"Yes? Who is it?"
The women embraced, Jodi pressing her cheek to the visitors sweat-warmed shoulder while hugging with the crooks of her arms (to prevent her grimy fingers from soiling Brandys blouse).
"I thought youd never get here."
On stepping back, Jodi combed (with her wrist) a dangling lock of hair.
"Ugh, look at me; Im mud from head to foot. Ive been working at my potters wheel ever since sunup."
She now acknowledged Simon.
"You brought a friend?"
"Jodi, this is Simon. SimonJodi."
"No! Dont shake hands; I'm filthy. See?"
She raised her clay-caked fingers.
"Please, please come inside; make yourselves at home."
They stepped into the kitchen, a tiny room with propane appliances, kerosene lanterns, pots, pans, dishes piled high in a stainless steel sink, and an extended windowsill lined with egg-carton planters. Open-shelved cupboards revealed a substantial stock of can goods. A pantry housed two fifty-pound sacks of rice. The cramped environs were malodorous thanks to a chunk-filled box of kitty litter. Chairs constructed from fruit crates were arranged at a thigh-high table (formerly a telephone cable spool) part of its surface squared (to fit it against one wall), and covered with a tie-dyed drop cloth that quaintly matched the windows home-made curtains.
"It seems weve caught you in the middle of something, Jodi."
"First things first; you must be thirsty. What can I offer you?"
"No, were fine; we just had tea with a fellow named Oscar Lavalieré."
"Oh, youve met our resident librarian? Isnt he a lovely old coot? Just a sec; my clay is getting dry. I was working on a tea setthanks for reminding mewhen I heard your knock."
"Oh, can we come watch?"
"Sure, if youd really like to."
Jodi led her guests down a narrow corridor (past what seemed to be the only other room in the house), out a back door, and into an equally cramped (if practical) work space.
Jodi seated herself at a clay-spattered kick-wheel, beside which half a dozen cups sat basking on a low wooden table.
"This wont take long. Sure you dont mind?"
On a tray that framed an enormous hump of clay sat one bowl of water, two elephant-ear sponges, a jar full of assorted trimming and scoring tools, and a cutting wire next to a short-stemmed broad-bladed spatula. With a few hearty kicks, Jodi set the wheel in motion, squeezing drops of moisture onto the leaden-colored mass, then (as if performing magic) pulled a perfect cup from its spinning center. Deftly, she drew the cutting wire through the vessel's base, then slid in the spatula, and, lifting gently, shifted it onto the low wooden table, all the while maintaining the wheel's steady pace. She repeated this operation time and again, the clay giving birth to cups as if by itself, Jodi acting as midwife.
"I need a dozen. How many are there?"
"Ill pull a couple of extras to allow for casualties."
These came forth as effortlessly as had their predecessors.
"Youre really good at that. Its wonderful watching them wiggle their way from that glob. Is it as fun to do as it looks?"
Jodi arched her eyebrow and smiled an invitation.
"Why dont you see for yourself. Theres still enough clay for a few more."
"Do you really think I could?"
"If you dont mind getting your hands dirty."
Brandy grinned at Simon.
"No, Im getting used to it. So what do I do?"
Jodi gave up her seat. Brandy sat at the wheel like a child with a brand new toy.
"Okay, kick the counterweight with your right foot to get the wheel going Thats fast enough. Try to keep it at about that speed, but dont kick when your hands are on the clay; that takes a lot of practice Now, wet the top a little with your sponge. Not too much!"
The excess water whipped off onto Brandys clothes, speckling her blouse and pants with a shower of grayish-brown sludge. She laughed.
"Ah, well; theyll wash. Whats next?"
"Rest your hands on either side, then press in lightlyequallyuntil you have a cylinder Thats right Thats it Not too hard There."
"It looks a bit like the nipple on a great big boob."
"Wet your hands a little Now, find the center with your thumb pressing down and, slowly, let it sink, sink, sink into the middle."
"Ooo, that feels funny; its sucking my thumb!"
"Now pull it out, and, using three fingersnot the pinkiepress back in. Keep your hand steady Okay, very gently, pull to widen the hole. Stop! Fine. Now, with your other hand, touch the clay outside at the exact spot your fingers are insideat the bottom. Got it?"
"Press both sides gently, evenly, as you pull your fingers up, up, up toward the top."
