to tell her mother. It feels good to know she's made Olivia do something her parents would punish her for. This is not right, she knows —not the way to take care of a six-year-old. There's no time to think about it, though —the Devvie has filled her with shimmering urgency. They need to see the sea lions and think about lunch and maybe she should take a Sallie. There's nothing quite like a Sallie after a Devvie, that lucent pink infusion that makes her almost come, every time. They've spent hours doing this, she and Kenji. At first it was just on Sundays in the Arboretum, but after they quit their jobs at Oracle they started doing it every day. One Devvie, then a Sallie, then another Sallie, and another Devvie. Then the feeling of each other's bodies. It's better than Ecstasy, cheaper than meth. She wasn't going to do it today, not both, not even a Devvie, but now that she's started maybe she should go ahead and take the Sallie, because that's what she's used to now.
      Pier 39 is teeming with parents and children and teenagers and cops and vendors. There's the smell of hot dogs, waffle cones, saltwater taffy. Above the accordion music and children's shouts, Tessa can hear the frantic braying of sea lions. Olivia should be loving this. Instead she's looking anxious and pinched, her hand cold in Tessa's. They make their way down to the end of the pier, where families have gathered at the railing to watch the sea lions down in the bay. They lie on wooden floats in a protected cove, hundreds of them, molasses-brown, their glossy bodies heaped upon the floats and upon each other. They smell like elephants in the zoo. Fat with fish, they drowse in the sun or crow at the tourists, their faces small and canine. Spoiled, Tessa thinks. Tame. Hardly even animals anymore. Olivia sidles up to the railing, staring. Behind her there's a free spot on a bench. Tessa sinks into it, stretching her legs out in the sun. It's too hot for Kenji's jacket now. She takes it off and holds it on her lap. She cannot close her eyes to feel the crescendo of her buzz, as much as she wants to. She has to watch Olivia. The Devvie surges in her, flushing her cheeks, and she concentrates on the dark brush of her niece's ponytail. Olivia's egg-blue ponytail holder matches the blue edging of her socks. She is a child cared for in great detail. Tessa likes the sound of that in her mind: cared for in great detail. She wonders what Olivia would look like if she were her kid, if Tessa were the one responsible for raising her. Worse, maybe. No matching ponytail holder, no cute windbreaker. But she'd be happier, Tessa's sure of that. She wouldn't be worrying about everything she ate and everything she might step on and this rule and that rule. She'd be a girl, a little girl, not a tiny adult.
      Olivia seems completely absorbed in the sea lions now, ready to stand there at the railing for a long time. Long enough, maybe, for Tessa to do what she wants to do. She works a hand into the pocket of Kenji’s coat. There, like a promise, is the pillbox, the Sallies waiting inside. She flips the top and slides one out. The smoothness of it. The regularity of its six corners. She lays it on her tongue to taste the sweet coating before she swallows. Olivia crouches at the railing now, poking a finger through the wooden slats. Beside her, other children scream and laugh and point.
      Tessa closes her eyes, letting the sun come down upon her. She can feel the waves of the Devvie still breaking over her, the flutter in her chest that means it's working, and it's lovely, and it's making her lovely and gone. The Sallie will take a little while to work, but when it does work, what joy. She will sit here and wait. She will let her niece watch those braying dogs of the sea. But she can't sit still or get comfortable, and she can't help thinking about what they'll have to do next, and after that, and after that, and she can't help thinking about Gayle back at the hotel, her sister, who seems so far from her now.
      She opens her eyes. Olivia's pulling on her hand. "Stand up," she says.
      "What is it?"
      "I have to go bathroom."
      "Right now?"
      In answer, Olivia presses a hand between her legs.
