Simpler Things

From Heart Berries. Published by Doubleday Canada in 2018.

It is odd that I went to foster care while my mother worked in a group home. But it was not odd to me.

I can only elaborate on the small things, like her smallness, and how light her fists were—how she pinched the fat of my fingers to tell me she loved me. She was always aware of her struggle. A single mother with four children is destined to die from exhaustion, unless there is a miracle of fortune or justice.

We came close to fortune and justice when I was a kid. Paul Simon needed correspondence that my mother had written long before to a man named Salvador Agrón, the subject of a Broadway play he was writing. Sal was sentenced to death row at age sixteen for murdering two other teenagers. He earned a degree on the inside and became an activist. That’s how he met Mom.

She spoke about Sal like I speak about you. We should have wanted for simpler things, but in many ways my mother taught me love was divine—like a hermitage or vision or picking from the tree of knowledge. Mother didn’t like the Bible, but I appreciate it for how suffering is related to profundity.

Paul Simon called while I was watching TV. Our landline was screwed into the old seventies wood panel of our kitchen wall. I was ashamed of the house. The room was barren. There was an orange, thrift shop dinette set, and a shrine on our counter for Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was a picture of him surrounded by barks and sage my mother picked, with red ties and turquoise jewelry. The bracelets and rings were gifts from my uncle Lyle, a jeweler who idolizes Elvis and wore a bouffant until old age turned it into a less voluminous side part.

Mom was in the bath. Paul’s voice was timid. He asked for Mom. I yelled to her that Paul was on the line. Mom told me to keep him on the phone while I heard her body emerge—splashes and her small wet feet running.

“How old are you?” Simon asked.

“I’m ten. What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m an artist,” he said.

I told him that was nice and asked him what kind of art. He laughed at me.

My mother, wrapped in a towel, ripped the phone from my hand. She carried on several conversations like this. I began to suspect they were flirting when I went with Mom to the library to look up if Simon had a wife. I didn’t want Paul Simon to be my new father. I saw an album cover once. He wore turtlenecks. He was pasty. He had beady eyes.

“He’s married to some redhead, I think. White woman,” Mom said. We had seen some news clippings and rented a biography. He was a god, and not the personalized one of benevolence, but the type who could take things away.

She sent him every letter between herself and Salvador Agrón. I had read the letters in our basement. There were images of horses and dirt and bodies, and nothing of love until it became all about love. Simon was inspired by Salvador’s plight.

Mother’s narrative was eventually drowned in Simon’s version of it all, and nowhere was Sal’s story. He was dead.

We became self-important Indians with every call. Mom floated around the house after three-day shifts at a group home and became happy. After years of writing manically in her room, someone was finally using her words. A camera crew came to interview Mom. I recently saw film of her, where a narrator with a rich English accent said, “Paul Simon and his team researched every detail of the story. They even located Wahzinak. She offered Paul Simon her intimate memories of Sal’s character.”

“He was much more beautiful in real life,” my mother said. “He just illuminated. His prose was phenomenal. He could talk about the prison life. He could talk about his poverty. People come along and they grace your life, and they make it extraordinary.”

After the interview my mother cried into the phone, and she didn’t speak to us. She didn’t sit at the table; she sat on the floor. I watched her body shake. Maybe it was having cameras in our rotting home. It was infested with mold and ladybugs and old furniture we didn’t wear down ourselves. Maybe that’s my shame talking. Maybe it was that Indians are at a ripe age when they’re fifty, and Mother was there. Maybe it was that Salvador was kind.

She met a serpent in prison who was my father. The same provocation and sentimentality drew her in, and he wasn’t kind. The legend is that he was banished from the house after many transgressions, and that we all waited by the door with weapons in case he came back, even me, a baby then, holding a hammer or a bat or a broom or a doll. The story has shifted because it’s not funny anymore.

Simon gave us a choice: American dollars or a family trip to New York. Julia Roberts attended the opening. A woman who would later star in Grey’s Anatomy played my mom. We missed the opportunity to see it all to buy school clothes. Mom spent the rest on bills, food, and things.

It could have redeemed her, like my words on the page—like I would have myself believe articulating her grace and pain could be redemptive. I didn’t want Paul Simon to be my father, but I wanted him to save us. More than a few thousand—I wanted him to see us and decide we were worth a play in our own right. I wanted him to see my mother, beyond a groupie, or cliché, or an Indian woman—because she was more. He didn’t see her.

The play reduced Mom to an “Indian hippie chick,” as Variety’s Greg Evans called her. A “prison groupie,” and I have only known her as an outreach worker. Prison was part of that, getting them to write or draw, to find sanity in isolation. I’m trying not to make excuses, because she did fall. It’s in the text and on my mind every day how she fell. It could be like Eve. The old texts say we get menses for the fall, feel pain for the fall. God couldn’t watch it; he sent us his boy, but I doubt he watched his son die. I think he just waited for him on the other side.

One of my mother’s old friends, Richard, wrote about her breasts and Salvador’s womanizing for his non-fiction book. He wrote with provocation and sentimentality while the iron was hot. Dick flew from California to Seabird to show Mom the book. He told me about his Jeep and that he would take me to the city someday, and Mom grew suspicious. He handed her the book after tea. She went to her room, came out, and told him to leave. Mother cried. I found the book underneath her bed and understood the contents like Hildegard, a prophet without an education. Her heart was inflamed, and she knew the scriptures and the gospel. She didn’t understand the tenses or the divisions of syllables, but she could read it.

The pain was a process to understanding. Men were born to hurt my mother in the flesh and the text, and she was my savior. The language was always wrong. Even in this account I can’t convey the pulse of her. In her sleep I couldn’t turn away, in love with her heavy breathing. She rarely slept, but, when she did, it felt generative and sacred like a bear’s hibernation. Her small palms were red with heat. She always fell asleep with a book on her chest. It was the illumination of living light.

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