The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story JURY OF MATRONS

Spring 2016 / Issue 99

Jacob M. Appel

My mother came from a family of relentless and intransigent women. One of her grandmothers—as Aunt Faye relished telling it—hatcheted saloons alongside Carrie Nation; the other operated the speakeasy where Joe Majczek and Ted Marcinkiewicz allegedly shot a Chicago traffic cop in 1932. (“You’ve probably seen the movie version,” Aunt Faye crowed to friends. “Call Northside 777. June Havoc—you remember June Havoc, don’t you?—has a bit part as my Granny Bess. Not credited, but still!”)  My mother’s mother, Ida, fought alongside the Loyalists in Spain and later guided anti-Vichy partisans over the Pyrenees, albeit with limited success. So when my own mother deposited my bassinet in her aunt’s parlor in Powick Bridge, a fruitless suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, and flew off to liberate Guatemala from Yanquis, she followed well-tread if reckless footsteps, and when she “disappeared” during the worst of that nation’s “White Terror”—a named target of Colonel Arana’s death brigades—the US State Department offered Aunt Faye the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug.

Fast forward fifteen years: that’s a long about way of explaining how I ended up at my grandaunt’s home, a perpetually flummoxed adolescent boy sharing a roof (and a cast-iron clawfoot bathtub) with three inscrutable women, when my mother’s baby sister, Marcella, passed through on route from a halfway house in Springfield to the coast. “I’m going to save the Pregnant Pirette from the soldering iron, so help me,” she announced to Aunt Faye. “And I’m taking Ginny’s kid with me.”

Marcella wore her tawny hair in cornrows tufted with cowry shells; her harem skirt flowed from a belt garnished with artificial daisies—but even in her thirties, our visitor looked too battle-worn for Hippiedom. (Try to picture Mrs. Khrushchev dressed as Bo Derek.)  She dropped a carpetbag lacquered with political pins onto the front porch like a conquistador planting a flag.

“Like hell you are,” replied my grandaunt, arms akimbo in the doorway.

I watched from the foyer. I was an animal carcass, pierced with a pair of bullet holes, at the mercy of two rival huntresses.

 

When I’d first gone to live with Aunt Faye, she was alone in the house. She’d once had a husband, a fellow named Tate, but like most of the men in our family, he’d drifted from history into mist, leaving behind only his surname. (All I knew of my own father, Len Kuritsky, was that he’d asphyxiated on a chicken bone at a music festival in California several weeks after my birth.)  At some point, long before I entered the scene, Aunt Faye had staffed the reference desk at the Powick Bridge Public Library, and pushing seventy, she carried with her an atmosphere of dusty encyclopedias. We had lots of visitors in those days: a klatch of female relations whose precise perch on the family tree wasn’t worth locating. Even Marcella had stayed overnight once, but left in a huff before breakfast, incensed that Aunt Faye had stipulated a separate bed downstairs for her niece’s boyfriend. Four years later, a widowed girlhood friend of my grandaunt’s—the aptly named Edie Coffin—moved permanently into the same chamber. (To this day, I don’t know whether Aunt Faye and “Cousin” Edie were lovers, or had once been lovers, or were merely faithful late-life companions.)  The third female in our estrogen-perfumed Cape Codder, Cindy Jane, arrived only four months before Marcella. She was a genuine cousin—the sixteen-year-old, cashew-shaped, eggplant-hued spawn of two heroin junkies, one of them loosely descended from Granny Bess. Aunt Faye had again opened her doors to the family’s jetsam.   

So that’s how the household stood at the outset of the battle royal. Marcella had just completed a ninety-nine-day stint in the Hampden County lockup for pepper-spraying a guard during protests against expanding an air force base, so she had more than three months of pent-up zeal to launch on behalf of her mission. It was a Saturday in July—a lazy, torrid afternoon—and although we’d been summarily banished to the yard seconds after Marcella’s arrival, both Cindy Jane and I eavesdropped from below the kitchen window. The heavy scent of “Cousin” Edie’s heliotrope and sweet alyssum cloyed our nostrils.

“I’m sorry, dear,” said Aunt Faye. “I am glad to see you’re well—and you’re always welcome in this house, provided you abide by the house rules. That being said, I cannot have you showing up here like the Pied Piper of Hamelin and leading that boy into trouble.”

