Outside in the bright April day, the hair-flattening, laundry-cracking wind
pounced madly on the house, shaking it so the walls creaked. Clair imagined it roaring up
alleys and wet, moldy walkways, clearing away winter’s stenches like a woman with a
boisterous broom. She meandered lazily down the stairs, leaning against the wall,
hearing/feeling the muffled roaring and whistling. Down from the empty third floor
where she liked to stand, soaking up the vaguely tempting solitude, to the second, where
her bedroom stood at the end of the corridor, across the narrow hall from a room with a
bath and sink, and a toilet room. Beside her room was a small rented suite, and at the
other end of the hallway, door closed, was the big room rented by the fat lady, the room
that looked over the street far below. The fat lady came from Clair’s Mom’s work. Clair’s
Mom said she was a friend “helping out” by renting the room. And under the stairs, the
small suite occupied by two men who were now arguing loudly. “You fucking cunt,” one
said to the other. “You fucking cunt. We’ve got to go there right now and get it, or your
ass is fucking grass. What the – you cock sucker! Didn’t you think I’d learn about this?
Did you think I was stupid? Let’s go! Let’s go!”
She froze, then slipped back into the stairwell. But no one came out. A bottle
crashed and smashed.
Claire flitted quickly past the door, to the landing, to run downstairs. It was
Saturday, and she could run to wherever she wanted. But the huge lady from the front
room stood puffing, on the top step, blocking Clair’s way. She had a blue print dress on
and a heavy coat, unbuttoned. Despite her fat round face, she had a blocked, blunt, angry
look that never went away. Her cheeks were pink and soft, with gray fuzz on them. A
moustache blackened her upper lip.
“Oh!” Claire said.
“Oh, sure,” the fat lady said.
They stood looking at each other. Claire looked at her because she had so much
flesh, as if she harbored some secret about abundant flesh. She was big and huge, with
legs like strange mushrooming pink-mottled monsters. Clair did not know what this
friend of her mother’s wanted, how she felt, what she really thought. She only felt the
distaste and anger flow from her, and saw the vague red/pink shimmer around her head
and shoulders. Today it was pink, though she was sweating. Clair wondered why it
wasn’t red if she was sweating, and began to suspect the shimmer wasn’t a physical
indicator. The fat lady’s distaste and anger offended her a little, but it also made Clair
curious. She must have been curious about Clair, too, because she stood as quietly as
Clair, looking bluntly back at her.
“Take these to my room,” she said. Lifting her big arms from the dead-hang
they’d been in, she held out two bags. Clair took them; they weren’t heavy, about the
weight of a few potatoes. She went quickly along the hall to the huge lady’s room, and
tried to open the door.
The huge lady walked down the hall. “Yes, I had a lock put on,” she said as she
waddled up to stand behind Clair. She stared at Clair a moment, harshly. “A lock to keep
you out.” She breathed heavily, keeping Clair almost pinned against the door.
“Here’s my key.” She pulled her hand from her coat pocket and dangled a key
ring. Clair took it wordlessly. This was new to her. The huge lady had never instructed
her to open her door. Nor had it been locked before. Clair knew that, and knew what the
room looked like, because she had been in it before, when no one was home. Her friend,
Alice, had convinced her to go in, and they had fingered the huge lady’s do-dads, and
looked at her two photographs. Alice had said, “Hey, look!” and had sprayed hair spray
in Clair’s eyes, and Clair couldn’t see for a few minutes, and Alice ran away.
She opened the door without loosing the bags.
“Do you want the bags inside?”
“Just get in.”
Clair felt guilty about going in the room; felt that she should pretend she had
never been in here before, but looking around in surprise would be phony, like acting.
She took the bags to the bed and put them on the pink terry cloth bedcover.
The huge lady closed the door.
Twenty minutes later, Clair ran down the stairs to the main floor where her
mother lived. Her mother’s room had windows that looked out on the wide front porch.
Clair had snuck into all these rooms once or twice, after feigning sickness to avoid
school. Her mother kept boxes of paper from her job under the bed. Her mother worked
Monday to Friday, then sat, most nights, curled on the couch with a paperback and a
chocolate bar. Today she was doing laundry, her white arms red and steaming in the
enclosed back porch. Clair didn’t have to help. Her mother would rather work than
socialize with her.