      "Okay, okay," Tessa says. When she stands, her vision crowds with blue sparks. She steadies herself against the bench. "We'll find one," she says. "Come on."
      They weave through the tourists, looking. Olivia's mouth is pursed with the effort of holding it in. Tessa keeps forgetting what they're looking for —not ice cream, they've had that, not the sea lions, not souvenirs. She sees a line of girls and women extending from a door and suddenly she remembers, but this is not the bathroom, it's a fudge shop. She looks for signs and finds none. She asks a small woman with a broom and dustpan, but the woman shrugs and says, "No speak." Olivia is dancing now, making urgent noises in her throat. Finally, coming around a corner, they find it: the women's bathroom, a blue door and then a long silver cavern of stalls. Olivia breaks away from Tessa and locks herself inside one of them.
      Tessa takes a stall nearby and closes the door behind her. She leans against the door, trying to slow her breathing. She doesn't have to pee. What she wants is to feel that Sallie. If she can get it, just the beginning of it, right here alone in the stall, it will be perfect. She will receive the shock of it in her groin, the tightening heat of it in her belly. She puts Kenji's jacket on again, trying to think about being in bed with him when this day is over. Instead she imagines Henry with his hands on Gayle. His broad white face, his small damp mouth. The chalkdust smell of him. She imagines him panting and sweating, whispering equations to stave off his orgasm.
      Tessa sits down on the toilet and puts her head in her hands. From all up and down the row of stalls comes the roar of flushing, the banging of metal against metal, the raised voices of mothers and children. What would her own mother think if she saw Tessa now? Sometimes it almost seems better that she died when she did, when Tessa was four. Tessa remembers her mother playing with her in a kiddie pool, holding her on her knees as Tessa splashed. She's sure she remembers this, though Gayle always said she only thought she remembered it because they had a picture of it. It was one of the photographs they'd had in their secret closet altar, back in their room at home. They also had a pair of their mother's dancing shoes, silver; an old pink plastic hairbrush with strands of her hair; an empty wallet with a broken snap; a pair of malachite earrings. For years they kept finding small things of hers around the house, and at night they'd sneak into the closet and add them to the altar. There, crouched ill the dark, they'd talk about her in whispers and see who could remember more. Gayle always won, of course.
      There were times when Tessa would go into the closet by herself and look at the photos, try on the shoes and earrings, feeling like that might help her remember something. It was hopeless, though. Tessa could never catch up. And after a while it all began to seem beside the point. As Gayle grew older she seemed to think about their mother less and less. Instead of creeping into the closet with Tessa, she would stay up late with their father in his study. She'd brew weak tea, which Tessa wasn't allowed to drink yet, and she'd sit on the leather ottoman and talk about what had happened at school or what she'd read in the newspaper that day. Their father would talk to Gayle almost as if she were another adult, asking her opinions and listening to her responses. A few times he even let Gayle come to the political science classes he taught at the university. When Tessa had finally asked him, a few years ago, why he'd never brought her to his classes, he'd looked at her with surprise and said he never knew she was interested.
      Tessa can feel the Sallie beginning to come on, but it's coming on wrong because she's sitting here in a bathroom stall and thinking about the wrong things. The Sallie ices her veins and makes her toes cramp up. She needs some water. She needs money. Her skin prickles cold. Something is happening and she cannot make it stop.
      From outside the stall Olivia calls something, words Tessa cannot make out. Hold on, she tries to say, but her voice is not working properly. A wave of shudders breaks over her, and then another, and then they keep on coming. She has to get her niece and get out of there. They need to go someplace quiet and alone. She is ready for that. She will open the door on three.
