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She's here to say it was because he wore a purple shirt we took him in. The color of her senior prom, her bedspread, my birth. She talks like this since Snook's been MIA, and me being late fourteen I am apparently now past the age where anything is unsayable. She plants herself down on my bed and sweeps away the pile of books I so carefully fell asleep measuring up. (Nine acceptable ones I think.) A few fall on the floor. Spines will surely break. Will she never learn?

I confess I both can and can't make out what she is saying right now as she tries to rouse me. I have my head buried beneath my W.W.J.D. pillow. She's saying, "Wake up," probably. Or maybe, "Baby, come on." The pillow is inscribed with my constant and continual nightly reminder to ask "What Would Jesus Do?" We all made one. At least the Mormon girls did who live as far away from Salt Lake City as Grace is, which we admit slides over the northern border of Utah. Into Idaho actually, technically. We Grace, Idaho, girls also have our daytime reminders too, a crested silver-lettered C.T.R. ring we wear on our wedding hand-Choose The Right. A good question, the correct answer in every case, you have to give them credit.

My mother, at this moment, thinks to include God herself.

"The color of Jesus," she says after the birth remark. "Figuratively speaking."

"Purple?" I say. The robes, the wounds, the ressurection. I peel back the pillow and roll onto my back. The better to curl my lips at her.

"Took him in?" I say.

My mother gives my pillow a meaningful pat, her hand landing on the letter J. Spare me! You have to love her for her guileless smile, though. Guileless is perhaps my absolutely favorite word.

"He's not God, Mom," I say.

"He's very willing to help out," she says. "Be a sweetheart?"

I can definitely hear our not-God's footsteps downstairs now. Who'd even dare look at the clock? I'd be guessing two a. m. at least, three in the morning more likely. I smell something coming off my mother's face, and it's not the alloy-urine smell of a woman who keeps ungodly hours working as a fake nurse's aid for a man with Alzheimer's whose daughter is the real registered thing at St. Joseph's. It's a scotchy licorice smell. When she sees me snap to it she winces, but she doesn't say anything. She instead picks up my wrist and gives her devoted attention to the bruises I've sucked up my arm for as far as your own mouth will go. There's no "Oh baby baby what's this." No "Didn't you say it was over?" We have our habits. Finally, she picks up a book off the floor, The Machine That Oils Itself, subtitled "What you should know about you," by (somebody) Rheiner. It survived the fall. It was probably published in the fifties but never opened much. Everyone in this business knows the strongest books don't get read. My mother tests its weight in her open palm and sets it nicely back beside me.

"A little burdensome," she says.

Point taken. I won't use it except as a last resort. But another point is that we now have two days and two days only to transform thirty-two plain books like these into our "Celestial Thoughts" decoupage works of sculptural art if we're to keep this cottage industry. Zion's Books has extended an extra week already. I'll need her help.

My mother fingers her fingernails waiting for my reply. I elbow myself up into sitting position and make my supremely reasoned guess about the man downstairs.

"The Hotel Plymouth?" I say. The Hotel Plymouth is what we call the big, smelly, butter-colored car which is probably not even a Plymouth, we know nothing of cars, that has nevertheless been parked for some months now in the abandoned car wash next door. My mother and I receive a tiny stipend to keep our eyes on the lot. We know nothing of security, either, but it pays us an extra ten a month to do what? look? which I get.

The man's feet are slow-slapping back and forth across the kitchen floor below us like somebody doing laps. He's soft on the surface, probably not too old. The Plymouth is also where my mother discovered the late-stage pregnant girl whose parents said they'd sue us big for our bleeding hearts, yeah right, and where I found the half-dead mountain lion that had been hit by a car and shot maybe twice in the backside, though who knows in what order. It was winter and hard. Despite our steaks and bowls of milk and calls to the highway patrol, it took the cougar less than a day to finally fully die. Blood was everywhere in the backseat. "Call the governor," the highway patrol operator said. "We need more funds." (What my mother said to highway patrol will indubitably go unrecorded.) The girl, Paige, delivered herself of her baby several weeks later and gave it up to most-kind whomevers and then went back to her none-the-richer parents. These have been the two who were clearly detected by us in the four months it's been since the deaths of Elvis and Snook. August 16, 1977. Of course there is no provable connection whatsoever except the date, deep in the dog days, and the way they each could fill a heart.

