categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Short Stories
“Investigation” appeared in The Iron Horse Literary Review 12.6/13.1, “The Fiction Issue,” which appeared this past spring. The fiction issue is a great number with some terrific writers, highly recommended, and comes with a taxonomy. That is, the editors have divided their offerings into sub-categories: the short story, flash fiction, one-sentence stories (Michael Martone has a great example here), the long story, and the novel, excerpted. “Investigation,” at 8300 words, fell into their long-story category, but folks, it’s still a short story! As are all the others except the novel excerpts. I was awfully happy to be in such wonderful company. Lee Martin, who succeeded me at Ohio State and is now the MFA program director there (but more importantly a wonderful writer of both fiction and nonfiction), emailed last summer and asked if I had a story to submit. As it happened, I’d just finished the one I’m posting here. The idea for “Investigation” came from a place I love, simple as that. I wanted to set a story there, and this is what emerged. At first it was just a kind of strange love story, but in subsequent drafts the politics turned up, and welcome.
It wasn’t that Claire was the most beautiful young woman at Punta de Flecha High, Punta de Flecha, New Mexico, it was that she was the most beautiful young woman I’d ever seen, including all of MTV and Hollywood anything and Cosmopolitan Magazine, the works. And it wasn’t that Claire was the smartest young woman there, but the smartest in the world. She was in my AP calculus class, no place for Barbies or Paris Hiltons, and in my AP biology class—top of the grade chart, always wrecking the curve—AP English, too, and history, just like me. I had never taken much notice of the in-crowd girls, but Claire, Claire could manipulate an integer like no one I’d ever seen and I (like the rest of the universe) was helplessly, hopelessly, absurdly in love with her.
Of course Jeff Brick was the first to ask her out, within a bare week of her joining the senior class, having recently been dumped by the second most beautiful young woman any of us had ever seen, Josephina Fox, niece of the former Mexican presidente. But Claire, Claire had moved from Maryland someplace, her father a sudden arrival, a “top-down” appointment at the secret U.S. government lab my father worked for, which quickly spawned the rumor among us kids that he was FBI or NSA or CIA or any of a number of three-letter combinations: SPY. Many of my schoolmates’ parents worked at labs like the one my father worked for, some at Los Alamos, so well known, some as far away as the military reservation at White Sands, and many in between, so there were reasons for spies to be in our midst, or at least the gorgeous children of spies.
Jeff Brick was the quarterback of our championship football team, but also the sweetest fellow I’ve ever known, as good-looking no doubt as Claire but no Einstein. More of a beer stein, in actual practice, and an exercise addict, lovable, affable, tall as a sapling and as lithe. His father was a test pilot with a Ph.D. and an 8Y security clearance, whatever that meant, his mother an Air Force physician. He was one of the few jocks who never, not once, found occasion to call me “towelhead” or “sand nigger” or “Islamo-fascist,” or my favorite, “Falafel,” and in fact put Freddy Orco on the ground when Freddy called me “Terrorist” back in junior high. And Jeff was not a Born Again like Freddy, though on that occasion he did quote Jesus to good effect: “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.” No, not a brilliant student but a nice guy, intelligent in his own way, and certainly a catch for Claire as she was a catch for him.
Claire was what you’d expect, I suppose: lissome, blond, Nordic but somehow darkish of skin (no doubt some exotic genetics back in the family tree). Skin: it is our largest organ and (except for several openings of great interest to me then as now) seamless and blameless (blame no sins on the flesh!), glowing and inviting (at least on Claire), downy (where it entered her J.C. Penney pants), without tattoos (unlike the rest of us—these fads that will ride shotgun down the deteriorating years of our lives!). Why should increments large or small in skin shade make the slightest difference?
Claire dressed modestly but that didn’t dampen her allure; if she missed a blouse button in the rush of her private morning, my gaze was on top of the gape, if she bent to retrieve her New Testament I was reading the label on her underpants (Hanes or Fruit of the Loom, not Victoria’s Secret or Juicy Couture like the other popular girls). I was close enough to do so not by dint of friendship but only because I sat behind or next to her in every class: we were alphabetical mates: Hesterley, Claire; Hammad, Kali.
My father, a geneticist nearly seventy, was raising me alone. My young mother, mentally ill, we’d left behind in the hasty move from Kabul, Afghanistan, some fifteen years previous: much younger than Father, she lived with her own parents in her beleaguered hometown, Khowst (a dry little mountain village on the Pakistani border, home to unsavory elements and terrible unrest, at that time much on the minds of American forces, and well bombed and tortured, though my family had survived and would continue to—we lived for their e-mails), of whom I yet hold faint, fond memories. There would be no recovery for mother. Her illness and our subsequent move (not entirely unrelated) had put Father Hammad and me frequently in the way of counselors and therapists of all kinds, and the two of us had a really communicative relationship that we were at constant pains to keep fresh and loving around the hole in our lives. I really mean this and really mean everything I say; I’m not an ironic person, never speak in opposites. If Father dated, he respectfully told me of his plans, then told me logistical details only: where he and the woman had gone and what time, certain stretches of conversation. If he had sex I had no idea of it, and would have found it highly gross to know in any case. If I dated it was entirely because of his encouragement. I did not have sex, except for masturbation, which he liked to say without even slightly flinching was part of life, and even provided me with certain quite gentlemanly magazines (breasts and bottoms and here and there some fuzz, no “inner workings,” to use his phrase), even while forbidding me porn on the web. On that basis, in fact, knowing what boys are made of, he did not allow me my own internet account, but gave me nearly free rein with his own. You did not try to hide computer keystrokes of any kind from Father Hammad; Father Hammad was observant and a very nearly a computer himself. With a heavy accent, some might say, but I never noticed. We only spoke English, and I, having arrived in the U.S.A. at five years old, was thoroughly American, with an American’s sense of individuality that often troubled the old man.
