Read More: A brief interview with Steve Berta
Out the round window of the Boeing 737, the Ojai wildfire emerged from the night, a leering jack o’ lantern, devouring the contours of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The jet creaked and tipped. We descended into the lights of Goleta. The coastal mountain range rose up, hiding the orange horror behind the black silhouette of the ridge.
Outside, the air smelled of charred wood and an occasional whiff of kelp. It was snowing ash. The sidewalk, the grass, everything, was coated in a layer of gray. On the Uber ride home, eddies of dust swirled behind cars.
My father stood outside his bedroom door in his pajamas, an arm around his girlfriend Miriam in a satin nighty. “There’s nothing to worry about, princess,” he said to me. “It’s supposed to rain tonight. Go to bed.” He closed the bedroom door, and I shook my head. Miriam had moved in. I guessed she had piddled away her trust fund playing polo or some such.
That night it did not rain. By morning, fire peered over the ridge, hungry to devour the brittle chaparral. Luckily, the flames were still fifteen miles away. The lemon and avocado groves of the Carpinteria coastal plain separated us from the danger.
At breakfast, Miriam wore a red-and-black plaid cowboy shirt with the top three snaps unfastened. The other snaps seemed ready to pop. Dad was very attentive, planting his ridiculously puckered lips on Miriam’s. Her lashes fluttered. This was my punishment for coming home.
My father was all news and proud boasts, as usual, saying he, at least, had woken up early, taken a run, and seen a fox.
“You don’t say,” Miriam chimed in. “Red or gray?”
“It was red. A real beauty.”
“Ah!” Miriam said. She touched her lips with her index finger, and held up a finger on the other hand to keep us silent until she had masticated her french toast. “Extremely rare around here,” she continued. “I’ll let you in on a secret. The red foxes circle back and give you a cold line. The gray ones keep on. It’s the gray ones the hounds adore.”
“I doubt he’ll be circling back,” my father said. “I suspect the fire drove him down.”
We ate, quietly contemplating the fire. They both looked at me, and quickly averted their eyes. I felt like an intruder. Dad asked me if I had reconsidered law school, his veiled way of reminding me he thought journalism was a mistake, like all my other mistakes. I answered with one word: No. They exchanged a few glances. My father looked down at his plate. And so Miriam seemed to decide it was up to her to carry out the plan they had hatched.
“Please,” she said. “Fill us in on your trip, Dear.”
I had told Miriam not to call me “Dear.” Sure, I had said it in anger. It was right after mother’s funeral. So much had happened since then. But I still didn’t like it. Now I, too, looked down at my plate. I had nothing to say to them. The hard side of my mother came to me. I didn’t want to tell them what I was doing. They wouldn’t understand, anyway. They thought I was on some kind of post-graduate gap year, touring the country, possibly flitting off to Europe. And they hadn’t bothered to call.
“Is everything OK?” Miriam said.
“Everything?” I nearly shouted. I wanted her to realize exactly how outrageous it was to demand an answer for everything.
“Are you having fun?”
“No,” I said sarcastically. “Nothing seems to please me, Miriam. It’s a curse.”
“Princess, please,” my father said.
I knew I was being a little shit, but I didn’t care. “Tell me, Miriam,” I said, “does it please you to murder foxes?”
The fire turned inland. A late rain almost snuffed it. The newscasts stopped leading with the story but the tanker planes kept flying for another week. Officials announced it was under control. Three days later, Santa Anna winds sparked it back to life. It pushed west. By the end of the week, it headed south. It looked as if it would hit the coast near Mission Canyon.
Just before sunset, I drove my father’s precious Aston Martin to the cemetery. I felt as if someone was watching. I looked around, but no one was there. I remembered mother’s last days in the hospital, when she was unconscious. I would comb her hair and wash her face, and tell her how cute she looked. Once, she squeezed my hand. Now there were ashes everywhere, ashes on her grave, ashes on her headstone. I ran my hand over the top of the stone, brushing the dust away. “There, you go, Mom,” I said aloud. “You look really nice.”
“You’re Violet, aren’t you?” someone said. The voice came from behind me. It gave me such a jolt I cried out. A woman in her forties was apologizing profusely. She was plump, wearing sandals, a dozen necklaces and a multicolored silk moo-moo. She looked Greek or Turkish, with a head of wild black curls.
“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” she said. She stepped back, as if to assure me a line of escape, but her face maintained a joyful intensity.
Maybe it was the hoop earrings and the bangles, but it occurred to me she might be a medium. She said her name was Mary Godwin. She opened her hand to show me why she had come. A half dozen pebbles lay in her palm. “For the grave,” she said. “I brought them up from the beach. Your mother loved it down there.”
“Not that beach,” I said. “Not my mother.”
She touched my shoulder and smiled. “A nude beach. I see.” She stacked the pebbles on my mother’s headstone.
