An Excerpt From
A Guide to Being Born
THE GRANDMOTHERS—dozens of them—find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there. It seems to be afternoon, the glare from the sun keeps them squinting. They wander carefully, canes and orthotics, across the slippery metal deck of the ship, not built for human passage but for cargo. Huge shipping crates are stacked at bow and stern. The grandmothers do not know what it means. Are we dead? they ask one another. Are we dying? Every part of the ship is metal, great sheets and hand-sized rivets. Cranes and transverses and bulkheads and longitudinals—all metal. All painted white and now splayed with the gray stars of gull droppings.
Among the many hunched backs and stockinged legs, there is a woman named Alice, who finds the nicest bench and sits down on it. The bench looks out at the horizon, that line drawn by the eye to make an ending where there is not one. Alice is a lover of views, of great expanses, and she is happy now as she has always been, to look out. She thinks of her children on faraway spits of land. They have their studios and paints, their meditation cushions, their cars in need of oil changes and their grocery lists. She thinks about her one new great-granddaughter whom she has never met but who she hopes is wrapped in the gray blanket she knit.
Around Alice there are varying levels of commotion and flurry. Does anyone have a compass? Do you know how to drive a ship? Where is my nurse? I’m from the DC area!
There are some grandmothers who try to escape immediately. They get in a rescue craft tied to the side of the ship and sit holding their pocketbooks, waiting patiently to be lowered down to the tattered blue. Their faces become wet with wind-water, but they are not lowered. Their hairdos begin to wilt, but still, they do not get lowered.
There is the group of ladies whose eye makeup travels in dark tracks down cheeks; the group of proactive grandmothers who have taken scraps of paper and pens from their pocketbooks and are brainstorming a list of suggestions, diagramming these suggestions in order of popularity and feasibility. In front of Alice is the group of rememberers, recounting as if centuries had passed, their lives. It used to be so easy, they remember at high volume due to a common loss of hearing. There were lovely smooth roads, and it was possible to get in the car and drive to different places where the pancakes were especially good, where the coffee was flown in from Italy.
But even in this situation, extraordinary and new, even with the churning ocean surrounding them completely, many of the grandmothers make small talk. They compliment each other’s earrings. Are those pearls freshwater? The color reminds me of the curtains my mother bought on a trip to Bangkok, where she met the princess, if you can believe that.
Alice is joined by someone whose name she does not even listen to. The woman says, “You are from Chicago, you say. How is Chicago this time of year?”
“Well, it’s very cold on one day and then it’s very warm the next day.”
“And your children, what do they do?”
“I have two painters, a woodworker and a writer.”
“How interesting,” the woman says. “Mine are all lawyers. I have six.”
“My father was a lawyer.” Alice smiles. “It was a terrible way to grow up. I’m glad none of mine went that way.” The woman’s facial muscles seem to harden but are subverted by the skin hanging soft, always, no matter how tight her smile or her frown.
“It’s possible I’m dead,” Alice says, looking at the differing blues of sky and water.
“I’m sorry.” Though the woman is looking at Alice, she seems to be most sorry for herself.
Alice nods. “Yes, I guess I might have died. Or be dying.” She remembers a hospital room and behind the bed a wall of machines, each emitting a very distinct beep that would draw a different nurse with a different tool. One brought Linda with a suction pump that gathered, painfully, the mucus from Alice’s lungs. One brought Kera with a new bag of liquid food to be attached to the feeding tube. The room was always half dark, permanent evening. At all times at least one of her relatives was in the room.
Uneasily, the woman comforts, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Alice nods again and stretches her legs out, covered in the skin of stockings, and wiggles her feet at the ends.
“Am I dead too, then?”
“I don’t know. Did you die?” Alice asks.
“I don’t remember dying.”
“Well, maybe you didn’t.”