“This new classmate,” he said, sitting with me long after dinner. Always we had candles. Always some music, a full CD picked by one or the other of us for appreciation, anything from Olmec tribal chants to Italian opera to the Beatles to Green Day to 50 Cent (okay, Dad hated this: too violent, too disrespectful to women) to that day’s selection, which was Shakuhachi flute music from Japan, more silence than tones. Then talk, when the music was done: “Son, I think the reason she is dark is because somewhere back there she is partly Afghan.” (We always say “Afghan” and not “Arabian” as my super-polite teachers say, because Afghanistan is not Arab, not even close.)
I smiled, for what he had said was meant as a joke. “Oh, Father, she’s exquisitely beautiful. She looks like someone leaning down from heaven.”
“And not cuckoo?”
“You ask me that every time! And I repeat: normal as wool carpet!”
“You must ask her out.”
“Brick already got her.”
“She’ll grow tired of him.”
“Well, then, Eddie Rennsalear is right behind Brick.”
“She loves science, from what you tell me. Ask her collecting.”
“Oh, Father Hammad! Insects?”
He gazed at me fondly in candlelight, said, “Or ask her to the ancient Pueblo ruins.”
“She’s more like: snowboarding at Taos.”
“But Kali, son, you don’t know how to snowboard!”
We sat in companionable silence. Father seemed to count his breaths. He said, “I just read a study. Question: how do the many male capuchin monkeys who are not alpha males pass down their genetic material?”
“They don’t, Father Hammad. That’s what makes the troupe strong.”
He raised his considerable eyebrows, raised his chin. “To the contrary,” he said. “All and only alpha-male genes would limit the pool to the point of disaster in only a few generations. Was the hypothesis. So, in a cooperative study between the government of Costa Rica, the International Primate Project, and the Department of Genetics at UCLA, the authors of the article I’m citing undertook extensive DNA analysis. Finding? In fact, the Alpha male’s genes in any given tribe were not predominant. They were not even dominant. The sub-alpha males, Alpha’s direct competitors, had no distribution at all. Sub-alpha would be your friend Eddie Rennsalear, and that sad case Freddy Orco.”
“So who was getting the young women?”
Father Hammad paused for effect, just a beat too long, gazing at me amusedly. The candles flickered.
“Who!” I said.
“The whole cadre of submissive males, that’s who! They stayed entirely out of the Alpha competition! Instead, they spent all their time with the females, engaged in female activities, grooming with them, helping with the young, looking for food. Huddling against weather, against the night. And very often while the Alphas were battling for control of their harems, the submissive males were quietly mating, every day, all day, every night, all night, with any female they fancied.”
I ate my hamburger, Father Hammad’s concession to my Americanized tastes. He always broiled the ground beef in small squares with dried fire peppers and eggplant chunks, wedges of tomato, all of it served with tabouli, never French fries, because he could not stomach potatoes, chapatti to be eaten on the side or used as a utensil. Hamburger buns made him snarl. I sipped my Coke. Coke he approved of for its caffeine, a kind of tea; he had once thought it was an Afghani product. I poured more ketchup. He approved of ketchup because somewhere in the deep past it had been Chinese, and he was very fond of the Chinese, though he’d never say why.
Father Hammad looked at me long with great affection, spread his fingers on the table, his nightly gesture before clearing. It was nearly time for my homework hours, nearly time for his evening study. He said, “Invite Claire Hesterly to Bandolier National Monument, show her the ancient Pueblo ruins. Invite her sisters, too. Not Saturday night—that’s for Brick and Eddie. Try Saturday morning. But first talk with her. Always talk with her. Talk with her Monday. Ask her how things are going with Brick. Listen very carefully to every word she says. Talk to her Tuesday. Ask about her sisters, their progress in school, sweet things they have said and done. Talk to her Wednesday. Ask about her dreams, both those in the night and those for the future. Pluck a stray thread off the arm of her sweater, compliment her eyes, any makeup she uses. You grin! On Thursday, talk about ancestral Pueblo ruins. Make your invitation: nothing to be nervous about. It’s only cliff dwellings. And, most important: invite her sisters! And I will pack a purely Beta picnic lunch for all of you, and serve as chauffeur.”
Meanwhile Father Hammad was being investigated for reasons unspecified. This made his work very difficult. Unnamed superiors had taken away his computers at the lab and then, with his permission (they had no warrants), had taken away the numerous computers at our dwelling. This made my homework all but impossible. The man in charge of the investigation, identity top secret, was known to be Claire’s father, Morton Hesterly, who’d arrived (family in tow) only six weeks before, and who was ostensibly a materials technician. But his hands were always clean, my father pointed out. “Father Hesterly,” Father Hammad called him, unafraid and unbowed: Father Hammad had done nothing unethical, nothing illegal, and quite a great deal to further the science of genetics in the American interest, if always with misgivings.
