When Mattie moved in, Angela, who called herself a Newj, for New Age Jew, flew up to perform an exorcism, a deep-smoke smudge with Native American herbs that made the house smell for days as if the Grateful Dead had been practicing in the garage.
After the first autumn rains, Mattie discovered just how much damage her mother had been disguising over the years with paint and caulking and cabinets. Isa had evidently installed cabinets wherever rot or cracks or mold had appeared. So there were cabinets everywhere, which was great for storage. But if you removed even one section, you discovered that behind the shelves were moldy patches of Sheetrock, exposed live wires in broken sockets, ugly swatches of bore beetle infestation. Mattie shuddered to think what was behind the cabinets in the damper areas--the garage and laundry room.
The rats' scratching grew louder. She asked her mother to pay for an exterminator. Mattie was barely getting by with child support and a little extra from Nicky and the money she made as a fit model for Sears: she was a perfect size 12. But she had forgotten to get an education.
"Oh, for Chrissakes," Isa had said when Mattie asked her for the money. "What is it with you? Why don't you count your blessings for a change?" Mattie did count her blessings, all the time. She always had. She'd always believed in a freelance God, but kept it to herself, as her parents and brother were devout atheists. A few years into her marriage, she'd found a church nearby, where she staggered like Monsieur Hulot into a relationship with Jesus. And she had come out of the closet as a believer. Her brother referred to it as her blind spot. Her mother refused to discuss it, as if Mattie believed in pyramid power. Mattie didn't care. She thanked God several times a day for what she had, and trusted Him for what she needed. She thanked Him for two healthy children, for her church, for a house with a yard. She thanked God for helping her finally get out of her marriage, and for helping her more or less survive the pain of Angela's leaving. She even thanked God for giving her such a difficult mother, because she believed that while it had been nearly life-threatening to survive Isa's mothering, the price she and Al had paid was exactly what it cost to become who they were. She thanked God, and her mother, for giving her Al. And she prayed to accept and believe that she had everything she needed. But she also had rats.
Ella lay in her crib one afternoon playing with her belly button, in the room where Mattie had grown up. Ella had just woken from the nap she took every day after a vigorous morning at day care. Mattie couldn't take her eyes off Ella-her blond hair, pudgy limbs, sweet and self-sufficient character. When Ella was born, she'd been colicky and had to suckle all the time; when she wasn't nursing, she'd needed to suck on Mattie's fingers. She'd graduated to a pacifier for a while, then found her thumb. The discovery of her belly button at a year and a half had marked the start of a new relationship, one of pleasure and comfort.
Whenever her shirt and pants gaped open, she'd put her finger inside. She twiddled the belly button, played it as if thumping the twangy connection between her and her mother, her belly a guitar.
Her belly button was an extra sense organ: if something had a nice texture, if it was slippery, say, or warm, she put it against her tummy; her voice would grow thick and furry, and she would say clearly, as if there could be any mistake, "My belly." Mattie had to make sure she had access through her clothes so she could find it. When she did, her whole body went soft and she let out a sigh.
Mattie reached down in the crib and lifted Ella out. "Let's go make something with blocks. Harry will be home soon, and we'll have grilled cheese sandwiches." Both of them missed Harry when he was at school--he had just started first grade--but life was much more peaceful in the hours when he was gone. Harry was busy, and loud, and lived in movement. He took life by the throat and shook it. He had his father's temper, his gift for instilling fear in others. He'd made an instant friend of the boy who lived next door, right after they'd arrived in the house. While she walked one afternoon with Ella and Harry, Mattie had noticed a towheaded boy, a year or so younger than Harry, in costume chain mail, a wooden sword dangling from his belt, in the yard next door. He'd been watering a hydrangea bush, as his blonde mother watched from the back step with a dish towel draped over her shoulder. Mattie stopped and waved to the mother, and the boy had whipped around, still holding the hose, so that Ella and Mattie had been sprayed. The mother had come running, with everyone laughing but Ella. Mattie wiped Ella's face with her T-shirt while Ella tried to decide whether to cry, and the boy's mother handed Mattie the dish towel. The two boys faced off, staring at each other as if seeing themselves in a mirror.
From Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, Copyright © October 2002, Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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