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Diana Dawson Plattner Cleome

My mother came out to the porch where I was sitting in the glider, reading a stack of brochures. They'd been in a yellow plastic phone-book bag I'd found hanging on the knob of the front door. Maps of Vicksburg, passes to the military park and the tour homes, brochures of the business district, a coupon book that said, "For You In Your New Home--Brock Furniture." We had been in that house for eight years.

I looked up at my mother, who stood in the porch doorway, her hair flat on one side. There were pillow-creases on her face. She had that stunned look of someone who's slept hard in the middle of the day. "What is it?" I said.

She focused on me a long moment and said, "Have you ever heard of someone having orgasms in their sleep?"

"What?" I said.

"I'm talking about sex dreams," she said.

"I know what you're talking about." I raised a hand in a warding-off gesture. "Please."

She looked out toward the yard, blinking and rubbing her arm. She looked astonished, perhaps over what she'd said, she who had never once mentioned the most basic facts of life to me. For three years books had appeared silently in the stack on the coffee table or on the shelf in the hall. Changes, Changes, Changes. Your Body and You.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I just thought that was something I could ask you."

"You thought I'd know?" I said. "You had a sex question and my name just dropped into your mind?"

She wiped her palm from her forehead to her chin, down her throat and inside her collar. I thought suddenly of her word for forehead: farrid. Let me feel your farrid. She was staring, still full of sleep, not blinking. She shook her head. "I can't imagine what I was thinking," she said. "Just put it out of your mind."

"I will live to be a thousand, Mom, and not be able to put that out of my mind." I bent over to scoop up the coupons scattered on the floor. As I hooked my fingers under them something ran under the nail of my index finger and I yelped, shaking my hand. "Shit."

"What did you do?" She was squeezing her index finger with her other hand.

"Splinter," I said.

"Poor finger, do you need tweezers?" she said. "I'll get some tweezers."

I sat there and listened to the kitchen drawers rolling on their casters and the sound of the refrigerator door peeling open, then slapping shut. She came back with tweezers, a bottle of Mercurochrome and an ice cube in a nest of paper towels.

"Hold this on the nail for a minute," she said, handing me the ice. "Do you want a needle?"

"Christ no," I said. She squatted by the glider and held onto the arm, a woman of fifty, three times married--divorced, widowed, widowed. Her white-blonde hair, delicate and teased, lifted off her face in the breeze from the back yard. The breeze smelled of freshly turned dirt, cut grass, wild onion cut along with the grass.

"The ice is worse than the splinter," I said.

"I'd numb it good before I stuck those tweezers up in there." She picked up one of the Vicksburg brochures. She opened it and held it at arm's length, raising her chin as if she had her glasses on. "I can't read that. What does it say?"

"It says, welcome to our town."

"Hmm," she said. "Imagine." She folded it and tossed it in the pile on the floor. She picked up a sheet of passes to Brimstone Park, the drag-racing track. "Reminds me of that boy you used to go with, the one who worked at Firestone."

"Mark Ransom?"

"That one," she said. "He was always fooling with cars."

"That could be anybody, but you mean Mark Ransom." I shrugged. "He wasn't strapped down real tight."

"I thought he was a nice boy," she said.

"He could be nice."

She smiled, not at me. "He reminded me of someone I was in love with," she said.

"He had nice hands, anyway," I said. I took the ice off. The tip of my finger was shriveled and white. A dark sliver ran a quarter-inch into the pink oval of the nail bed. I began to work on the splinter.

Mark had beautiful hands, in fact, long fingers, not too knuckly, narrow palms. The cuticles were always black with engine grease. When he was working on something those hands moved like elegant spiders. He could talk to you and work a ratchet all over an engine without even looking at it. "Old Mark," I said.

"His mother worked in the school cafeteria," Mom said. "Teeny little German lady." She made an inch with her thumb and forefinger, then got up and walked to the screen door. She stood with one hand on her hip and a fist on top of her head, watching the neighbor's cat bounce across the yard after a bug. "Wasn't that the boy who took you to the river and you came back crying?"

"The very one," I said. I put the tweezers down and flexed my hand. "They'd had some people drown on the river, and I was afraid to get out of the boat. He got furious."

"Because you were scared?"

I leaned back in the glider and, holding my sore finger apart from the rest, I skinned my hair back into a tail and tied it in a knot. Clear as a Kodak picture I could see the sandbar resting on the brown river, all that gorgeous blond sand, shadows cast in the ripples like the desert. All summer the river had been low, and bars like that one were exposed. You couldn't see how the river would sometimes cut underneath the sandbar until finally it broke off in the current, like an overloaded shelf. People down river had drowned playing on dry sand. We were in Mark's boat, or I was, and Mark was on the sandbar jumping on it as hard as he could and shouting hateful things.

"I could just see it," I said. "Right there in front of me a big sinkhole would open up and he'd be swallowed."

"He was a jackass, then," Mom said quietly. She watched me another minute, then turned back to the yard. A large grackle, metallic brown, stalked across the grass pulling a strip of plastic, and the brittle chirp of an insect rose from the cleomes along the fence. "What will we do in August," she said.

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