"Its getting taller!"
"That was good. Wet your hands again; thats important so the clay doesnt get too dry, or itll grab. Okay, stick your hand back in and do exactly the same. Start at the bottom Really try to feel the thickness Easy does it."
"The wheels slowing down!"
"Thats okay. Finish the pass Fine."
"Should I kick some more?"
"Some Now, this time youll give the cup its shape. Hand in Feel the wall Press lightly Now, as you come up, allow your inside fingers to press a little harder than your outside ones. Then, push more on the outside, as you get up near the rim Excellent!"
"Look, Simon; Im doing it!"
"Now you can flare the top a tad. Start where the form curves inward, and bend it outward as you come up. Gradually Thats it Good. Use your sponge to smooth the lip. Perfect! Do you want me to take it off for you, or would you like to try it yourself?"
"Talk me through."
"Okay. Kick Enough. Now hold the wire taught between your thumbs. Start right here, and pull it through, in one level motion Good. Now, ease in the spatula Steady Lift Here, slide it off onto this board. Jiggle it a little Careful Wonderful, Brandy; youre a natural!"
"Okay, Simon, your turn. Is that all right, Jodi? Can Simon have a go?"
"If he wants."
"Simon? Oh, come on; its fun. Well have ourselves a pair of His and Her cups."
She grabbed at his hands playfully.
"There. Youre all muddy now; you might as well have something to show for it."
Simon shyly replaced her at the wheel. It had been a long time, but Jodis instructions had served to refresh his memory. When he felt the moist clay whirling under his fingers, the facility he had acquired sprang back to life. Without much trouble he produced a passable mate. Jodi looked impressed.
"Youve done this before."
Simon made hand signals; Brandy interpreted.
"He means he did it a long, long time ago. At college?"
Jodi seemed to take Simons muteness in stride, and, if anything, warmed a little toward him.
"Where did you two meet?"
"I found him hitchhiking out in the middle of nowhere. And its a good thing I picked him up; if it hadnt been for Simon, my car might still be stuck, half-buried in the Arizona desert. But thats a long story. What about you? Howd you find this place? Do you like it? Can you really support yourself by selling pots? I have a thousand questions."
"How long can you stay?"
"Well, we only thought for the day."
"Oh, no; the days almost over! You have to stay longer, you Cant you spend one night, at the very least?"
Brandy looked to Simon. His outer impassivity was hard to read.
"Besides, if you do stay, youll both be able to fire your pots tomorrow morning."
Jodi carried their green-ware across the yard to a damp-cabinet, and, elbowing open its doors, placed the work inside. It must have been a day for cups; with this last sets addition, there were four full shelves worth.
"If you stay a little bit longer, your pots can be glazed."
She dumped what was left of the clay lump into a slip barrel, sponged off the wheel, and proceeded with what appeared to be a day-to-day routine one she obviously enjoyed and one she seemed more than happy to be sharing with a friend (as Brandy recollected the dance clubs gaudy waitress costume, comparing it to Jodis mud-caked cut-offs, oversize shirt, and well-worn flip-flopsmuch more suitable attire, she decided, the smell of Mother Earth far superior to the stench of secondhand smoke and happy-hour beer).
"There, thats done. Now, what I really need is a dunk in the tub."
"Good; Ill come and scrub your back."
"No, no. You stay with your friend."
Simon signed to Brandy that he intended to take a stroll.
"See, Jodi? Hell be all right by himself. Now's our chance to catch each other up on who, what, when, and where."
Simon took his leave.
"Really, Jodi, Ive been dying to talk about lots of stuff to someone, anyone (She noted Simons direction; he had headed out the back and was climbing toward the local water tower.) especially about Mister Chatterbox, yonder; in the last, what(?)forty-eight hours(?)weve been joined at the hip."
Jodi reserved comment. Instead, she seemed to be grappling with a difficult decisionher anxious state infectious; Brandy, of a sudden, felt likewise ill-at-ease.
"Are you alright?"
Jodi looked beseechingly into Brandys emerald eyes. Reassured by their kindness, she came to a resolution.
"Lets wash off the worst of it out here; shall we?"
Holding a garden hose, Jodi rinsed off Brandy, then Brandy rinsed off Jodi. Both reentered the kitchen, dripping wet.