Monday Claire had all the answers in Calculus, and it was a beautiful thing. I had only to correct our teacher, Mr. Givens, once—he was forever dropping cubed roots in the tertiary wave sets. Claire gave me a look longer than necessary. I walked her to study hall, which was half indoors, half out. If you wanted to work or were on detention, you stayed inside; if your grade-point average was above a B, you could go outside. Claire’s GPA was exemplary, no doubt, but she elected to study. So I did, too, sat across from her at the large table and read my new library book: a photo compendium of women’s hairstyles. I concentrated on the construction of the French braid, a fine skill for the Beta male, but also spent time over the diagrams for the swing braid, the pretzel braid, the double-double and triple-double braids, the Russian interlocking braid, the Chinese bun braid, the warrior braid.
“Kali,” she said, teasing me. “What kind of book is that?”
“I’m trying to learn a French braid. I always wanted to be able to make a French braid. In case I see my mother again. Don’t you think it’s the queen of braids?”
I showed her the page, its careful photo-diagrams, the long-necked, exquisite model, who was in no way more attractive than my interlocutor.
“You can’t learn to braid hair from a book!” Claire said pleasantly. There was real kindness in Claire. Kindness, in fact, poured from her eyes, served as apology for her earlier teasing tone.
“Well, it’s a start.”
She went back to her book, and I to mine, but only briefly before she looked up. I could feel the warmth of her regard, breathed in it for several seconds before looking up as well.
Claire said, “Where is your mother?”
And I told her, the first time I had told anyone anything whatever about Mother Hammad’s struggles, both Claire and I welling with tears by the time the bell rang for fifth period.
The next day was her turn to share. She told me that she had had to move a dozen times since junior high school: horrible. She reeled off the names of a dozen towns, a dozen high-school mascots. She’d been able to keep a friendship or two going by email, but mostly it was very difficult to be or to have a friend or maintain a steady romance. Her sisters were her best friends, sadly. Because both of them were quite “bent,” to use Claire’s word. Ellen, one grade behind us, was actually famous for her weirdness, also for climbing the water tower during recess, also for calling Mrs. Chichester, the French teacher, “Mrs. Chimpanzee,” repeatedly, without a blink from our simian instructor. There was a sister named Judith, too, still in Junior High. “My phone-in therapist says they’re damaged from all the moves. Also, my mother has been in a major depression since Judith was born. Also, my father is basically a Nazi.”
“How did you come out so normal?”
“Oh, Kali. I didn’t. I use studying to keep me from noticing how crazy I am.”
“But you’re the sanest person I’ve ever met.”
Instead of complimented, she looked crestfallen. She said, “My father says I’m unreliable.”
I only looked at her—her lineaments much more complicated than I’d until that moment known, her beauty so mutable: first this face, then that, finally her own face, something beyond simple physicality, something that made her soul seem accessible to me. I noted a trace of makeup aglitter on her eyelids. I’d have to ask about that.
“Unreliable,” I said, a quiet joke, since her father was so completely, obviously wrong. I thought of my father’s advice, reached nonchalantly across the table to brush a crumb off the arm of her sweater, neatened her stack of books.
“Something in your teeth,” she said kindly.
I took care of that problem with my tongue, unembarrassed. Then, after a very long time of quietly being together with her across the study hall table, I said, “Is Jeff Brick fun to date?”
And every complication left her eyes. Even her posture shifted: happiness. “He is so dreamy,” she said. And then she went on, painful for me, a lot of stuff I knew about him, a few things I didn’t: he was a kind of god, apparently. The team had won yet another game over the weekend, and Claire was effusive: “Did you see that pass? He’s like a pro quarterback, Kali.”
I had not seen the pass.
She said, “Forty-seven to seven!”
“Almost unfair!” I said, catching her tone.
“But I’ll tell you a secret.” She seemed to consider her impulsiveness, gave me a long look. “The boy can’t kiss.”
A kind of heat penetrated my chest. “Anyone can kiss,” I said. Bravado, purely theoretical: I myself had never actually kissed anyone but Father Hammad, and perhaps my mother, no doubt my mother. “You just put your lips together and etcetera.”
“No, no,” she said laughing. “Not at all.”
“Not at all,” I said, the heat from my chest reaching my face.
“And he’s clumsy in other ways as well.”
“Other ways?” I said ingenuously, then realized what she was saying. Something about sex.
Claire blushed very hard, skipped elegantly past our inadvertent subject: “Plus he’s always got practice. And the team studies together! Can you imagine studying with Bobby Orco?”
I kept a neutral face, said, “Are you going to the game this Saturday?”
“It’s all the way down in El Paso. Not a chance.”
Beta heart pounding, I said, “I have an idea for something to do.”
Claire was seventeen, like me. Her sister Ellen was a famously sullen redhead one grade behind us, just turned sixteen. The mystery sister, Judith, strawberry blonde, was thirteen. All the same height, and the same height as me. Enough looks to go around in that family! The girls came giggling out of their house—an oversized development federal just like ours—rushed for the car as if they were making a prison break. Their mother came out into the sunlight behind them, just as good-looking as her daughters but sadder, the forever-trailing wife. Then the spy came out, Mr. Hesterly, and he was all smiles too, like a steel girder in a good mood.