"I was going slow around the corner, steering great baby, really, when I saw the strangest sort of purple thing pulsing like a signal in the driver's side window," my mother says. "In my headlights it didn't really look like a man per se," she says. My mother is clearly determined to make this sound cosmic, a favorite word of my friends, and incontrovertible, which is a much more mouthable word in my opinion.

The truth is my mother is just generally either shaken or stirred, and it can be hard to tell which. She is now suited here on my bed entirely in white, the better to be a fake nurse with, with skin as translucent and pale as the membrane that makes a drill at the core of an apple. Hands up, palms out, fingers now spread in supplication. You want to bite her.

"Be my girl?" she says. "Will you?"

I definitely won't if she tries another pat on my cross-stitched pillow. (She is so misguided about my love for God.) But she doesn't, so I do what we do. I scout out our one sleeping bag, it being soft and covered with sea creatures, and I find my own flashlight, which I flip on and off a couple of times with my thumb. I pull up a pair of jeans over my bare legs, smooth out the T-shirt I've been sleeping in, do a mirror check to see if my nipples show through, then carry everything carefully downstairs to where Mom will meanwhile be smiling huge at the man and telling him to take the stuff, to sleep in the attic up over the work shed out back for as long as he possibly needs, at least, please, the week.

If the purple-shirted, non-savior stranger we are nevertheless taking in is looking at me, sizing me up, I wouldn't know it. I'm not looking back. I will have to venture in close enough to hand over our sleeping bag and flashlight, and I do. There's the strong smell of cigarettes and wet vegetation and a kind of heated steam coming off his hair. Not unpleasant, I'd say, but somewhat hard to breathe in. I see his damp cardboard sign with lime­green lettering on it sticking up out of our kitchen can. "Is it raining outside?" I say. I'm standing way back. My mother goes to the sink to retrieve her etched-glass Elvis mug. She finds the not-exactly-matching-except-in-function Marilyn Monroe in the cupboard. Function and relative stature. A bottle of Scotch has been left out on the table since yesterday, but then so have a couple of my part-finished books. They are in the third stage already, glued open and spray-painted entirely black. At this point they could look utterly burnt, at least at first glance, which not-God is just getting.

"You must see what she does with those," my mother says.

"You may need this tomorrow," I say, handing him his sign. I don't look at him directly, but I do ship my guileless smile his way.

I could watch him out my window now if I wanted to. He'd be climbing the steps to the attic, maybe tripping once or twice despite the thin wand of light I've provided him shining out just beyond his shoes. He should be careful. The steps to the attic lack any important attention to detail. In fact, they look as if the owner nailed them willy-nilly to the outside of the work shed like an afterthought, as if he remembered suddenly he'd made something worth getting to, but not a way to get there. I turn back to my bed and gather up the books. So many of them look like the only book you'd ever have to own. Near my pillow is Happiness Is Worth the Effort by Elmo Ellis, for example. Close to it is How to Live by Arnold Bennett, and How to Be Your Own Best Friend by Eugene Schwartz. The Hilermans threw out both The Anatomy of Happiness and How to Apply the Choice System, by authors whose names exist somewhere beneath their hyper, retarded kid's magic-markered black-eyed skulls and blood-dripping swords. How to Live is actually a narrow book of not many pages, but right in the center it does have a chapter titled "The Petty Artificialities" with lots of margin notes and stars.

Petty is a good, if very short, word if you think about it. I am thinking that prayers, especially those delivered in the woods like Joseph Smith's, don't allow a person to be petty. Mine, which I'll give right now, in fact, will seek to end starvation in the seventies and to strengthen me to do what needs to be done.

