10:04 p.m. October 13, 1976
There had been no warning. No way to predict. Nothing at all. She had gotten out of her car. Her back was hurting. She remembered thinking: welfare is a good thing, but it makes you do what they want. Now she had to go to secretarial school. Not that she minded, but it was funny somehow. Why it was funny, she couldn’t define. It hurt to close the car door.
She had to cross the street to get to her house. It was because she always returned home from the school from the northern end of Kentner Street and it wasn’t worth the bother to turn the heavy Buick around. The garage was Billy’s. He needed it for his engines, his cars, who knew what. So she crossed the street, her back hurting. She had hurt her back the year before, helping the bus boy lift up a tub of dirty dishes. Too stupid.
The wind was dry, picking up little brown crisp leaves and rolling them across the pavement. The leaves never decayed in West Los Angeles. They just seemed to roll around in every season, dead little things that seemed to have a private life of their own. It was so dry you could feel it in your throat. That bleak dryness that comes out of the high desert and makes you depressed as hell.
Carlotta looked down the street as she crossed. The Shell station looked about a mile away in a bright spot of lights. Like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. How far away was every human activity. All the houses were dark. Even silent. Regular, small tract houses with tiny lawns, fences for dogs. But even the dogs were asleep. Or quiet. Only the distant rush of the freeway, like a faraway river, could be heard over the dark neighborhood.
Kentner Street was a court, a dead-end street terminating in a bulge of pavement where you could turn your car around, and that’s where she was, at the end.
Entering the house, she heard her son, Billy, in the garage. The radio was humming softly. Carlotta closed the door behind her, and locked it. She always locked the door. Billy had a side entrance from the garage. She removed her beige vinyl jacket and sighed tiredly. Her eyes wandered about the living room. Nothing out of place. Her cigarettes on the table by the couch. Her shoes on the floor, her clothes and magazines, a coffee cup, a broken heater vent that banged when the thermostat changed—it was like slipping into an old pair of shoes. It was comfortable. It was Carlotta where she relaxed. Where there was no outside world. The world stopped at the door. Welfare paid the rent; but it was Carlotta’s place. It was like a thousand built on an identical plan all over the city. Just another cracker box. But it was hers. The place where she and the kids came together as a family.
She went into the kitchen and switched on the light. The bare bulb overhead turned the walls very white. Inside the refrigerator there was no beer. She would have liked a beer but there was none. She sat a moment in the bleak and bone-white kitchen, then went to the stove and settled for some re-heated coffee.
It was 10:00. A little past, because it took about twenty minutes to come back from the school. But not yet 10:30, because Billy would have come in by then and gone to bed. They were very strict about that. It was an agreement they had come to. He got the garage, if he was in by 10:30. Billy was very good about it, too. So it was between10:00 and 10:30 at night. Wednesday. October 13. Tomorrow was secretarial school again. A day like all others. Nine to one: typing. Steno: twice a week in the evenings.
Carlotta rose from the kitchen chair, thinking of nothing in particular. She turned off the light and walked down the narrow hallway to her bedroom, pausing a moment to look in on the girls.
Julie and Kim were sleeping like it was very serious business, with only the little night light—a furry animal with a light bulb inside—softly illuminating their faces. They looked like twins, though two years apart. Different father from Billy’s. Pretty as angels. Someday, God, Carlotta thought, no welfare. None of this. Something better. She closed the door on the sleeping girls and went to her own bedroom.
The bed was unmade. That huge, preposterous bed which the last tenant couldn’t have moved from the house without ripping apart every door in the place. It had four posts and carved tendrils and angels on the headboard and baseboard. The joints were glued and there was no pulling it apart. It was a labor of love, built from scratch, in the room. The builder must have been a master craftsman, an artist, a poet. How he must have hated leaving the bed behind. Carlotta loved the bed. It was unique, an escape from the humdrum. Jerry loved the bed. Jerry. Confused, nervous Jerry—wondering what the hell he was getting himself into. Poor Jerry—Carlotta’s mind lost the train of ideas.
She took off her clothes, pulled on a red robe, and went to the window. She locked both the windows in the bedroom. She checked the swivel catch behind the studs. It was because of the wind outside. If you don’t lock the windows, they rattle all night long.
She took a few pins from her hair. The black hair fell to her shoulders. Carlotta looked at herself in the mirror. She knew she was pretty. Dark hair, clear skin, soft and vulnerable, but her finest feature was her eyes—quick and dark. Jerry said they were “flashing dark.” Carlotta combed her hair. The light—now behind her in the mirror image—was behind her head, so that an aura of light bathed her shoulders, illuminated the dark lapels of the red robe.
She was nude underneath the robe. Her body was small and soft. She was light-boned. There was a natural softness in her walk and movements. Men never treated her roughly. There was nothing hard about her which men wanted to break down, to reduce. They appreciated her, this vulnerable quality, the fine shape and its suppleness. Carlotta studied her small breasts, the slim hips, seeing herself the way she knew men saw her. Now she was a month away from being thirty-two years old. The only lines on her face were around her eyes, and they actually looked like laugh lines. So she was pleased with her appearance.
The closet door was open. Inside, her shoes were neatly arranged—Carlotta’s sense of order. She was thinking about a shower as she looked for her slippers. There was no hiding place in the closet; it was rather like a small box built into the wall.
The house was deathly quiet. It seemed to her the whole world was asleep. This was what she remembered thinking—before it happened.
One moment Carlotta was brushing her hair. The next she was on the bed, seeing stars. Some knock, like being hit by a charging fullback, plummeted her across the room and onto the bed. In a blank mind, she realized that the pillows were suddenly around her head. Then they were smashed down over her face.
Caught between breaths, Carlotta panicked. The pillow was being pushed down, harder and harder. The cotton was being shoved into her mouth. She couldn’t breathe. The force of the pillow was awful. It was forcing her head down deep into the mattress. In the darkness Carlotta thought she was going to die.
It was instinct that made her arms grab the pillow, punch up over it, twist her head violently side to side. It was an instantaneous eternity. It lasted a lifetime, but too short a time to think. She was fighting for her life. A yellow heat swam in front of her eyes. The pillow covered her entire face, her eyes, her mouth, her nose, and her flailing arms couldn’t budge it. Her chest was near bursting.
Her body must have been thrashing without her knowing it, because now it was grabbed and grabbed hard.
Carlotta was sinking into helpless death but she felt huge hands on her knees, her legs, the inside of her legs, her legs which were pried apart, pulled wide and open, far apart, and then some knowledge floated like a shot up through her consciousness and she understood and it filled her with energy. It filled her with a savage strength. She bucked and kicked. Her arms flailed, and when she bucked again to kick, to kill if she had to, a searing pain ripped through her lower back, rendering her powerless. Her legs were spread, pinned onto the bed far apart, and, like a pole, a rough, crude post, this thing entered her, distended her, forced its way into her until there was no stopping, just a thrust of pain. Carlotta felt ripped apart inside. She felt herself being torn apart in repeated thrusts. It was the crudest weapon, repulsive, agonizing. It was ramming its way home. Her whole body was sinking into the mattress, pressed down, pushed down by this ramming weight which was turning her into a piece of raw meat. Carlotta jerked her face, her nose felt air, her mouth gasped and sucked in oxygen at the side of the pillow.
There was a scream. It was Carlotta’s scream. The pillow was smashed back into her face. This time she could feel the imprint of a huge hand, its fingers pressing through onto her eyes, over her nose and mouth.
Carlotta sank into darkness. She had seen nothing. Only the far wall—not even that, only its vague color through the sparks and spirals which danced before her eyes—before the pillow had been thrust back onto her. So she sank, her strength ebbing. Carlotta was dying. She would be dead soon. Already darkness was growing and pain mounted over her and was unconquerable. Was she dead?