“Nobody is leading anyone into trouble, Faye. I’m teaching the boy the value of direct action, of bearing witness. Doesn’t it bother you the slightest bit that they’re going to guillotine the Pregnant Pirette on a whim?”

“I doubt they’re doing anything on a whim,” replied Aunt Faye. “In the first place, you act like it’s a human being they’re harming. They’re dismantling a statue, for heaven’s sake. A rusted old iron statue that nobody—at least nobody other than you—gives a slap about. It’s not as though you’re trying to save an ancient redwood or some natural wonder—”

“It’s a feminist icon—”

“Do let me finish, dear. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s a wise choice they’re making, razing all those blighted motels and creating a preserve. And so too, I might add, does every progressive thinker and environmental scientist in this state.”

“Not every—”   

Almost every one. Your problem, Marcella, if you’d like my unsolicited opinion—and even if you don’t—is that you’re always looking for causes.” Once Aunt Faye dipped into her speak-in-full-paragraphs mode, there was no turning back. “I’m not saying the world is a perfectly just place, but it’s not the gulag, either. Even without a revolution, we have running water, and three solid meals a day, and the right to vote and speak our minds, and to make pests of ourselves in public places. Maybe you could try being thankful for a change. In any event, the bottom line is that you’re welcome to drive down to East Sedley and make a nuisance of yourself all you’d like—get yourself arrested again, if you have your heart set on it—but I have custody of that boy, and he’s not getting wrapped up in your shenanigans.”

Marcella responded with a sigh—almost a groan—that seemingly contained all of the frustrations of Woodstock and Selma and Kent State drawn into one breath. “What planet do you live on, Faye Tate? Do you really believe all that Norman Rockwell shit about the right to speak your mind? Jesus-fucking-Christ!  That statue is a landmark. A piece of my childhood. She was practically my best friend. Have you forgotten how I’d stuff pillows under my nightgown and go down to the beach at night to help her defend our motel from marauders while you and that bald lady friend of yours got sloshed on cocktails?”

“Betty Miniver was not bald; she had alopecia. Nor did either of us ever ‘get sloshed,’ as you call it. That’s simply not what your childhood was like.”

“Maybe you weren’t sober enough to remember.”

“Enough, young lady,” said Aunt Faye. “Now put your bag in the upstairs guest room and I’ll make you some cucumber sandwiches to tide you over until supper.”

Cindy Jane poked my flank and whispered, “Crazy how they’re fighting over you, isn’t it?”

That was before I’d decided whether I found Cindy Jane attractive enough to kiss. “I guess,” I agreed—not too committal.

“You know what? I bet Marcella isn’t your aunt at all,” said Cindy Jane, her warm breath only inches from my neck. “I bet she’s really your mother.”

 

Aunt Faye called us into the house again before Cindy Jane could elaborate, so it wasn’t until nearly midnight that she pressed her point. We’d tiptoed downstairs—lungs held past Edie’s bedroom—and then through the cellar door into the yard, where the previous owner had wedged a tree house into a colossal black walnut. Nearly every weekend night since school let out, the pair of us had been meeting atop those pinewood boards, his-and-hers milk crate stools roosted a thirty-foot climb above the lawn by rope ladder, squandering time and whetting lust. The truth was that I couldn’t imagine kissing Cindy Jane without my eyes clenched shut—she had caterpillar brows and a knob of baby fat under her chin—but I weighed a scrawny one-hundred-thirty pounds in my tennis shoes, and other girls hadn’t lined up outside my door. (The only girl I’d ever asked out, strawberry-haired Angie Swenson, responded to me much as the State Department had responded to Aunt Faye.)  So I faced the teenage loser’s ultimate dilemma: pine after girls like Angie until fate shifted the tides, or make out with my cousin. A bush in hand or a bird in flight, as they say. I reassured myself that Cindy Jane and I shared only a fraction of DNA.

Don’t get me wrong: Cindy Jane hadn’t exactly been offering up her lips for the taking. Yet I sensed that if I mustered the courage to ask, I might receive what I wasn’t sure I actually wanted. In the meantime, while the more popular 98% of Dean Acheson High School’s tenth-grade class bonded at sleep-away camps in the Berkshires—a concept as spendthrift to Aunt Faye as store-pitted cherries—we engaged in a lopsided flirtation, a pas de deux rendered all the more alluring by its concealment. (I must have been in my late thirties myself—as old as Marcella was then—when I realized that Aunt Faye had known of our nocturnal trysts all along, although I’m still unsure whether she was hoping to encourage a “romance” between us.)  Cindy Jane had pinched a coconut-scented candle while babysitting for a neighbor and had smuggled it into the tree house. The flame danced off her pajama top, illuminating her bounteous breasts.