I strip off my pants and climb under the covers. I hold my pillow. I'll say this, Jesus did some amazing things. Not just raising Lazarus or healing lepers or letting the poor whore go. You have to admit. He spoke up no matter how old his audience. He loved the girl. And he found someone to take care of his mother at the last minute. I kiss my pillow. Even so, it's not long before I've put the pad of my palm into my mouth. I can't help thinking about the man either. His coiling hair. I suck softly, just enough to do it. Boys do this to girls and vice versa. (You wear a turtleneck so people will know it was you.) Artificialities. It flows. I repeat it to myself over and over, no matter how slimy or salty my palm is getting, enduring the tiny bites on the t's, until I've sucked myself to sleep.

In the morning I look out my window and the man is the first thing I see. He's shirtless, bent over and whipping our lizard-skin green hose around to rinse his long, very dark hair. A tattoo like a flower or butterfly or something is flexing on his bicep. An iris, maybe. Also dark is what's under his arms and some hair spirals around on his chest, which is now heaving in and out from the cold. No visible scars. He has war tags like those worn by a lot of the men who've reportedly used the Hotel Plymouth but failed to attract the attention of myself or my mother.

When he throws his head back I look right at him. I recognize him. This man, I know for certain now, was just yesterday rummaging through the unfit books I'd set out by the curb for Sanitation. That same James Taylor hair was hiding his face, except with an odd streak of blonde down the right side. The man's shirt was actually more bluish or gray than purple if I remember. And he never struck me as a stranger, really. More like those familiar park people who are just part of your town. The ones who might wear greasy wool coats even in summer or corner themselves in the cemented alcove outside the grocery so you can toss them your spare change for wool socks in the winter or a meal. Younger than that, though. An older version, really, of rough corner boys who stand in packs and who could say some things to you if you weren't smart enough to have your dog Patty Hearst along and smart enough to strain her hard against her leash so you can cut around them quietly and wide. They will say things anyway, and you will wish you could hear. They are not, after all, like ones in Jack London's Stories for Boys. They're more like Ernie Pyle's Brave Men, or your gone father. Wild, essential conditions of your earliest words.

This James Taylor never took a book. He thumbed through a few and even seemed interested in the broken-backed Volume Seven from the series Six Thousand Years of History which he held up to the sun for some certain reason. But he didn't take it, or anything else, as long as I watched. I'm certain he saw me now. I'd spit a little root beer through my nose when I saw him see me. He'd winked. I'd ducked.

My mother is not up. I put the Elvis mug in the sink, rubbing his chipped sideburns as I flash to a picture of her sitting at the table, long into the night, her mind snapping back to Snook in Vietnam. She'd have held the glass up, dripped the whisky in so it climbed the mug slowly, finally making a thin gold line somewhere between the raised eyebrows of Elvis and that fierce forward thrust of his widow's peak. My mother's own eyebrows rising in small beats with each sip.

Her mind might have been asking, "Why Snook?" Why him to stay on even after it was over? Why him waving off helicopters to look for the left-behinds? "Because he'd fought a war and a half before," she'd said. "Because this was a shithole and he was just the man for it." Moreover, and remember this, she'd said, "Because he knew too fucking much to leave anybody who wasn't gone already." I wrote it all out in my journal. I changed fucking to almighty. Too almighty much. Such are the vicissitudes of life, I'd said.

I pick up my mother's whisky bottle and put it into the drawer under the phone next to the Fred and Ginger serving spoons. I look at the ceiling, away from the sight of my arms. Stop, I whisper to myself. This drawer is where my mother will look first. Stop, stop, stop, I say out loud. It won't wake my mother, though she is probably on the couch in the living room and these days is never deeply asleep. There is one other story about my father. It's a real story, not just his facts like how he had reddish brown hair and violet eyes like Liz Taylor's. It is that some many months before I was even born, August 5, 1962, Marilyn died and my father cried in my mother's arms. My father cried in her arms, she'd said, like a very big man crying. That's how tender my father's heart was, and how I should know that he would not for one second have gone back to the war again if he'd only known. Obviously, my mother is never afraid to lead with the kindly lie when it comes to my self­esteem, and you have to treasure her for it.