“Devil,” Father Hammad said under his own big smile, waving back from the driver’s seat of our sensible minivan. And I understood suddenly that my old man was exacting a kind of preemptive revenge, and not only helping me, subtle man. Of course Mr. Hesterly thought his detective mission was secret from one and all. And of course he thought this innocuous play date for his daughters was a way to get closer to his target. I climbed out to wave to the oncoming monkey females. Mother Hesterly gave me a long look. Oh, was her life sad. Her husband narrowed his eyes at her. She blanched in fear, brightened all false, suddenly gave every appearance of being thrilled to see me.
“How nice of you!” she cried.
“My pleasure,” I cried back.
“Home by dinner!” their father called, the happiest cinder block you have ever seen.
Young Judith yelled, “Shotgun,” and cut behind me, climbed in the front seat I’d vacated. My father nodded with pleasure for me. I found myself buckling in between Claire and Ellen in the rearmost bench seat (the middle one having been removed by yours truly, and with some difficulty, for the scientific-equipment transfers my father was always making). Claire smelled of sweet soap, Ellen of the Wal-Mart perfume counter, overwhelming olfactory competition, myself in the crossover zone. And we were off, an hour’s drive to the National Monument. “I like that skirt,” I said to Ellen, after my father’s advice. Her thighs were freckled, hairless, thoroughly naked.
“Santa Fe,” she shot back, “Grrl Power Boutique.”
“It’s mine,” Claire said. “Actually. From like grade school.”
“Actually, it’s not yours at all, Cruella.”
“And I like yours, Claire,” I said, “I like the length.” Past her knees.
“You can braid my hair first,” Judith called back, bouncing in her seat.
So. Claire had been talking about me. My father grinned into the rearview mirror—everyone’s plan working nicely.
The ensuing silence in the way back was finally broken by Claire: “Are you ready for the bio test?”
At Bandolier we climbed out of the car, the only car in the large parking lot. The ranger station with its restrooms was closed, October being the beginning of off-season for the legions of summer RVs. We hiked along the wide trail into the mouth of Frijoles Canyon toward what informational signs told us was Tyuonyi, an Ancestral Pueblo Peoples site, excavated in the early twentieth century, perhaps two hundred rooms arranged in a closed circle. Claire walked with Father Hammad, talked with him seriously about her aspirations: she wanted to be a surgeon. “All that cutting!” said my father, disapproving. He was never happy when human played God.
Judith ran off ahead in her jumper—she looked like a very tall child, but built exactly like her sisters—high boobs, narrow hips, long legs. Ellen walked with me a few hundred paces, long enough for me to come up with words to say, but before I said them (something about how I liked the red and green of the ponderosa pines high against the blue of the sky), she suddenly bolted like the colt she was, ran off to catch her little sister. That Grrl Power skirt was no bigger than a washcloth. Her thighs, her hips, her shoulders were on another level of development from Judith’s. Ellen was the beauty of the troupe, certainly. Her hair flowed about her shoulders; her speed was breathtaking. I slowed to walk with Claire and Father Hammad.
Continuing their conversation with a mere nod at me, Claire intoned bookishly, “The population here is now thought to have been in the thousands. It all crashed at once.”
“Disease?” my father said.
“Possibly drought,” Claire said.
No, Claire was the beauty of the troupe, and she’d studied up on Bandolier.
“But no one really knows,” I said: we were all good students.
We came to the central village, a great circle of a ruin, once a sort of apartment house, a communal warren of small rooms in a band around an elliptical courtyard containing three stone-lined pits in perfect circles.
Judith was already walking through the complex as through a maze, ignoring the signs: stay on paved path. “You have to walk through everyone’s room to go to bed,” she said.
Ellen was nowhere in sight.
“I believe they climbed in through holes in the roof,” Father said. “And perhaps you need to climb out, young lady.”
The circular pits were Kivas, I knew, religious places.
As Judith obeyed father’s quiet authority, Claire read the self-guided tour booklet she’d found in the school library, paraphrasing for the rest of us: “This place was excavated around 1910. They just left all the original earthen mortar and mud plaster out in the rain to dissolve. The bricks have lasted—they were cut out of the local rock, which is volcanic. Um, later, the park service fixed everything up with cement. The Kiva here was restored more recently. There would be an altar at one end and a hole in the floor at the other—an entrance to the underworld, the entrance that all souls, all animals and humans came through. The women kept them in repair. The men did all the worshipping.” She snapped the booklet closed, said, “Sexism was part of nature to them. Anyway, Kivas are just dark pits for heathen men to conjecture in. They actually give me the heebie-jeebies.”
My father grinned, gave me a wink. “Males can be quite stupid,” he said.
We continued past Tyuonyi, took a right on a path that brought us directly to the foot of the cliffs, where ground-level thatch-roofed dwellings had been reconstructed.
“Very dark inside,” Father noted, never having been a fan of darkness.
The path climbed upward, and then higher yet, and we looked into cavity after cave after excavation, beautiful little rooms—“cavates,” Claire’s booklet called them—higher and higher above the canyon floor, great views of the ruined village below, petroglyphs in zigzags, prints of ancient hands.
“Cliff Kiva,” Claire said, pointing above us, still reading. “Large room, small anterooms.”