“C’mon, Pete,” insisted Cindy Jane. “You can’t really think it’s a coincidence they’re both tugging on you like a wishbone. Did you notice how Marcella didn’t mention your so-called mother at all in her story about the pirate statue? Not even once.”

“Why would she?”

“Because your mother must have been there with her and Faye in East Sedley? And if she wasn’t, where was she while Faye and her bald gal pal were getting sloppy?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Someplace else.”

“And don’t you think it’s weird that they don’t have any of your mother’s stuff around this house? Not even newspaper clippings? They have a basement full of Marcella’s junk—Marcella’s punching bag and Marcella’s talking Barbie and Marcella’s Go-Go the Burro—a whole damn shrine to one niece—and nothing of your mom’s except a couple of snapshots that could be anybody.”  Cindy Jane adjusted the candle to shield it from the draft. “I mean, there are ten times more photos of my own deadbeat mama in Faye’s albums than of your mother, and my mama is like a billionth cousin two zillion times removed.”

“Mom only lived here a few years,” I argued. “She was already a teenager when grandma died. Marcella grew up here.”

“Whatever.”  Cindy Jane folded her arms across her chest. “I’m telling you that woman they claim is your mother is a cover story. Maybe she was a family friend—or a distant relative of some sort—if she even existed at all. Marcella is your mother.”

I suppose my orphan ears were primed for my cousin’s charge because I found my resistance waning. “I don’t get it. Why would they lie?”

“Who knows? Marcella probably couldn’t manage both a baby and a revolution, so she abandoned you here, and in return for raising you, Faye made her promise not to tell . . .”  Cindy Jane inched her milk crate closer to mine. “Women used to do that all the time, grandmothers pretending they were mothers and mothers pretending they were sisters. Don’t be so fucking naïve, Pete. That’s how the world works.”

You’re thinking her theory sounds like the plot of a Dickens novel—and a bad one at that—that no marginally sane teenage boy could ever embrace such a tale. All I can say is that it’s different if you’ve grown up without a mother, if you sobbed yourself to sleep countless nights over a woman you don’t even remember, if you’ve spent your whole childhood fantasizing that a two-line cable from Guatemala was sent in error. “Marcella is too young to be my mother anyway,” I said, serving up one last defensive salvo.

“Bullshit. How old is she? Thirty-eight? Thirty-nine? You do the math,” said Cindy Jane. “I was certainly old enough to have a baby at thirteen.”

This reference to her own sexual maturity galvanized the atmosphere in the tree house. Cindy Jane glanced down at her knees, her chubby knees that I suddenly imagined spreading with my palms. I felt the tips of my ears ablaze.

“Do you really think she’s my mother?”  I asked—mostly to fill the shadows with words. “How can you be so sure?”

Cindy Jane looked pensive, as though victim to an internal struggle. Outside, raccoons scampered in the undergrowth. The electric lantern on Mrs. Sewell’s porch cast a hostile beam onto “Cousin” Edie’s strawberry patch.

“I’ll make you a deal. Tell me I’m pretty and I’ll tell you a secret.”

This was not the first time, nor the last, that Cindy Jane bartered for compliments.

I tried to meet her demand without lying, but that seemed an insurmountable challenge. “You’re my cousin,” I said. “Of course I think you’re pretty.”

Cindy Jane weighed my answer—deciding whether to be flattered or insulted. “Okay, thank you,” she finally said. “So I’m going to share this with you, but swear you won’t tell a soul.”

I swore—right hand raised like in a courthouse: “May the Red Sox finish dead last for a hundred seasons if I tell.” A barn owl shrieked in the darkness, mocking my oath.

“You’d better not say a word,” my cousin warned. She leaned forward, her lips only inches from mine. I smelled the cinnamon gum on her breath. “When I was two or three years old, Marcella stayed with my parents in Berkeley. I can’t recall much about the visit, but I do remember one thing for certain—she wasn’t alone. She came with a baby.”

