Even when you hear bad news face to face, you don’t hear it; you overhear it, that is, you hear yourself repeating what you heard. Loretta Marx learned the truth of this one afternoon when she overheard her mother talking to a drive-time talk-show host. Mrs Marx’s staticky voice told Dinah Doherty, “I have a condition.” Loretta’s mother told Dinah Doherty she was either pregnant or she had a tumor. She knew it was for real, she said, because she’d diagnosed herself using The Home Shopping Network’s search engine.
See? No unnecessary suspense here. Two options, either A, baby brother or sister, or B, a slow downhill to death. Either way, it was bad news for Loretta Marx.
Loretta Marx is a not uncommon combination of names in Dayton, Ohio, where parents pluck Christian names from the TV. Mr Marx and Mrs Marx named their third child after Loretta Lynn, their last interesting action in recorded history.
Mr and Mrs Marx, whose first names have rusted away from lack of use, have rocked away the 22 years since they named their only living child after a coal-miner’s daughter in side-by-side recliners (royal blue for aesthetic interest, Scotchguarded for practicality), spooning food into their mouths from fold-up, built-in trays. One of them always has the remote in hand. Click, they say. Click-click, they say when Loretta pokes her head in to ask for attention or car keys. Click-click? they might say, if her head stays poked inside the room for more than half a minute, click-click? they might ask, while innumerable pixels bring them horse-races, quiz shows, fly-fishing displays, but Loretta knows they aren’t listening. She goes ahead and takes what she wants.
Which was how she came to be driving the Volare one Friday afternoon when her mother came on the radio and told Dinah Doherty about her condition. Loretta looked at her hands on the steering wheel and her hands were shaking. She pulled over to listen better.
“Home Shopping’s search engine? What a reliable method that is, Mrs Marx,” said Dinah Doherty. “All you listeners out there, listen up!” Her studio audience laughed. “I’m serious now. Home Shopping’s search engine is just one of the benevolent creator’s finest creations. Now please go on, Mrs Marx.”
“Well, there’s really not much to tell, Dinah. I entered my symptoms at the prompts: abdominal swelling, nausea, cessation of menses—”
“All you listeners remember when that happened to me, and you remember what I said: Good-bye condoms; hello party!” Raucous studio laughter.
“That’s right, Dinah. I listened to you and that’s why I went to the Home Shopping search engine. Nothing wrong with my memory.”
Every listener heard Mrs Marx clink a glass against her teeth and swallow. Only Loretta knew she was drinking some of the warm blackberry brandy that bloomed eternal on a Snoopy coaster by her mother’s left hand. Mr Marx would have known, too, but certainly he was not listening, because it was Gator Friday, the exciting conclusion of Lost Limb week.
“Mrs Marx, now, I want you to sit up straight, are you sitting up straight?”
“Yes, Dinah, I am.”
“Spine straight, eyes front … ready?”
“Yes, Dinah, I am.”
“Now concentrate and pray with me. Dear Benevolent Creator, let a little babe come into the world for to be a joy to her mama and her daddy and her three older sibs.”
“Well, but Dinah—”
“You just get that tumor right out of your mind, hear me?”
“Yes, but Dinah—”
“Don’t get yourself all weak or the positive forces will leak right out of you.”
“But Dinah you—”
“If you don’t believe that I have the creator’s ear, you shouldn’t have never picked up your phone to call. If you don’t believe—”
Mrs Marx said, “I do believe, Dinah. But my two oldest? They’re gone on to a better life. So if you’d please pray it’s a little babe coming to gladden her parents and her big sister, if you’d make it right that way for me, Dinah, if you would, please…”
Ten seconds is a long radio silence. Many listeners probably clicked to a new channel in that time. Not Loretta. Her attentiveness was a dream-time demographic.
Dinah Doherty said, and she said it damn quickly, “Dear ‘nev’lent Crayer, li’l babe k’m’inna worl’ joy tuh-uh mam an-uh dahey ‘ner ola sist, amen.”
“Oh thank you, Dinah, so much.”
“Well, thank you, Mrs Marx, I’m afraid that’s all the time we have right now, lots of callers on the line, who’s next, whooo’s next to tap the pipeline of love?”