"What work?" I'm thinking, as I watch the man. Not-God is not even toweling off but is shaking his head around like a dog. Patty Hearst is jumping at him war tags. I'd like to bark at him. What work? Our yard is just a small swipe of grass. There are no vegetables to tend, no roses, no dirt-crusted spades or fingery scraper things waiting in the shed with which to tend them. We are pay-by-the-tenth-of-the month-people, renters, and the yard comes with it. If I can wake my mother up before I go out to the workshed, I'll steeple my fingers and insist that she not mention our book project. I'll take the man a broom if I have to.

The man suddenly stops shaking his head and looks right at me. He smiles and makes hand motions like he's waving me to come out. I run in the living room and stand by my mother who is sure enough still asleep on the couch. She has the Elvis 45 "That's All Right (Mama)" dangling out of her right hand. Her kiss-lock white patent leather Jackie O purse is on the floor next to her. I relax. I give her a light peck on her upturned cheek.

How we make the books is not difficult, but it takes exactitude and time and I fail at neither. The first step to doing a decoupage book right is to find the right book. You choose them for their width and weight, the texture of the pages, and the strength of the spine. If the spine is too strong, it will defeat you. I scout out libraries and thrift stores and garage sales. Book after book I lift and turn, lift and turn, stroking the pages with my flat-out hand, eyes closed. I offer five cents, maybe ten, never more than a quarter. Book sets I always buy. Like the ten Books of Popular Science, or the seven-volume Courtiers and Favourites of Royalty, or the eight Celebrated Crimes books, translated by I. G. Burnham. Cookbooks are great if they were given to someone who doesn't cook. Which you can pretty much assume if they're out for sale because cooks keep all their books. I wish I could find a hundred copies of How I Feed My Friends by Max White. It was perfect. The pages were smooth and easy to glue together. I must have just grabbed Dinners Long and Short on the run. It's by A. H. Adair, with preface by Sheila Kay Smith and introduction by X. Marchell Boulestin. It was published in 1920 on paper that turned out to be far too stiff and raggy. It has chapters entitled "The Cook and the Mistress" and "Polite Wine Drinking," which is why, I'm guessing, the Mormon seller had to get rid of it. Impressionable kids. I now grab the nine good books off my bed. I'm grateful my mother didn't notice The Department of the Army Field Manual: Survival, Evasion, & Escape, 1969 edition. I toe it under my bed to look at later, and glance out the window again. He's gone. His shirt is draped over my mother's lawn chair to dry. I dash out to the woodshed. It is just big enough, and two battery­operated lamps light it well. We've set three card tables end to end to make one long, if wobbly, work surface. A sheet is spread out over the tables. I set the latest books on one end.

Here's the second step. You open the book precisely in the center and let it rest on the table for a few seconds, the final test to see if the center will hold. Sometimes the backbone gives out just then and the pages will flatten on either side like stacks of cut cards. If not, you mark the center with a blade of grass or a scrap of something or a popsicle stick. (A nice yanky clop of your own hair will do in a pinch, though you could catch hell for resorting to it.) Then you start on one side, on the back page. You lift each page, each page, and use a broad brush to paint it with a thin white layer of paste, thoroughly erasing all the words including someone's added stars or underlines or lover's names in the margins. You press the pages together and smooth them out so they become inseparable, like plates water has leaked between. You keep a curve as you go. You're looking for pages that swell from the center, like the drawings of books, or like that place between a woman's breasts if you happen to be standing above her. Then you let them dry for at least six hours. The glue must be dried solid enough that they could be dropped to the floor without the pages splitting, that's the measure, not even one crack. Then you spray­paint them jet black, front and back.

I am still pasting the first new book when I hear the man's feet skipping down the steps. I hold my breath. He opens the door to the work shed, still shirtless. I was wrong about the scars. He does have a small one, finger-length, coming up vertically just above his belly button which goes in.

"My mother-," I begin.

"My mother?" he says. He is leaning against the door frame. Now he knocks on it. "Knock and it shall-" he says.

"That's a pretty easy one," I say, too many breaths in with the words. "Where's your shirt? Purple is a lousy color for a man's shirt. Is it silk or just fake?" I am allowing myself only one breath per sentence and it still seems too much.

"Your mother showed me how these look when they are finished," the man says. He steps inside. I move back. When? When did she show him? Last night I left her drinking, alone, and she's still asleep this morning though it's almost noon.

