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Judith Moore on her grandmother, the piano teacher, the boyfriend

There are no secrets

To myself, I am as much mystery as is my mother, my absent father, my piano teacher. I believe they know more than they let on. - Image by Dan Perkins
To myself, I am as much mystery as is my mother, my absent father, my piano teacher. I believe they know more than they let on.

Secrecy begins, as does so much | else, between nipple and suckling mouth. The mouth takes first measure of the distance — an abyss — between Self and Other.

As a pigtailed grade schooler — fearing punishment, from shame (over, for instance, my parents’ divorce) — things happen I don’t “tell.” I don’t lie. I keep silent.

Second grade. Fall. White rubber boots like a majorette’s, but without tassels. I long for white boots. My maternal grandmother has moved into 5-B — our apartment. Cancer, “the crab,” is eating her “inside to out.” White boots, she says, won’t be “practical.” My mother and I go downtown on the rumbling subway. In Best’s, across from St. Patrick’s (from whose walls gargoyles plunge toward Best’s sixth-floor window), I beg.

Every day I salute them.

They stand in my closet next to roller skates. I dance for rain. For wind.

Look out each evening to Jersey for mottled sky, scuttling clouds.

Umbrella in one hand, lunch box in the other, I push open the heavy front door and stagger into the wind. Rain strikes my red umbrella.

Wet gold leaves stick to pavement. I put a foot on the low concrete wall, in which black iron fence posts are buried. Beyond the fence, cars hit puddles, tossing spray. For one wet minute, beautiful enough to paint a picture of: the white boot, glazed by rainwater, my bare leg. “I want,” I say, “to live forever.”

I am building a secret self.

Fingertips on hearer’s ear and heel of palm at comer of speaker’s lips, the hand — knuckles out and moist palm inward — shields the distance between mouth and ear. Behind the palm’s wall, humid breath carries the words. When I am told a secret, the sibilance, slight tickling at the ear, rouses me.

We grade-school girls trade back and forth navy-blue-bound mysteries whose heroine is Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch, Secret of Red Gate Farm, Secret of an Old Attic. Although we all tease, threaten to tell how Nancy solves one or another mystery that confronts her, we agree not to divulge to anyone who doesn’t yet know how this or that story turns out. Grubby, rough-and-tumble, freckled Margaret, my best friend, is a fourth child of seven in what my mother calls “a litter, not a family.” Margaret tells me she reads mysteries’ last pages before the first. I, an only child, reel with shock.

That you could deliberately turn first to the back of a mystery, or any book, to discover what the story’s end is, has not occurred to me. No moral prig, I lie readily and convincingly to throw blame on another, to avoid punishment; I steal from my mother’s lizard bag when I think I can get away with it. To turn, first, to a book’s last page seems physically impossible. Doesn’t life have rules you can’t break?

Fifth-grade genius Morrie Rosenthal, who can multiply double digits in his head and who can play by ear “Sentimental Journey ” or any song we ask, whispers to me while we’re in science room, cleaning our black-tailed rats’ cage, please not to tell, for I am, aren’t I — even though I’m a girl — his best friend?

“Them,” others, shut out, wonder what, he and I withhold. They strain to overhear. Being in the know,” I preen.

Morrie’s in love — he blushes — with Georgia, who’s a year older, a Negro who has her hair, in back, ironed flat.

She is in love with him. That’s why he’s wearing — Morrie makes a fist, shows his hand — this thin gold band.

Almost no one likes her, not because she’s not white. She’s mean, and her mother is famous as a nightclub singer, and Georgia’s stuck up.

“What’s so secret about that?” I ask, while I dump dirty rat paper into the trash basket and am mad because I want Morrie for myself. “Is it because she’s Negro, and your parents won’t like that?”

Partly. But he hasn’t told everything, says Morrie, looking about us before he undoes his fist and shows his palm. The ring is diamond. He’s hiding the diamond. Georgia stole it — he closes his fist — from her mother’s jewel box.