A new caller came on. Loretta clicked the radio off. She’d never known exactly what happened to her older brothers. It was a terrible, terrible thing, and it could never happen to her, and she wasn’t to worry her pretty head about it, and it resulted in The Settlement. The Settlement paid her parents to sit in their side-by-side royal blue recliners; The Settlement paid for their pink three-up, three-down in a neighborhood of pink and blue and yellow three-ups and three-downs where some people had pools and some installed mature landscaping and others preferred unbroken swathes of Kelly green lawn. When Loretta and the neighborhood were young, its Norway maples still in rubber bondage to iron stakes, she imagined that a dark storm, like the tornado in the Wizard of Oz, had simply swept away her older brothers’s bodies and her parents’s minds. She no longer thought that, but she didn’t have anything else to think. She just didn’t know. Mr and Mrs Marx told her she didn’t need to know. The Settlement paid a nice lady named Marcia to come in every morning and walk Loretta to school and walk Loretta home from school and play with her until bedtime and put her to bed and take her to the zoo and art museums and libraries on weekends. Mr and Mrs Marx reigned from their royal blue thrones but their rule was benevolent. They said, Yes. If Loretta could get their attention, they gave her whatever she asked for. Often she couldn’t get their attention, because Gator Friday and Tupperware Monday and Days of Our Lives required constant, close scrutiny. When young Loretta tried and failed to get a piece of that close attention, Marcia took her away and made her marshmallow and peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread. White bread makes you swell up like a balloon, Marcia said. She watched Loretta eat the sandwiches. Marcia was always there, always.
Until one day when Loretta was fourteen, when Marcia’s passion for the plumber was at last reciprocated. Loretta witnessed its consummation. It was summer and it was Wednesday. It had to have been Wednesday because Wednesday was Budget Club day. Budget Club was outside the house. Fifty times a year Mr and Mrs Marx hauled themselves out of their recliners every Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. and put on clothes that didn’t quite close any more—I don’t know how I gain an ounce, Mr Marx said querulously every time, considering I eat like a bird. Here’s a safety pin, Mrs Marx answered every time, we’ll order new clothes from catalogues. It doesn’t matter, she said every time, and Loretta watched closely when she said this, since when her mother said it there was a moment when she did not look like a person who had always lived in a royal-blue recliner in front of a 40-inch TV, when her mother said It doesn’t matter someone else, someone previous, fleeted across her features. But that look always melted away after Mrs Marx handed her husband a large safety pin, and in their clothes closed by safety pins they waddled to their Volare and oomphed themselves in and Mr Marx backed out of the driveway in a series of short jerks that did not budge a charcoal fedora that, winter and summer, perched high and disposedly on the crown of his head.
That summer Wednesday, when Loretta was two months short of fifteen, a few seconds after her parents peered and crawled and peered and juttered through the first intersection, the plumber drove his rattling pick-up into the driveway. “Marcia!” he cried, and took the nice lady in his arms.
“John!” she cried, melting passionately while keeping one responsible eye on where Loretta sat on a high stool stirring muffin mix.
“Oh, Marcia, Marcia! I heard about the lotto!”
Loretta got up and hopped, left foot on the red tiles, right foot on the yellow, to the freezer. She excused herself to their locked bodies. She hopped around them and extracted a six-ounce Ziploc of frozen blueberries which Marcia had sealed and frozen the previous summer for just such an occasion.
“Oh, John, John!”
“Oh, Marcia. With your little savings and my know-how, what a plumbing business we’ll start in this town!”
“Oh, John. With my hundred thousand and your know-how, we can start a franchise!”
“Oh, Marcia. Marcia!”
Loretta hopped, left foot red, right foot yellow, to the microwave. She defrosted the blueberries and went on rehearsing for Act Two with Jim. You can’t have forgotten that grown-ups dance their pointless jigs in orchestra pits, while teenagers enact real dramas on the stage. She warmed the blueberries and she rehearsed her lines. That morning, Jim Cooper had stopped his bicycle to tell her he was playing shortstop. He popped a wheelie right in front of her. He said she should come watch a game sometime if she wanted. Loretta stirred warm blueberries into the muffin mix. The baseball game would start in two hours. Marcia and the plumber were so close together you couldn’t pass a hair between them. Loretta popped a warm blueberry into her mouth. They didn’t notice.