Cindy Jane curled her lips into a tooth-crammed grin. Never have I seen another human being appear as self-assured as she did following her revelation.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” I said. My body, quavering violently, cried otherwise.

 

The next morning, while Aunt Faye griddled waffles, Marcella corralled me into the parlor and shared the saga of the Pregnant Pirette, preparing me for the Tuesday morning rally I’d been barred from attending. “You’d be surprised how many female buccaneers there were in their heyday . . . Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Rachel Wall,” she explained. “Jacquotte Delahaye, who faked her own death.” While she spoke, I scrutinized her face, trying to read a likeness to my own drab features. I smoldered to ask her point-blank: Are you my mother? But I didn’t dare—suspecting she would lie, but also fearful of upsetting my own fantasy. Soon “Cousin” Edie settled into the damask-upholstered armchair opposite the bay windows, as she did every morning, stripping us of any vestige of privacy.

Marcella didn’t even acknowledge Edie’s arrival. She asked me: “Do you know what happened to female buccaneers when they were caught?”  

I delved deep into my piratical knowledge, most of it gleaned from Treasure Island and Peter Pan. “They walked the plank?”

“Close. They hanged,” answered Marcella. “Unless they were pregnant.”

Edie flashed a frown in our direction but said nothing. In the foyer, the grandfather clock knelled a joyless eight o’clock.

“If the baby inside them was old enough for people to feel—a stage called quickening—then they were spared the gallows until they gave birth . . . And often, by then, they’d managed to escape or obtain a pardon.”

I studied Marcella’s cheeks, her jawline. We shared a chiseled nose—distinctive on her, I suppose, but too large for my narrow skull. I resembled her more, I decided, than the soft-featured brunette who appeared sporadically in Aunt Faye’s albums. Edie lit a cigarette—Virginia Slims—filling the parlor with the heady cologne of tobacco.

“So they had groups of women whose job it was to decide which pirettes were actually pregnant and which were lying,” continued Marcella. “These were called juries of matrons . . .”

I sensed a lethal presence in the room and looked up to find Aunt Faye, armored in plaid apron and oven mitts, scowling at her niece. “It’s time you stopped filling that boy’s mind with claptrap,” she declared. “What does he care about lady pirates?”

“I’m teaching him about the world,” retorted Marcella. She turned to me and added, “A pirette takes what she wants. Unlike many modern women.”

That was too much for my grandaunt. “The world can fix its own problems. You’d be better off figuring out what you’re going to do with your life, don’t you think?”

“I’m already doing something with my life.”

They stood facing each other—the woman who’d raised me and the woman who might have birthed me—like eighteenth-century musketeers in hostile formation. Cindy Jane had stationed herself at the top of the stairs to survey the battlefield.

“I’d like to have a word with you in private, Marcella,” said Aunt Faye.

Marcella refused to make eye contact. “If you have anything you want to say to me, you can say it right here. I don’t have any secrets.”

“Well I have secrets. Plenty of them. And while you’re eating my food and sleeping on my bedding, young lady, you’ll just as soon give me a moment of your time.”

The innuendo about secrets was not lost on me. Cindy Jane beamed knowingly.

Marcella didn’t say a word, but she slowly—at the pace of a molasses-dipped tortoise—climbed off the sofa and trailed Aunt Faye into the kitchen. The heavy oak door swung shut behind them, muffling the ensuing row. “I have an idea,” suggested Edie Coffin. “Why don’t we three play a round of pinochle?” Any hope of overhearing the conflagration in the next room was soon drowned out by the widow’s squeals of “Aces abound!” and “Nine of trump!” Cindy Jane and I conducted an entire conversation with our facial muscles.

Secretly, I hoped for a revelation—like King Solomon offering to split the baby in half—that would expose my mother’s true identity. Instead, a subdued Marcella eventually pushed open the swinging door with streaks of eyeliner trailing below her orbits.

“We’ve reached a compromise, Peter,” she announced. “Faye has agreed to let me take you to see the Pregnant Pirette tomorrow. But then I’ll bring you back here and I’ll go to Tuesday’s demonstration alone.”

Aunt Faye emerged from the kitchen. “And the other half?”

Marcella’s voice tensed up. “I’ve agreed that she can come with us.”