If I like her, Margaret says during lunch, I will tell what Morrie whispered.

From two tables away, Morrie looks at me and clamps his mouth so hard he turns white around the lips. I’m not telling. I’m not.

Margaret, whose brothers casually hammer open locks on their older sisters’ diaries, who herself puts her hand over the receiver to listen in on upstairs telephones, hardly speaks to me the rest of the week.

Their maid irons Georgia’s hair every morning. So it will be straight, Georgia says, like white peoples’. Georgia’s rich, and her mother is famous. I imagine myself bom as me but in Georgia’s skin, breathing through her wide-spread nose, scooping up jacks with her pink palm. Even though it would mean Morrie would love me instead, and I wish every day he would, I am glad I was not bom Negro. One more thing I must not tell.

When my grandmother, back on our sofa, dying this time for real, reads from the paper about an interracial marriage, she says “colored” women lure white men to “race-mix.” In my appetite for her love, I edge onto the cushions next to her.

A year later, the organist plays “Abide with Me” on a funeral parlor’s reedy Hammond. Gazing down into the coffin, I cannot not remember, and try not to, how she cackled, false teeth chattering, when I had spilled out Morrie’s secret.

We moved. We live in the South. My mother sends me to the beauty shop. The “beauty operator,” Selma, grasps my pigtails at the nape of my neck. Snips. Laughing, she holds the pigtails aloft, wakes women dozing in chairs under silver hair dryers. “I got these off, at the root.”

Are those women, dazed and pink, legs slightly apart, who I will become?

Under my bed, in a paper sack, I hide the pigtails. I pull out the sack, kneel on the stool by my dressing table mirror, and hold pigtails against my shorn head, clipped by Selma into a “poodle cut.” Blowing out candles on my twelfth birthday, I wish: “Let me go see Morrie.” I wish: “Let me be loved.” Sunday afternoon. Baking chicken aroma drifts through the living room, where on the Steinway I play — at the request of my mother’s friend, a college professor, who is also my piano teacher — a warm-up from my battered Boosey & Hawkes edition of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I ask: “Does it mean ‘little world?’ ” and, with thumb and index finger, form a circle.

“I love you.” He pushes damp curls back from my forehead, plants a kiss. He looks me directly in the eye (his eyes are brown). He is grown up, my mother’s age. He is the first person, outside our small family, who says this to me, who gives me a kiss. It is Living Water. Monday morning, walking to school, I am transformed from who I was on Friday: rough, black-hearted, lonesome. Someone who by blood does not have to love me, loves me. I cross streets, step off curbs, stride — merrily, blessed — through the graveyard above whose tombstones Spanish moss drifts, and do not fear anything, not the dead, not even my own unknown and fearsome future.

I “set” this new “I love you,” as the hot-breasted hen — out of instinct, without hope of reward of chicks — sets her eggs.

The mind is not dark. I study silence.

Sunk, speechless, secrets the self keeps from itself rise, surprising me. The mind is not dark, but below mind, dream and impulse steep; something, someone I do not know, bears to the surface in an exquisitely complex code the other side of every story.

To myself, I am as much mystery as is my mother, my absent father, my piano teacher. I believe they know more than they let on. There’s something they aren’t telling me. “What you don’t know,” my mother tells me when I ask some question about what makes her tick, “can’t hurt you.”

The piano teacher becomes the person for whom I play out my life, “object of my soul’s pilgrimage.” I think no one knows this. I am like the child who puts his hands over his face and is sure no one sees him. My mother, who goes everywhere with him but is not his girlfriend, explains, when someone asks, that the piano teacher “is like family.” She warns me it’s a crush I have. It’s not. I read what he reads, imitate speech patterns, the way he forms letters. Out over my blue jeans, I wear his old shirts.