UNDER THE SETTING SUN, the ship is stained red. The deck looks like a high school cafeteria with small clusters of ladies huddled close together, constellated out over the surface. They remember to worry about things they had forgotten to worry about at first. The slippery surface is of great concern to many who fear the breaking of hips. They fret over husbands, who have been left at home with nothing in the refrigerator. Cats are likely pawing the heavy legs of couches. The couches will never survive the absence of the grandmothers. This will be the end of the couches. They talk about this. They huddle against the wind.
Some grandmothers who are quiet in the huddles do not have these things to go back to. Some have not turned off their televisions in years, not in the morning or at night. They have freezers full of food ready-packed for quick eating, and the dents in the cushions where they sit all day, their faces dimming and brightening in the light, are severe. The dents do not re-puff, because they do not have a chance to do so. They are always under-butt. These grandmothers nervously check their watches still set to home-time, knowing that right now, right at this moment when the sun is falling, Pat Sajak is about to welcome them, with the help of his generous audience, to Wheel!
Of! Fortune! Even though they will miss this television evening, those grandmothers, the ones with no one, are not so sorry to be here at sea with so many warm bodies.
While they trade stories of survival, the proactive grandmothers who have no time for idle worrying are on a mission to find out what is inside the crates on deck. A set of bolt cutters has been discovered in the engine room. The engines were discovered there as well but were much too complicated to operate, so the ship continues to float, unrumbling.
These women have been in strange situations before. “In Bermuda,” someone says, fingering the gold buttons on her cardigan, “right in the middle of our perfect vacation, a hurricane hit and we had to take the little girl who sold shell jewelry into our hotel room for two straight days. Poor thing had never had a Pepsi cola before,” she recalls. “Can you imagine?” the fellow proactive grandmothers marvel.
Alice, meanwhile, walks the edge of the boat, passing a lady whose hands are busy clenching. “Hullo,” she says, nodding to the woman, the rail holder. The look she gets is a short, hopeful one, one that wants to see a man, any man, but a man in uniform especially. Any man in uniform with some kind of list. When she looks up to see another sagging female, she deflates.
Alice has been on a lot of boats. While she runs her hand along the railing, she remembers the first time and the last— love early, love late. When she was seventeen years old, after an expensive wedding at her parents’ country house with none of her friends in attendance, she spent the first week as a wife on a sloop off the coast of Rhode Island. The first night, after navigating out of a very tricky harbor in a storm, her victorious husband came into the cabin where Alice was curled up. The small boat tossed in the heavy wind.
“I would rather we went back,” she managed. “We’re very far away from anything.”
“The tide is against us. The dangerous thing would be to go back,” he began, drying his glasses on a towel.
She insisted—she told him she couldn’t stand it out there. “Please,” she said.
He put the sail up and started the journey back. Alice, inside, did not see the work he did to take her in. She did not see the boat list and scoop water onto his bare feet.
With the sound of the dock squeaking against the hull, they lay side by side, he reading by candlelight, she pretending to sleep, with only two ropes holding them steady.
In the morning she tried to be a wife. She got an egg from the small icebox and cracked it into the pan, but the yolk broke and bled. The yellow heart ran rivers over the white. She turned the heat off and left it there, dying. Alice jumped in the water in her nightgown and swam to the small dinghy attached to the hull of their boat, where she bobbed, her clothes sucked to her body.
“What are you doing?” her husband yelled when he found her. She did not answer. He reeled her craft in until it knocked against his. “Did you swim out?” he asked, putting his hands on her wet head. “You could have put on a bathing suit.”
“I am not a good wife.”
“You can learn.” They sat in silence, the sound of water dripping off her and landing in the belly of the vessel. “You stay here in your own little ship. You don’t have to be anybody’s wife here. I’ll go make myself something to eat.” He patted her and returned to his own boat, letting her rope go until she drifted back out to the maximum ten feet. The sea was a flat sheet going on until it couldn’t anymore, until the sky pinned it down.
This was the beginning of a marriage that would continue into her fifties, when he left for good to start another family. She is sorry that she was not the one who pressed herself up against him to keep him warm when he was dying. Instead they corresponded by mail, and twice she sat on the porch swing outside his house with him and they talked about their children and their grandchildren, those lives they had made together, while his wife kept herself busy in the house.