He picks up a finished book. It's been edged in gold. On one side it has a picture of Jesus, arms open, coming out of tumescent clouds. On the other side it says, "I will bring the light of the Gospel into My home."

"Hmmm," he says. Then he puts down the book, comes over, and picks up my wrist. I want to pull it away with all my heart but I don't. Even I am staring down at my palm which this morning looks like an almost dripping prune. "Sweet Jesus," he says. Then with his other hand he lightly rubs the older bruises, the yellow-ringed planets of my habit, them trailing up both arms, higher on the left than on the right, which seems to interest him. When he gets up above my elbow, I finally jerk my arms away. I wrap them around my suddenly shrunken ribs. My face is flames.

"You like silk?" he says. "Beth," he says, "your mother says you're shy." He reaches again for my arm as I run past him and out into the yard. I find my mother, still stretched out, her legs crossed now and the bottle is again next to her purse on the floor. Hair of the dog.

"The man . . . mother . . . he-" I say. She opens her eyes.

"Yes-" she says and closes them again.

She would do anything I asked her. When I found the twelve steps in a book once, we kept it, and shook hands. We did the first steps immediately. We admitted our powerlessness and such. She recognized out loud that the bender might always be a story she desired to tell herself, and I acknowledged that I would always be vulnerable to habits like nail­biting, sucking clumps of my hair, twisting my neck away from the speaker, and slicing initials into the tops of my feet. For step three, we even made it a special mother-daughter night out. We went roller-skating, ate pizza, and drove up toward the Lost Lakes to take the fearless moral inventory of our flaws. We put them under the categories of "behaving badly" and "believing falsely." Bargaining with God that if Snook came home she'd never say "goddamnit" or "fuck" again, which she put under the "believing falsely" flaw. Actually saying "fuck" once, I listed under behaving badly. It soon began to remind me a little too much, though, of the Bible I picked up once at the Bellamys' garage sale that had everything God said you could do underlined in green and everything God said you couldn't do underlined in red. Seeing that, we looked at each other and finally got it why Sister Bellamy seemed to be always under so much sudden pressure, and we bought it just because we decided it was such a good thing she was putting it out for sale.

The man is knocking on the kitchen door.

"Mom!" I say, shaking her hard. "He's here, Mom!" She sits up, blinks.

She's walking toward the door, smoothing her white wrinkled nurse's dress.

"When did you say to him I was shy?" I say. She doesn't answer.

She opens the door and they smile at each other. "Borrow a T-shirt?" he says.

"I'll make us fried egg sandwiches with salsa," she says. "Want one, baby?" She looks at me. I'm out of here.

He says, "I didn't mean to frighten-"

"Mop this goddamn floor if you want to work," I shout and slam the screen.

It'll be hard to get them done now with enough time to dry so I can paint them before sundown. I start to rush, which I hate. I like ready rules and I rampage to follow them. I make thirty books a month, I lather-rinse-repeat, I take two every four hours, and I can generally go the whole day eating only the recommended serving size of things. I can't believe my mother.

Step three is after the books are painted black, I paste a saying that's been beautifully inked on parchment on the right side, and an appropriate picture on the left. If it's Christmas or Easter I take the extra time to match-burn lightly around the edges of both, making them look as ancient as the words. I buy phrases and accompanying pictures wholesale from the Mormon Distribution Center in Salt Lake City. I don't order anything too specifically Mormon like Brigham Young quotes, because they tend to thin out as you move further up into Idaho. But there are plenty of true and hopeful phrases to be retrieved from Utah. Actually, not always hopeful. Eternal truths can really go either way. Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men gives me a creepy feeling for instance, even if it's next to a picture of a tempest-tossed Jesus presumably saying "Peace be still." But true, I guess. And Zion's Books especially likes the bits of scripture that come straight from the mouth of God, so to speak, like the follow­me one. The familiar stuff always sells best. I am the way, the truth, and the light never lasts more than a day in either color.

They all come with a matching stand, perfect for fireplaces and baby grands.