I left Father and Claire on the path, climbed a new ladder built authentically as the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples had built ladders, looked stupidly into a warren of rooms, seeing nothing as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. A thin stripe of hot sunlight lit the smooth rock floor. The ceiling was black with ancient soot. I climbed inside as into the maw of a beast. Suddenly, startled, I heard a splashing sound.
“Don’t look,” Ellen’s voice hissed. And that’s when I made her out, a dim figure squatting with tiny skirt hiked up and white underpants down, clearly peeing into a depression in the floor, peeing into the underworld from whence all life came, nothing untoward to see but those long legs shining, underpants practically glowing.
“Sorry,” I said, and backed away, feet first right out the entrance and back down the shaky ladder.
“Claire says that each Kiva is thought to indicate a family group,” said Father Hammad, skeptical.
Ellen appeared at the top of the ladder with her skirt askew, climbed down: best not to look.
“There you are, Ellen,” Claire said.
As a troupe we followed the path, looked into further evocative rooms, trying to imagine what had once gone on here, what the air in the place must have smelled like.
Judith came running up from behind us, when I’d thought she was ahead.
“I lived here in a past life,” she said, breathing passionately.
“You were an insect,” Ellen said.
Father Hammad laughed at that.
Ellen scowled, wheeled, trotted away from us.
I followed, trying to be discrete, hurried when I got around a corner where Father and Claire couldn’t see. Ahead, Ellen suddenly left the path and headed upwards, climbing bare rock—easy handholds—even using the danger no climbing sign for a step. Twenty feet up, she disappeared into the cliff face.
Then her bright face appeared, high above. “Check this out,” she called.
I hurried, climbed up as she had, looking back to see if Father were in view, and Claire. They were not. I followed Ellen into a big cavate, beautifully shaped, much more light than the earlier example, perfect round windows, hearth, small secondary rooms, dazzling view across the valley.
I said, “This must be the men’s restroom.”
“Don’t rat me out,” Ellen said.
“I won’t,” I said. “I thought it was funny.”
“I just had to go so bad,” she said.
“It just seemed sort of… sacrilegious, if you know what I mean.”
“It’s not like I was shitting,” she said.
We laughed at that. And then we really laughed.
She smiled for me, the first smile I’d ever seen on her face. “This place is so fucking boring,” she said warmly.
“I like it,” I said.
“What we need is a couple of hits of ecstasy.”
“Drugs?” I said.
“Or at least a big joint. Fuck!”
“I’ve never tried any drugs!”
At that, Ellen bent over and vomited frankly. She coughed a couple of times, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and that was that.
“Are you okay?” I said, alarmed.
“Don’t get your gonads in a twist,” she said.
“Well,” Father Hammad said, “All this climbing about is making me hungry. Let me go prepare our picnic. You kids go on down into the canyon—it goes a mile more—and let’s meet up back here in an hour or so. Twelve-fifteen? Okay? Twelve-thirty?”
“Oh, I’ll help you,” said Claire.
“Not necessary,” said my dad.
But Claire insisted. She was Alpha property all the way, and in this crowd Dad Hammad was number one. The Beta male was to spend his time with the Beta females.
So Ellen and Judith and I set out on the diminishing trail through the extraordinary canyon, at first strolling three abreast, then Judith skipping far ahead, finally Ellen and I alone, shuffling under cliffs filled with yet more carved-out chambers, the ruins of ancient housing. In a slight meadow I spotted a mule deer buck, its antlers very like the plants it stood among, good camouflage. “Deer,” I said, pointing.
“So what’s all this phony shit about braiding hair?” Ellen said, trying to pick the animal out of the background.
“Just an interest,” I said.
“Claire’s never going to go out with you, clown. Don’t get your hopes up.”
“Well, no, I know, I mean, I didn’t ask her to go out. I have no interest, is what I’m trying to say.”
She put a quick hand on my chest, said, “Let’s slow down here so we can snork when Judith gets around the bend.”
I knew from anatomy class exactly where my adrenal gland was, and felt a squeeze just there, under her hand, as if in my heart, and then indeed, under the influence of the adrenal compound, my actual heart starting beating alarmingly even as my feet slowed. We silently watched Judith go round the shaded corner ahead and disappear.
“You are such a liar,” Ellen said.
And gave me my first kiss, and then my second, and then instructions: “Open your mouth, dork-wad.”
There was the slightest acid hint of vomit, but her tongue was a revelation, carefully compact, finding mine, probing my molars. She kept her eyes open, looking for that deer.
Quickly arose a virginal teen boy’s most profound embarrassment: the happy erection of nights and private musings arriving in the presence of company, arriving out here in the light of day under the cliffs of glowering ancients, pushing at my pants, practically knocking, as at a locked door. And then more so, Ellen’s gripping hand upon that organ, even as the kiss continued, even as her eyes continued to search for antlers. Embarrassment building toward crisis, I lost my reserve, pointed my tongue like hers, found her individual teeth, the ridged roof of her mouth, pressed her lips with mine. I had barely the nerve to put my hands on her back. She squeezed my penis all the harder, pulled me to her.
Judith’s call was like a fire alarm, an extended shriek.
Ellen and I unclenched in a millisecond—but the shriek hadn’t been about us. Judith wasn’t even in sight. The younger girl shrieked again. Adrenaline squirt upon adrenaline squirt, we kissers loped to catch up, I increasingly less hobbled with every step, but Ellen very much in the lead. I put on the after-burners and we made the corner together. Judith was a statue in the middle of the path, and just beyond her—and I mean just a harrowing couple of feet—a large diamondback rattlesnake curled with head raised, ready to strike.
