_Though Jane was far beyond the seventh grade—closer to middle age than to middle school—all that turmoil was coming back to her now, focused and refracted in the tentative first steps her skinny 12-year-old daughter Aggie was taking into the battlefield._
Aggie clung to the doorway of Jane’s studio. “In gym class, they made us do a dance routine to a song that talked about sex,” she said.
“Really?” Jane said.
She was up to her armpits in clay, trying to wrestle a lump of it into a sellable vase. She wished she could spare her daughter the indignities, but she knew seventh grade was the turning point, the place that, for better or worse, your personality was forged out of insults and horrific embarrassments.
“Yeah.” Aggie shuddered. “It was gross.”
“Could you hand me that scraping tool?”
“Aren’t you going to do something?”
“Like what, Aggie?”
“Like go talk to the teacher?”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad. Aren’t you supposed to have a normalized view of sex and relationships?”
“It is too that bad. I had to ask someone what a BJ is.”
“What’s a BJ?”
Sometimes, when Jane squinted in the right way, she could see remnants of Aggie’s father in her. He was a Mormon who Jane knew in high school. A cool Mormon who wore custom-painted combat boots and sneaked the occasional cigarette, but a Mormon nonetheless. His feet and Jane’s feet were exactly the same size, and the trouble started when they swapped boots. Jane went to several international capitals and photographed herself against monuments of note. She imagined what a man in her shoes would do, and her fanciful photo collages on the subject were enough to earn her admission into a top arts school.
Jane told Aggie, “If it’s really as bad as you say, don’t you think that some other mother will do something?”
“No, the other girls like it. They tell me about sex and offer me beers after school sometimes.”
“What do you think I should do?” she asked Aggie, but her daughter just turned away.
At night, Jane went to work, handing Aggie off to Mrs. Elise who lived across the courtyard. Her latest job involved cleaning out the place of an elderly film critic who had just been moved to a nursing home. The critic had books on every conceivable subject, and Jane noticed that she put friends next to each other and divorced people on separate shelves. Every time Jane moved a book and put it into a box, a HALLS Mentho-Lyptus fell out. Slipped between nearly every page, it must have been her idea of a bookmark.
Jane considered the lozenge. No drugs anymore, no drinking, but lozenges would be okay. She popped one into her mouth and got excited, bouncing around the room, listening to Blondie, finishing an hour before she thought she would. Back into the studio for a couple hours and then off with Aggie to the bus stop.
“What is this?” Jane said, picking up a drawing that was under Aggie’s school books. “Your school reinstated the art program?”
“That’s for Life Science class,” Aggie said.
In the picture, a bearded man in robes stood amongst a group of dinosaurs. “This isn’t supposed to be… ?” Jane’s heart stopped.
“Evolution is just one theory,” Aggie said, and Jane wondered if she was faintly smiling her father’s smile.
After high school, the man in Jane’s shoes hadn’t strayed too far from the path chosen for him. Joe had gone on his Mission, but to nowhere exotic. Instead, to rural Pennsylvania, where the tobacco-farming Mennonites might have mistook him for their own in his carefully pressed suit. After that, he was off to mortuary school in Los Angeles, where he picked up work on the side as a professional “background artist” in the movies.
Jane learned all of this when she ran into Joe at a natural foods mart in Santa Monica. He invited her to a get-together of his actor friends. As he sipped his 7-Up, Jane tossed back Sierras and listened to the actors with the rapt fascination of an anthropologist sent to study a foreign tribe. A guy at the party claimed to have grown rich from playing shadowy killers in dramatizations on news magazine shows.
“Doesn’t that mean you’re less an actor,” Jane said, woozily, “than a re-enactor?” He showed her his SAG card and asked her if she thought a re-enactor could buy a Suzuki Samurai outright, no financing?
In Joe’s car, later that night, she told him: “You can have your boots back now.” There was something about him she wanted so badly.
She had always thought of pregnant women as organic and earthy. In theory, she believed that babies should be wanted and fully supported a women’s right to terminate, but she also lacked resolve. Once Aggie started forming inside of her, Jane thought of her as simply another thing of Joe’s she’d be carrying around for a while. He was easy to avoid, and if his family knew, he would be disowned. When Aggie asked what her father was like, Jane said, “He’s a rodeo clown,” or, “He works on an oil rig in the Aegean Sea. That’s why we named you Aggie.” She shuddered a little when she said “we.”
Aggie’d ask these kinds of question all the time, the whole ruse just on the edge of her consciousness. Charging up the steps of Aggie’s school after the kids had left for the day, Jane wondered where she’d gone wrong. She wondered where she’d gone right.