The light was on overhead. The main light. Billy was at the door. His eyes were staring out of their sockets. Carlotta bolted upright, sweating, looking at Billy with glazed eyes.
Carlotta grabbed a sheet, covering her battered body. She was whimpering, half moaning, not quite sure yet who Billy was. A fiery pain filled her chest. Circles and stars still danced in the air before her; her eyes felt like they had been gouged in.
It was Billy’s voice. The pitiful, tender fright in his voice brought forth some instinct in Carlotta, some need to take over, to mentally focus, to act.
Billy ran to her. They embraced. Carlotta wept. Nausea filled her. Now she became conscious of the pain which inhabited her private parts and spread into her upper thighs, even into her abdomen. It was as though she were destroyed inside. An inflammation grew within her—which knew no stopping.
“Billy, Billy, Billy . . . !”
“What is it, Mom? What’s wrong?”
Carlotta looked around. Now she understood the worst thing of all: There was no one else in the room.
She whirled around. The windows were still locked. In a panic she spun around to face the closet. Only shoes and clothing. Too small to hide anyone.
“You see anybody?”
“No, Mom. Nobody.”
“Is the front door locked?”
“Then he’s in the house!”
“There’s nobody here, Mom!”
“Billy, I want you to call the police.”
“Mom. There’s nobody in the house.”
Carlotta’s mind was reeling. Billy was almost calm. He was only frightened at seeing her like that. His smudged face was scrutinizing hers, with the tender fright of a child, with the tender concern of a very young man.
“Didn’t you see anybody?” Carlotta said. “Didn’t you hear anybody?”
“Only when you screamed. I ran in from the garage.”
Julie and Kim were now standing at the door. They were terrified. They looked at Billy.
“It was just a dream,” Billy said to them. “Mommy had a bad dream.”
“A dream?” Carlotta said.
Billy was still talking to the girls. “You’ve had bad dreams, too,” he said. “Now Mommy had one. So go back to bed.”
But, unmoving, the girls stood frozen in the doorway, looking at Carlotta.
“Look in the bathroom,” Carlotta said.
The girls turned like automatons.
“Well?” Carlotta demanded.
“There’s nobody in there,” Julie said. Carlotta’s behavior was frightening her to the point of tears.
“Look, keep quiet,” Billy said. “Let’s all get back to bed. Come on, now.”
Carlotta, unbelieving, mechanically pulled the sheet around her, tucking the ends around her sides. She tried to control her shaking. Her mind was confused. Her body was beaten. But the house was calm.
“Christ, Billy,” she said.
“It was a dream, Mom. A real humdinger.”
A consciousness returned to Carlotta as though it had been, after all, a dream. A kind of waking up, a kind of rising out of hell.
“Christ,” she murmured.
Carlotta looked at the clock. It was 11:30. Almost. Maybe time enough to have fallen asleep. But Billy was still dressed in his jeans and T-shirt. What had happened? She tried to sit at the edge of the bed but she was too sore.
“Get the girls into bed, will you, Bill?” she said.
Billy hustled the girls out of the room. Carlotta reached for her robe. It was crumpled and on the floor in a red heap. Not even close to the chair where she always left it.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said.
She put on the robe, sitting at the edge of the bed. Her body was drained. She looked at her arms. Welts were rising in a flanneled series above her elbows. Her little finger felt sprained from the struggle. Struggle? With whom?
Carlotta stood up. She could barely walk; she felt almost disemboweled. For just a moment, she had the eerie feeling of not being able to tell if she were dreaming or if she were awake. Then it passed. She probed within, and felt a slight moisture. Not blood. And nothing—no sign of— She slowly tightened the robe around her and left the room. For the first time the bed seemed monstrous, an instrument of torture. Then she closed the door.
Carlotta had no doubt she had been beaten and raped. She sat on a chair in the kitchen. Julie and Kim were drinking milk and eating Oreo cookies. Billy sat uncertainly near the door. Shouldn’t they go to bed, he must have been thinking. Or was something still wrong?
It was a little like having a death in the family, Carlotta thought. You knew it would get better, everything would return to normal, you would forget it all, but in the meantime you had to live through that feeling of being alone in a dark pit. Of being lost and frightened. And you didn’t know how long it would last.
“Easy on the cookies,” Carlotta said. “You’re going to get sick.”
Kim’s chocolate-lined mouth twisted up at her. Julie drank her milk slurpingly. To Carlotta they seemed so very vulnerable.
“Let’s go watch TV,” Carlotta said.
They sat on the couch. Billy turned on the set. Some movie stars Carlotta couldn’t quite place were seated formally in what seemed to be an expensive New York penthouse. Billy sat in the easy chair by the ventilator. Everything looked normal, but felt unreal. It was like looking through a glass which somehow made everything look strange, distorted.
Carlotta was a realist. Her outlook was grounded by necessity and by her own experience. There were few or no illusions she had about herself or where she was going. Some people lived in a kind of make-believe, trying to be what they weren’t, not too sure what their lives were all about. But a little poverty, a little bad luck and hard times, and you got to know who you were. What bothered Carlotta the most now, besides the physical pain, was being unable to figure out what was real and what was not.
“Hey! That’s Humphrey Bogart,” Billy said. “I’ve seen this film.”
Carlotta put on a smile. “You weren’t even born when this was made.”
Billy looked at her defensively.
“I saw it. At the YMCA. You watch. He’s going to get shot.”
“He always got shot in those pictures.”
Billy slumped back in the easy chair.
“I know all about this film,” he mumbled.
Carlotta looked at the girls on the couch. Like two little dolls half wrapped in a blanket one of them must have dragged from their bedroom, they slept, oblivious to everything. They sucked their thumbs, so seriously, so intently.
“Lower the sound a little, Bill,” she said.
As the night went on they slept. Fitfully. Carlotta with her feet propped up on the coffee table. Billy in the plump easy chair, one leg draped over the arm rest. Only the flickering television set, nearly silent, gave a semblance of life to the house.
Carlotta jerked. Her body snapped awake. She stared at the bright rectangle of sunlight against the wall beside the ventilator. Billy must have turned the television set off sometime during the night, because it was off now and he was in his own bed. The girls still slumbered on the couch, Julie’s leg lying on Kim’s stomach. Carlotta looked at the clock in the kitchen. It was 7:35. In half an hour she had to leave for the secretarial school. The thought depressed her.
Her head felt leaden. One of the worst nights’ sleep she’d ever had. She began to think about the night before. Was it only last night? The feeling, the repulsion of it all, came back to her, and with it, nausea. She struggled to her feet and went to the bathroom, where she brushed her teeth for fully five minutes.
By the hallway leading to the bedroom there was a basket of clean but unironed clothes and she dressed herself from what she could find in that rather than go to the bedroom closet. Bra, panties, a blue denim skirt. All the blouses were wrinkled. She pulled one out and put a sweater over it, hoping it was not going to be a hot day.
The alarm by the bed buzzed. She listened to it, watching the girls squirm. Billy came out, half awake, and crossed the hallway in his underwear and silenced it. Then, without looking at her, stumbled back into his own room and sat on the bed, yawning, working up the energy to get dressed.
“Thanks, Bill,” Carlotta said.
What was she going to do? Every muscle in her body was sore. There was no time for coffee. Welfare was going to be mad as hell if she missed even a day of school. Carlotta felt miserable.
In the kitchen she put a bowl of fruit and a box of cornflakes on the table for their breakfast. Before leaving she wakened the girls for school. The house was stuffy, claustrophobic. She stepped out into the bright light of day, got into her car, and drove off to the secretarial school.
1:17 a.m. October 14,1976
Carlotta slept in the huge bed. She woke, hearing micelike noises through the walls. Scratching and coming on through. Then she smelled something terrible. It was the stench of meat left to rot. Carlotta sprang upright.