A column of black smoke darkened the horizon. Mary Godwin said she wished she could stay and chat but she had to go. I followed her to her car.
I asked how she knew my mother.
“I believe I’ve read everything she ever published,” Mary Godwin said. “I thought she was brilliant.” She quoted a passage, “It was love’s pain that made my life so much more than a dream.” She said it was her favorite. I didn’t recognize it. All the same, I agreed it was beautiful.
Mary Godwin stooped into a battered old Audi, started the engine, put it in gear. She rolled down the window and said goodbye.
“Did you know her?” I said. “Or were you just a fan?”
“I feel I did, yes.”
“You feel you did?”
“Yes,” she said. “I did.” She backed out of the parking space, and the car started rolling forward. I waved goodbye. The brake lights came on. Her head poked out the window and looked back. “We were in love,” she shouted. “I can’t tell you how much I miss her.”
And she drove away.
I stood in the parking lot, staring into space. A swarm of gray ashes floated toward the beach. My mother was still dying. In the hospital it had begun. Her eyes sunk in, and I saw the shape of her skull. I could not bear the physical truth. Even now, I didn’t dare contemplate the monster taking shape beneath the cemetery grass. But she wasn’t done yet: the stories kept changing her.
I remembered the funeral, when my Uncle Bill declared to a group of aunts and cousins that his sister, my mother, had been just plain mean. To put down the laughter, he said, “No! I mean it! She was. I loved her, but my sister was the deadliest woman alive.” I had stared into space then, too, unable to reconcile his words with the woman who had supported me in my every desire. Yet somehow I couldn’t persuade myself it was he who didn’t know her. There was the Mexican man; she had paid for his eye surgery. The screen writers; they clinked glasses to “the voice of Sixties idealism” and chuckled cruelly. A gray civil rights lawyer with a Brooklyn accent had actually said: “Your mother was the one who got DeVon James out of prison, not me.”
Each of these statements inspired a little shock, a reassessment. A little tremor of doubt. A question I could no longer ask her. And all such questions coalesced into the image of shards of glass sparkling in the moonlight on a marble floor. I had tried to put the memory of that night out of my mind, not so much because it was disturbing, although it was, but because it did not fit with anything I had known before or experienced of her since. I was nine. My babysitter had fallen asleep, but I had gotten into the Mountain Dew and stayed up, talking into the recorder my mother had given me to use as a diary. Really, I was just waiting. When I heard the car, I peeked out my bedroom door. Father walked in first, tearing the bow tie from his tuxedo. “Did you have to tell that story?” he asked. And mother said something like, “oh not this again,” which stopped me in my tracks.
“Why don’t you like that story?” she said.
“I come off as a jerk. Now Stu has that for leverage, too.”
“We were young,” she said. “I thought you were so romantic.”
“You only tell it when you’re drunk,” my father said.
“I’m not drunk.”
They paid the babysitter. I ran out from behind my door. Mother scooped me up joyously and kissed my cheeks. She smelled of alcohol. She and father exchanged gazes and mother carried me upstairs, sang to me, and I pretended to go to sleep. But their voices murmured in the walls as if the house itself were mumbling. The conversation was rapid and intense, hard to ignore. So I picked up the recorder, tip-toed onto the balcony, gripped the rails, and turned it on.
A decade later, on a visit home from college, I found that recorder in a box in my closet. I took it with me not remembering what was on it. It was a kind of relic. It sat on my desk for months. After mother died, I opened a new package of batteries, and listened. The daily entries were more mundane than I remembered, my voice higher, the recording flat as a black-and-white photo, my observations mimicked lines from movies. But I was transported back in time. I had forgotten so much, it somehow seemed new. I did not remember holding the mic against my lips and whispering, “OK, it’s me, Violet. And I’m going out there to spy on them.”
Out my window at Berkeley, students crossed the street carrying books, but for all practical purposes I was back on that balcony. I couldn’t see my parents. Their voices echoed up from an unseen room, probably the dining area overlooking the pool. Ice cubes chinked into a glass, one, then another. My father begged her to stop and she told him not to patronize her.
“Ok, but I have to ask you something,” my father said.
“That night we met, and Rachael stepped away, and you asked that question, if I was brave enough to love two people, who was the other man in your life?”
“There was no other man.”
“Come on, who were you with when we met? You know who I was with. Rachael was sitting right there, staring you in the face.”
“No, she was droning on about your prospects. You were staring me in the face, or I wouldn’t have asked you that question.”
“And after I went back to your apartment, didn’t I dump her?”
“A year later.”
“I called off our engagement.”
“But you tried to love us both for a year, didn’t you?”
“No, I called it off.”
“So, in other words, you tried, but you weren’t brave enough, right?” she said.
“The question is: were you?” […]
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Steve Berta is a newspaper editor and newsroom writing coach who is best known as the editor of the team that broke the Larry Nassar child sexual abuse scandal that is currently engulfing USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Read More: A brief interview with Steve Berta