Clair went through the cold living room, the cold kitchen, past her mother, out the
back door, down the wooden steps, and into the back yard. She looked up at the house,
towering stories above her. She shouted in the wind, in her mind, “Go away!” to the two
drunken men in the room under the stairs. But she had nothing in her mind to say to the
huge lady. Her color had changed, for a few minutes, the shimmering color, to a sort of
blackness. Clair looked up, to the far-away peak of the roof. There was a pigeon’s nest
there. She searched the grass and found two more dead baby birds, just like the one
yesterday, wet and heavy, featherless bodies and bare heads with large swollen eyes. A
gray, wet aura seemed to surround them.
Clair knew something was happening to her, because when she went to the corner
and shimmied up the black iron street sign pole, then hung onto the two signs, 4th Ave.
and Clever St., and pulled herself up the pole, then slowly let herself sink, then pulled
herself up again, her legs grew weak and an unfamiliar sweetness swept up through her
legs and her privates. She liked it so much she did it whenever the urge occurred, or
whenever she remembered, which was about once a week or two. But when a man came
along and looked queerly at her last week, she stopped doing it, and hadn’t done it since.
She didn’t really think about it.
“Sit down a minute,” the huge lady had breathed, closing the door of her room.
There were only two places to sit, other than on the bed. One was a large, upholstered
cushiony chair, the other was a bare, straw, straight-backed chair. Clair chose the bare
chair, and sat straight.
The huge lady bent, struggling, legs apart, to put the potatoes in a small wooden
door that, Clair knew, had a wire mesh to the outside. It was a cooler; there was no fridge.
She propped herself to full height, then the cans in the cupboard.
“Want a pop?”
“No thank you.”
“Come here. I want you to see something.” Clair stood. The fat lady pulled her
dress up and sat on the edge of the bed and watched Clair. Suddenly she jerked her dress
up to her chest, so her huge brassiere and the massive trunks of her large legs showed.
Big pink splotches pinto’d the white curdled flesh. Clair froze.
“Are you stupid? I want you to help me. Help me, damn you.”
“What?” Clair said.
“Can you see my underpants?”
Clair looked away from the massive trunk legs; away from the fat lady, to stare at
the small sink and the tiny grey mirror above it. The huge legs and fat overhang of her
stomach almost made the white panties disappear, but she had seen part of them, a tiny
white slimness down there, in her memory, as she whipped her head away. She said
“Help me take them off. I can’t reach.”
“No, I think you can,” Clair said quietly, reasoning.
“Come here,” the fat lady said with a wooden, blunt but forceful voice. Clair
turned automatically and saw the lady was carefully looking at the horizon, the wall, still
holding her dress chest-high. This was when Clair saw the blackness shimmering around
“Touch my legs.”
Clair stayed frozen.
“Don’t you want to know what it’s like to be a woman?” the huge lady said
angrily, glaring at her. “You’ll be a woman soon, but you don’t have a clue. You’re queer
and dreamy, and you’ll never grow up if you keep acting stupid like this. You’ll never
learn if you’re such a coward.” She kept her dress lifted.
Clair saw the blackness thickening around the fat woman’s head and shoulders,
and a deep, dark red beneath it, closer to her skull. For a moment, she forgot the huge
lady had hair.
“Come on, you’ll see what a woman looks like. What you’ll look like when you
grow up. Pull my pants to one side, and you’ll see. Hurry up, I haven’t got all day.”
“No,” Clair said hesitantly.
The huge lady lowered her arms and placed her dress back onto her thighs, even
covering her knees. She looked at Clair. “So you are a coward. I thought you were
braver. I thought you were growing up. You think I’ll tell on you. You think I’ll tell your
mother. Well, genius, your mother asked me to show you. She asked me to do this. She
couldn’t very well show you hers, could she? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing? So she
wanted you to feel in here and see what this is, and what it does.”
Clair didn’t move or speak. She’s giving up, Clair thought, as, slowed by her
bulk, the fat lady she rose from the bed and its pink terry cloth bedspread. Clair breathed,
ready to leave. But suddenly the huge lady turned completely, her back to Clair, lifted her
dress high, right up above her head, so she was naked except for the straps of her
brassiere and a white broadness of panties, and fell on the bed face down. The bed
moaned loudly as a stepped-on cat. Her huge thighs and the jelly bowl of her buttocks
jiggled as she hit. Then she lay still.