 

One advantage of having Aunt Faye accompany us was that we could drive her Oldsmobile directly to the coast, rather than calling a cab to take us to the bus station. Around ten o’clock the next morning, we piled into that oversized vehicle—my grandaunt behind the wheel, a cooler of turkey sandwiches and fruit punch in the trunk—and headed toward Long Island Sound. Edie stayed home to look after the house. “What do I want with pirates?” she asked. (I’m honestly not sure if Edie Coffin stepped foot from that property even once between the day she moved in and Aunt Faye’s funeral; my grandaunt’s will left her the place, in trust, and when I visited Edie in her final years, the widow’s sole goal was surviving until the mint issued the last of its fifty-state commemorative quarters, which she collected like relics.)  Cindy Jane also had to remain in Powick Bridge, much to her consternation, because Aunt Faye declared, “I can’t be responsible for looking after two wild children at once.”  That Marcella was so desperate to show me the statue, but obviously less vested in my cousin, struck us both as telling.

A skilled driver could reach East Sedley from Powick Bridge in under ninety minutes. Aunt Faye managed the trip in slightly over three hours. She refused to leave the right-hand lane, even when we found ourselves behind a trailer hauling cement pylons, and she stopped at every public restroom in southern Connecticut. While we drove, Marcella furthered my education in the field of female piracy. I entered a panorama of cross-dressing bandits and swashbuckling maidens who fed English admirals to sharks. Marcella possessed a gift for elucidating the underlying political implications of the most innocuous-seeming yarns. “Often a considerable time passed between when these women were apprehended and when they arrived on shore to plead the belly,” she said. “So a class of professional ‘baby getters’ seized the opportunity. These were able seamen in the Royal Navy who’d knock up accused women for a small share of their pirate’s loot—or even for amusement.”  I found myself both fascinated by this revelation and mortified that Marcella had shared it.

“Don’t you think that’s enough?” asked Aunt Faye.

“I don’t see the point of sheltering him,” snapped Marcella. “He should have some idea of what women have gone through to get where we are.”

“Not all women were pirates,” said Aunt Faye.

I sensed the two of them were engaged in a complex emotional ballet, employing military stratagems of Napoleonic proportions, tactics that made the pas de deux between me and Cindy Jane look like an amateur checkers match. In some ways, I felt irrelevant to the entire struggle—a pawn, an afterthought—and then the notion hit me that maybe I was an afterthought. If Marcella could be my mother, why couldn’t Faye be her mother? Suddenly, all of the enigmatic twists of my childhood yielded their mystery.

Ginny would want him to know,” said Marcella.

“I don’t doubt she would,” answered Aunt Faye. “But Ginny’s not here.”

My grandaunt’s words sounded more like a warning than a statement.

After that, we drove in silence until we reached the coast.

East Sedley did not live up to my hopes. The resort had once been a summer retreat for upper-middle-class New Englanders—WASPy physicians and insurance executives who wished to avoid the nouveau riche Jews, like my father, who’d “taken over” Watch Hill and Nantucket. By the early 1980s, the town center consisted of a shuttered movie house, a flyblown post office, and a post-and-beam library open three mornings each week. Of the two-dozen motels that had lined the beach from the marina to the Rhode Island border, only one—the Captain’s Deck—remained operational. All of the others, including the Vengeful Scrod, where my family had summered, and the adjacent Jolly Roger, whose beachfront harbored the Pregnant Pirette, had been commandeered by the state in eminent domain proceedings.

Aunt Faye eased the Oldsmobile into the gravel lot opposite the remnants of the Jolly Roger. The letters V-CAN-Y welcomed us in unlit neon. Beyond a chainlink fence rose the steel shoulders and bulging metallic tummy of the Pirette. Rigging cascaded down her back in a knotty mane. A corrugated patch covered her left eye. The fabric shielding her breasts had long since peeled away, exposing two jagged-edged cones. Nearby, a Caterpillar bulldozer lurked in a pit of sand, temporarily deserted, awaiting its turn at the Pirette.

Marcella hiked through the litter-strewn no man’s land between the road and the construction site, kicking aside the orange traffic cones and yellow police tape that walled off the public from the padlocked gate. She cupped the lock for a moment, then let it fall against the meshwork with a clatter. Overhead, terns and herring gulls circled for prey.

I let the sea breeze fill my lungs with salt.