"Towels are in the bathroom, Brandy; you go ahead. Ill find something you can wear so we can launder your clothes."
"Oh, theyre not that bad. A damp cloth should do. Ill run your bath water."
The bathroom was even tinier than the kitchen. It had an old-style iron-legged tub, almost child-size, but nice and deep. Brandy turned on the taps, then looked overhead. The ceiling was painted a midnight-blue, with a yellow crescent moon and constellations of silver stick-on stars. The walls themselves depicted the Zodiac, all twelve signs, done in collagephotographs interspersed with pen and ink drawings (their naive style reminiscent of Esperantos entrancewaythough sprightlier, more like doodles, than those upon the gate). As Brandy wetted a washcloth and rubbed at the spots on her clothes, she wondered what had prompted Jodis distress, until, that is, she recalled the rumored "deformity." Those few times Brandy and Jodi had shared the clubs dressing room (utilized by dancers and waitresses alike), Jodi always arrived with her outfit on already.
'Which doesn't prove by itself she had something to hide.'
Brandy tested the waterice coldas Jodi (in a long-sleeve night shirt) shyly padded in. She carried a white linen dressing gown draped over her shoulder, an unlit candle and matchbox held in either hand.
"This waters absolutely arctic, Jodi."
"You might as well put the plug in; it never gets warmer. I dont have a hot water heater."
"But its freezing."
"Im used to itand grateful, believe you me, to have running water period. I didnt when I moved in."
Brandy noticed the candle.
"No electricity, either?"
"When your landlord doesnt charge rent its hard to complain. Oscars trying to rig up an old generator for me. But that wont be in service until he finds some missing parts."
"Jeezus, Jodi, this is what I call roughing it."
"Oh, its not so bad. It was at first. I didnt know anybody, and the place needed a lot of work to make it even this livable. Summer was terrible. Winter was worse. I froze until I got my pot belly stovewhich I found abandoned in the foothills near a broken-down shack. A neighbor helped me lug it here; Oscar did the installation. Well light a fire tonight, if you like. It makes the whole house warm and intimately cozy."
Eyes awash with melancholy, Jodi managed a smile.
"We were told you have someone staying with you?"
The smile went sour.
"Im so glad you met Oscar. Hes really been "
Tears choked off her voice.
"Jodi, what's wrong?"
"Hes gone. He left me."
She broke down. Brandy wrapped her arms around Jodis trembling shoulders, rocked her side to side, consoled her heartfelt sobs as pink sky turned into gray beyond the bathrooms solitary window (it would soon be dark)while 'the other widespread rumor' came back to Brandy's mind.
"Is it the boy?"
Jodi, her voice barely audible, ventured to explain.
"How much do you know?"
"Only what my roommate told me; that the boys father had made it pretty hard on you, and that, ultimately, you had to skip town."
"Ill bet she told you more than that."
"Barbara's versions of anything are never all that reliable. Suppose you tell me what took place yourself."
Jodi took a breath, thenhaltinglytold her tale.
"I met him one night On the Boulevard He was panhandling Tried to hit me up for a quarter I asked him how old he was, and he went into this hard-guy, man-of-the-streets routine Brandy, it would have broken your heart to hear this little lost kid, barely thirteen years old, pretending to know whats what in the big, bad world. I asked him if he had a place to stay. He wouldnt give me a straight answer so I figured he hadnt. I invited him to come home with me; Id give him a hot meal, a bath, and a bed. He was suspicious, but I think mine was the first genuinely innocent offer anyone had madeand he was hungry, and scared, and just desperate enough, by then, to take me up on it.
"Brandy, every time this kid told a story about his home life I wanted to weep. By the time Id coaxed enough out of him to piece together the whole picture, I knew I couldnt let him go back to his former life. He refused to attend school, and I was away too much to be doing him much good, so I quit the club. I thought I maybe could give him lessons myself. Erics a bright boy, just all confused and needing someone to care. He started asking me if I loved him. He asked every day. I always said yes. I meant it, too. We were only six years apart, but I felt more like his mother, his teacher, his big sister and best friend, all wrapped into one. It was good for a while, pure and sweet until, that is, Erics dear-ol-dad tracked him down.