      One.
      Two.
      Three.
      But where is Olivia?
      Not in the corridor between the line of stalls, and not in the open stalls, and not by the sinks washing her hands or by the dryers drying them. Not hiding under the Changin' Station or in the utility closet. She must be outside, waiting by the entrance. That is where she has to be. Tessa steps into a blinding crush of sun, a cataract of men and women and children. She looks beside the restroom door, behind the trash can a few feet away, behind the planter with its tiny sick palm. She sits down on the bench beside the palm. Under the surge of the Sallie she can feel the rhythmic thwick of panic in her chest, the wingbeats of an insect. Maybe this is a game. Ass me no more questions, tell me no more lies. Tessa goes back into the restroom and makes her way up and down the row of stalls. Women are staring at her, she realizes, giving her looks of concern or fear, pulling their children away. They think she's crazy, and why not? Her hair is a wind-nest, her jacket a bulky male thing, her shirt half-untucked from her tweed skirt, her feet dirty in pink flip-flops.
      "Olivia," she screams. "This is not a joke!"
      The noise and bustle of the restroom continue around her. She waits, but her niece does not appear.
      She has to look outside again. She shoulders through the door and out into the wind. The fronds of the sick palm tree rustle like paper. What color jacket is Olivia wearing? Is it blue? Purple? Is that her, standing by the rail? No, a different child, an older child. The sea lions. She must have gone back to see them, to wait for Tessa there. How to get back to that place? She remembers a confusion, a frantic search for restrooms. Where did they end up? She can hear the sea lions' sound, their fretful barking, and she follows it through a twist of shops and wooden staircases and restaurant patios, looking for that jacket all the while, the jacket that might have been light blue or lavender or pale green, something green, maybe the dress underneath. She should never have let Olivia go into a stall alone. How could she keep it straight, what you were and weren't supposed to do? There are things she should be doing now, smart ways of trying to find Olivia. She has to think of what they are. If she could just lie down somewhere, in a cool dark room. But she cannot lie down.
      Olivia is not standing by the rail watching the sea lions. Tessa leans forward over the rail, staring into the lapping water. A child, leaning out too far, could fall in. Would anyone notice? Would anyone notice if she, Tessa, dropped herself into that black-blue, if she let herself sink to the bottom?
      What about the otter, that toy she made Olivia steal from the T-shirt shop? That must be where she is, in the shop, putting that thing back on the shelf. That can be the only place. She knows where it is. Back in the direction of the cable car. Olivia would have remembered. And Tessa can find it. It's the only T-shirt shop in San Francisco that has her broken shoes. She slaps along the pier in the direction of the shop, her flip-flops threatening to fly off her feet, the rubber thongs cutting into her skin. Get out of her way. She is a woman in a hurry, a person trying to beat fate. She scans the crowds for a glimpse of purple or of sea- green, for a head of tight dark curls, a ponytail, an egg-blue ponytail holder. Her sister, sitting in a conference room in a hotel downtown, has no idea what is happening. Perhaps Olivia is headed there right now, running to tell her mother what Tessa's done. Here's what Tessa knows: no child of hers would run off into a crowd, lose herself in a strange city.
      All along Beach Street there are T-shirt shops and T-shirt shops and T-shirt shops. Three of them have flip-flops displayed out front. Two of these have stuffed animals inside. One of these has otters. None of them has Olivia. Tessa stands on the sidewalk, looking out toward the bay. There, passing between the shore and Alcatraz, is a rust-red oil tanker with the word TANAKA on the side in high white letters. A million gallons of oil. She can almost taste it, bitter and black.