“Back up slowly,” I shouted.
But Ellen was more proactive. She picked up a large rock, barreled forward for the attack, her tiny skirt swishing about her businesslike fanny. She shoved Judith out of harm’s way with one hand, threw the rock with the other, a dust-raising thud unfortunately just behind the animal, which lunged toward her, clearly perceiving no other way to go. In hiking boots and bare legs she kicked the creature even as it struck, kicked again, and again, until the awful, innocent thing—fully six feet long—sidewound its way out of her purview.
“Motherfucker,” Ellen said, breathing hard.
Judith, having fallen in tall weeds that might have been hiding any kind of creature at all, shrieked again.
I may very possibly have shrieked, as well.
After some excited discussion of the close call, we continued on. Ahead there was a path, I knew, one that would take us to the cliff face and then up almost vertically through rocks and crags to a series of reproduction ladders that led to a remarkable, fully intact Kiva dug inside a cavate halfway up the cliff face, the best and most complete of all the Kivas on the site. I told the girls about it.
“How big can this thing be?” Ellen said.
“Yeah,” Judith said accusingly.
“It’s not big,” I told them. I’d been up there with Father Hammad, and just the two of us fit inside. We’d taken the occasion to breathe together, as Daddy would say, something on the order of meditation, not quite prayer. I’d found it unsettling: the Kiva had been built for different lives altogether.
“Then, okay, if there’s only room for two, you better go up with Ju-ju, and then come back and you and I will go up.” She winked at me in what I took to be a salacious fashion.
“Are their snakes?” Judith said.
“Not on the cliff,” I said.
“Let’s pretend it’s a hair salon,” said Judith.
“Oh, fun,” said Ellen, always sarcastic.
Up at the Kiva I descended first. “No snakes,” I said.
Judith came down, then. The roof had been added by the park service, just a platting of pine branches and corn stalks, plenty of light penetrating.
“Okay, I will have a French braid,” said Judith. She was very different from Ellen, now that I looked at her. Her hair was lighter, finer. She smelled like baby powder. She held her shoulders high, always perfect posture. She was skinny, but she was not a little kid.
“We need a comb,” I said.
“Just use your hands,” she said, nestling in the Kiva, her back to me, shoulders square.
I put my hands in her hair, pulled it back, tried to remember the book instructions, divided the soft locks into two parcels, pushed one aside (that long, delicate neck), got to work braiding the other. When I was done—five long minutes—she felt the braid all over with both hands, turned and smiled for me. She said, “Claire says you’re an ugly geek but I don’t think so.” And then she fell into me, threw her hands around my neck, tucked her head on my chest, pulled herself up into my lap where she curled up like a hurt puppy, and then bit me, nipped my pectoral muscle with her strong teeth, mewling.
The effect on me was profound, not exactly sexual, not exactly not, a first experience of caring, I would say now, though at the time all I felt was confusion, commotion.
Suddenly the Kiva entrance darkened, and Ellen’s face was above us. “Perverts,” she said calmly. She climbed down in on top of us, and Judith and I, legs all tangled together, worked on the bigger girl’s hair, some kind of double French braid that the girls both knew, the three of us pressed together hotly, myself there in the holiest of ancient places, caught between sex and caring.
Judith and Ellen and I made it back to the circle village considerably more than one hour after we’d left, but there on a blanket was one of Father Hammad’s wonderful meals, dozens of small plates of dishes exotic and familiar. There also was Father Hammad, sitting peaceably, rapt in serious discussion with Claire, whom, I felt, I’d just seriously betrayed in advance. Judith picked up her charcoal-baked bread with wonderment, played at pinching up bites of cucumber yogurt. Ellen turned up her nose, gave me a hostile yet somehow inviting look, wandered off in her perfect double French braid, unfed, kicking rocks.
“She never eats,” Claire said, holding her napkins with aplomb. Okay, looking at Claire like that, I had to say that her beauty was by far the deepest owned by the sisters, something magisterial there, aloof, foreboding, intoxicating, a great and insular poise earned in difficult travels and friendships broken by distance.
“We found the intact cliff Kiva!” Judith said. She was the one sister still capable of lightness.
“The one you and I climbed to, Father,” said I.
“A sublime place,” my dad said slowly.
“We saw a snake,” Judith said. “It almost got me!”
“Ellen saved her,” I said.
Father Hammad looked alarmed.
“Snakes are a valuable part of the ecosystem,” Claire said. And she turned to me, distinct change in her voice, said, “Let’s you and I go up there after lunch.”
“He’ll do your hair,” Judith said.
I felt my adrenal gland squeeze, my toes curl, my mouth go dry, my breath quicken, my penis stir: all sorts of physiology, all unbidden. “Ugly geek” was the phrase in my head. That hurt more than any racial slur I’d ever endured (though to be Afghani and Islamic in my case had technically nothing to do with race—Caucasians are Caucasians—and nothing to do with religion, Father H. being a Buddhist and I being a Christmas-tree agnostic). My stomach dropped. I was no longer hungry. I had in addition a strong case of what one of my human ecology books called epididymal edema, what the coarser boys had referred to as “blue balls,” an additional something I’d never before experienced, exquisite pain. Ugly geek! I couldn’t look at Claire, gazed instead fondly at Judith in her mussed braids.