Her second marriage was also more than thirty years long. He had said, “Please, there is no reason not to marry me. I am smart and kind and I will do the dishes.” This wedding, just like the first, took place at her parents’ house, only this time she was driven off in a golf cart instead of put on a sailboat.
They were retired for almost the entire duration, and for years before he died, they traveled often by freighter, where they were the only two paying passengers, sitting together on deck and doing the Jumble while the crew called commands to one another. Her husband couldn’t see well as he got old, so she’d narrate the journey for him. “On the left there is an old fishing shack. It has fallen down on one side and the porch now hangs into the water. There are vines pulling it under. Two big birds are standing on the roof.”
“Are they egrets?” he wanted to know.
“No, they are great blue herons.”
“Oh, I was picturing egrets.”
“Well, they aren’t. But they are very nice-looking.”
“I’m sure they are. I was just picturing egrets.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now because that shack has passed. Now we are coming to a town. There are three little girls standing in the mud in their bathing suits, waving. Do you hear them calling to us?”
“Sort of.” They both listened hard, the young voices making their way over the surface of the water.
“Do they have bicycles?” he asked.
“Why would they have bicycles?”
“Or fishing poles? How did they get there?”
“They just have hands. They are only trying to say hello.”
“Well, hello then!” he called back. “Hello!” The two of them called together, their arms working back and forth like a pair of windshield wipers, trying to clear the view ahead.
WHEN ALICE’S CIRCUMNAVIGATION takes her around to the bow of the ship, she finds the proactive grandmothers surrounding the crates like flies. They are furious with curiosity about what is inside, what they are carrying with them on some unknown body of water. “Perhaps there are beautiful Chinese green beans or Italian leather coats,” says one. “Maybe they are full of the most luxurious furs,” tries another. “I think it will be jewels!” shrieks another, though this seems optimistic to everyone else.
What they find are none of those things. When the lock springs open on the first crate and the doors too, what they see inside are rows of white. Someone pulls, and to her feet fall five toilet seats. They are the padded kind, sighing under the weight of the sitter. There must be hundreds of them in there. This crate is quickly abandoned in disappointment, though Alice has put a toilet seat over her head and wears it, to everyone’s enjoyment, like a necklace.
In the next crate they find child-size wooden baseball bats with the words “Sluggy Bat” written in wide cursive. This find interests no one, except one short lady who inches a bat out of the middle and swings it, remembering playing with her sisters in the street and pleased to find that it is a nice weight for her.
Crate number three is full—full!—of yellow roses. The grandmothers hug them in bundles to their chests, their arms pricked by the thorns. They distribute the flowers around— handing the wilting bouquets out to their fellow passengers until they all look like prom queens ready to dance their victory dance, the thorns freckling their arms with blood.
EVEN HERE, evening comes and then night. The grandmothers go inside to the galley, where they make their way through the first of many cases of canned peaches, sharing a single can opener found in a drawer. They discover that the toilet seats improve the comfort of the sitter on hard benches. They begin and end card games and word games. They quiz one another on presidential trivia. They begin to slump, exhausted.
Around them are the roses on the floor, the countertop, the cheap wood tables with names carved into them—Danny and Phoung, Rocko, the shape of a penis now covered by some blooms. Roses are worn behind ears and tucked into buttonholes. They smell as they are supposed to.
The grandmothers feel farther and farther away.
As they huddle, even under the wrap of polyester blankets taken from bunks, the work of their bodies is almost visible— the sinews of muscle responding again and again to the heart’s insistence. Dozens of kerosene lanterns flicker, and the grandmothers, whose eyes are falling shut but who do not want to go alone to their cabins, who fear that this might be it for them, begin to ask one another questions.
“Tell me the story of my life,” someone asks. “Tell me what I was like when I was a baby.” And they can do it. They get the details wrong—locations of birth, names of parents and siblings—but this does not matter to anyone. They chime in, answering together, bit by bit. “Your mother was so happy to meet you,” someone says. “Your father brought the congratulatory tiger lilies right up to your new nose,” another adds. They all close their eyes. “And you were such a good baby. You hardly ever cried.” The many lips pull up into smiles. The grandmothers remember even if they don’t.