"I guess someone saw us together at a pizza parlor one evening and followed us home. The next day, when I got back from work, Eric was gone. I didnt know what to do, so I just worried for five days. On the sixth, he was back. He told me that his father had been waiting for him out on the street in front of my apartment. When Eric went out that morning he was collared and dragged back home. He said his father beat him, then locked him in the basement for seventy-two hours, threatening to do worse if he ever caught him near that pervert again. Id become the scapegoat, you see. I would have gone to his mother except she, apparently, condoned whatever her husband did. There was nothing I could do. Eric begged me to let him spend the night. As I was struggling to decide, there came a furious knock on my door. Guess who(?)yelling, swearing, making such a racket, I let the man in. He slapped me. Then he called me the filthiest names he could think of, grabbed Eric in a hammerlock, and left. I wanted to call the cops, but I was afraid dear-ol-dad would accuse me of kidnappingor worse.
"My neighbors started staring at me, after that, like I was some sort of pedophile. Eric, I felt sure, would try to come back. But I was really afraid of what his father might do, so I moved. I did try to see Eric once, out in front of his school; I wanted him to have my new address, and to know I hadn't abandoned him. I waited on my only day off, but he never showed. Finally, he turned up at the restaurant where I workedfresh bruises and all. I gave him the keys, and, for just about a month, things were calm. We got to be very close. I think we were both even happyuntil Eric started giving off sexual vibes. We had a heart-to-heart talk one night; the issue seemed resolved.
"But dear-ol-dad, in the meantime, found out where I worked. He went there and caused a terrible scene, accusing me of all sorts of vulgar, untrue things, demanding that I tell him where Id hidden his poor corrupted child. I wouldnt tell; he wouldnt leave; so my boss called the cops. I was forced to take the whole team home. When they led poor Eric away, he glared at me like Id betrayed him. Next day I was fired from my daytime job.
"I thought of packing up and leaving town, taking Eric with me, but then I started asking myself how I really felt about our relationship. Id never thought of it in man-woman terms before. Maybe Id been kidding myself; I was lonely. Maybe Erics love, such as it was, fulfilled some need. Did I harbor sexual feelings for him? Such ugly accusations had been made, so often, I started to believe them. I decided it would be betterfor all concernedif I made myself scarce.
"Id met Oscar once when I was a high-school student working in my parents book store back in San Francisco. He talked about this place; I guess I never forgot. It just sort of came to me when I was trying to decide where to go. I didnt even write to him; I simply showed up. Oscar pretended to remember me, offered me this house, conceded it wasnt much but said it was mine for the taking. He owns a little property and, Ive heard since, has done the same for a few others. Anyway, I thought Id forget the whole affair, admitting to myself I had been physically attracted to Eric; but always I behaved in a good and decent way. I had nothing to be ashamed of. I felt at peace. But, even so, my heart stayed ill-at-ease. Being so lonely here didnt help. Id avoided making friendsto punish myself, I suppose. Months passed. Oscar persisted in introducing me to people. Finallyas in very graduallyI started coming out of my shell. Then Eric arrived.
"I dont know how he found me. Id only written to three people back in LA; he didnt know any of them. Hed hitchhiked all the way hereon a hunch, he claimed. I couldnt help being happy, but Brandy, I swear to God, he really had changed. You know how boys are at that age, their hormones all gone haywire. He was taller. His voice had gotten deeper. You could tell he was on the verge of sprouting a heavy beard. In fact, physically, he was a very handsome young man. Mentally, on the other hand I dont know; hed gotten sort of cruel. That hard-guy look he used to put on when he wanted me to take him seriously had become a permanent part of his street-wise face. It was as if all the hatred that once surrounded him had managed to creep inside; you could see it peeking out from his cold-blooded eyes. He claimed he loved me, just like before, but his face said otherwise. Whenever I tried to reach himthe little boy, that isthe juvenile shut me out. Unless he wanted something. Then hed wear whatever kind of look would get him his way. He tried to manipulate me. If he hadnt been so awkward about it, I might have been fooled. But it was obvious; from our very first night back together I knew exactly what Eric had in mind. His first attempt was pretty crude. I discouraged himsharply. Not because of our age difference; I just didnt find him attractive anymore. Maybe that sounds twistedwanting him when he was a little boy, wanting him not at all as a full-grown young man. But the kind of man Eric wasor had becomejust turned me off. I guess I dont like men much anyway, but snickering, locker-room types I detest most of all. I still felt sorry for him. His accounts of how hed spent the past eight months were as full of horror as ever: more beatings, fights, running away, shoplifting, dope peddling, hustling. Hed always finish by tellingby boastingabout 'fucking' some girl. Or about some woman who 'fucked' him. I think his dirty talk was intended to arouse me. I didnt have the heart to tell him how offensive I thought it was. I know all about rejection; Eric had suffered more than his fair share. But I didnt know what to do about him, either. He had only been here a week and already was having sex with two local teenagers. I didnt blame them; from their perspective, Eric was a deep, dark strangera 'dangerous desperado.' Nonetheless, their attachment was doing him no-damn-good. And, instead of easing our sexual tension, matters got worse.