“Come closer,” she said quietly, through the bed cover, her breath weaker. Clair,
perhaps because she felt safer, stepped toward the bed.
“Take them off…take them off…” the huge lady said. “Then you can play with
me all you want.” She said quietly, “You can do anything to me, I won’t see, and I won’t
say anything. Touch me.”
Clair put a hand on the big, white-panted bum. The cotton pants were moist and
“See what you want. See what you want,” she said slowly, puffing.
******** ****** ************** *****************
“Tell those fools to come in here,” the huge lady said to Clair. Her impatient
voice was back. Claire knew she meant the men under the stairs. Clair didn’t really know
why the men were in the house, not how much rent they paid, nor if they even paid, nor
who invited them in. She supposed her mother had rented the room out last week, but her
mother said nothing, and Clair just avoided them.
She went out and knocked on the men’s door.
“Yeah?” came the disemboweled reply, like a question from the inside of a cave,
or spoken into a jar. But Clair didn’t answer. She turned. The huge lady hadn’t come to
the hallway to speak for herself, or even to her room’s door, which stood half shut. Clair
found that odd, though she couldn’t quite grasp why. She couldn’t quite see the meanings
of the actions that went on between adults.
“What?” One of the men bent over in the doorway, peering at her. His breath
stank sharp. He was older than Clair’s Mom, and had a grisly grey stubble on his cheeks
and chin. He was fairly handsome.
Clair pointed at the huge lady’s room, and backed away quickly to the landing,
right up to the far wall of the landing, to watch and to stay out of all their paths. The man,
perhaps not as drunk as she thought, walked rather than staggered down the hall. He
walked with a swagger and a bit of a lurch, though, and reached the door quickly and
shoved it in – all the way open, with his shoulder, quickly, without any thought. This
made Clair’s eyes open wider.
The other man came quickly out, turned and padlocked his door and swept past
Clair as if she didn’t exist, running swiftly and drunkenly down the stairs. He fell at the
bottom, tripping over the last few stairs, and stayed motionless for a moment on the floor
below, then he staggered to his feet and the front door slammed. Then the other man
came out from the huge lady’s room, lurched to the door under the stairs, saw and
grabbed the padlock, cursed without stopping under his breath, then turned and went
crashing silently down the stairs, after the first man.
She heard yelling outside, then a couple of grunts and shouts, then a deep silence
followed by a long, repeated moaning. She wondered what her Mom would think of this
drunkenness. Maybe it scared her, and that’s why she didn’t throw them out. Maybe she
owed them the room, because they’d paid the rent. Why was she washing clothes, as if
nothing was happening? Then, with a crash of boots and doors, the pursuing man came
clambering up the stairs again. He was red-faced and sweating, he looked determined, he
hardly glanced at Clair, he went straight to his door, yanked the padlock, then kicked the
door several times. He stopped; he muttered to himself.
He turned, looked at Clair. “I got him.” He stared at her stupidly. “I got him,” he
said again. Then he seemed to have a despairing, hopeless thought; then his thinking
deepened, then his brow furrowed into a deep frown, then he turned slowly and stepped
heavily down the hall to the huge lady’s room. For some reason, the door didn’t close.
She heard arguing from the fat lady’s room.
“You tricked me, you fucking bitch – didn’t you? So naw – now I had to kick his
fucking head in. He’s lying out there now. And it’s all your fault, isn’t it?” She heard
silence, then she heard, “You’ll never see another fucking day, you fat cunt, unless I –
UNTOUCHED – my… STASH.”
“Oh shut up. What could you own, you drunk. Shut up.”
After a minute, or ten – Clair looked and the sunlight had changed, crept along the
wall of the landing to touch her arm. She looked at her arm, the little blonde hairs
gossamer in the sun, then looked up, at the huge lady’s door. She went downstairs slowly.