About my boyfriend, the piano teacher warns against intercourse, for fear of pregnancy, loss of the boy’s “respect,” loss too, he says, of “self-respect.” We argue, he and I. He would not say these things were he to fall in love, as I am in love. I say so. "You should fall in love.”

The piano teacher goes away this summer, right after we fight. To Interlochen, to teach. Afternoons, I walk down to his house, take in his mail, water plants, put food out for his cat Buster.

One leg thrown over a wing of the yellow canvas butterfly chair he always sits in, I read. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I’ve read it before but have favorite parts I go back to. “The field that fells away two hundred yards in front of the house is all in adolescent com ...”

I come to blue onionskin, folded in half.

Open it. “Dear------: Your ‘declaration,’ I can’t accept it. What you say you feel isn’t love it’s sickness. I hope you will seek profesional help. Your friend, Jimmy.” A promising Heldentenor, a student of my mother’s, Jimmy has been often at our dinner table, spoons out a lake into mashed potatoes before he pours on gravy. My mother calls him “Pretty Jimmy,” “Scatterbrained Jimmy.” He loves a man. Loves men. What men do with one another, I deduce from what I do with my swimmer. But beards scratch, cheek to cheek. And I had said, what, a week ago? I said, “You should fell in love.”

It is a time in the South of witch hunts against “perverts.” He would lose his job.

Worse, he is rejected. By a dumb beautiful person. Regarded by him, pitied, as “sick.”

Worst, I never guessed. Studied him almost nightly over dinner, after dinner, on walks in the evening when we’d discuss the news. Didn’t see it. My mother knows. Has always known.

My heart beats fast.

Every morning this summer, I stand barefoot out of my bed onto the shag rug, and the world teeters. At night in the back of a Chevy Bel-Air, the swimmer French kisses me. His father voted in the primary for the candidate who says “nigger.” I come home, reeking of chlorine.

I learn, keeping my own counsel, what I owe myself. Keeping another’s secret teaches me what the world takes. I learn there are things we need and cannot have.

The swimmer graduates, goes to Fort Bragg. Becomes a Green Beret. Shows up at my door in aviator glasses, boots, fatigues: “We’re helping out the Montagnards” (“Yards,” he calls them).

Selma still cuts my hair, and I J know now, even though I’m reading all of Faulkner, beginning with Mosquitoes, that I’ve become one of those sleepy women under the silver hair dryers. Because I am married. He and I stay awake all night. We murmur, “I will tell you and you only.” That distance between mouth and breast, Me and Not-Me, site of longing and pain, narrows. Two wounded children, alone in the dark, we feast on one another. We are eating one another, alive.

We are surprised to wake up, hear Marilyn died.

Skinned, dressed out, hung, as the elk his father skins, dresses out, and hangs in his back yard, I am forgetting myself. We are too close — too raw — for comfort. Gratefully, I begin to slip from him.

We parcel out to each other, on certain subjects and on many nights, great slabs of silence, like homemade bread.

JFK. November 22, 1963. What am I doing, when I hear? Listening to the Beatles’ “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.” Who pulled the trigger(s)? Why? From this moment on: “This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” (Don de Lillo, Libra)

The first child digs in. Hands folded atop my growing belly, I imagine him, her, encapsulated, cached deep in folds of body whose parts I can name but cannot picture. He/she rolls, kicks. A nine-months’ wonder, she is bom, belonging to herself.

I’m nursing. The doorbell rings. Two men in dark suits fill the doorway.

“FBI,” they say. A friend of ours, Don, reputed to be in Cuba, have I heard from him? (Milk spots my blouse.) “I haven’t.” A week later, out the second floor back bedroom window, I see, standing in the alley at the garbage cans, two men in dark suits. One holds the galvanized steel lid. The metal catches light. The second man, bent at the waist, has his hands inside the can.

We move, after the second child, to a town built of brown stone. Silos and Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist spires command the horizon. At the town’s unweeded edge, wilderness jumps with deer, quail. Trout leap from streams.

