Frances Waythorn, her face ghastly as a mime’s from a souring paste of yogurt, scrubs walls and wainscotting, praying for bleach, polish, order, something, to check her daughter’s latest slide from innocence. Pockets the Bic lighter, so Athena can’t smoke. Weasles under the bed, dredging out a feculent nest of candy wrappers, cigarette butts, lewd notes, blood-soiled underwear, so Athena won’t get fat or have sex or die. Frances’s motions are selfless and efficient, her behavior a worship extending into grief. She refuses to acknowledge the poster of Jim Morrison. If she follows her own heart, stripping his deviant’s baby face off the wall over her daughter’s bed, who knows what might happen. Mothers like Frances are no longer immune from the retaliation of their daughters. Her face beginning to itch under the dried yogurt, Frances swivels a plush bunny into the center of the eyelet-edged pillow. Her child’s room is pulled back, once again, into an immaculate relief of white, except for the poster, unexpungeable as a stain.
Athena, legally halved, is batted lightly between her parents. On alternate weeks she is not at her father’s, she resides with Frances, her white room declining into a dank, fetid emporium of sloth. Those Sunday afternoons when Athena arrives, a canny refugee, on her mother’s doorstep, a soiled, lumpy pillowcase of belongings over one shoulder, declaring she is an atheist who has drunk the blood of stray cats, Frances’s labor, much like that of Sisyphus, begins anew, no hope for reprieve, only the diligent untanglement of familiar, defiant knots.
Frances is, in fact, uncrumpling and reading, rereading Athena’s smutty notes before packing for her drive to a Navajo wool workshop when the doorbell rings. Hollering, “Wait,” then “Sorry,” unlocking the door, her face dripping water and patchy, as if with plaster, she sees he has a lovely, surprisingly tender face, this Officer Ruiz, telling her Athena is at the police station with another girl, arrested for shoplifting. He has been busy, attempting to notify the girls’ parents. (Guiltily, Frances remembers three distinct times the phone rang as she scavenged under Athena’s bed.)
“Where in God’s name is her father? She’s staying with him this week.”
“Ma’am, from what your daughter claims, Mr. Waythorn is in Albuquerque until tomorrow.”
He then informs Frances she can come get Athena, or agree to her being held overnight in juvenile detention.
“Of course I’ll get her, though I am about to leave for Arizona. What about the other girl?” Frances asks, not really caring, angry that once again, and predictably, Athena’s father has left her in the dark, told her nothing of his plans, neglected his daughter, and spoiled her own small hope for independence.
“Her parents have requested she be held overnight.”
“In the Taos jail? Good lord. At their age I was in a convent. Reciting Shakespeare. Doing as I was told. Though Athena’s father was a delinquent, a truant, he’s boasted that often enough.”
Frances’s tone is bitter, as if she had known him even then, as if she had been harmed, even then, by her husband’s errant boyhood.
So far, Frances decides, this driving across the hammered-flat desert is largely a matter of virulent silence.
Athena catches at a shifting avalanche of cassettes falling from her lap.
“May I play the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Their lyrics are banned.” With Frances, almost any ’Mother may I?’ worked.
“Banned?” Frances attends carefully, thinks she identifies the phrase donkey juice shouted over and over.
“I can’t clearly make them out, honey. The words.”
Pleased, Athena spritzes her face and arms with water from the plastic spray bottle she’s brought, fogging herself like some fragile, costly plant.
Tepid mist hits Frances, wetting her face. She has a pale rash from the yogurt.
Right now she would rather feed than punish Athena, pad her with double cheeseburgers, damp fries, chocolate shakes. If she’s fat, no boy will want to have sex with her. If she’s fat, she might not steal. Possibly no one but her mother will want her. She casts a look at Athena, the combat boots, unpolished and heavy looking as bricks, shredded jeans, black tank top, the front of her hair in two taffeta-like maroon flaps, the back of her head a shaved greenish stubble. The starlike design inked onto her upper arm, Frances is afraid to ask if it is a Satanic emblem or simply the declaration of an atheist. What if Athena belongs to a cult, a gang? Frances remembers the heavyset woman in a purple tunic on Oprah Winfrey, sobbing, saying you never, ever, know what your children do once they leave the house, you think you do, but you don’t. Her son had been machine gunned outside the front door. Actually, it is Frances whose stomach is bloating, whose thighs have widened.
“Ma-maah.” Athena says it like a doll. “Where are you heisting me?”
“To a workshop on dyeing wool. I signed up for it at an arts fair last month, a freak impulse because I’ve never woven or dyed a thing in my life. But Athena, at my age, let me tell you, inventing a new life is no zip-i-dee-doo-dah flick of the wrist.”
“May I drive?”
“Pleeze, Ma-mah? Dad lets me drive his truck sometimes.”
“Absolutely not. You’re supposed to be in jail. And your father’s decisions, as you well know, are never mine. Look how he’s abandoned you.”
“He lets me do what I want, that’s different. It is grotesque out here, Ma-maaah.”
“Really? I think it has its own beauty. Deserts are spiritual places. Points of transcendence.”
This observation rebounds, stilted. And why is Athena talking to her like a rubber doll?
“A couple of things we’re to remember when we get there. Can you lower that a bit?”
Athena blunts, reluctantly, her music.
“When you’re introduced, you’re not to look any of the Navajos directly in the eye.”
“They consider it overly intimate.”
Frances glances over. She never knows what will be cool or why.
“A simple enough thing for you.”
“You never look me in the eye, Athena. Not anymore.”
“Not.” She pins her mother with a look startlingly lethal.
“Is that genuine? That’s frightening.”
Athena shrugs. “What was the other thing? You said there were two.”
“Fish. You can’t eat fish around them. Navajos believe fish are embryonic, unformed humans, something like that. I can’t remember. It’s in here.” Frances pats the guide book on Navajo culture she has brought, largely unread.
“Fish sticks make me puke anyways.”
“Any-waaaays ... ”
With the toe of her boot, Athena turns up the banned, incoherent lyrics.