“And then when I was a child?” they ask together.
“Oh, when you were a child you had hair like an angel.”
“You had a sweater your mother made with a picture of a rabbit knitted in.”
“You were very good in arithmetic and you would have been good at the flute too.” They cannot get enough of their lives.
“The fighting was mostly over money. It wasn’t about you.”
“Your mother did not mean to hit you in the eye with the serving platter. You just walked into it.”
“Your granddad forgave you for getting lost in Puerto Vallarta that day.”
“And your sister looked beautiful in her blue dress,” a husky voice adds. The grandmothers, Alice among them, see the blue dress. Some see a silk navy A-line, some see a cotton sheath belted at the waist, some see an evening dress flicker out the door and into a waiting car. They are quiet in their rememberings.
“Who is there when I die?” someone asks, and they all nod to say yes, they wonder that too. Alice clears her throat and begins, confident.
“Your children are there,” she tells them. “All of them. Three of your grandchildren too. They all have their hands on your body. You can feel them letting go of warmth. It doesn’t stop at the skin or at the bone—nothing can stop it. They are singing ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.’ Outside the window you can see a lake and a Ferris wheel on the edge. It is not raining outside but it looks like it might.”
The grandmothers have wet eyes. They are all picturing themselves lying there with many pairs of hands covering them, more hands than possible, their bodies hidden. It is just the backs of hands, familiar and radiating and with very faint pulses. In their minds, the grandmothers dissolve under those palms. They go gaseous. It is no longer necessary to maintain any particular shapes.
Alice sits surrounded by the rattle of their collective breathing. These lungs are not noiseless machines anymore. In this close circle they are trading matter; molecules of one go straight into the tubes of another. Alice thinks of the ocean they are floating on, waves rolling out over the miles. And in those waves, fish in schools so large they turn the ocean silver.
“We are out at sea,” she says. “We should not go to bed. We should go fishing.” The faces in the dim firelight are uncertain. “We are floating on top of a lot of creatures. Let’s see what we catch,” she tries to explain.
“We don’t have any poles,” a voice counters.
“We can make some,” Alice responds. “We have no idea what might be down there!” Her voice is high and excited.
No one wants to be left alone, so they pull their blankets tighter, though it isn’t cold. The women set to work unraveling strings from the salt-heavy ropes coiled like great snakes on deck. They isolate one string at a time and then tie them around the necks of some of the baseball bats. The grandmothers disperse along the railing and drop their very long lines. The lines have no hooks and no bait. Those lines on the port side, where the wind is coming from, are pasted to the hull like clinging lizards. Those lines on starboard blow out so that, all together, the row of them looks like the rib cage of a whale.
The women themselves are nearly invisible but for some moonlit glowings of hair—fuzzy little white islands in the dark. The sound of the overhead ring of gulls is mostly wing noise and an occasional vocal cry.
In the underneath, in that syrupy dark, the creatures they are trying to catch do not notice the tips of the hopeful strings. Jellies jet themselves along, not going anywhere, just moving for the sake of moving. Any fishes who can glow, glow. Some have patterns of light on their spines. Fake eyes look like real eyes for the purpose of being left alone. Sharks separate the water like curtains, currents flowing off their bared teeth.
There is always the chance of a giant squid and the great likelihood of regular squid. The octopus must not need, in the dark hours, to dispense their ink. The ink stays churning inside the cool gut of the creature, all eight arms reaching and twisting and gathering. Miniature fish congregate and suck at the bodies of bigger fish, eating the growing algae. Turtles swim the length of entire oceans in order to lay their eggs on the beach where they were born.
The ship sloshes and the grandmothers sway. They keep their lines steady, most balancing the tiny baseball bats on their laps. They hum. Their voices are crackly and uneven. Some go for television theme songs. Some fumble over old lullabies. They don’t mind that their melodies do not match up—it is nice to hear the humming and to do the humming, just to make noise. To feel the throat vibrating and air in the nose.