      Tessa shuffles along Beach Street. She should tell the cops. She needs help. But look at her, in her crazy outfit, with Devvies and Sallies in her pocket. They'll think she's a kidnapper, a criminal. They'll handcuff her and throw her in a cell. Then they'll search the apartment. Kenji will be arrested too. She has to call him. Maybe he can make it all stop. Up ahead there is a payphone, a little man shouting into it. She bounces on her toes, waiting, looking, willing Olivia to walk by. She'd like to take her by the shoulder, shake her, wake her up: this is the world, not what your parents have told you. This is what exists just outside the borders of your pretty life. It's what she's had to learn herself, the hard way, through Gayle's slow and steady pulling-away, through all that time since college when she didn't know what to do with herself, the hated jobs in offices, her father's quiet disappointment, those deadened months at Oracle, and the months since she quit, months of her and Kenji in the apartment during the day, fucking and fighting and tweaking and reading the paper and watching movies and lying to everyone. She knows she's getting closer to a new kind of truth, a real discovery, a kind of knowledge Gayle will never have.
      The little man gets off the phone and runs down the street, cursing. Tessa picks up the phone. She can smell food, sweet and greasy, on the receiver. She can't speak into the hum of the dial tone or decide which buttons to press. Her head feels like it's hurtling in fast-forward, her breath coming so fast her vision is going black at the edges. She can't explain why she's standing on the street holding this phone instead of searching for Olivia. A recording comes on and tells her what to do if she'd like to make a call.
      "Get Kenji," she says to the voice. "Dial Kenji."
      Please hang up and try again.
      Try what? She can't hang up. Someone else is already waiting for the phone. If you 'd like to make a call.
      She jams the receiver onto the hook, then picks it up again and presses numbers. Please deposit thirty-five cents. She digs in her pocket for change and finds a quarter and a dime. She fumbles them into the slot and dials again. Seven numbers. She can manage them. She does. The phone is ringing, and then, like a reprieve from everything awful, Kenji's voice. She can hardly believe he still exists ill this world. She tries to say something but all she can do is cough out sobs.
      "Tessa? Is that you?"
      "It's not my fault," she cries into the receiver.
      "Hey," he says. "Come home. Where did you go?"
      "You have to come get me," she says.
      He gives a faint, panicked laugh. "Come get you? I can't come get you! I'm extremely fucking fucked up at the moment."
      "You have to come," she says. "Olivia's gone."
      "Who?"
      She hangs up and sits down on the curb. Behind her, someone else picks up the phone and begins punching numbers. There are cars passing in the street just beyond Tessa's flip flops, almost running over her feet as they pass. Crushed bones, blood, a wreck. She almost wants it.
      She stands and crosses the street, making the cars swerve around her. There's a small park sloping down toward the water, with pigeons coming down like shattering slate. Weathered green benches stand between beds of blue and yellow pansies. She sits down on a bench, looking out toward the flat metallic expanse of the bay. She feels something going wide and empty in her chest, the Devvie slipping out from beneath the Sallie, the cartoon moment just before you fall, when the cliff's already gone but gravity has not yet got you. A horror goes through her: a child somewhere, screaming, lost. Not just a child, her own niece. She takes the pillbox from her pocket, looks inside. Two Devvies, one more Sallie. She looks at the flowerbed beside the bench, then kneels on the grass. With her finger she digs a hole in the loose soil of the flowerbed, turning up dirt and curled-up bugs and roots. Then she packs the pillbox into the hole, and tamps the soil down on top of it. She fixes this spot in her mind: the park with its beds of pansies, the flowerbed near the center of the park. She picks the dirt from beneath her fingernails, then walks down to the beach and washes her hands in the cold water of the bay.