In cities, people guard against cutpurses, robbers, rapists. Strangers, on a whim, hunt down and shoot strangers, leave violated bodies askew in alleys. In the small town, we walk — at any hour — on streets named for presidents. We do not watch our purses. On warm nights, we leave doors ajar.

In the city, no one notices with whom you eat lunch. In the city, no one reports, if you aren’t famous, a stroll hand in hand, past paintings, through a museum. Here, in the small town, we are all famous. Ripe for celebrity.

Inside white picket fences, behind the ruffled cafe curtain, innocence turns lurid. Even in summer, we heap fireplaces with crumpled paper. Ash drifting out a chimney may be a bill from a shoe store.

Men and women drink alone. Women whom you last saw smiling, who brushed cookie crumbs off your wool dress at St. Anne’s silver tea, turn on the oven without lighting it. On Father’s Day, a guitar-picking adulterer, found out, loops a noose around his throat, climbs onto a chair, knots the noose to a cedar beam, bites down on a .357 Magnum’s barrel, pulls the trigger, kicks back the chair. Blows off his jaw. Scorches brain tissue, neural pathways. Breaks both legs.

Breaks his Gibson. From his bed in the Harbor convalescent home on the hill, where he’s turned every four hours and has his diapers changed, he’s heard crying: “Mama, Mama.”

Children across the street from the Harbor build snowmen. “Stick in the carrot for the nose!” says one. They mock him. “Mama, Mama.”

Years pass, winters, Watergate. Five o’clock stubble shadows the jowls. I hear from my mother that the piano teacher had a “nervous breakdown.” Then, Saigon falling? Saigon liberated? We’re slow-dancing at the Elks Club to Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You.” Then come Aprils, Mays, when clear-voiced glee clubs sing lyrics whose lines end pleasantly — with an innocuous chill — in rhyme. I teach the children to drive by having them tail cars, like detectives do in movies, figuring it’s a skill that might come in handy. Things happen, are hidden away out of mind, things I cannot say. The thought of which causes my teeth to grind. Fear of being discovered coexists now with another greater peril — for who is not tempted? — to give oneself away.

Who killed Marilyn? Jack? Bobby? Who gave the pills, pulled the trigger(s)?

Even if she did it to herself, even if Lee did it, Sirhan Sirhan did it, were “lone killers,” even if Jack Ruby died a “natural” death, were all that proved beyond doubt, even if we could go back there, see it all with our own eyes and hear what was said, we still couldn’t be sure, couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t.

This idea of something they’re not telling us — our history — eats at us like “the crab” did my grandmother, “inside to out.” We suffer a mysterious ague. Complain of cold, vague menace. We grasp at petty coincidence and extraterrestrial trivia. We think we hear doors close. Tim one ear to millenarians proclaiming imminent Rapture, turn the other to the weathermen’s forecast.

Throw up our hands and say, “It’s a toss-up.”

The personal becomes political, and then in no time, it seems, the political became, is now personal. I find the swimmer’s name among contributors to Soldier of Fortune.

I wish, now, I hadn’t told, here, about the white boots. It seems silly. So much depends upon them. I wish I hadn’t said anything about Morrie and Georgia to my grandmother. Afterward, I was never the same. (Morrie I never heard about again. Georgia wrote a book, which wasn’t very good.)

“Secret team.” “Covert action.” “Mis-remembering.” The tendency of history these days is toward death.

When I gauge the distance between myself and another, I can easily feel hungry. I will sometimes hide my face, be sure no one sees me. We are all that way sometimes.

“I will tell you and you only” is not something I’d say anymore. What is most likely to make me feel I’ll fall in love is if someone tells me, about me, things I can’t, won’t, tell myself. Secrets I don’t know I’m keeping.