“Satisfied?” asked Aunt Faye.

Marcella glowered at her. “Very.”

The pair of them certainly interacted like mother and daughter.

 

Our outing sounded all the more uneventful when I shared the details with Cindy Jane later that evening while Aunt Faye and Cousin Edie prepared supper. I described Marcella’s failed effort to scale the fence, her dustup with my grandaunt, the numerous times she declared that my mother would have wanted me to see the Pirette. I related our brief detour to a specialty knitting shop in Branford, east of New Haven, where Aunt Faye picked up a ball of merino yarn for her next quilt. “If I’m gallivanting halfway to the moon,” she said, “I might as well make good use of the gasoline.”  I complained to Cindy Jane of the gargantuan mosquitos that guarded the statue. I pointedly omitted my theory of multiple generations of family deception. Once we’d been summoned to the dining room, nobody made mention of the excursion at all.

A truce had settled over the household. Aunt Faye acknowledged that there “was no harm” in my seeing a historic landmark like the Pirette, which she conceded “could be considered a feminist icon” from a certain perspective. Marcella made a point of including Edie Coffin in the conversation, asking after her tea roses and her stamp collection. Cindy Jane scrawled the words Are you my mother? on her napkin and slid it onto my lap. By the time Aunt Faye served the apple cobbler, we were actually laughing like a family.

That night, I dreamed that I’d accompanied my mom to the Guatemalan Highlands. We trekked from village to village, organizing the K’iche’ people for revolt. Somehow, I was both an infant and a teenager at the same time, just as my companion was both the brunette from Aunt Faye’s photos and Marcella, so when the death squads finally caught up with our band—while my mother was away, spying on nearby quarry—I pretended to be a sleeping child and managed to survive the ensuing massacre. I balled up my limbs, frozen, until my mom returned to the bloodbath and shook me awake. She kept shaking me, so I opened my eyes, and there stood Marcella, in my dimly lit bedroom, a finger over her lips. At her urging, I dressed rapidly and followed her downstairs. The grandfather clock in the foyer read 4:00 am.

Marcella didn’t have to tell me where we were going. As soon as I saw her retrieve the keys to Aunt Faye’s Oldsmobile from the wall hook in the kitchen, I understood that we were headed back to the coast to help rescue the Pregnant Pirette.

“It’s raining,” whispered Marcella. “Do you have a jacket?”

Her words sounded maternal, not auntly. No teenage boy has ever been so thrilled to be told to bundle up. I retrieved my windbreaker from the hall closet.

Route 89 extended clear as an airport runway in the predawn. Steam rose off the asphalt. We crossed the Powick River and gusts rattled the chassis of the Oldsmobile. Marcella drove at twice the speed of my grandaunt, peeling turns and passing buses on the right. She’d flipped the radio to a folk station and the car filled with the sounds of The Original Caste commemorating “One Tin Soldier.” I dozed to the rhythms of the highway. When I woke again, we were already on the outskirts of East Sedley.

“Good, you’re up,” said Marcella.

She stopped for carryout coffee at a ramshackle café.

“How do you like yours?” she asked.

I didn’t. But I hoped to sound mature. “Black,” I said. 

She poured cream and sugar into her own cup.

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” said Marcella. It wasn’t until my second semester at Yale that I realized the quote was Eldridge Cleaver’s, not hers. “Faye is part of the problem. Ginny would want you to be part of the solution.”

“Aunt Faye tries her best,” I said.

“I know that,” Marcella said. “But sometimes that’s not good enough.”

We climbed back into the car and soon pulled up in front of the Jolly Roger. Several of the demonstrators had already arrived, including an elderly woman with a bolt cutter. Also on hand was a morbidly obese man in his sixties, the brother of the sculptor. Next a lesbian couple arrived, then an unkempt family of six. By daybreak, other protestors—mostly women, mostly over forty—had arrived with placards that read Saws Off My Belly, the rallying cry of the Pirette preservation movement, but also Close Yankee Power and Save Narragansett Bay and Reagan = War Criminal. One activist distributed fliers demanding immediate pardons for Eddie Conway and Leonard Peltier. Another, whose outfit reminded me of Danny Kaye channeling a court jester, connected the statue’s fate to the plight of Palestine and Tibet. At full deployment, the campaigners numbered about thirty.