She was struck on the left cheek. The blow spun her half around, almost knocking her over, and she put out her arm to brace herself. Then her arm was pulled out from under her. Her face was forced into the blanket. A great pressure was on the back of her head, the nape of her neck, pushing her down from behind.
She kicked behind her, touching nothing. A powerful arm grabbed her around the waist and pulled her up, so that she was on all fours. Her nightgown was lifted up over her back and—from behind—she was violated. The intense thing—the giant dimension of it—the pain of it finding so quickly the entrance and thrusting so fast inside, ramming away like that’s all she was, that place, and not a human being at all.
This time the blanket onto which her face was pushed was not so perfect a gag as the night before when she had nearly suffocated under the pillow. She could half-scream through the fistful of wool. Try as that hand would, it couldn’t silence the gasping, frightened half-cry of a woman in agony.
She heard a laugh. A demented laugh. Neither male nor female. Lewd, lascivious. She was being watched.
“Open, cunt—” the voice chortled.
Carlotta bit the hand. Was it substance she met? Yes, the teeth went into a flexible substance, but it drew away easily. A blow on the back of her head sent sparks shooting into her eyes. Why didn’t he finish? The whole bed was rocking.
The light was on. Just like last night. Only this time instead of Billy with his hand on the light switch she saw their neighbor, Arnold Greenspan. Greenspan looked ridiculous. An old man with knobby knees, an overcoat thrown on over his pajamas, a tire iron in his hand. What was he going to do with that iron, a feeble old man like that? He looked scared to death.
“Mrs. Moran!” he was shouting. “Mrs. Moran!! Are you all right?”
He looked so strange, bellowing at the top of his lungs, when he was only three feet away. Why was he shouting? It was because Carlotta was screaming. She tried to stop, but her body shook in spasms and gasps.
“Mrs. Moran!!” was all he could say.
Now Billy’s terror-ridden face poked in from the door under Greenspan’s elbow. Carlotta was gazing blankly at both of them, shivering and quaking like some dumb beast. Greenspan was looking at her breasts, swollen and reddened, like they had been wrenched at.
“Billy,” Greenspan said. “Go call the police. Tell the operator—”
Carlotta tried to clear her mind.
“No,” she said. “Don’t.”
“Mrs. Moran,” Greenspan said, “you’ve been—”
“I don’t want the police.”
Greenspan lowered the tire iron. He approached the bed. His eyes were moist. Concern seemed to tremble in the very tone of his voice.
“Wouldn’t it be best to speak with someone?” he said. “They have women police.”
Greenspan had no doubt what had happened. It was no nightmare as far as he was concerned.
“I don’t want to go through all that,” Carlotta said. “Leave me alone.”
Greenspan watched her. The confusion in his own mind mounted. Billy came to the bed.
“The same thing happened last night,” Billy said.
“Last night?” Greenspan said.
Carlotta was coming down from her hysteria. Bit by bit rational thought was weaving its way through the dark labyrinth of fear in her brain.
“Oh, God!” she wept. “God in heaven!”
Greenspan was peering hard at Carlotta.
“I remember hearing something last night,” he said. “But I thought —my wife said, it was—you know—men and women, they were just fighting. I thought it was something else, but I—”
“That’s all right,” Carlotta said.
Only now did she become aware that the elderly gentleman was in the presence of a naked woman. She drew the sheet around her, pinning it against her side with her arm. There was an awkward silence.
“Wouldn’t you like some coffee?” Greenspan said. “Some hot chocolate?”
His voice was changing. It had lost that tone of emergency. His kindness was coming through. Why did that bother Carlotta?
“No,” Carlotta said. “Thank you.”
“You’re sure? Something? Please, Mrs. Moran. You and the children. You come over to our place. We have the room. You sleep there tonight. Tomorrow we can talk about it. You should see somebody . . .”
“No,” Carlotta said. She was rational now. “I’m all right.”
“Last night it was even worse,” Billy said.
Suddenly Carlotta knew what was bothering her. Why had Greenspan put down the tire iron? Why didn’t he think that somebody was in the house? In the closet. Why wasn’t he checking the windows? She spun around. Of course the windows were still locked tight from last night. Why wasn’t an old man like that afraid anymore? Why hadn’t he dashed into the bathroom, slamming at something unknown behind the shower curtain with that silly and impotent weapon of his?
“You’ve caused yourself some harm, Mrs. Moran,” Greenspan said. “You ought to be attended to.”
That was it. Greenspan no longer believed the same thing he had when first he had flipped on the light and, terrified, had seen his neighbor obviously raped and beaten. Now he was too solicitous, and his concern was slightly too gentle.
“Mrs. Greenspan—she can make you something nice. She can stay here with you if you like.”
He thought she was drunk. Doped up. You could see it in his eyes. They were curious, observing the symptoms, as it were, of this odd and unusual malady. She hated him for this.
“What time is it?” she said.
“Two o’clock,” Billy said.
“You’ve been alone all evening?” Greenspan said.
“Just the children,” Carlotta said. “Look. I’m fine. One of those damn crazy nightmares. Scared the daylights out of me. But I’m all right now. Really all right.”
She slipped on the robe, turning modestly away from Greenspan, dressing over the sheet and then letting the sheet fall back to the bed. Christ, she had needed some sleep, she thought, as she tightened the cord around her waist.
“Let’s get out of this room,” she said.
They went through the hallway into the living room.
“Go on home, Mr. Greenspan,” Carlotta said. “Everything is fine.”
“Fine? Look, I’m not so sure—”
“Really. Fine. Absolutely.”
Greenspan looked at her directly.
“Of course, I’m much older than you, but I know a lot about life. So does Mrs. Greenspan. About things. You have to talk to someone. You have to explore this thing. I want you to feel free to come over and have some coffee with us. And talk. About whatever you want.”
“I will,” she said. “Goodnight, Mr. Greenspan.”
After he left, Carlotta closed the door and locked it again. Billy looked at her. They were both silent for some time. Carlotta didn’t know what to do, what to say. Her mind was reeling around and around, like a slow carousel.
“I didn’t mean to kick him out,” she said. “I just wanted to think by myself for a while.”
“You think I’m going crazy?”
“Oh, Mom. Of course not.”
She drew him to her. Good old Billy, she thought. Good kids were hard to find, but she had one.
“What am I going to do?” she said.
There was no answer.
It was a grisly repetition of the night before. The girls stood at the entrance to the living room. This time they were sniffling as though they were sick. Scared sick.
Carlotta sat on the couch. Her breasts felt like they had been pulled out from her chest. Billy lay down in the big easy chair, but nobody turned on the television set. Carlotta did not sleep. Because it had happened and it hadn’t happened. It was and it wasn’t. She had been awake and yet she had awakened from it. Her body was sore in all the tender areas. Now her mind searched through the events of the last two nights, trying to piece together an answer.
The arm—she had felt the arm. The penis—only too real. Urgent, but not really warm. But hard as could be. The weight on her. That she was not so sure about. It felt more like a pressure than an actual physical weight, more like an incredible down draft, an overwhelming gravity. There was no real sensation of something like a body on her, except for the hands and the penis.
Carlotta jumped awake. She knew she would never really sleep tonight. Two nights without sleep. Her head felt like it was stuffed with cotton. Every sound, every movement of the children, every buzz, creak, and scratch in the house snapped her awake.
What about the voice? The demented old voice? It came from a smaller body, it seemed, like a—she pictured a crippled old man, without legs, though she had never seen anything, either night. Had she heard the voice? Had she imagined the voice? Was there a difference?
The darkness turned to a grayness and then a slow rectangle of light was forming on the wall. Daylight. The alarm went off. Billy awoke in the easy chair, but he was too tired to move. Carlotta could not, would not rise. The buzzing continued like a soft and very angry fly. Slowly it whimpered off and went silent.