"Brandy, I wanted him to understand that touching isnt fucking, that physical relations can show how two people care, that sex is more than 'kicks' when you have it with someone worth loving. How, though?"
Jodi faltered. She had spoken almost calmly (despite wringing her hands). Her continuing would depend, it appeared, on the room's growing darkness.
Her pause lengthened.
Brandy waited, sensing they had come to the issues crux; the story told about Eric was doubtlessly a preamble.
Jodi lifted her head in the failing light.
"You see, Brandy, I'm different."
Having thus begun, the rest came forth more easily.
"Its the way I was born. My parents were very religious; they didnt believe Gods Will ought ever to be changed. Im glad, in some ways. But I never could forgive them for keeping me so unaware; up until I was six years old I thought I was perfectly normal. Then, playing hospital with some girlfriendsit was my turn to be the patientI could see, from the looks on their faces, that something was wrong. I ran home crying. The next day back at school, I knew they had blabbed. Everybody knew. All my classmates stared. When I stared back, they looked away. I remember thinking some of them even looked scared. No one would play with me anymore; I was ignoredwhich was a blessing in disguise; I wish it had lasted. But curiosity won out. Kids started asking me to show them. I wanted love and attention like any other child, so I gave in, reasoning that once they sneaked their peeks theyd go back to treating me like before.
"Well, they never did. There was always someone new who wanted to see. The kids in my class had older brothers and sisters; they wanted a turn, too. Brandy, it was a nightmare. Every time I saw someone pointing at me I hated myself a little more. Eventually the teacher found out what was going on and put an immediate stop to my private show-and-tells. Word was out, however; Jodi Dawns was deformed. My folks started getting phone calls from outraged parents. There were even threats. Finally, my father got permission to enroll me in a school outside our district. It meant driving me a long way there and back, but it was a fresh start. I learned to be shy and secretive. I kept to myself."
She reached for Brandy's hand and warmed to its sympathetic squeeze.
"Ill bet you werent expecting to have to listen to my whole lifes story. Sorry, Brandy."
"Im glad youre telling me. Now I wont feel guilty when I talk about me. Lets light the candle."
"No! No, please. Not yet."
"Okay. Take it easy. The candle can wait. You still havent told me what became of the boy."
"Cant you guess?"
"Eric didnt suspect. There was no reason to tell him. And, up till then Id never had sex with a man."
"I dont know why, exactly. I find some men attractive. Whatever the reason, Eric became a sort of test. I didnt want us to have sex, but, if it happened, I wanted it to be beautiful for him and me both. I know that sounds all confused. It was; I was. I couldnt make up my mind; until Eric made it up for me."
She paused as if to rally her former resolve.
"I was always very careful about being dressed when Ericor anyone, for that matterwas around. Then, five days ago, he caught me by surprise. I had taken a bath and had only a towel wrapped around me when he came in. His pupils were all dilated, so I knew he was on something. He grabbed me. I asked him, very calmly, to let me go. He wouldnt. We struggled and the towel came undone. He had me pinned underneath him and was groping with his hand. Then he froze. He looked from my face to where he was touching, then jerked his hand away. I wrenched free and covered myself. He got up and stared then backed his way to the door then stopped to call me "FREAK!" He screamed it at me viciously, then turned-tail and ran."
Jodi was trembling. Cold night air had crept in through the open window. Brandy got up and closed it. She lit the candle, set it on the bathtubs edge, then knelt beside her friend and gave her a hug.
"Come on, Sweetie, youll feel a whole lot better after a good soak n' scrub."
Jodi struggled to speak, her eyes full of tears.
"I haven't seen him since... and probably never will."