___________

The waiting room is plastered with posters of missing children, of wanted men and women wearing numbers. She sits in an orange plastic chair, looking down at her wrists. Uncuffed. Beside her on the floor is a cup of black police-station coffee. This is where the police brought Olivia when they found her wandering the wharf alone, crying for her mother, and it is where they brought Tessa when she told them what had happened. She, Tessa, has not been treated like a criminal; she's been allowed to sit here while someone goes to get Olivia. She cannot shake the feeling that someone might come in at any minute and take her roughly by the back of the neck and shove her into a cell. Her policeman acted as if things like this happened all the time: children wandering away from their harried guardians at Pier 39, everyone reunited soon afterward. Now the policeman carries Olivia into the waiting room, her small face grim and scrubbed, her pale purple jacket torn at the sleeve, the stolen otter tucked under her arm. When the officer sets her down she looks at Tessa with shamed, fearful eyes. Tessa pulls her close and holds her there. The girl's arms come around her. It amazes her to think Olivia would trust her after what has happened.
      "See that?" the officer says to Olivia. "I told you she wouldn't be mad."
      She feels Olivia's breath, quick and hot, against her neck. "I'm sorry," she says.
      "It's okay," Tessa says. "It's okay."
      They step back out into the sun, into the blinding afternoon, and walk down Bay Street back toward the water. Olivia is stunned and silent, holding Tessa's hand. She seems uninterested in the shops and houses. There are no tourists on this part of Bay Street, only women and men going about the business of their lives. Now would be the time to take Olivia back to the hotel, to get her cleaned up in Gayle’s hotel room, to wait for her sister to be finished with her conference. They could both pretend everything was fine, and maybe Gayle would believe them. Or maybe she wouldn't, and everything would begin to change—the nightmare that has become Tessa's life might crack open and begin to fall away. Part of her wants to surrender to that, to let Gayle know at last what has happened to her life, to make her have to recognize it and do something about it, finally. Maybe that's what she's been hoping for all day, maybe that's why she let herself lose Olivia: to make things so terrible they'd have to change. But Olivia is back now, and Tessa feels almost as if she's been tricked. She feels as if she doesn't have the power to decide anything anymore, as if she's being pulled along slick tracks by a strong and twisted steel rope underground, like the cable car. All she can think about are the pills in their silver box, dark and safe beneath the soil. She has to have them, and she has to keep having them. She feels like she'll die if she doesn't. The Devvie is long gone now, and her nerves crackle with the afterburn of the Sallie. A cold white pain gathers behind her eyes. She hurries Olivia along the sidewalk, toward the park.
      "I went to put my animal back," Olivia says. "I went back to that store."
      "But you didn't put him back," Tessa says. "You decided to keep him."
      Olivia looks down at the otter, saying nothing. At an intersection she and Tessa stop to watch the cars pass. Olivia fingers the ripped sleeve of her jacket, trying to hold the edges of the fabric together. "I tore this," she says. "My mom's going to be mad."
      "Maybe she won't be," Tessa says, not really listening.
      "Yes, she will."
      Tessa is at the end of kindness. Her temples pulse with pain. As she looks down at Olivia, a fine sharp cruelty gathers in her chest. "At least you have a mother," she says. "When I was your age, my mother was dead."
      Olivia's mouth opens and closes. Tessa will not watch her start to cry. When the light changes, she takes Olivia's wrist and pulls her across the street. As they enter the park, Tessa walks faster. Her flip-flops make their muffled slap against the pavement. In the distance she can see the bay, bright-scaled with afternoon light. She heads toward the row of benches along the park path, each with its crowd of pigeons, each separated by a bed of pansies. The benches are empty now. Tourist families hurry along the path, looking as if they mean to get somewhere before the sun gets any lower.
      At a flowerbed near the center of the park, Tessa gets to her knees to examine the soil. She can't tell if this is the right place or not. The bench beside the flowerbed looks familiar, but they all have the same weathered green paint, the same brass plaques. She scrabbles through the loose soil. Nothing. She moves to the next flowerbed, kneeling down to dig again while Olivia watches, holding the otter.
      "What are you doing?" Olivia asks, her voice a dry whisper.
      "Looking for something," Tessa says. She turns up clods of dirt, but her pills are not there. She leads Olivia along the path, then stoops beside the next flowerbed. She thinks she remembers these flowers at the edge, these yellow pansies with their dark velvet hearts. Olivia sits down on the grass and holds the otter, her eyes glassy with fatigue. The wind is sharp against Tessa's neck as she kneels beside the flowerbed. Her fingers are going numb, her nails are packed with soil, but she lowers her head and digs.

Julie Orringer  2003

"Care" will appear  in the author's upcoming story collection How To Breathe Under Water by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc,  2003. Book ordering available through amazon.com

This story may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

OrringerJulie Orringer was born in 1973 in Miami, Florida, but spent most of her childhood years in New Orleans and Ann Arbor. She received a BA from Cornell University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was also a Truman Capote Fellow in the Stegner Program at Stanford. Her stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize XXV, and The Best New American Voices 2001, and are forthcoming in The Pushcart Prize XXVII, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2002, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She is the Marsh McCall Lecturer and Writing Coordinator at Stanford University. Currently, she is at work on a novel.

author photo: Ryan Harty

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 tbr 34           january - february 2003 

Short Fiction

Louise Erdrich: Naked Woman Playing Chopin
G.K. Wuori: You’re Stanley Now
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