Carlotta looked at the kitchen clock. It was nearly 8:00. She had to move fast. The school took attendance and reported you for absenteeism. Her neck felt bruised. She drew the cord of her robe more tightly around her. She thought about Jerry. Where was he? Six more weeks on the road. Six weeks before she would see him again. She needed him. He was solid. She needed somebody now. It was like a premonition. Life was turning over, going terrible all of a sudden. Why? She lay down heavily, folded her arms, and fell asleep.
She woke up. Billy was gone. Her groggy mind tried to piece things together. She sat on the edge of the couch, her body aching dully. It was nearly 4:00. The girls had returned from school and were out playing. She could hear them outside on the sidewalk. Then she turned and saw them through the window, writing with chalk on the cement. She went to the kitchen and reheated some coffee.
It was extremely still. She could hear the buzz of the clock on the wall. Then, everything seemed so strangely silent, like a lull between tornadoes. She thought rationally as best she could; if this thing happened one more time . . . Then what? She paused, the coffee cup suspended before her lips. Then she would clear out, that’s what. Leave the house. She had the feeling that the root of all this was the house somehow. Yes, if it happened again, they’d leave—just pick up and go. Where to? Cindy? Cindy Nash would take them in. A day. Two days. Make up some story. The house has termites and they’re spraying. What the hell. Cindy was a good friend. She needed no stories. They could stay there a week if they needed to. Maybe Jerry would come home earlier. He did that occasionally. He’d just drop in between cities. Quick layover for a night—sometimes a weekend. Carlotta smiled wanly. Damn. Why didn’t he leave a number? Or ever think to call her? She drank the coffee. It was already lukewarm. What if Cindy couldn’t take them in? What if George objected? What if? Carlotta furrowed her brow, but no answer came. There was no answer to that. Just have to wait and hope that nothing—
Billy came up the walk from school. The rest of the world was coming home from work and she was just waking up. A growing feeling of darkness hovered in her mind, as though something, perhaps her whole life, was sliding into an abyss if she didn’t watch out and make exactly the right moves.
“Hi, Mom,” Billy said.
“What’s making you so happy?”
“I’m secretary of the auto mechanics’ club. Down at school.”
“Terrific. No kidding. I never got past B-squad cheerleader.”
Billy held up a beaten, heavy gray notebook, evidently used over many semesters.
“My official ledger, see?”
“Do they know you can’t spell?”
“Just kidding. Hey, don’t throw it on the couch. I’m sleeping there tonight.”
There was a silence. Billy put the books on the easy chair. He went into the bedroom, to change into old jeans so he could continue to work on the engine block in the garage.
She drank some coffee. It was cold. Tonight it was going to be the couch. If that didn’t help . . .
That night they watched television. Billy had gone to the store for milk and cheese crackers, which they all ate. Carlotta had undressed the girls for bed and tucked them in.
Around 11:30 she lay down on the couch and drew the blanket over her. Billy said nothing, but he left the door to his own bedroom open. Carlotta lay still, thinking about the last two nights. As time passed, she grew more and more worried. About the noises in the house, the unfamiliar sight of distant automobile headlights tracing distorted rectangles over the hallway, and she could not sleep. Then she realized the couch was hurting her back. Every possible position either hit a button or a bulge; there was no flat, hard surface. Her muscles were being strained no matter how she lay. She finally tried lying on her right side, staring into the darkness.
At about 2:30 she must have been dozing because she jerked awake. It was the ventilator. A tiny ping as the thermostat dropped off. She listened intently. Nothing. She could hear the children breathing in their rooms. Outside—nothing.
She closed her eyes but could not sleep. Slowly she drifted in a semi-consciousness, an awareness of half-formed images rising up out of the retinal chaos. Then she slept.
Through the next day, Saturday, a faint optimism prevailed in the house. Nothing unusual had happened. Except for a sore lower back, Carlotta was in good spirits. She took them all to Griffith Park, several acres of high wooded hills which, in Los Angeles, passes for wilderness. With all the families out there, Carlotta felt once again a part of the human race, doing what everybody did, feeling the way everybody felt. Even the kids seemed in an unusually lively mood. Billy found a softball game to throw himself into. They returned exhausted, late in the afternoon.
Sunday, too, passed in a normal way. Carlotta cleaned up, except for the bedroom. Billy was out with some mechanics, building, taking apart, who knew exactly what? The girls watched TV. Carlotta practiced her shorthand. It was boring, but necessary. So the hours passed. A normal day. Even the night was uneventful.
But with Monday the mood changed. Mr. Reisz, the incredibly thin and demanding instructor in shorthand and typing, called attention to Carlotta’s score. Her accuracy and speed rate were dropping. She hadn’t even noticed. It bothered her, because she had been doing so well. What if she couldn’t make it as a secretary? What if that turned out to be a rougher road than she had pictured? Was she getting trapped in some kind of failure, some kind of system designed to frustrate her? Was there some limitation in her make-up? Suddenly, it was disturbing her, this little problem with her accuracy and speed rate. Suddenly she was afraid of not being able to cope.
When she walked into the house that night the children were in a rotten state of affairs. Tension was filling the house, but nobody could tell why. Julie and Kim were scrapping on the floor. In retrospect, it all had some incredible, ominous significance, but at the time it made no particular impression on Carlotta.
“Julie hit me with the ashtray,” Kim wailed.
“I did not!”
“Shut up,” Carlotta said. “Let me see.”
Sure enough. An angry red mark was rising along the back of Kim’s neck.
“See? She threw it at my head!”
But Julie protested her innocence. Carlotta knew, the way a mother knows, that Julie was telling the truth.
“Don’t look at me,” Billy said. “What do you think, I get my kicks beaning little kids with ashtrays?”
“Okay. Okay,” Carlotta said. “Let’s all scream at each other. Look. Mother is not in the mood to handle this sort of thing, so silence is the best idea for a while. All right?”
A moody silence prevailed.
“Well, I didn’t,” Billy muttered.
Two days with no problems at night. But on that couch, her back was going to go out permanently. Carlotta hated doctors. It always meant more pain with them. Besides, with a good night’s sleep on her own firm mattress, it would probably repair itself. This wasn’t the first time. Carlotta opened the door to her bedroom and peeked in.
The sight of the enormous bed with its heavy carved wood, its ridiculous European angels, now took on a sinister aspect, a kind of mocking, grinning look. The covers and sheets were still on the floor from the last time she had slept there. With only a slight trepidation, she entered the room. No odor. Nothing out of place besides the sheets. She stripped the bed and made it afresh.
It was 11:10. She needed rest. She needed to improve her score at school. She needed to impress Mr. Reisz. She had to show herself she was back on the right track. She slipped into the cold, fresh sheets and closed her eyes.
Time passed very slowly. Her body felt comforted by the hard mattress, suspended, tranquilized. Yet she dozed fitfully. Her eyes kept opening. She had left the door to the hallway open. And she knew that Billy was leaving the door from his room open, too. Just in case.
It was probably around midnight. The light bulb behind the clock face had gone out. Had it blown out? Carlotta peered at it through the darkness. Why had she awakened? She listened.
Nothing. She gazed in front of her in the darkness, could dimly make out the vague form of the dresser, the mirror, and the distant reflection of the bed in the darkness.
She breathed deeply. Nothing. No smell. Nothing wrong. Then why had she awakened? Then she had a premonition, a kind of impression. That something was coming. Coming to her from many miles away over a broken-up landscape, and it was going to be there in a fraction of a second. She bolted out of bed.
Billy scrambled out of bed. Carlotta leaped into the hallway, draping herself in a dress, buttoning buttons. She met Billy by the door.
“There’s something coming,” she said.
There was a crash behind her. She turned. The lamp had toppled from the nightstand. Now the nightstand was heaved against the wall. She slammed the door behind her.