She looked up at the peak of the sharp roof, high and wild in the cloud-strewing
blue sky, and wondered about sitting up there. The wind moaned like a cat around the
house’s sharp peak. It roared cold around the house and over her ears. From up there, she
would be able to see the world bending in the wind. The house was four stories tall, so
from that peak she could see the entire world, probably. But remembering the dead
pigeon babies made her think of falling from the top of the roof. So she climbed the
cherry tree in the back yard. She climbed to the very top, and wrapped her legs around
the top vertical limb. It was as thick as a man’s arm. Trembling white blossoms
surrounded her. She swayed in the exhilarating wind, and she could see everything, not
over the rooftop but past its side slope. The wind pounced on her in gusts, and she
delighted in fighting it, joyously holding tight and riding through each gust. She could see
one whole side of the roof and every red shingle. She could see out and out, over the
neighborhoods of houses and trees, down the hill, over several hills and parts of the city,
and out far beyond, to indistinguishable lands. She felt like a captain, conquering the
world, a pirate explorer on a boat, tossing in the waves.
Climbing down, she assumed a branch was there when it wasn’t, and she leaned
absently to grab it, but it wasn’t there, and she fell with a crackling swoosh. She lay on
the ground. She tried to call out, but she was winded, and only a whisper came:
She felt her mother, and saw the drunken man lifting her into a small car, a
Volkswagen. Her arm sang with pain, higher than soprano. They set her wrist at the
hospital, but she kept seeing oddly. Her mother told her later she had fallen on a fence
made of broomsticks; one had pierced her left eye. And when she fell, her mother told
her, as a joke to make her feel better, she had landed on a garter snake, and crushed it.
The doctors operated twice, but the eye failed. For months after, even though she only
had one eye, she saw double, and she couldn’t tell – at least for the first months – whether
the colors she saw around people were real, or shimmerings of her smashed vision. The
“double eye” possessed a strange yet strangely useless quality: it could see both close up
and very far away. For instance, she could almost read a page of a book someone was
holding two blocks away at the bus stop. She could see the text, even the letters and the
kind of type, and the colour and texture of the fingers holding it; it all looked clear and
plain to her, small black letters on a white page. Yet she could not make out the story; at
moments it seemed to be about a ship sailing on a sunny ocean; then about a woman
baking apples in a lost cottage in the English countryside; and then, some other situation
that she couldn’t quite grasp, that teased her with wordless hints.
A week after the fall, she found the garter snake in the grass, crushed, right where
she’d landed. The carcass was glassy and stiff, bright and intricate.
Clair became a watcher; or always had been. Everything – people, streets, the
back vegetable garden – became colorful, but flat. She could not tell how far away or
how close anyone was, whether she was at home or at school. It was like watching a
movie. She knew she had light, wispy blonde hair, almost white hair. But looking in the
mirror, she couldn’t tell whether she was attractive or not. No boy asked her out. It did
not occur to her that she never flirted. The fat lady left her alone, and once smashed one
of the drunken men across the ear when he had cornered Claire in the upstairs hall. Claire
thought she had screamed but she wasn’t sure. The huge lady smashed him so hard the
drunk fell down and looked at Clair accusingly and entreatingly, with tears in his eyes, as
if Clair had dealt him the blow. He never bothered Clair again; he’d walk past her with
his head down. But the fat lady asked her to visit once more. Clair said no, and shook her
head, and backed away with the patch over her eye.
In her early twenties, Claire discovered “meaning.” Life had a meaning; things
meant something. The meaning was more important than the thing itself. Claire was
exhilarated, and spent hour after hour talking with another girl about meaning, and even
more hours alone, discovering meaning in cards and pendulums and books about magic
and about the secret origins of an Atlantis super-race that seeded humanity. Almost by
accident, Clair began to gain friends – actually, acquaintances – by reading their fortunes
in cards. It was the early 1970’s and hippie days and Clair’s interests had gained her a
niche in the social current, like a salmon in the Pacific Stream. But she did not dress as a
hippie, and she was worried enough about her tendency to see afar, and another quirk that
sometimes assailed her – to not know whether she had spoken or not – that she did not do
One man, a fairly good-looking man, Clair thought, trying to appraise his face as
if she were one of her friends, judging him that way because she didn’t know any other
way. She remained unsure whether he was good-looking or not, whether those shiny
brown eyes and thick brown hair and large nose were handsome or mildly misshapen.