One thing you may want to know. The guitar picker in the convalescent home on the hill? He still cries out: “Mama, Mama.” Definitely, the end of the book. □

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San Diego County sheriff's radio goes silent

Local scanners fight encryption
To myself, I am as much mystery as is my mother, my absent father, my piano teacher. I believe they know more than they let on. - Image by Dan Perkins
To myself, I am as much mystery as is my mother, my absent father, my piano teacher. I believe they know more than they let on.

Secrecy begins, as does so much | else, between nipple and suckling mouth. The mouth takes first measure of the distance — an abyss — between Self and Other.

As a pigtailed grade schooler — fearing punishment, from shame (over, for instance, my parents’ divorce) — things happen I don’t “tell.” I don’t lie. I keep silent.

Second grade. Fall. White rubber boots like a majorette’s, but without tassels. I long for white boots. My maternal grandmother has moved into 5-B — our apartment. Cancer, “the crab,” is eating her “inside to out.” White boots, she says, won’t be “practical.” My mother and I go downtown on the rumbling subway. In Best’s, across from St. Patrick’s (from whose walls gargoyles plunge toward Best’s sixth-floor window), I beg.

Every day I salute them.

They stand in my closet next to roller skates. I dance for rain. For wind.

Look out each evening to Jersey for mottled sky, scuttling clouds.

Umbrella in one hand, lunch box in the other, I push open the heavy front door and stagger into the wind. Rain strikes my red umbrella.

Wet gold leaves stick to pavement. I put a foot on the low concrete wall, in which black iron fence posts are buried. Beyond the fence, cars hit puddles, tossing spray. For one wet minute, beautiful enough to paint a picture of: the white boot, glazed by rainwater, my bare leg. “I want,” I say, “to live forever.”

I am building a secret self.

Fingertips on hearer’s ear and heel of palm at comer of speaker’s lips, the hand — knuckles out and moist palm inward — shields the distance between mouth and ear. Behind the palm’s wall, humid breath carries the words. When I am told a secret, the sibilance, slight tickling at the ear, rouses me.

We grade-school girls trade back and forth navy-blue-bound mysteries whose heroine is Nancy Drew: The Secret of Shadow Ranch, Secret of Red Gate Farm, Secret of an Old Attic. Although we all tease, threaten to tell how Nancy solves one or another mystery that confronts her, we agree not to divulge to anyone who doesn’t yet know how this or that story turns out. Grubby, rough-and-tumble, freckled Margaret, my best friend, is a fourth child of seven in what my mother calls “a litter, not a family.” Margaret tells me she reads mysteries’ last pages before the first. I, an only child, reel with shock.

That you could deliberately turn first to the back of a mystery, or any book, to discover what the story’s end is, has not occurred to me. No moral prig, I lie readily and convincingly to throw blame on another, to avoid punishment; I steal from my mother’s lizard bag when I think I can get away with it. To turn, first, to a book’s last page seems physically impossible. Doesn’t life have rules you can’t break?

Fifth-grade genius Morrie Rosenthal, who can multiply double digits in his head and who can play by ear “Sentimental Journey ” or any song we ask, whispers to me while we’re in science room, cleaning our black-tailed rats’ cage, please not to tell, for I am, aren’t I — even though I’m a girl — his best friend?

“Them,” others, shut out, wonder what, he and I withhold. They strain to overhear. Being in the know,” I preen.

Morrie’s in love — he blushes — with Georgia, who’s a year older, a Negro who has her hair, in back, ironed flat.

She is in love with him. That’s why he’s wearing — Morrie makes a fist, shows his hand — this thin gold band.

Almost no one likes her, not because she’s not white. She’s mean, and her mother is famous as a nightclub singer, and Georgia’s stuck up.

“What’s so secret about that?” I ask, while I dump dirty rat paper into the trash basket and am mad because I want Morrie for myself. “Is it because she’s Negro, and your parents won’t like that?”

Partly. But he hasn’t told everything, says Morrie, looking about us before he undoes his fist and shows his palm. The ring is diamond. He’s hiding the diamond. Georgia stole it — he closes his fist — from her mother’s jewel box.