“Let’s get out of here!” she cried.
The whole bedroom behind the door was crashing with thrown furniture. Then the sound of the mirror as it smashed into tiny pieces.
“Mom—” Billy was staring at her, terrified.
“Grab Kim,” she yelled. “I’ll take Julie!”
They ran into the girls’ bedroom. Billy swept up Kim, the blanket draped over the little girl’s legs.
“Should I take the blanket?!” Billy yelled.
He was panicked.
“Yes! Yes! Take it! Get out!”
Something—shoes—a dressing table full of cosmetics—slammed against the inside of the door. As they ran into the hallway she could see the door bulge and a crack begin to form in the cheap wood.
“Holy Christ!” Carlotta said.
They ran into the living room. It sounded like the bedroom was being torn apart, piece by piece, as fast as possible. Not like an explosion, but like someone systematically doing it, one thing after the other, angry, venting his fury on the objects at not finding Carlotta there. Suddenly the draperies—heavy cloth draperies—were ripped like tissue paper and the sound reverberated through the house.
“Damn! Damn!” Carlotta cried out.
Tears of fear and rage coursed down her cheeks. She was at the front door, but with Julie in her arms she couldn’t slip the bolt. She leaned forward, pinning the girl against the door. Julie involuntarily whimpered in pain. But it gave Carlotta the chance to pull the bolt. Something shot against the closed bedroom door and splintered into fragments.
“CUNT!” roared the voice.
They ran out into the night and got into the car. Behind them it seemed as though the bedroom—what was left of it—was being broken apart, as though a wrecking crew were attacking it inside with a ball. Carlotta slipped the car into reverse, shot backwards into somebody’s shrubbery, recovered, and spun the tires, squealing and roaring, out into Kentner Street.
“Christ did you hear that, Billy?”
Billy said nothing. Petrified, Carlotta whirled on him.
“Didn’t you hear it?”
“Yeah, Ma, yeah.”
Billy was looking at her strangely, she thought. His eyes glistened with tears.
Carlotta shot through a red light past the lonely intersection. There was nobody around. She drove without thinking through a labyrinth of streets, past similar looking dark, shaded houses.
“Slow down, Mom,” Billy said. “You’re going fifty.”
Carlotta looked down at the speedometer, then eased a bit on the accelerator. The panic of the flight had blinded her to what she was doing. She was operating in a vacuum, by pure instinct like a frightened animal.
“Where the hell are we?” she said.
“We’re near Colorado Avenue,” Billy said. “It’s over there, behind the factory.”
Instinctively, she drove to Colorado Avenue. She slowed down a little more. To forty miles an hour.
“Listen, kids,” she said, checking the hysteria in her voice. “We’re going to be all right. You got that? You guys okay?”
She turned and over her shoulder saw Julie in the back seat. She was silent. Sick—scared and silent. In the front seat, still wrapped in her blanket, Kim gasped, too petrified to even cry. With amusement through the fiery panic, Carlotta saw that Billy was in his underwear.
“Better wrap that blanket around yourself, Bill,” she said. “I’m going to Cindy’s.”
She drove up Colorado, turned north, and was driving, now within the speed limit, toward the bright lights of the movie theaters and motels which signified West Hollywood.
“Where the hell—”
“Turn left,” Billy said, tucking the blanket around himself. “It’s almost all the way into Hollywood.”
Miraculously, as though driving by itself, the car found its way into the streets which looked familiar: dark, cracked, crowded single-dwelling places being overrun with large apartment blocks.
“There it is,” Billy said.
Carlotta pulled up in front of a huge pink building. It said El Escobar on the front. That was about the only thing which distinguished it from the other apartment complexes down the street. And the red and blue globes which were somebody’s idea of exotic lighting, now making the palm trees in front look like horrible, sickly plants.
They climbed up the stairs, Billy holding the blanket to keep from tripping.
“Listen,” Carlotta said. “Let me do all the talking. Whatever I say, that’s what happened. If anybody ever asks you about anything when I’m not around, you say the same thing.” She looked around. The girls nodded.
“Sure, Mom,” Billy said.
Carlotta pressed the doorbell. What a ridiculous appearance they were going to make, she thought. The sound of the doorbell—a buzzer—seemed to split open the night. But no one came. She pressed it again. What if no one answered? Then a hand parted the drapes slowly at the window. Immediately the door opened.
“Carlotta!” Cindy said. “Billy! What—”
“Don’t cry, honey. Come on in. Everybody. Come on in.”
Cindy was in her bathrobe, her hair in high, huge curlers, but to Carlotta she seemed beautiful. Especially now. In the tiny apartment, the gold carpet, frayed at the edges, the walls which cracked in two years, the look-alike chairs and table in the kitchen—the kind of apartment multiplied by tens of thousands all over the city—it seemed like the most desirable and blessed of havens to Carlotta.
“What was it?” Cindy asked. “A fire?”
“No,” Carlotta said. “We . . . got thrown out of our place.”
“You got thrown out? By who?”
“We—just had to get out . . .”
“Had to . . . I don’t get it. What happened?”
The girls started to cry.
“Aw, kids. Look,” Cindy said. “You want to stay here, is that it? Sure.”
Cindy stirred from the chair in front of Carlotta. She went to the hall closet and returned with an armful of blankets and a few pillows. In the open doorway to the bedroom Carlotta could hear Cindy’s husband George snoring grumpily. Miraculously, he had slept through the whole thing.
“Thanks, Cindy,” Carlotta said. “I don’t know what I’d have done—”
“What are friends for?” Cindy said.
She put the girls under two blankets on the couch. Billy curled up into some huge pillows nearby. Cindy leaned over and whispered to Carlotta.
“It’s man trouble? It’s Jerry, isn’t it?”
“No, no. He’s out of town for another six weeks.”
“You want to tell me alone? When the kids are gone?”
“Okay. I’d appreciate that.”
Cindy tucked in the girls. Carlotta slipped off her dress and lay on the floor.
“You going to survive like that?” Cindy asked anxiously.
“It’s actually better for my back.”
“Okay. Listen, you guys. The bathroom is right there. Go ahead if you want.”
“God bless you, Cindy,” Carlotta said. “I’m so sorry—”
“Nonsense. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
“Goodnight,” Julie said. It was so absurd. As though she were camping out, being polite, knowing nothing of why she was there.
“Goodnight, doll,” Cindy said. “You all get some sleep.”
“Goodnight, Cindy,” Carlotta said.
Through the thin walls of the bedroom Carlotta heard Cindy telling something to George. George grumbled a bit but she silenced him after a while. In the silence of Cindy’s apartment Billy was already asleep. So were the girls. The panic was relaxing its grip on Carlotta. She felt increasingly drained of energy with every passing second. Then tears began to form in her eyes. Tears of exhaustion, frustration, fear. She was crying, but making no sound. Then she was through, too tired for tears, or for thoughts. She fell asleep. They all slept. Without dreams.
The sunshine brightened the daisies on the kitchen table and made the floor glitter. Cindy sat perplexed.
“You actually saw these things come through the wall?”
“I didn’t see them,” Carlotta said. “It felt like that. I sensed it.”
“I don’t know what they were.”
“So what did they do?”
“Not much,” Carlotta lied. “They just, you know, walked all over, tried to touch me—”
“Scratched on the wall. Knocked things over.”
“You sure you were awake?”
“Cindy, I swear. I was awake as I am now. Don’t you think I’ve thought of all that a thousand times? I was absolutely awake. I was sweating scared, bug-eyed, awake.”
Cindy shook her head and whistled.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Almost a week. It happened twice, then it started happening again last night and I freaked out. I grabbed the kids and ran. I just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
“I don’t blame you,” Cindy said.
Cindy furrowed her brow in thought.