“We counted two-hundred-forty rooms,” Claire said.
“And that of course was simply the ground floor of the original,” said Father Hammad.
“There are more dwellings all the way down along the cliffs,” I said.
“What a paradise this must have been,” said Claire hotly. “Your father and I have been trying to map out the agriculture.”
“Where did you learn to braid hair?” said Judith.
We ate the lovely meal. Afterwards Dad pulled his ornate box of dominoes from the basket and showed them to Judith, who was delighted, captured per plan. Under her rapt gaze the old man set up a children’s version of the game, one I remembered well.
Ellen had disappeared altogether. “She’ll be in the car,” Claire said. “She’s always in the car.”
Big Sister Hesterly and I walked side by side down the wide path into the throat of Frijoles Canyon. I pointed to the petroglyphs her sisters and I had spotted earlier, pointed out the deer (and two new females), still in its place, showed her the spot the snake had stopped Judith.
“I’m so sad about your mother,” Claire said out of nowhere. “That’s so sad. Your dad told me more about her. I didn’t know she’d chopped her hair. Do you remember that? Was that the first indication?”
Yes it was. “I feel ugly,” I said, not really meaning to.
“No,” she said. “You are … very cute.”
We walked in silence to the path that led to the ladders up the cliff to the intact Kiva, climbed silently, she first, an a posteriori revelation of musculature above me.
In the Kiva we sat side by side, not communicating.
“An ugly geek,” I said finally.
“You are … actually … kind of hot,” she said. “In your own way. And if I hadn’t met Brick first I would have fallen for you. Just so you know. I admire your intellect, okay fine, but you have a great butt, too. And such nice skin.”
“What I’m saying is that Judith said that you called me an ugly geek.”
“Oh! Shut up! Judith is a brat and a massive liar.”
“Actually, I kind of believe her.”
Claire said, “I would never say such a thing, even about an actual ugly geek, which you are not. I would kiss you right now, you’re so cute. And by the way, the smart part is sexy, too. But I’m a very loyal woman.” She turned as Judith had, turned in that cramped space. “I have a new bra,” she said with sudden heat, not just another non sequitur. Her kiss was of a different order than Ellen’s, more stately, less impulsive, cautious almost, a little dry, no great hunger. “There,” she said.
“More,” I said.
“My family will move away soon,” she said.
“I’ll find you,” I said.
“You may hate us by then,” she said.
“Listen, Claire, we know all about your father and his investigation.”
Long silence. “He’d say he’s only doing his job.” She kissed me again, without Ellen’s aggression, then looked me in the eye. “He’s heinous,” she said.
We kept kissing, me somehow without the urge to take it further despite my new sense of the possibilities, and the unbearable pressure inside my scrotum.
“Brick just jams his fingers in me,” she whispered.
I kissed her more, nothing to say on the score of Brick and his fingers.
“It’s uncomfortable,” she said.
“He should respect you,” I said.
“He never lingers anywhere,” she said.
I lingered at her lips—no idea what else to do.
“He’s never kissed me this long, not once,” she murmured.
“You’re a loyal young woman,” I said.
“Do you know how to open a bra?”
“That’s what I like about you.” She reached behind her, quick gesture, and a certain tautness under her sweater was released. She had to actually put my hand on her breast, but it was my own idea after a great long while to open her shirt, my idea to suckle at her small pink nipple, to linger long. She kneeled between my legs to allow me access and somehow in the process brought the pressure of her thighs to bear on my pent testicles.
“That’s all I want,” she said.
“Proper kisses,” I said.
“I’m on the pill,” she said.
We undressed in a lingering struggle, all to the tune of my nervous giggles. She helped me pull down my boxers, even as I tugged at her belt. Unbidden, very suddenly, quite a bit too soon, I had my first orgasm in the presence of another human, positively geothermal in its propulsive power, a kind of spurting boy fountain between us, all to a squeal of hilarity and fellow feeling on Claire’s part. She smeared the stuff on her belly and her breasts, tasted it daintily (if a tad too expertly), acceptance personified. “You’re so cute,” she said.
I knew not to rest upon my own satisfaction. I had read in some depth about what women are supposed to appreciate more than anything else sexual, had read several articles, in fact, articles in the many issues of my father’s gentlemanly magazines, and contrived to bring with my virgin lips and flittering tongue and gently probing fingers her cries to the consecration of the Kiva, Jeff Brick be damned.
Judith and Father Hammad had found a frog in the Frijoles Creek, a robust little brook that still greened the Ancestral Pueblo Peoples’ Eden (its source is snow-fed springs—global warming will be the end of it before too long). Claire and I took an interest, leaned over them to look, trying hard not to exude sexuality. But Father cast an eye on his only son, his Beta boy, all seeing. And then Judith cast her own eye at her sister, a stare of pure furious jealousy.
I was proud.
“Well,” Father said, not releasing my eye, “We’d better get going.”
He and Claire packed the picnic back into its efficient basket and cooler, and we walked as a tribe out of the ancient village and back to the car, short one monkey. But Ellen’s legs stuck out the open side door of the van, making us laugh—Claire had predicted where we’d find the girl. We choked our mirth back quickly: one of the legs was swollen and veined red and purply black, dotted oddly with fat beads of sweat, and Ellen was unconscious. Father Hammad checked her pulse: irregular, as was her breathing.