If I like her, Margaret says during lunch, I will tell what Morrie whispered.

From two tables away, Morrie looks at me and clamps his mouth so hard he turns white around the lips. I’m not telling. I’m not.

Margaret, whose brothers casually hammer open locks on their older sisters’ diaries, who herself puts her hand over the receiver to listen in on upstairs telephones, hardly speaks to me the rest of the week.

Their maid irons Georgia’s hair every morning. So it will be straight, Georgia says, like white peoples’. Georgia’s rich, and her mother is famous. I imagine myself bom as me but in Georgia’s skin, breathing through her wide-spread nose, scooping up jacks with her pink palm. Even though it would mean Morrie would love me instead, and I wish every day he would, I am glad I was not bom Negro. One more thing I must not tell.

When my grandmother, back on our sofa, dying this time for real, reads from the paper about an interracial marriage, she says “colored” women lure white men to “race-mix.” In my appetite for her love, I edge onto the cushions next to her.

A year later, the organist plays “Abide with Me” on a funeral parlor’s reedy Hammond. Gazing down into the coffin, I cannot not remember, and try not to, how she cackled, false teeth chattering, when I had spilled out Morrie’s secret.

We moved. We live in the South. My mother sends me to the beauty shop. The “beauty operator,” Selma, grasps my pigtails at the nape of my neck. Snips. Laughing, she holds the pigtails aloft, wakes women dozing in chairs under silver hair dryers. “I got these off, at the root.”

Are those women, dazed and pink, legs slightly apart, who I will become?

Under my bed, in a paper sack, I hide the pigtails. I pull out the sack, kneel on the stool by my dressing table mirror, and hold pigtails against my shorn head, clipped by Selma into a “poodle cut.” Blowing out candles on my twelfth birthday, I wish: “Let me go see Morrie.” I wish: “Let me be loved.” Sunday afternoon. Baking chicken aroma drifts through the living room, where on the Steinway I play — at the request of my mother’s friend, a college professor, who is also my piano teacher — a warm-up from my battered Boosey & Hawkes edition of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. I ask: “Does it mean ‘little world?’ ” and, with thumb and index finger, form a circle.

“I love you.” He pushes damp curls back from my forehead, plants a kiss. He looks me directly in the eye (his eyes are brown). He is grown up, my mother’s age. He is the first person, outside our small family, who says this to me, who gives me a kiss. It is Living Water. Monday morning, walking to school, I am transformed from who I was on Friday: rough, black-hearted, lonesome. Someone who by blood does not have to love me, loves me. I cross streets, step off curbs, stride — merrily, blessed — through the graveyard above whose tombstones Spanish moss drifts, and do not fear anything, not the dead, not even my own unknown and fearsome future.

I “set” this new “I love you,” as the hot-breasted hen — out of instinct, without hope of reward of chicks — sets her eggs.

The mind is not dark. I study silence.

Sunk, speechless, secrets the self keeps from itself rise, surprising me. The mind is not dark, but below mind, dream and impulse steep; something, someone I do not know, bears to the surface in an exquisitely complex code the other side of every story.

To myself, I am as much mystery as is my mother, my absent father, my piano teacher. I believe they know more than they let on. There’s something they aren’t telling me. “What you don’t know,” my mother tells me when I ask some question about what makes her tick, “can’t hurt you.”

The piano teacher becomes the person for whom I play out my life, “object of my soul’s pilgrimage.” I think no one knows this. I am like the child who puts his hands over his face and is sure no one sees him. My mother, who goes everywhere with him but is not his girlfriend, explains, when someone asks, that the piano teacher “is like family.” She warns me it’s a crush I have. It’s not. I read what he reads, imitate speech patterns, the way he forms letters. Out over my blue jeans, I wear his old shirts.