Alice is humming a lullaby invented by her own grandmother about a small horse when she feels a tug at her line. The song dies in her chest. She is holding on with both her hands, each one bearing a wedding ring—husband number one on her right and husband number two on her left. Her knuckles are pale hills, hunkered down, ready for anything. “Fish!” she calls. “Fish!” The other grandmothers shriek and repeat, “Fish! Fish!” They come to her, some faster than others.
“Stand up!” one yells. “Stand up and let me help you hold that bat.” Alice stands. The woman comes in from behind, threading her arms through Alice’s. The handle of the bat is held now by four hands and it looks like baseball practice, like the coach will, in slow motion, move Alice’s arms in a perfect swing.
Instead they walk backward, leaning away from the railing. The rope tries to resist. More grandmothers join in, taking the line and hauling the thing up. Arms tire easily. There are those who stand on the sidelines and cheer. It is a long time before the pullers come to the sea-wet part of the rope.
When the thing finally flops onto the deck, they are surprised to see that built into the fish’s forehead is a small pole with a fleshy light at the end, a greenish bulb. “You must have come from very far down,” Alice says to the fish, “to have your own lantern.” The grandmothers circle up, everything dark except the round light, which illuminates a gnash of long, sharp teeth. The heavy scales reflect the moonlight in vague arches. The fish is not content on deck. It flops its tail, slapping.
“I know that fish. That’s an angler,” one grandmother says.
“This fish really exists?” asks another.
“We should name it,” someone ventures. “I’d like to name it Marty, after my husband.” This is met with silence.
“I’d like to name it Harriet, after my mother,” someone else tries.
“And I’d like to name it Marcello.” They add names: Bill, Mort, Jesus, Kayla, Albert, Martha, Susan, Jeanette, Anne, Ned, Hank, as if throwing pennies into a fountain. The fish flops as it takes on the names of loved ones.
“It’s my fish,” Alice says, “and I am going to name him Fishy. But he can have all those others as middle names.” This does not meet opposition. They stand there over him and do not speak, but in all their heads are prayers. They throw them at the scaled creature, at his round body, at his ugly face. They hope for the good ones to get what they deserve. They hope for the lost ones to get home, for the prices to go down, for more days in the backyard for everyone. Fishy’s light goes a little soft and his eyes are dark liquid balls with shivers of moon inside. Alice bends down and picks the fish up. “Hello, Fishy,” she says. She kisses her fingertips and touches them to its head. “I think we better throw you back now.” She hobbles to the edge of the boat, tired after the long pull, while the knot of old ladies watches. She hums as she goes, returning to the lullaby about the horse. When she reaches the railing, she turns back to the huddle and holds Fishy up for his goodbyes.
“Goodbye!” “Goodbye, Neil!” “Goodbye, Albert!” “Goodbye, Nixon!” “Goodbye, Bill!” they chant. And out he goes. He does not hit the hull but makes a very straight, very fast journey back to the water, where he will continue to navigate the darkness with his green bulb. On deck some of the grandmothers kneel over the pool of water where Fishy had been. They dip their fingers in it and put it on their foreheads. They taste it, their dry old tongues bitten by the salt.
IT IS A WARM NIGHT and though the rest of the grandmothers go inside to their claimed cabins, Alice lies down on deck. She covers herself with her blanket. “I think tomorrow is Wednesday,” she says to herself. “The garbage goes out on Wednesday.” She can hear the sound of the truck, green and screeching as it devours up the trash and smashes it down. “It’s the day I teach poetry, in my apartment.” The day that she will not attend is laid out before her, the newspaper that she will not read lands at her doorstep. The phone, the refrigerator, the cat. She holds her own hands.