“Well,” she said finally, “you’re not insane. I know you pretty well. If you were scared, there was a reason. You’re one of the most stable persons I know.”
“Then what do you think it is?” Carlotta said. Cindy remained staring into her coffee cup, and she said nothing for the longest time. Then she looked up at Carlotta.
“It’s Jerry. He’s at the bottom of this, sure as I’m sitting in front of you,” Cindy said.
Carlotta inhaled from the cigarette. On the television screen a master of ceremonies smiled at an audience of middle-aged women from the Midwest, but the sound was low and it was only a silent blue flickering presence, absurd, erratic, and meaningless.
“You don’t buy that,” Cindy said.
“Look. When somebody caves in, it’s from some central problem. I mean, people don’t just decide that Thursday would be a good day to have a breakdown, do they?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course not. It’s always one big thing, something basic to their lives which is eating at them.”
Carlotta squinted at the tiny television screen. Then she turned back to Cindy.
“What exactly are you trying to say, Cindy?”
As though given the signal to release her pent-up philosophy of life, Cindy leaned forward and began talking rapidly and forcefully.
“You are suffering and you don’t know it. You’ve been avoiding it. You’ve been pretending everything is fine and dandy when it isn’t. And Jerry is at the bottom of it all.”
“I don’t see the connection—”
“Of course not. It’s never direct. Think of my aunt, the one who flipped out. What connection was there between talking to the nonexistent FBI in her living room and her real problem? None. Her real problem was being rejected by her daughter, that stinker, Jewel. The dumb kid had run off with an artist, lived in the midst of garbage and wanted money. Threatened suicide if she didn’t get it. The whole seamy works. Drove my aunt crazy. But you see, there was no direct connection. It’s always indirect, kind of around the corner. You’ve got to be able to see into the real problem. You’ve got to know what’s really going on inside you.”
“How does what’s happening to me tie in with Jerry?”
“He wants to marry you, doesn’t he?”
“I couldn’t tell you, Cindy. Our relationship was never that . . . defined. You know, we just had fun together. We like being together. I don’t know if Jerry wants to get married. But we’re kind of in it together, maybe a little more than we had thought at first.”
“Yes, but having fun is one thing. Being married is another.”
Carlotta sighed softly.
“You should be a psychiatrist.”
“I know. That’s because I read a lot,” she said. “Look. Don’t be afraid. These decisions get made. If you’re smart, they get made in the right way.”
“Well,” Carlotta said, “maybe it’s good to get it all out into the open. I honestly never thought about it just like that. I mean, who knows, you may have a point.”
Cindy put a hand on Carlotta’s arm. To her surprise, the arm was warm, almost perspiring. A wave of pity stabbed Cindy’s heart.
“You just think about it. There’s no problem you can’t face. Just be honest with yourself.”
“Okay. It seems very remote, but I’ll think about it.”
“Everything will come out all right,” Cindy said.
On the television screen a well-dressed man in a business suit stood behind a lectern. It appeared that he was selling something with his white smile, and then he held up a huge Bible and thrust it at the camera. It seemed to Carlotta that he had thrust it at her.
In the night Carlotta woke. Bones ached. Headache. Where was she? George snored softly in the next room. The lights from cars passed over the living-room wall. There was Billy, his hair falling in his eyes, screening his face. The girls asleep in the shadows. How peaceful. Not a breeze stirred. Only vague thoughts. Thoughts beneath words. How did it come to this, that I am sleeping on Cindy’s floor? Yes, I remember. I am still sore. What is going on in me? Outside of me? What am I anymore?
But she was safe here. It was impossible that anything could happen here. There were too many people. Cindy would come to the rescue. While George slept. Everybody but George would witness it. Witness Carlotta’s insanity. She saw herself surrounded by doctors in a long corridor, struggling, screaming. Was that how it was? When you went over the edge, were you yourself anymore? Did you know your name? What were you then?
So the images of the last nights danced about in her brain: the flashing lights, the taste of cotton stuffed in her mouth, the overwhelming sensation of—of—that—that—Carlotta could no longer tell. It was neither dream nor reality. And who in the whole apartment, who in the entire city of Los Angeles, could tell her what it was?
* * *
The following day passed pleasantly. Carlotta skipped school. Instead, she and Cindy went shopping. Cindy bought a leather purse on Olvera Street, where Mexican crafts lined the ancient cobblestone road in a festoon of piñatas and colored pottery. They went home and played backgammon till it was time for Carlotta to make the long drive to West Los Angeles to pick up the kids. All in all, a pleasant day. Relaxing. The autumn sun had been good for Carlotta, like a health cure, almost. The air almost clear, fresh, and the cries of the children and the festive Mexican music—it was cheerful again. Only a small stone in the bottom of her mind, which neither of them talked about.
But as night came on Cindy could see a personality change right in front of her eyes. Carlotta became nervous, afraid. Was there something more on her mind? More than even seeing things in the dark? Cindy wondered.
Then George came home. His shirt was ringed under the arms. He hesitated when he saw Carlotta. Then he went without a word to the bathroom. There was a rumble of pipes and then the shower began to roar. Its sound was furious.
“Is he mad at me?” Carlotta whispered.
“No, that’s just George,” Cindy said.
“Look. If it’s inconvenient—”
“Not at all.”
“I mean it—”
“Love your company. Stay as long as you like.”
“It seemed like George—”
“Forget him. He came out of the womb with a frown.”
Cindy seized the moment. She gestured toward the door with a barely perceptible toss of the head. Carlotta was puzzled.
“I have to speak to you,” Cindy said. “Let’s go outside.”
They went out the door and closed it behind them.
Cindy looked Carlotta in the eye.
“There’s something you haven’t told me,” Cindy said. “What is it?”
“I’ve told you everything.”
Cindy saw the evasive look in Carlotta’s face. Whatever it was she was keeping back, it had a hold on her. But how far can you push your friends?
“The only thing in the world I want, Carly,” Cindy said, “is to see you pull yourself together. You believe that?”
“Of course I do.”
“If you don’t want me to help you, I can’t.”
“Honest to God, Cindy. I’m being straight with you.”
But Carlotta’s eyes hid some dark, evasive truth, and if Cindy wanted it, she was going to have to pry it out.
Cindy pulled Carlotta further from the apartment door. Down below the pump gurgled water over the rocks of the imitation Hawaiian waterfall. Over the alley roofs behind the building two cats ran hissing and spitting across the red tiles. The sun was going down, a distant orange ball through the haze. Carlotta shivered in the strange and sudden chill.
“Are you on drugs?” Cindy said softly, afraid.
“Drugs? Me? Heavens, no!”
Cindy looked into Carlotta’s eyes. She searched them quickly.
“People take drugs, and then they see things,” Cindy said. “Even when they don’t want to, sometimes.”
“God is my witness, Cindy. I never touched a thing.”
“Franklin Moran was hooked.”
Carlotta balked. The memory of that rough, rugged face with its little-boy grin came into her mind. That and the sick-weird nights, followed by the sweet-sad mornings—
“But I never did,” Carlotta said softly. “I never took a thing. That was one thing that came between us. The first thing,” she added with a touch of bitterness.
“Then what is it?”
“It’s nothing. I mean I don’t want to talk about it,” Carlotta said.
“I don’t mean to push, Carlotta, but you can’t hide this thing because it will destroy you if you try.”
Carlotta suddenly looked up. She had been trying to light her cigarette, but the cold breeze snuffed out match after match. When she looked up there were tears in her eyes.
“I was raped,” Carlotta said.
Cindy’s hand went instinctively to her mouth. She was stunned.
“Raped,” Carlotta tried to say again, the unlit cigarette quivering in her mouth, but the word came out almost inaudible.
“Oh, dear God,” Cindy whispered.
