The week I started middle school, my mother told me she would be late picking me up on Thursdays. On Thursdays, she said, she would be taking frozen yogurt to Benjamin, a boy whose family lived out near the Air Force base. I’d never met the boy but had overheard my parents talking about him. I gathered he was very sick, possibly dying. Is it cancer? I asked. Something like cancer, my mother said. She said that frozen yogurt was one of the few things he liked that he could digest. I guessed his mother couldn’t leave him alone long enough to drive to our part of town, where the yogurt shop was.
That my mother would cross Phoenix to bring yogurt to a sick boy didn’t surprise me. She was always putting herself in the way of the sufferings of others. When I was eight a prostitute came to live in our pool house. I use that term—“prostitute”—because that was what she called herself. Her name was Nan. She’d looked up churches in the phone book, and ours, Antioch, was first on the list. The deacons discovered she’d been living in a condemned house with five other women, all of them sex workers. There was also a goat that roamed from room to room, leaving droppings on the floor. One of the deacons—only men were allowed to be deacons—phoned my mother. I heard my parents discussing the situation in my father’s den, the pleading tones in my mother’s treble, the increasingly acquiescent notes of my father’s bass. Later that evening my mother told me about Nan, the condemned house, the goat, the word “prostitute.”
The following day I went out back and Nan was there, standing beside our pool, smoking a cigarette. She had on a macramé swimsuit with beaded ties at her hips and shoulders. Her thighs were tiny, the size of my own, the skin loose and wavery. Her breasts were smallish and dangly and looped up into the macramé, dark nipples visible through the rope; her hair was silver, with little braids here and there.
Hey, honey, I’m Nan, she said when she saw me.
Hi, I said.
Your mom told you about me? she asked. What I do professionally?
You don’t have to be nervous, she said.
She stubbed out her cigarette on the pool deck, sat on the diving board, and crossed her legs, hooking them together with her foot.
What’s your name? she asked.
Anna, I said.
O.K., Anna, I’m gonna say this to you now because I might not get another chance. You have an angel for a mother. She’s stupid about practical things like money, how people live, and how shit gets done. Someday you’ll realize it, and you’ll think she’s the dumbest person in the world. Then you’ll remember what I just said.
O.K., I said.
A fucking saint, Nan said.
Four days later she was gone. She’d taken the box of antique silverware and most of the bottles in my father’s whiskey collection. Also my mother’s rings. All costume, my mother said, the poor woman.
Then there was the time my mother called to me from the kitchen. Something in her voice made me run. I found her opening cupboards and putting cans of soup and boxes of cereal into paper grocery bags. Help me carry these, she said. We loaded the bags into the station wagon, the babysitter from three houses down arrived to watch my little brother and sister, and my mother and I drove to a stucco house near the university. I waited in the car while she went up and rang the bell. The door opened; my mother came back.
Jilly would like to play with you, she said.
From the shadowy interior a toddler emerged. She was naked except for what looked like a pair of concrete underwear, a molded cast around her private parts. She began to run in circles on the gravel driveway. I chased her, thinking that was what she wanted, but then she sat down—her cast functioning as a kind of portable chair—and put her head between her legs. Her mother carried her inside while my mother and I unpacked groceries. The house smelled of baby lotion and sour milk and urine.
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Listen to Jamie Quatro read “Yogurt Days.”
On the way home my mother explained that Jilly had cancer. The medical expenses had pushed the family to the edge, she said. The edge of what I wasn’t sure. Starvation, maybe. I wanted to ask why the girl had a cast encasing her private parts—what kind of cancer did that to a child?—but my mother had pulled the car over and was sobbing. Two weeks later she took me with her to the funeral home. Jilly’s mother and father stood beside a table, on top of which was a white coffin with a bit of lace sticking up in one corner. It was silent in the room, so quiet I could hear the shush of traffic outside and my own heartbeat, but when I looked into the coffin and saw the ashen hands placed one on top of the other, the small frowning face with its sunken blue eyelids, it was as if the carpet, walls, overhead lights, table, coffin, even the girl herself, were shouting—all of them, all at once. The sound was unbearable. I covered my ears.