In a hospital room, four grown children surround their mother. Nervous, one eats a bag of chips. Another opens a book of poems, searches for the exact right words. The nurses prepare swabs, towels. Grandchildren collect around the bedside. It is not dark in the room but it is not light either, and even the city outside whispers. There are sailboats slipping along the surface of the lake. They tack around red buoys. The sailors’ voices cannot be heard this high, this far away—the whole world between them—still their boats are part of this big view. When a telephone in the corner rings, the only son chats with two of his mother’s oldest friends before he says, “They’re going to take the tubes out of her lungs. Any minute.” One daughter rubs her mother’s hands with lotion. “It’s in and out, just like this,” she says, breathing to show breathing. “Go as long as you want. It can be two minutes and it can be ten years.”
When the son hangs up the phone, he asks his mother, “Do you have any idea how many people adore you?” And this woman, this mother and grandmother, smiles wide enough that her teeth, treasures in that cave, shine.
THE BOAT IS ROCKING, the sea stretching around her.
“Do you think this is it?” Alice asks, but there is no answer. “There are people I was hoping to see again!” she calls out to the dark. Her knees are tucked together, legs folded like wings. Below, so much water moves restlessly. Above, the air does the same.
The gulls still circle even though it is too dark to hunt. “Do you know,” Alice yells to the birds above, “that I have not been swimming in ages? How do you not swim in such a great big ocean?” Soon she is tying great knots along the enormous rope, every foot and a half. The knots are the size of her head. It gets harder and harder the farther she gets from the end. Her palms are sore. Each knot she ties, she tries to remember a person she loves. She gets the name and the face in her mind. The Jewish boy she wasn’t allowed to see; her cousin, whom she always got in trouble with as a girl; her brother, whom she loved better than others did; her mother, who ended it all when she thought things were starting to get unsightly. Her two husbands, whose necks she could still smell, who had left her, one and then the next, alone on the turning earth. She thinks to herself, Now I can say that I love them all. I am an old woman and no one will try to dissuade me. All the single fibers, twisted together into ten, the ten into a hundred, the hundred into a thousand.
She takes her dress off and makes the trip in her white slip. She can feel the wind moving through her loose cotton underwear, but it is the slip that really dances. It puffs up and looks, at moments, like a wedding gown, then pastes itself to her body, every shape underneath mimicked by the fabric. The separation of the legs is defined along with the cut of the waist. The rope swings gently, and the clinging lady with it.
“I don’t know if I can make it!” Alice calls up to the gulls.
She is more than halfway down. Again, as her feet move to a new knot, she remembers a person she loves.
Her feet slide to the next knot and hands follow.
Alice reaches the water. When she touches down, the water stings. “It’s cold,” she relays to the dry air. But she wants to let go of the rope. She wants to be free of the climb, so she lets herself fall in, her entire weight let loose in the water. It catches her easily and she dunks her head under. She laughs the laugh of a cold, floating person. She waves her arms and lets the yips come out of her mouth. She peers below, trying to see, but the only things are her own feet haloed by green phosphorescence, kicking and kicking and kicking.
“Will both of my husbands be mine again?” she calls to the birds or the fish or the sky. “Can I love them again now?” She does not get her answer. Her slip rises up around her like a tutu. She looks now like a ballerina on a music box, legs bared under the high-flying skirt. The material is soft and brushes Alice’s arms. She does not try to hold the slip down. Her breasts float up. All around her the green light of stirred water.
The boat groans and leans away, then begins to slip across the smooth sea. Alice does not feel herself moving and the ship leaves no wake, yet there is much morning-bright water between them. Her rope slaps at the hull, quieter as it goes, until all she hears is the echo of a sound no longer taking place, just her ear’s memory of that song. The ocean is full and the sky is full—how plentiful the elements are! Alice floats on her back at the exact point of their meeting, held like a prayer between two hands pressed together.
She dives under and spins, making a lopsided flip, and emerges with her hair stuck to her face. Drops fall from her chin in a glowing chain. They fall from her hair and from her ears and from the tip of her nose. They fall from eyelashes and from the lobes of her ears. The drops join back up with the whole ocean and disappear inside that enormous body. Alice throws her arms up in ta-da position, water flying off in a great celebration of sparks.