I hoped that Marcella might introduce me as her son, but she didn’t. “This is my nephew, Peter,” she said—and each time she said “nephew,” I felt disowned. My nose and chin grew raw from the spray-brined air.

The construction crew arrived around nine o’clock—a half-dozen sun-scarred men in coveralls and hard hats. I’d anticipated warfare, but the demolition team appeared largely indifferent to the disruption. They got paid, it seemed, either way. Only their foreman expressed any displeasure. “This here is private property,” he shouted over the protesters’ off-key chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” “I’m going to have to call the authorities. You’re leaving me no choice.”

He returned ten minutes later and said, “Please, be reasonable. Look, people, you’re going to get yourselves in trouble. I’m warning you.”

Our ragtag band sang louder. Marcella squeezed my forearm.

“Your mother would be so proud,” she said. “We’re going to win.”

I trusted her. “Do you really think so?”

“Of course I do. The momentum is on our side. And so is justice. Once they realize what the Pregnant Pirette means to us—as women, as human beings—they’ll back down.”

We were still singing when the squad cars arrived. New London County Sheriff. Two officers in each. They approached us, communicating in their own dialect of nods and gestures, and I feared they might break out stun grenades or tear gas canisters, like the military police had done when Marcella refused to leave the air force base. To my amazement, one of them asked—in a voice firm, but not unkind—“Are you Peter Kuritsky?”

I honestly don’t remember what I answered, or even if I answered at all. I have only the vaguest recollection of climbing into the rear seat of the cruiser, followed by Marcella, who apologized to the other demonstrators before departing. “A misunderstanding,” she pleaded. “We’ll be back as soon as we sort this all out.”  Today, I imagine she’d have been arrested for kidnapping, but those were laxer times. All the authorities wanted to do—and the senior officer explained this patiently, between Marcella’s threats—was to return us both to Powick Bridge, where Aunt Faye waited at the station house. “If it’s a misunderstanding, ma’am,” he said, “the local police will sort it out for you.” Yet when the vehicle’s door shut behind us, the clink sounded like the closing of a prison cell. East Sedley retreated into the past.

I watched the cops in the front of the cruiser, but they were ignoring us. My window of opportunity was closing: if I wanted to know the truth, this was the moment. I counted to ten and played all my cards. “Marcella, can I ask you a question about the time you visited Cindy Jane’s parents in Berkeley?”

Marcella turned toward me. Surprised. Puzzled. “What?”

I didn’t need to hear anything more. I already knew the truth—I could see it in her confusion—and I fought back my tears. Not only was Marcella not my mother, I understood, or Aunt Faye my grandmother, but the Pregnant Pirette would soon land in a scrapheap, and no lifetime of tides would unite me with Angie Swenson, and no matter how many times you watch Call Northside 777, you won’t see the actress June Havoc in an uncredited role as my great-grandmother because she doesn’t appear in the film. Not at all.

 

“She really called the police?” said Cindy Jane. “Wow! That’s crazy.”

Although it was a weeknight, we’d rendezvoused in the tree house. Marcella was long gone and another eight years would elapse before we heard from her again: a Get Well card that arrived—too late—after Aunt Faye’s second stroke. My grandaunt had offered to pay for a taxi since her Oldsmobile remained behind in East Sedley, but Marcella insisted on hitchhiking to the train station. Outside, a cold front had left a damp nip in the summer air. Fireflies pulsed in the yard below; a whippoorwill wailed. My wrists and ankles itched from where I’d been nibbled by mosquitos.

“Did you get to ask her whether she’s really your mother?” asked Cindy Jane.

“Why bother?” I replied. “She’d lie either way.”

I let Cindy Jane absorb my indifference. She looked wounded.

“Let’s talk about something else,” I suggested, seizing the advantage.

Cindy Jane’s voice turned coy. “Like what?”

My eyes casually raked over her flannel-covered legs, her cleavage.

“I have an idea,” I said. “Let’s not talk at all. Let’s kiss.”     

My audacity surprised even me—as though I were the first teenager ever to ask for a kiss.

“I’ll make you a deal,” offered Cindy Jane, as though she’d had the words stockpiled. “If you tell me you love me and you’ll be my boyfriend, I’ll kiss you.”

So I told her the lies she asked for—and then I leaned into her with my eyes clenched, ready to start making my way in the world.