Looking back I see how strange it was that I could stand to look at death but not to hear it. Strange that death had a sound. That my mother took me to see a dead toddler and let me hang out with a prostitute. Places of suffering are the places Christ shows up, she said. I took this literally. I was always keeping an eye out for him. In my imagination, Christ was forever vanishing around some corner. If I caught a glimpse, it would be the hemline of a robe, an upturned sole.
Because of Nan and Jilly it might have seemed odd to me that my mother didn’t take me along on yogurt days. I don’t remember giving it a thought. I suppose I was relieved. I went to the library and finished my homework, then looked at pictures of decorated cakes in cookbooks, or doll houses in collectors’ magazines. I listened to music in the library’s soundproof room—“Maniac,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” When five o’clock came I stepped from the air-conditioned stillness into the desert heat, my skin feathering out in goosebumps. A thrill, that allover quiver. Something I could make happen anytime I wanted, just by going from inside to outside.
One Thursday evening my mother didn’t show. I used the librarian’s phone to dial home and got our machine. When I called my father his answering service said that he was still in surgery, and to try again in half an hour. I decided to walk. Our neighborhood was a mile down Tatum, toward Camelback Mountain, which looked flat in the evenings and seemed smaller than it did in the mornings, when it was dimensional in sunlight and shadow, the canyons articulated between ridges. I’d been walking for a few minutes when my mother pulled up beside me. A woman was in the passenger seat so I got in the back. A Styrofoam yogurt cup sat in the center console.
You remember Miss Cheryl, Benjamin’s mom, my mother said.
Cheryl had short gray curls; unlike my mother she wore no makeup. She kept her lips pressed tightly together, which gave me the idea that she wanted to say something and was trying to keep herself from saying it.
We’re going to pick up Miss Joyce, my mother said, and then we’re taking Benjamin his yogurt.
He won’t come, Cheryl said.
My mother leaned forward, neck stretched out, chin over the steering wheel, as if the windshield were in her way and she were straining to get through it.
Joyce came out wearing one of the flowy jumpsuits she sold under my mother’s umbrella business. I didn’t understand the umbrella or how it worked, only that my mother made money off the women beneath her. She also sold Mary Kay, and something called the Cambridge Diet, a mail-order powder you mixed with water and drank in place of meals.
Skinniness was important to my mother. Food fell into two categories, fattening and nonfattening. She put my sister and me on the swim team each summer because she loved to watch the flab on our legs melt off. Your little bottoms just harden right up, she said. Honestly it makes me envious. In high school, when I developed anorexia and then bulimia, I blamed her, and I continued to blame her into my twenties, and then I had my own children and my girls turned into teen-agers—neither of them with eating disorders but definitely showing signs of disordered eating—and some years later we went to visit their great-grandmother, my mother’s mother, who said to me, in front of everyone: Anna, you stay so nice and trim, but your mother doesn’t seem to be able to keep the fat off. She said to my daughters: You girls better watch your weight the way your mother does. After that I forgave my mother for everything—the swim practices, the comments about flab, the fattening/nonfattening binary.
Joyce slid into the back seat. Hi, Anna, she said. And then, to my mother, So he actually decided?
He did, my mother said. When I got there he said, I’m ready, call my parents.
Praise God for you and your yogurt days, Joyce said.
It was almost dark. To the north and east, above the McDowell Mountains, the sky was lavender; in the west, some leftover yellowish light above the White Tanks; the dusky ridgeline of the Sierra Estrella to the south. Sentries, our mountains, my mother always said. She’d grown up in Iowa, told us stories about tornadoes and fleeing to basements, whiteout blizzards and ice storms that knocked down power lines. The desert was safe, she said. Sunshine year-round.