About my boyfriend, the piano teacher warns against intercourse, for fear of pregnancy, loss of the boy’s “respect,” loss too, he says, of “self-respect.” We argue, he and I. He would not say these things were he to fall in love, as I am in love. I say so. "You should fall in love.”

The piano teacher goes away this summer, right after we fight. To Interlochen, to teach. Afternoons, I walk down to his house, take in his mail, water plants, put food out for his cat Buster.

One leg thrown over a wing of the yellow canvas butterfly chair he always sits in, I read. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I’ve read it before but have favorite parts I go back to. “The field that fells away two hundred yards in front of the house is all in adolescent com ...”

I come to blue onionskin, folded in half.

Open it. “Dear------: Your ‘declaration,’ I can’t accept it. What you say you feel isn’t love it’s sickness. I hope you will seek profesional help. Your friend, Jimmy.” A promising Heldentenor, a student of my mother’s, Jimmy has been often at our dinner table, spoons out a lake into mashed potatoes before he pours on gravy. My mother calls him “Pretty Jimmy,” “Scatterbrained Jimmy.” He loves a man. Loves men. What men do with one another, I deduce from what I do with my swimmer. But beards scratch, cheek to cheek. And I had said, what, a week ago? I said, “You should fell in love.”

It is a time in the South of witch hunts against “perverts.” He would lose his job.

Worse, he is rejected. By a dumb beautiful person. Regarded by him, pitied, as “sick.”

Worst, I never guessed. Studied him almost nightly over dinner, after dinner, on walks in the evening when we’d discuss the news. Didn’t see it. My mother knows. Has always known.

My heart beats fast.

Every morning this summer, I stand barefoot out of my bed onto the shag rug, and the world teeters. At night in the back of a Chevy Bel-Air, the swimmer French kisses me. His father voted in the primary for the candidate who says “nigger.” I come home, reeking of chlorine.

I learn, keeping my own counsel, what I owe myself. Keeping another’s secret teaches me what the world takes. I learn there are things we need and cannot have.

The swimmer graduates, goes to Fort Bragg. Becomes a Green Beret. Shows up at my door in aviator glasses, boots, fatigues: “We’re helping out the Montagnards” (“Yards,” he calls them).

Selma still cuts my hair, and I J know now, even though I’m reading all of Faulkner, beginning with Mosquitoes, that I’ve become one of those sleepy women under the silver hair dryers. Because I am married. He and I stay awake all night. We murmur, “I will tell you and you only.” That distance between mouth and breast, Me and Not-Me, site of longing and pain, narrows. Two wounded children, alone in the dark, we feast on one another. We are eating one another, alive.

We are surprised to wake up, hear Marilyn died.

Skinned, dressed out, hung, as the elk his father skins, dresses out, and hangs in his back yard, I am forgetting myself. We are too close — too raw — for comfort. Gratefully, I begin to slip from him.

We parcel out to each other, on certain subjects and on many nights, great slabs of silence, like homemade bread.

JFK. November 22, 1963. What am I doing, when I hear? Listening to the Beatles’ “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.” Who pulled the trigger(s)? Why? From this moment on: “This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” (Don de Lillo, Libra)

The first child digs in. Hands folded atop my growing belly, I imagine him, her, encapsulated, cached deep in folds of body whose parts I can name but cannot picture. He/she rolls, kicks. A nine-months’ wonder, she is bom, belonging to herself.

I’m nursing. The doorbell rings. Two men in dark suits fill the doorway.

“FBI,” they say. A friend of ours, Don, reputed to be in Cuba, have I heard from him? (Milk spots my blouse.) “I haven’t.” A week later, out the second floor back bedroom window, I see, standing in the alley at the garbage cans, two men in dark suits. One holds the galvanized steel lid. The metal catches light. The second man, bent at the waist, has his hands inside the can.

We move, after the second child, to a town built of brown stone. Silos and Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist spires command the horizon. At the town’s unweeded edge, wilderness jumps with deer, quail. Trout leap from streams.