Carlotta turned away. Would this feeling of being rotten never leave her? Once again she felt soiled from head to foot, immersed in it, and there was no way to get clean.
“Dear God,” was all Cindy could say. Then the tears appeared in her eyes, too, and she reached out gently and put her hand on Carlotta’s shoulder. Then the two women embraced. “I’m sorry—I didn’t know—I didn’t even guess—oh, baby!” was all Cindy could manage.
“Oh, Cindy,” Carlotta wept, “it was—I feel like—ruined—just ruined all to hell inside—”
“Baby, baby—oh, my God! How could it happen?”
“I was all alone in my room and something grabbed me—smothered me—I nearly fainted—the whole world went dark—”
Carlotta pulled back from Cindy. She seemed to grow strangely cold. The night breeze blew her hair, lifted it gently across her forehead, the dark eyes suddenly far away and cold from Cindy.
“You don’t understand, do you?” Carlotta said.
“Of course, I—”
“I wasn’t lying about the thing coming through the wall.”
Cindy only stared at her.
“What in God’s name are you talking about?” Cindy whispered.
“Don’t you see? It was and it wasn’t—I was raped and beaten, but there was nobody there—I nearly died and when they turned the lights on I was all alone.”
Cindy could not comprehend.
“Did you call the police?” she whispered at last.
“Cindy, Cindy, good old normal Cindy! I was alone in my bed—when they turned the lights on. This—man—whoever, whatever he was—vanished—gone—just simply gone like a bad dream—”
Cindy’s hand remained immobile at her own throat, in the posture of one who cannot understand the simplest points of the most extraordinary phenomenon even when she is hearing them.
“I don’t understand,” Cindy said. “You were—attacked, or you weren’t—?”
“Of course I was. He beat me. He almost strangled me. Then he used me—terribly. And when the light went on he vanished like—like he was never there.”
Cindy leaned against the railing. She could see that Carlotta had told the truth. She could tell by the way Carlotta tried to avoid her eyes, the pretty face hidden in shame and humiliation, the memory of the assault still burning in her imagination, and now a terrible fear began to fill her eyes. Carlotta whirled on Cindy.
“You see? You see?” Carlotta implored. “There’s no answer, is there? It’s true and it’s not true. It happened and it didn’t. I flipped out! I flipped out, Cindy! Twice!”
“It happened again?”
“The next night! Why do you think I ran the hell out of there when it started the third time?”
“But now, when you’re here with me—?”
“Everything’s fine with you. But I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I’m afraid to go home. I’m afraid to be by myself.”
“Of course,” Cindy said. But she was confused. “I don’t blame you.”
For a long time neither spoke. Even though it was cold, they remained standing in silence. The blue night was now illuminated by the red and green bulbs in the palms below. Carlotta was shivering with cold. Cindy, usually so sharp and quick, was lost in the endless labyrinths of her own thinking. There was simply no way to figure it out. No way at all.
“Then you stay here, Carlotta,” Cindy said. “As long as you need to.”
Carlotta nodded. She gazed vacantly out into space, trying to will her mind into focus once again. She blew her nose into a small handkerchief. She straightened down the hair lifting up in the cold breeze.
“But I think,” Cindy said, “that you should see a psychiatrist.”
“I can’t afford a shrink.”
“You can go to a clinic.”
“Not for mental problems.”
“You are definitely wrong. You can go to the clinic at the university. Payment is strictly optional, and if you’re on welfare, the payment is zilch.”
Carlotta nodded. She smiled.
“You think I’m loony?” Carlotta said.
“I don’t know. But it scares me.”
“Okay. What do you say we go inside?”
Cindy nodded. The two women held hands as they turned and walked to the apartment door, then dropped them as they were about to enter.
“Don’t tell George,” Cindy said. “He’s a bit straitlaced about things.”
“I wouldn’t have told anybody in the world but you,” Carlotta whispered back.
“Okay. Smile. Here we go.”
And Cindy opened the door. Inside Billy and the girls looked up. Suspiciously, Carlotta thought. Searching her face for hidden signs. They seemed to know instinctively when she was involved in that—horror—almost as though they could read her mind, and then they returned to the Jr. Anagrams game spread out on the kitchen table. George came in with a folded newspaper, looked briefly at Carlotta and then at Cindy.
“Is it possible to eat in this place?” he said.
“Just a minute, George,” Cindy said.
“Christ,” George mumbled.
George fiddled with the television dial. Billy dropped several anagram pieces on the floor. Carlotta felt in her purse for a paperback, sat down, and pretended to read. It seemed like every time she talked about it, thought about it, it was there again, dominating her life, her entire world, like a haze that surrounded her. Malevolent. Bad-smelling. Cindy humming in the kitchen was the only sound of cheer.
Thursday passed. Friday. A slight smell of ozone entered the evening air. It depressed Carlotta.
Julie and Kim slept on the couch. Billy slept against the wall beside the television set. George grumbled as he stepped over Billy in the morning. Supper was silent and moody. George shoveled peas onto his fork and mashed them down with a knife.
Carlotta did not go to a psychiatrist. The problem was becoming more remote. The world was re-forming itself into something less fearsome, more friendly. She felt good physically. Sleeping on the floor was better for her back. Being with Cindy was a good thing. It made things whole again.
During the day she sat stiffly behind an enormous typewriter at the Carter School of Secretarial Arts. The tall, thin Mr. Reisz, whose crew cut had grown considerably thinner since the long lost days of his youth, walked up and down the aisles with a stopwatch in his hand. The room was filled with the clatter of forty typewriters in feverish activity.
“And . . . stop!” Mr. Reisz called. “Thirty words. Who typed thirty words a minute? Thirty-five? Excellent. Forty. Did anybody type forty words?”
Carlotta raised a hand. Mr. Reisz strolled over. He studied her results.
“Watch the capitals,” he said. “Firm. It’s a firm, sharp hit.”
Across the aisle another girl answered for her friend.
“Juanita,” she said. “Juanita typed forty words, sir.”
Mr. Reisz strolled behind the desk. He frowned.
“Tell her the little finger is still weak,” he said. “Don’t turn the wrist. Just give it a short, firm hit.”
It was translated into Spanish. Mr. Reisz returned to the desk in front of the rows. The school was under sub-contract to the County of Los Angeles. Most of the girls, a lively, giggling bunch, were on welfare, several of them pregnant again.
Carlotta looked out the window. Some lanky adolescents were jump-shooting basketballs into the hoop on the adjacent blacktop yard. Their faces shined with perspiration. It was a lazy, hot day, smelling inside of old sweeping compound, a faint aroma of mildew, and the fine dust which sifted from nowhere onto the desks and windows.
How beautiful life is, thought Carlotta. Who would have imagined that a minister’s daughter from Pasadena would be happy banging out capital letters for the welfare board? Yet she was happy here. She liked the girls, the angular Mr. Reisz, so absurdly formal and yet considerate, and she liked to improve herself, day by day with a numerical score. When all is said and done, thought Carlotta, it’s the simple, ordinary things that make for a good life. The things Bob Garrett had believed in, and had taught her. The little details that you can embroider into a rich and full way of feeling.
The nightmare of the last week passed into an imperceptible cloud, hanging farther and farther away on the mental horizon, and with it, any thought of a psychiatrist.
Carlotta was afraid of psychiatrists. People who went to them never got any better. Here, with Cindy, she was safe. She was in a fortress of security with walls ten feet thick. She had time to think things through carefully, to reconstruct the past. She lay in the bathtub, and the soft light came in through house plants hung at the window, throwing cool rays over the sparkling bubble bath.