So that was the end of Marcia. Since then, Loretta had been pretty much on her own. It took months before Mr and Mrs Marx noticed that the nice lady was gone. After they noticed, they said Loretta was so reliable she could take care of herself. They said they didn’t worry about her. Which was true. Loretta didn’t bother to go away to college. She already had the freedom her classmates craved. She woke when she chose and she slept when she chose and there was never any nonsense about curfews. The tornado or whatever had swept all that kind of nonsense from her parents’s heads, and The Settlement ensured her tuition at the finest university in town.
Now Loretta was 22 and her parents still sat and still rocked in their royal-blue recliners but she sat behind the wheel of their Volare, shaking. If her mother were to die! Who would sit next to Mr Marx then? If her mother were to have a child! Who would take care of it? Would the expression that flickered over her mother’s face as she said, It doesn’t matter, every Budget Club Wednesday as she handed her husband a safety pin, would that expression come back? If it did, would it stick around?
Now the Norway maples were 25 feet tall, and some lawn swathes had been replaced by mature landscaping, and some mature landscaping replaced by lawn swathes, and the pink and blue houses had faded more unevenly than the yellow three-ups and three-downs. But the same sprinklers hissed every summer, and Jim Cooper came around every autumn to put up the same storm windows, and Jim Cooper came around after every snowfall to shovel their drive, and every spring Loretta fucked Jim Cooper in his franchised plumber’s truck, hissing “Pipeline of Love” into his ear every spring. Because Jim Cooper was married now, only in springtime when he brought the franchised plumber’s truck around to clean their sewers did she and he have their secret moments.
Loretta was scrupulous about certain things—who knows where she learned it—and one thing she was scrupulous about was saying what she meant. She said “fuck” because that was what she did with Jim Cooper. She was saving “love” for when she meant that. She was only 22, but she was sure she knew the difference between those two words. It was one of a few things she was sure about, so she hung on to it. She didn’t know how she was going to earn a living, or where she’d live, or what her colors were, or how her older brothers passed to a better life, but she knew that fucking wasn’t loving and she held on to that knowledge. You remember how few certainties there are at 22.
Loretta drove home very very carefully. The dark cloud might take the shape of a truck that would barrel through an intersection, or it might look like a drunk who drove on the left-hand side, the dark cloud could take many shapes, and any of them could swallow her up. Again, she didn’t think this, exactly, but she didn’t know what else to think.
She called “I’m home!” as she came up the front steps, though only she and her parents had keys. It kept them calm. When, as a teenager, taking her cues from classmates whose parents had to be evaded, she’d crept in at 2 a.m., Mr and Mrs Marx had jumped, positively jumped in their recliners (ruffling the upholstery nap to such an extent that it was visible by next morning’s light) and pleaded with her not to scare the life out of them again. We trust you, Mr Marx said. Of course we do, said Mrs Marx. Just say you’re home, said Mrs Marx. Just tell us you’re home, said Mr Marx.
“I’m home!” she called as she came through the front door. The hallway was papered in smiling dogs and lions, a peeling Oriental pattern put up by Joe Cooper (Jim’s father) to celebrate Loretta’s third birthday. The Settlement had bought these things.
Mr and Mrs Marx were, of course, enthroned in their royal blue recliners, gently rocking in the fading sunset. “I’m home!” Loretta said a third time as she came into the livingroom. Mr Marx stood up. This was a triumph of human will over hydraulics: 290 pounds is a considerable weight to lift and move. Mr Marx spoke: “Loretta,” he said, “it’s time to tell you about your brothers.”
Loretta fell down on the couch. She couldn’t remember the last time her father’d spoken to her. Grunting, “humm, about time” when she came through the door didn’t count as speaking. He reached a pitch of enthusiasm when she was top speller in eleventh grade, which he expressed by saying, “hummm, not bad, not bad at all.” Once, Mr Marx tapped on the franchised plumber’s truck’s window, one afternoon when she and Jim Cooper had forgotten about time and were still limb-in-limb. “Humm, need to move the truck,” he said. Later that evening he pulled his chin out of his chest during one of Mrs Marx’s bathroom sorties to say, “humm, latex, Sally Jesse says make sure it’s latex” but Loretta didn’t consider that speaking.