We drove beneath the glowing signs of fast-food places. There was a long stretch of desert and then we turned onto a side street and pulled up to an adobe-brick house with a red motorcycle in the carport.
I told you he wouldn’t be here, Cheryl said.
It doesn’t matter, my mother said. Anna, you can watch TV in the family room.
Joyce gathered her pants into folds and stepped out of the car. My mother walked around and opened the passenger door and stood there until Cheryl got out.
What about the yogurt, I said, but they were already headed inside. I brought the cup with me.
The entry was cool and dark, the floor tiled white. A ragged basket-weave paper covered the walls. The house smelled like scented toilet paper and something I couldn’t identify. Vinegar? There was a mirror above the entry table, and in the dusky light from the open door I saw myself in its reflection: my cushioned plaid headband holding back my bangs, and the earrings I’d selected that morning, a tiny penny in one ear, tiny nickel in the other. Behind me was a wall of pictures. I turned to look: a man and a woman—Cheryl, but younger, her hair long and dark—with a boy at various ages. Toddler, elementary school, teen. There was a frame shaped like a school bus, with photos of the same boy in each window, kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Joyce stood beside me. What a beautiful boy he was, she said. Those chubby cheeks.
The three women went down the hallway, where I assumed the bedrooms were. Where Benjamin must be. I heard talking but couldn’t make out what they were saying. I lifted the lid on the yogurt—chocolate, melted to soup. Maybe it would refreeze and he could eat it later. I found the kitchen: the freezer held solid rectangular ice packs and squishy gel ice packs, and casserole dishes topped with foil. The fridge, too, was stuffed. Gatorades, six-packs of 7 UP, bottles of Ensure. Medicines lined the door shelves, with times and dates on sticky notes. The bottom two shelves were stacked with more foil-covered dishes.
I returned to the hallway and saw my mother and Joyce at the far end. Something white fluttered between them.
Anna, this is Ben, my mother said.
He looked ancient: Dark hair grew in sparse patches on his skull. There were depressions beneath his eyes and cheeks. He wore a white robe, tied loosely, open enough so I could see he was wearing only a diaper. On his stomach and chest and thighs were stains like birthmarks.
I’d seen the pictures in one of my father’s magazines. I wondered if my mother had been risking her life to come here every week, to bring him the yogurt.
Down the tiled hallway they came, moving slowly, pausing after every couple of steps so the man could steady himself. His feet were bare.
Ben’s asked to be baptized, Joyce said. The elders and the minister have refused to do it. His father has, too. So we’re doing it ourselves.
Only men could baptize people: this was what our church taught. Any man could do it, ordained or not, as long as the baptism was full immersion. All adults could get baptized, or children old enough to understand that they needed their sins to be washed away. That they had sins. I understood there was something called an age of accountability, based on the ages of the Israelites who’d been allowed to enter the Promised Land, but I was never clear on what that age was. To be safe I’d been baptized when I was nine. I was too embarrassed to do it at church, and so, at my mother’s insistence, my father did it in our pool, dunking me backward quickly, drying off, and hurrying to his hospital rotation.
I stood there with the yogurt. The man grinned, his skin pulled tight around his teeth and jaw.
Chocolate? he asked. A deep voice, raspy but louder than I’d expected, coming from such a body.
It’s melted, I said.
I like it melted, he said.
Cheryl stepped out of the bathroom. I could hear the tub filling behind her. I glanced inside—the floor and the walls were tiled bubble-gum pink, the tub and toilet and countertops an olive-green porcelain. The women led the man into the bathroom. I waited for someone to tell me what to do. I watched Cheryl untie the robe and start to undo the diaper before I looked away.
No funny business, ladies, the man said.
It was crowded in there, the three women maneuvering around the naked man. Turn him this way, lift here, bend a little more that way that’s right almost there no but if you get around on this side it’ll be easier to lower, like this, maybe we should try it from the other side. I thought of a poster in my art classroom, above the teacher’s desk: women holding hands in a circle, dancing on a hill against a blue background. Only, in the poster, it was the women who were naked.