What was the condition of her house? It might be a charred ruin by now, with only the toilet and refrigerator poking up out of the blackened rubble. She could envision Mr. Greenspan rushing around in his underwear, trying to direct the firemen. Crowds standing by watching bricks and pipes flying around in space. But her thoughts seemed incredible to her. They seemed like something a mental case might conjure up in her worst seizures. The world was not like that. Carlotta felt like a giant bird, circling and circling, gently approaching the earth once again. Now everything was back in focus, back to reality, and there were no more fantasies.
She stepped out of the tub and dried her shoulders with an enormous yellow towel. Her brow was furrowed, thinking: She ought to find out. She ought to go to the house. Should she wait to pick up Billy at school so they could go together? Or should she go now with the sun still full in the sky? She slipped on her bra and panties. In the bedroom she dressed in a shirt and jeans borrowed from Cindy. She had no clothes of her own at Cindy’s and couldn’t afford to buy any.
Carlotta combed her hair. In the mirror her face seemed pretty once again. Tranquillity had returned the softness to her small features. She felt confidence returning. So she went out the door, car keys in her hand.
She stopped the car a little before the dead end of Kentner Street. The exterior of the house looked completely normal. She stared at it for a moment. There was not a thing out of place anywhere. Then she got out of the car.
When she opened the door, she was struck by the dry heat which filled the house. It was oppressive, stifling, breath-sucking. She went to the thermostat. It must have been jostled the night everybody ran, because it stood at 93 degrees. She turned it off. It was quiet inside. A few flies buzzed around the unwashed dishes by the kitchen sink.
Julie’s slipper lay on the hallway floor, where it must have fallen that night. Carlotta peered into the girls’ bedroom. Only the teddy bears, a few books, some underwear on the chair. She picked out several things for the girls from the drawers. It seemed even more quiet there. Not even a sound of traffic could be heard. Then she went out into the hallway and stared at the closed door of her own bedroom.
She studied the door. No cracks. No burn marks. Nothing. She eased it open with her foot. Inside the sheets were fallen from the bed. A lamp lay on the floor, the shade stepped on and bent. She pushed the door wider. A bottle of cologne lay on the hardwood floor. The room smelled of violets.
She went inside the room a few feet. It was a little cooler there. The windows were open. Had she left them open? Now she saw that the night table was tipped over against the wall, and a scratch showed where it had scraped against the plaster. Several more bottles of lotion could be seen behind the bureau. Where was all the torn plaster, the gouged walls, the exploded ceiling? It looked like the material remains of one person’s panic. Somebody had freaked out from bed, knocking over the night table, smashed into the bureau, and had dragged the sheets halfway to the door. That was all. Amazed, Carlotta circled slowly through the room.
It looked so very normal. In the sense that there was nothing inhuman about it. She could see very plainly what had happened. She was almost sorry for the frightened person she had been, to have reacted in that way. She slowly closed the windows and locked them.
Carlotta opened the closet door. It was dark inside. She couldn’t find the little metal chain for the light bulb, so she had to lean forward, peering into the dark maze of the skirts, jeans, and dresses. She selected a few and laid them over her arm carefully.
She heard a distant growl.
She stood erect. She listened. Nothing. She turned around. Nothing. She keened her senses. She smelled the room. Nothing. She waited. A bird called from the hedges outside. A boy went by on a bicycle. She turned cautiously back into the closet. There was a distant sound, a low, metallic rumble which vibrated the window pane. Carlotta whirled again and stepped out of the closet. The sound intensified, was guttural. It seemed to be trying to articulate, with great difficulty, some kind of human sound. Carlotta backed to the door, which was closed. Fumbling behind her, she found the knob.
The growl subsided. Carlotta opened the door a crack and listened. Was it in the hallway? She was afraid to leave the bedroom. She slowly pressed the door closed again, leaning against it, listening with her ear against the door. Then it rose again, a low, rumbling, belching sound which wavered and changed pitch, but which made no sense.
Carlotta ran to the window. High overhead, two white trails arched over the Southland heavens, the jets invisible, but their roar like a double, demented thunder which shook the window pane, growing louder and louder.
Carlotta looked up at the unending blue sky. It seemed so pure. So deep. Like an infinite sleep. The vapor trails slowly disintegrated, leaving feathery billows fading into the pale blue depths. The sun was warm and friendly on her face.
So it was jets. No voice. No voice at all. I made it into a voice. Am I dreaming? Or have I awakened?
She moved away from the window and went into Billy’s room. She picked out several T-shirts, underpants, blue jeans, and some plaid shirts. She carried the bundle of clothes to the car and piled them into the back seat. The slender trees waved briskly in the fresh breeze as she drove away.
When Carlotta and the children walked into the apartment she could sense there was something on her friend’s mind. But all Cindy said was, “You sure look fit as a fiddle.”
“I am,” Carlotta said. “I feel good.”
“Great. That’s great.”
An awkward silence hung in the air. Cindy smiled uncertainly at Carlotta then turned to wipe her hands on a towel hanging from a rack. Cindy began to grate cheese.
Later that evening Billy said, “Hey, Mom. When are we going to go?”
Carlotta tried to ignore the question, but Billy persisted.
“I got stuff in the garage. I can’t just leave it forever.”
“It’s not forever.”
“Then when are we going back?”
Carlotta sighed. “Soon.”
That night Carlotta lay on her back, watching the ceiling. A thin strand of dust wavered in a cross-current of air, dangling near the cut-glass chandelier. She heard muffled voices from the bedroom. She turned her head. A light was still on inside, though the door was closed.
“Well, why didn’t you tell her?” George grumbled.
“Oh, George,” Cindy whimpered. “I couldn’t.”
“I warned you, Cindy.”
“She’s got no place to go, George.”
Carlotta rose up on her elbow, straining to hear. There was some indistinct mumbling.
“Shhhhh!” Cindy said.
“I don’t care if she hears,” George said.
Cindy began to sniffle.
“Oh, Christ,” George murmured.
“I’m sorry, George,” Cindy whimpered.
“See? I’m not crying.”
Cindy sniffled several times. She blew her nose. The room was silent. Then the light went off inside. Carlotta knew that the protection of Cindy’s apartment was beginning to fade away like a morning dew.
“You know what to do?” George said.
Cindy mumbled something.
“When?” George repeated.
“Tomorrow,” Cindy said. “In the morning.”
“Well, just make sure you do.”
“I got to get up at seven. Some of us work, you know.”
Then it was silent. Carlotta lay back on her mattress of blankets. She looked at the ceiling and bit her lip. What the hell? she thought. Now what?
The morning sunshine radiated through the grimy windshield causing Carlotta to squint her way through the familiar streets of West Los Angeles. Billy sat silently at her right. In the back seat Julie and Kim fussed noisily.
“Hey, cut that out,” Carlotta said over her shoulder. “No fighting.”
She breathed a sigh of relief when she let them off at their school corner. Relief followed by a tinge of guilt for messing up their lives so.
She would be late for her own class this morning, but it couldn’t be helped. There was this thing she had to do first at Cindy’s.
Cindy was ironing when Carlotta returned to the apartment. Their preliminary exchange was forced, unnatural. Then Carlotta said: “I really got to thank you, Cindy. For all you’ve done.”
“My pleasure. You know that.”
“I mean, it’s been a week and all. I didn’t think it would be that long. Honest.”
“Look, Carlotta, I wish I could—”
“I feel really great again. And I don’t think those nightmares are going to happen anymore. I think it’s time we split. You know?”
“Really, I don’t know. If you feel okay . . .”
“I do. I really do. Just fine.”
“Because you’re welcome here, you know . . .”
“I know. I know I am. But it’s been long enough. The kids miss their home. I didn’t mean to move in, for heaven’s sake.”
“George, you know, he has his problems—”
“George is really fine, to let us stay. Tell him that. We really appreciated him.”
“I’ll tell him.”
There was another silence. Carlotta clearly did not want to get up and begin packing the children’s clothes. Cindy stirred her coffee, though it must have been cold by now.