Loretta looked up at her father from the couch. “Time to tell you about your brothers,” he said. “Humm.” Mrs Marx rocked in her royal-blue throne and said, “Click” or she made the sound “click”, Loretta hadn’t turned her head fast enough to tell. Mrs Marx said, “Plus I have a condition. I have to tell you about it.”
“I know,” said Loretta. “I heard you talking to Dinah Doherty this afternoon.”
“So you heard,” said Mrs Marx. She took a healthy slug of blackberry brandy. “So you know.”
“You never told me about my brothers,” said Loretta.
“It was a long time ago. But, family intimacy depends on sharing history, happy times and sad times, with your children. Larry reminded us of that.” Loretta looked blank. “Larry, you know, three o’clock, Channel 67, Monday and Wednesday. Larry.”
“I never heard you talk like this,” Loretta said.
“It all comes back to me, like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist,” said Mrs Marx, and laughed abruptly. Her laugh came out of a younger woman’s chest, one wrapped limb-in-limb with a younger Mr Marx in a pick-up truck’s front seat. “That’s Firesign Theater,” said Mrs Marx. When Loretta still looked mystified she said, “Well, I’ll call you if they come on some time,” and sank back into her throne.
Mr Marx was still standing. “Humm,” he said. “Time to tell you about your brothers.” Loretta sat up. She assumed her living-room attitude: her back to the TV, knees together, legs aslant, as Cindy Crawford sat.
“Yes,” she said, when Mr Marx had stood swaying on his legs for a full minute. “Yes?” she asked.
“It was an accident,” he said. “When Princess Diana.”
“When she was marrying Prince Charles.”
“We were washing the boys so they could sit up and watch.”
“Your mother went downstairs to make sure reception was good. This was before cable. Since we got cable, reception’s always good. Broadcast TV is what there was then. You had to have antennas on your roof. We had an antenna.”
“But then what—”
Mrs Marx poked her head beyond her throne’s side-wings to announce, “Antennas function best where there’s no interference. Blow dryers, microwaves, lot of things can interfere.” And then she sat back, pursed lips, spine straight, eyes front.
Mr Marx nodded. He sat down. “That’s a fact. Kinds of weather can interrupt a show. Electrical storm? Hoo-boy. Shut it right down. Your picture gets jumpy when there’s interference. Sound quality. hummm. Signal can drift right off, hummm.”
“Yes, but what happened to them?” Loretta asked
“Your mother hollered from downstairs—” Mr Marx said.
“I hollered, ‘We lost picture!’ and—” Mrs Marx said.
“I come running from upstairs—”
“We’d lost focus.”
“Whole screen was snow.”
“Sound gone static.”
“Yes but what happened?” Loretta stood up. “They were in the bath and what happened?”
“You’re blocking the TV, Loretta,” Mr Marx said.
“It’s High-Heel Roundup, Loretta,” Mrs Marx said.
“Remember you had a pair of pumps like that?” Mr Marx said to Mrs Marx.
“Mine were blue,” Mrs Marx said.
“Yes. Blue. But square-toed like that, weren’t they?”
“Yes. These are some kind of miracle leather, though. You could wear them in rain.”
“What happened to them in the bath?” Loretta asked.
“That’s good, good camera angle on the mules,” said Mrs Marx.
“Marabou trim?” asked Mr Marx.
“Can you wear them, in your condition?”
“Tell me, what happened?” Loretta said.
“They went for a swim.”
“Jumped out of their bath seats and dived in.”
“They chose to.”
“They didn’t have to.”
“Of course, they weren’t supposed to be able to choose to.”
“We bought those seats right off the screen.”
“Said they were guaranteed to hold an infant even if he was dipped in olive oil.”
“But they didn’t.”
“Uh-huh. And our boys didn’t have any olive oil on them.”
“No they didn’t.”