She just couldn’t tell. He seemed to fall in love with her, as he lay knee-crooked on her
carpeted floor, discussing meaning and Madame Blavatsky and divination. But Clair
wouldn’t let him open her thighs, though with some struggle he inserted both his hands
flat, as if praying, between her legs. They tussled for some minutes on the dirty, colorful
carpet. Initially Clair was too frightened to be aroused, but, puzzled by their silent
struggle, by the strange, heightened image of her room, of herself, of him, of the world,
of what he was, puzzled by the room and why they were in this silent, grim wrestling
match, and not knowing whether he was good or bad, whether God wanted this or not,
whether this was the beginning of love or not, these hands between her thighs – why was
life hugely pressing on her this day and letting his tough shoulders and grunts exist? And
why did he wear those pants, and what did those shoes mean? Was that her thigh? What
did that thigh mean? The air itself puzzled her, and the dim sunlight in the room, they
pressed upon her like a sensual blanket that suffocated yet awakened her, puzzled and
numbed her – she let the tussle continue because there wasn’t an immediate answer. After
some minutes her physical fear faded, and she began to feel the old sweet climbing-thestreet-
sign-poles sensation crawling up her thighs and midriff. She wanted more of this
sensation, but she was not sure she wanted to be a mother (with one eye, fat and
abandoned with a large child). So she kept him suspended in her paralysis, until he gave
up and went away.
In her thirties and forties Clair became a popular café card reader. The local daily
printed a large picture of her, and a long article with a very short biography. “Madame
Clair.” Shyly, she went to a television station and asked to be on tv. She showed them the
newspaper article. The managing producer laughed at her.
“Well it’s a scam, isn’t it?” he said almost warmly, as if he admired her gall.
“Something either happens or it doesn’t, so you’ve always got a chance to be 50 per cent
right, and you sluff off your mistakes – Don’t you?” He winked, made happy by her
passivity, Clair thought.
Before she even spoke, his disbelief had defeated her. But she pushed on. She said
quietly, “Well if there was… if I said there would be a President named Bush, that
wouldn’t be fifty-fifty, because there are so many other names.”
“A president, named Bush? How do you get that? Haw, haw!”
“Or bushy eyebrows,” she said.
He looked at her with a quizzical frown, his humor gone. “Okay, if a man named
Bush becomes the next president, I’ll hire you. But I have to tell you, Ronald Reagan will
She let her head fall in humility. “I think there’ll be a war…I saw tan uniforms in
a tent…they’ll attack on the Atlantic side… I don’t believe it either, really, but…”
“Try radio,” he said firmly, holding the door open.
Crushed, she never tried again. She had the blind eye, and she knew it must look
shameful on television.
But she labored on with her job – card-reading – and earned enough to buy herself
a new little Mercedes on her forty-fifth birthday. That was the year her mother died. She
hadn’t visited her mother much – twice a year, from a sense of duty that she didn’t really
feel. At night, sometimes, she would dream – or in the café, when she didn’t have a
client, she would daydream – sometimes – rarely, actually – that she was throwing herself
on a bed face first, holding her dress waist-high, showing her bum and saying, “Touch
me. You can wiggle it in. You can wiggle anything in there that you want.” And this
would make a sweet sickness crawl up her thighs and her privates and into her stomach.
After she bought the Mercedes she didn’t often see the shimmering around
people. It was as if the bright sparkling car blinded her. And often when the little images
would come, in the past, when a person sat down in her restaurant booth, or the images
that came like tiny light kisses on her mind when she closed her eye(s) – an image of
London, say, and she would say, “Have you been to London?” and the client’s mouth
would drop open – these images stopped coming. She became impatient with her clients,
and nervous, and sometimes she couldn’t think when she saw the cards, what they meant.
When she reached fifty, food began to bore her. She became impatient with
eating, as if she had something else to do. She ravenously devoured five or six
newspapers a day. Then newspapers bored her. At fifty-two, she thought: “I am terribly
Clair sat on a rock about twelve feet below the shoulder of the San Juan Road.
Her feet were on another rock. She was reading a discarded newspaper on the other side
of the valley, where it had been thrown. She made out all the letters, but she couldn’t
catch the meaning, the story. This time, she thought, she would stay until she knew.
Below stretched the hazy vastness of the valley.
The police arrived. Her arms and legs were like sticks. She had lost all her flesh.
When they asked her questions, she just waved her arm wearily at them. She was so light,
one of the cops lifted her up like a bundle of dry firewood and carried her up the steep
rocks to the road.
They fed her intravenously in the hospital.
Later, she went home, and forgot to eat until she disappeared.