I decide to abandon the brand­new books, and go straight to pasting the pictures on the ones that have already been painted black, starting with the ones I did yesterday. (Tomorrow I will turn these in, with a promise of fifteen more on Monday.) I have moved a ladder in front of the door so it can't be opened, though someone is now trying to. The ladder is shaking and I hear my mother's voice.

"Here's a sandwich," she shouts.

"How's it coming, honey?" she says. She doesn't offer to help, though I've tried a hundred times to show her how.

I don't open the door. I'm tempted to tell her to go away and to call her by her first name. Norma. She's not named after you-know-who but she hates it anyway. I just wait. There are no windows in the work shed so I can't look out. There is the hinged door down here and the cutout door at the top of the steps that leads into the attic, but beyond that, the ventilation is just whatever gets in because the wood is weak.

"I'll just leave the sandwich here, okay?" she says.

To my surprise I hear her heading up the stairs. First her footsteps, then his. I concentrate on the books. After what is maybe three hours all the pictures and sayings are in place. I've made perfectly even margins around every one. The edges of the glued-together pages flow down like rippled sand. I'll now finger on the potted creamy paints in silver or gold swirls around the edges of every book. This is the final and simplest step, though it can take some time. I wish I'd brought my mother's Pat Boone alarm clock with me. I can hear my mother and the man moving around above me. There is music playing from the radio, but nothing so apropos as "Jailhouse Rock" or "Hound Dog." It sounds more like Barry Manilow. Don't be creul. Sometimes there is laughing. Glasses clink.

Hearing them, I'm thinking of my mother stretched on the couch, which puts me in memory, too, of my own behaving badly. I remember, for example, the first night that pregnant Paige from the Hotel Plymouth slept in my bed with me. She was mostly under my thin sheet, pink and with little red roses, but she hadn't even worn a nightshirt to bed. And the sheet had slipped over her breast. I couldn't see the whole thing, just the pegged part of one nipple, but it was enough to see. I looked for a long time, knowing every second that what was happening to her, by me, was the wrongest thing I'd ever done. Wronger even that what I did next, which was to pull my own shirt up and press the cold cover of a heavy book down on my bare nipples to feel them spring. Paige wore a T-shirt to bed from then on. But like even girls who are trying to be good I still watch my own breasts every day and sometimes touch them to things, like tiles in the shower standing up or even kneeling in bed so they reach the icy brass rod of my headboard. (Yes, my W.W.J.D. pillow seems to be losing its effectiveness over time, but I still kiss it for luck.)

I look down at my breasts again now, wondering if this is the day they'll stop growing, and be as big as they're ever going to get, so I can see, finally, who I will be forever.

I finish the last book. Nothing from upstairs for some time now, and it's probably almost nine, and I still haven't heard anyone coming down. I pull the ladder away from the door and open it. Stars are starting to show up in the sky. I look toward the house, no lights on in the kitchen. I look up the stairs which, because there is no railing, I have always refused to climb.

I start up the stairs and suddenly hear shuffling. When I get to the top, I hunch my shoulders down and peer in. Things start coming into focus. The man struggling with his clothes. My mother is lying on top of the sleeping bag, asleep. Her dress is in his hands.

"Bastard!" I shout. "Bastard!"

This wakes my mother. She jerks up.


I'm pushing my way out backwards onto the top step. My mother rushes to follow me out. I'm almost to the bottom when I turn to see her tumbling off the top, landing hard on the ground. From where I am standing all her naked skin is so white and unmoving you'd think she was Lot's wife, taking that last look back and turning suddenly into salt. Except there is blood coming out her nose and a bone sticking up out of her leg.

The man is beside me now. "Get the keys," he says. "Go!" The last thing I see before I go into the house to find them is him gathering her up. When I come out he's got her in his arms, and he's yelling for me to come. This is what I'll remember when he's gone. The petty, artificial light of sundown in Grace. His hair. The lilac smell. This vicissitudinal stranger trying to run, despite flailing arms and legs that are getting him as bloodied up as a dying mountain lion. And me, holding out the keys. Me lurching forward, though he is now carrying well out of my reach this completely guileless mother you can't teach a thing.

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