“Not a drop of oil, but the seats didn’t hold them.”
“They could still get out.”
Loretta stood up. “So my brothers drowned in bathwater?”
Mr Marx said, “That’s right.”
Mrs Marx said, “Or wasn’t that on Oprah last week?”
He said, “Maybe you’re right.”
She said, “Oprah’s still keeping that weight off.”
“The parents sued the manufacturer.”
“They got a big settlement.”
“Bigger than the pit bull settlement.”
“Like they had on Animals That Rend and Tear, that British show.”
“Those parents sued the dog’s owner.”
“For four point six million.”
“You don’t remember what happened to my brothers? If they drowned?”
“Loretta, honey, you’re blocking the screen again,” said Mr Marx.
“In bath seats that were supposed to confine them?”
“Just move a little sideways, Loretta,” said Mrs Marx.
“You’re not sure if you got a settlement from the bath seat manufacturer?”
“We just told you.”
“Didn’t we just tell you?”
“Or if the settlement came from some pit bull owner?”
“Well, I remember those boys sure liked to take baths,” said Mr Marx.
“That’s right. They’d play in them for as long as you’d let them,” said Mrs Marx.
“They wanted to be extra-clean for Princess Diana’s wedding.”
“By the time your father got good reception, Princess Diana was coming up the church steps in that dress—”
“Wasn’t she pretty?”
“Oh, she was real pretty.”
“Wouldn’t have missed that dress for anything. It was worth something, I bet.”
“It’s not like they wasted the money, either. The Royal Family, they don’t throw money away. That dress is part of the Royal Inheritance right this minute, I bet you.”
“I’ll bet you’re right.”
“We got tape of the wedding.”
“Parts of it we had to miss.”
“Want to see the tape, Loretta?”
“Want us to run the tape for you, Loretta?”
But Loretta was in the kitchen, pulling handfulls of crushed ice from the freezer, holding handfulls of ice against her chest to bring her heartbeat down.
Mr and Mrs Marx never said another word about the boys. They never talked again about Mrs Marx’s condition. Nine months later, Loretta knew it wasn’t a baby, but if it was a tumor, they never spoke of it to her. It vanished like evil, like smoke, like a mini-series. By then Loretta had moved to Seattle with her diploma. She worked for ecological activists in exposed brick offices with a downtown view of the water. She didn’t have TV. For relaxation, she visited endangered wilderness.
When Loretta’s parents died in their recliners, when side by side they putrefied in their royal blue recliners, strangers notified her, automated agency personnel who picked up the phone, by policy, to inform the deceased’s next of kin.
She rooted through their lives for answers. Among their boxes, nothing. In the far northwest corner of the attic one box of clothes and toys marked “Samuel” and one marked “Daniel”, both underscored by a wavering red marker that read, “To Salv. Army.” They had plenty of wear in them. Loretta called the Salvation Army to come and get them.
She also called on Jim Cooper. While his wife was upstairs giving their boys a bath, Jim told Loretta he’d found a letter to his father. It called drowning a good end to unlawful embraces, and was signed with an “M” and an “x” in it, but it was too water-stained to read. But, he said, he thought she should know.
Loretta asked Jim Cooper to keep that letter. She told him she liked to think of him keeping it for her. She told him she liked to think of him keeping it in his franchised plumber truck’s glovebox, which he said he’d be glad to do for her. For old times’s sake, he said.
For one year after her parents’s death, Loretta kept away from open water, new moons, ladders, black cats, Volares, mirrors, high places, Fridays, and spilt salt. She kept these superstitions on tap, though she no longer worried about stepping on sidewalk cracks.
A year and a day after Jim Cooper told Loretta about the letter, she went for a walk at lunchtime, hands deep in her pockets. She passed an electronics store. In its plate-glass window, dozens of televisions, each projecting a different image: snapping crocodiles, bounding breasts, hanging wallpaper, weeping children, beaming contestants, flowing gowns as the dance rolled on. Loretta leaned against the birdshat pillar and her irises rasped her eyelids and her throat dried snap as a June arroyo and she didn’t close her eyes and she didn’t stop trying to swallow as she walked straight back to her job of making sure nothing, ever, careless withered.