The year James Agee died, my mother was finishing high school. She could have read his obituary in the paper but she was probably dropping the needle onto a record instead. All those sock hops—a relentless schedule—meant a girl had to practice. Her legs are so swollen now they couldn’t dance if you paid them. While watching her rocket program, she props the knurly white logs on a milk crate. Look, she yells, he’s hanging in the blackness from just that tiny cord and what if it snaps? I say from the next room: It’s made of steel. It won’t.
James Agee had a drinking problem. He slept around on all three of his wives. He was a socialist obsessed with Jesus. He criticized the government and other writers and his own failed self. By the time he died—of a stopped heart in a taxi, age forty-five—he was in every sense a stray.
And so smart you could hear his brain tick ten blocks away.
And so louche you could lick him off the bottom of your shoe.
It would be better if I didn’t think about him. But I do.
My mother is blattering about grace and bravery. They have launched a new rocket and its astronauts are so graceful and brave. Her favorite channel shows their faces, miles above Earth i
n airless air. That one’s a schoolteacher, she says. Far left—see? She’s got guts, that teacher. Maybe she’ll write a book about her adventures.
I was stretched on a towel in the backyard, fourteen and no friends, when I first read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. When the page said, “And spiders spread ghosts of suns between branches,” a nerve I’d never felt before throbbed between my legs.
She shoves her hairdo into my room: Shall I open a can?
It is not soup we are talking about. It is not beer or tuna. Tapioca is the canned good of choice in this house. You wouldn’t think it was the best idea to pack pudding in tin, but they do and my mother eats a few cans a night under the pretense that I am sharing them with her. Two bowls, two spoons, one mouth.
Some speck on the wafer of her brain tells her that this rocket is traveling now. It is not, says her brain, a space mission that took place in the early eighties but in fact an event of today. As we learn about the astronauts, observe their watery movements in the capsule, my mother refers to their moods and personalities in the present tense. When she gets up—slowly, slowly—to make another cup of hot water, I see worms dance on the purpled backs of her knees.
A question from Famous Men is burnt onto the skin behind my forehead: “How was it we were caught?” I know a little about caught. I know enough. There is this house. There is my mother. There is until she is dead.
She loves to plump the pillows on her Ku Klux furniture. Each pringly tassel must fall just so. She doesn’t like to sit on her own sofa anymore; she will cause too big of a dent. She uses a folding metal chair. I go on the striped wingback, rest the dictionary on my thighs, and read aloud. Her ghouly eyes listen. Sometimes her mouth, on its way to the pudding spoon, says: Read that part again.
The word is moxa, I say, and here are your choices: a medieval fortified keep; a small instrument used to brush hair off the South American goose; a preternaturally skilled hoagie maker; or a flammable material obtained from the leaves of Japanese wormwood.
Hoagie is a disturbing word, my mother says.
You have ten seconds.
Well, she says, I don’t know what hoagie means so how can I choose?
It means submarine sandwich. In other parts of the country.
Then there’s that goose—
Five seconds, I say.
I’ll go with flammable material.
Are you sure?
Ha! she says happily, knowing she’s right, since on wrong guesses I never ask.