Jane studied the face of David Elks for traces of religious fervor. She expected someone a little more buttoned up, or maybe a barely literate jock doing double-duty in the science department so that he could coach the women’s volleyball team. Instead the man before her was too slight to spike a ball.
“I’d like you to explain this drawing to me, Mr. Elks,” she said. “And speak loudly enough so I can get this on tape for my lawyer.” Jane couldn’t afford a lawyer, but she nonetheless set the Sanyo on the table and pressed record.
“Please call me David.” He pressed stop on the recorder. “And let me assure you that I had no choice in the matter. The whole school board’s gone fundamentalist.”
“You can’t tell me that you aren’t appalled by this, then.”
David held his hands in front of him. “Listen—the germ theory of disease has been around for a hundred years and yet plenty of educated people still think that cold weather causes illness.”
“I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”
“People will believe whatever they want, regardless of the science. Be honest here, can you explain the process of natural selection?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t have to explain it, you do. I just don’t want my kid coming home with a picture of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus riding a triceratops.”
“Aggie’s father, is he in the picture?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Jane looked down at the conservative outfit she had assembled for the occasion, an old blouse of her mother’s from the back of her closet, a sensible pair of shoes.
“Are you saying I’m a bad mother?”
“No, it’s not that…” Sitting in front of this wiry, not altogether unappealing science teacher in corduroy, Jane abruptly burst into tears. “I’m not much of a mother.”
“I’m not much of a science teacher, if it makes you feel any better,” he said, a warm smile playing on his lips. But it wasn’t the same thing, and she couldn’t stop crying.
He took her to a Western-themed restaurant, The Silver Dollar. They were seated in a rough-hewed pine booth in the back. It was easy enough to imagine that they were on a wagon train, out of the Dust Bowl and towards the optimistic Western frontier.
“I should’ve moved us back to L.A., when I had the chance,” Jane said.
“Why did you stay here?” he asked, and Jane wondered if he was just showing polite interest.
“Why did you?” she said.
“I grew up here,” he said.
“I did, too,” she said.
Her desire for a drink—a real drink—rose up like a prehistoric impulse, a remnant of her less evolved self.
“What were your folks like?” he asked her.
She thought of her parents like the plastic man and woman on a wedding cake, perfect, full of possibility. Only, instead of surveying a banquet hall from atop a five-tiered cake, she saw them in the front seat of a Mustang, plunging off a cliff together, leaving her behind with the cake and the clean-up. “You know, regular,” she said.
The conversation fizzled a bit between them as they ate their bacon cheeseburgers. Since Joe, Jane had pretty much banned romance. Not wanting Aggie to end up like her, she let those leanings atrophy, like so many of her other desires. But now, across from this mediocre science teacher, the bubbling longing she kept under cover reached a roiling boil.
“Listen, Aggie’s father, he was a Mormon,” Jane finally said, as though that explained it all.
“I was wild in my younger days. I had done the drunken falling into bed with a hot musician thing too many times. Turns out that a Mormon was the charm.”
“Where is he now?”
“How should I know?” she said. “Anyway, it was a mistake. A twelve-year-old mis—”
“Surely you don’t think of Aggie that way.”
“I love her with everything I have,” Jane said. “I want her to be her own person, but I’m afraid I don’t like the person she’s becoming.”
“Because her values aren’t the same as yours?”
Later on, David drove her back to the school parking lot, where her car sat alone under the orange glow of the streetlights. Before she got out, he said: “Stay there, don’t move.” She wondered if she had a wasp on her. He reached out his hand, brushed some hair away from her cheek and then pulled his hand back. She thought he might kiss her, wished he would kiss her, but he didn’t.
When she saw Joe’s friend the re-enactor on a newsmagazine program, playing the CEO of a crooked company, stealing the pensions of his hard-working employees, she took it as a sign. She wrote down the production company information and within a dozen calls, she had Joe’s address and phone number. The re-enactor didn’t remember Jane, but he remembered Joe, and had a current address and phone number. Jane drove to Oxnard, tingling with the knowledge that he had been so close by all along.
She parked the car outside and called David. Since they had been out on a few dates, she gave him speed dial number two on her cell phone.
“I’m here,” she said. “Joe the Mormon.”
“You’re with him?” David said.
“I’m right outside his house,” she said. “I need to know his blood type, does that sound like a good reason to you?”
“Jane, calm down,” David said, so sensible. “What are you doing?”
“I’m seeing a family,” she whispered. “Through the window. Looks like he’s got a daughter of his own, a little younger.”
“Jane, you ought to think about this, first, before you do something to this man.”
“I know, I know.” Jane was laughing to herself. “What do I want to do?”
“Do you want me to come out there?” he asked.
She looked inside the warmly lit house, at the father of her child, and said: “No.” The scene was so good and wholesome that she couldn’t bear to disturb it, and instead just looked.