“The snake!” Judith wailed, and fell into tears.
In the scuffed toe of Ellen’s right hiking boot, Father found the embedded fangs of the serpent. The sneaky animal had found a way to delay its wrath: Ellen’s kicking at stones had gradually worked the fangs through the leather and to her skin. Father Hammad eased the boot off, put a finger to a pair of simple scratches. “She won’t die,” he said. “But we must hurry if we are to prevent tissue damage.” In the trunk of the car he had a doctor’s first-aid kit, made up for the Southwest and therefore complete with antivenin, a tiny hypodermic shot he administered expertly under Ellen’s swollen knee. We pulled the young woman further into the car across the carpeted floor, covered her. In the process I couldn’t help noticing her exposed panties, dirty pink, not white at all. Claire sat on the floorboards to be beside her. Racing, I put the picnic in the way back, and then we slammed doors, and were off.
“Her boot saved her,” Father said, less calm. “But we’ve lost a lot of time.”
He drove evenly out of the canyon, but very fast, up the long inclined road to the level of the surrounding desert, where finally his cell phone worked. We met the Medevac helicopter at a crossroads—unparalleled drama, at least in my life—two very efficient military EMTs loading Ellen in while giving her another shot, wrapping her in a space blanket, covering her face with an oxygen mask. Claire went along for the short flight to Albuquerque.
Judith wept more on the slow drive down there—she had suddenly found herself alone with virtual strangers—sobbed and demanded I sit in the back seat with her, molded herself to me, fell asleep.
Father Hammad was arrested quietly two mornings later. Nothing to do with Ellen—she was fine, the main problem not having been the slight exposure to rattler venom but its combination with severe dehydration, and the fact (discovered in the process of treatment) that she was several months pregnant. “Gravid,” as the ER physician put it to my dad. Also nothing to do with the fact that she announced in her waking delirium that I had tried to “poke” her. That information was duly relayed to her father when he arrived from White Sands that evening, the word gravid having already been translated for his benefit. He put two and two together and got about a thousand. You have never seen steel turn go molten so fast as in the blast furnace of that error.
“Pregnant!” Father Hesterly roared.
Claire was present. Judith, too. They cringed, terrified of their father. Judith looked as if she believed the charges, snuck glances at me, offered the subtlest warm assurance: she would hold her tongue. Claire looked at me long, more chilly: no matter what, I’d have some explaining to do to Claire, and it might take years.
My own dad couldn’t help a queer smile: Mr. Hesterly was a comic strip character.
“It was not I,” I said, all eyes upon me, even the doctor’s, even a nurse’s. I said it again: “Not I.”
But that feeble protest, true as the blue sky, wasn’t enough to stop Father Hesterly from leaping upon me and pummeling my face with his efficient fists. Only Claire’s strength got him off me, only Judith’s cries slowed him down. His jail night (for assault and battery) had nothing to do with Dad’s jail night two days later, nothing at all.
No, Father was arrested on the basis of thirty e-mails to Khowst, Afghanistan, that in fact I had made using his account, e-mails to my mother, who didn’t exactly know me but could read Pushtu characters, and whom I knew loved to hear just about anything about hair, especially anything about braids, exulted in braids there in her room at the Facility for Mind Soundness. I translate it thus to give the literal meaning of her institution’s Afghani name. Because the translator for the investigation, while skilled for an American, got caught in several linguistic traps, translating the Pushtu phrase “Mind Soundness” as “Intelligence,” “braid” as “helix,” that word appearing dozens of times in my e-mails, its place in my innocuous, sometimes nonsensical, always childish Pushtu sentences rendering the messages cryptic, rendering them suspicious, too, since supposedly they were coming from a scientist working on ultra-secret, ultra dangerous DNA-based weaponry. I’d called my French braid a double braid, and that came out “double helix,” for example.
Father Hammad was released when the mistake was discovered (the New York Times and I helped with this discovery), had to make his own way back from Hungary, of all places, a forest road far outside Budapest, and not the Punta de Fleche County Jail.
From which Father Hesterly was released with a restraining order.
Two weeks later Claire and Ellen and Judith were moved to Palo Alto, California, where their father, having blown his cool and his cover (to much international attention), looked for work. Claire contacted me every day—e-mails, text messages, paper letters, phone calls—enormously pleased that I wrote and phoned and messaged her back. Jeff Brick lasted only three weeks at that distance. I lasted the whole rest of senior year, with a secret visit around the vernal equinox, Claire meeting me for a nearly ski-less ski trip in Taos, during which I learned to make love.
And now, these six years later, steadies all the way through college (Georgetown for her, Virginia for me), we are an item unchallenged, medical students at Johns Hopkins. Now when her father calls me “Babaganoush,” it’s only a joke. Ha-ha. And anyway, he’s far away. When her mother calls me son, she’s quite serious, if just as prescription-pill vacuous as always. Ellen is a new person: four years in the Marines, go figure. Judith has her troubles, can’t seem to stay in college, weighs a hundred pounds on a good day.
My mother died last spring, hacked at her hair once more, hacked at her breast, and finally flew to heaven. People say, Oh, you knew it was coming. But of course that’s no comfort, and wrong: I always thought I’d see her again.