In cities, people guard against cutpurses, robbers, rapists. Strangers, on a whim, hunt down and shoot strangers, leave violated bodies askew in alleys. In the small town, we walk — at any hour — on streets named for presidents. We do not watch our purses. On warm nights, we leave doors ajar.

In the city, no one notices with whom you eat lunch. In the city, no one reports, if you aren’t famous, a stroll hand in hand, past paintings, through a museum. Here, in the small town, we are all famous. Ripe for celebrity.

Inside white picket fences, behind the ruffled cafe curtain, innocence turns lurid. Even in summer, we heap fireplaces with crumpled paper. Ash drifting out a chimney may be a bill from a shoe store.

Men and women drink alone. Women whom you last saw smiling, who brushed cookie crumbs off your wool dress at St. Anne’s silver tea, turn on the oven without lighting it. On Father’s Day, a guitar-picking adulterer, found out, loops a noose around his throat, climbs onto a chair, knots the noose to a cedar beam, bites down on a .357 Magnum’s barrel, pulls the trigger, kicks back the chair. Blows off his jaw. Scorches brain tissue, neural pathways. Breaks both legs.

Breaks his Gibson. From his bed in the Harbor convalescent home on the hill, where he’s turned every four hours and has his diapers changed, he’s heard crying: “Mama, Mama.”

Children across the street from the Harbor build snowmen. “Stick in the carrot for the nose!” says one. They mock him. “Mama, Mama.”

Years pass, winters, Watergate. Five o’clock stubble shadows the jowls. I hear from my mother that the piano teacher had a “nervous breakdown.” Then, Saigon falling? Saigon liberated? We’re slow-dancing at the Elks Club to Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You.” Then come Aprils, Mays, when clear-voiced glee clubs sing lyrics whose lines end pleasantly — with an innocuous chill — in rhyme. I teach the children to drive by having them tail cars, like detectives do in movies, figuring it’s a skill that might come in handy. Things happen, are hidden away out of mind, things I cannot say. The thought of which causes my teeth to grind. Fear of being discovered coexists now with another greater peril — for who is not tempted? — to give oneself away.

Who killed Marilyn? Jack? Bobby? Who gave the pills, pulled the trigger(s)?

Even if she did it to herself, even if Lee did it, Sirhan Sirhan did it, were “lone killers,” even if Jack Ruby died a “natural” death, were all that proved beyond doubt, even if we could go back there, see it all with our own eyes and hear what was said, we still couldn’t be sure, couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t.

This idea of something they’re not telling us — our history — eats at us like “the crab” did my grandmother, “inside to out.” We suffer a mysterious ague. Complain of cold, vague menace. We grasp at petty coincidence and extraterrestrial trivia. We think we hear doors close. Tim one ear to millenarians proclaiming imminent Rapture, turn the other to the weathermen’s forecast.

Throw up our hands and say, “It’s a toss-up.”

The personal becomes political, and then in no time, it seems, the political became, is now personal. I find the swimmer’s name among contributors to Soldier of Fortune.

I wish, now, I hadn’t told, here, about the white boots. It seems silly. So much depends upon them. I wish I hadn’t said anything about Morrie and Georgia to my grandmother. Afterward, I was never the same. (Morrie I never heard about again. Georgia wrote a book, which wasn’t very good.)

“Secret team.” “Covert action.” “Mis-remembering.” The tendency of history these days is toward death.

When I gauge the distance between myself and another, I can easily feel hungry. I will sometimes hide my face, be sure no one sees me. We are all that way sometimes.

“I will tell you and you only” is not something I’d say anymore. What is most likely to make me feel I’ll fall in love is if someone tells me, about me, things I can’t, won’t, tell myself. Secrets I don’t know I’m keeping.

One thing you may want to know. The guitar picker in the convalescent home on the hill? He still cries out: “Mama, Mama.” Definitely, the end of the book. □

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