The spigot squeaked and the water stopped running. I heard sloshing, a groan.
This is a mistake, Cheryl said, for us to do this ourselves. If Mike finds out it’ll make things worse.
Nothing can make anything worse, Mom, the man said.
Grab that towel, my mother said. There. How’s that?
Perfect, the man said. Like a warm bath.
Anna, my mother said, I left my Bible in the trunk. Get it for me, please.
What about the yogurt? I asked.
Just leave it out there, she said.
On the hall table were newspapers and magazines, sunscreen, empty medicine bottles, a lint roller. I rearranged things to clear a spot for the cup.
In the driveway a man in a suit and tie was stepping out of a car. It was the man from the hallway photos. He was bald on top now; the stems of his glasses disappeared into tufts of hair above his ears.
I assume your mother’s inside, he said, walking past me.
My mother’s Bible was teal leather with a cross etched in. During the long sermons I always ran my fingers over it in a pattern—up, down, right, left. Tucked between the pages were cards made by my siblings and me, and a hardened black-and-white photograph of my grandparents when they were newlyweds, at fifteen and nineteen. They were standing side by side in front of a bank in Iowa, the one where my grandfather still worked, stiff in their formal clothes.
Back inside I heard arguing in the kitchen. I could tell Cheryl was pleading with her husband to baptize the man. Their son. Joyce was leaning against the wall outside the bathroom. She’d piled her hair on top of her head and was keeping it up with both hands.
It’s because he’s refused to repent, she whispered, until today. I’m sorry you had to see this. I don’t know why your mother didn’t take you home first.
My mother was squatting beside the tub. One of the man’s arms was draped over the side and she was holding his hand. I focussed, hard, on not looking at the rest of him.
Set it on the counter, she said to me.
I’m going to talk to your dad, she said to the man.
I saw his thumb turn up.
The man’s feet were splayed against the pink tile on either side of the spigot. Joyce and my mother stood in the hallway, speaking in rapid hissing whispers. I peeked at the man’s face: the skull partly submerged, the eyes closed, the lower jaw slung open. I worried he might be asleep. I worried water might get into his mouth. I got up the courage to look at the rest of him: the concave chest, striated ribs, jutting hip bones and knees. The bottle cap of his penis floating just above the surface. I’d seen my brother’s penis, but this was the first time I’d seen one on a grown man. All that sin bound up in such a small, flailing thing. And God so concerned with it, with the skin of it, how it was used, and with whom. Our preacher said God’s people were marked there—men were marked there—to remind them, each time they loved another person, who it was that had loved them first.
The man’s eyes half opened.
Hey, he said. He cleared his throat twice. You still got that yogurt?
He was awake. I wouldn’t have to save him from drowning. I got the yogurt and took the lid off.
Do you want a spoon? I asked.
That’d be no fun, he said.
He reached shakily for the cup. Every part of him was shaking, even his head. He tried to push himself up but slid back. I held the cup near his face—so close I could see the white sores on his gums and tongue—and felt his wet hands on top of mine. He took a sip, but as far as I could tell he didn’t swallow. Caramel-colored liquid ran down into his scraggly chin beard.
Delicious, he said.
I was dizzy. I was afraid I might throw up. I set the cup on the rim of the tub and stood to face the mirror. My bangs were sticking out, damply askew. I couldn’t remember taking off my headband.
I’ll be right back, I said.
From the hallway I heard my mother’s faraway voice coming from the kitchen. So very, very far away. I thought about going to wait in the car. I thought about my mother coming here week after week, while I sat in the library, looking at cakes and doll houses. I wished I was in the library looking at cakes and doll houses. Looking at anything but the pink tile, sickly-green tub, jutting limbs.
I went back and sat on the toilet lid. I was relieved to see the man had taken the towel from behind his head to float it over his hips.
You see my bike out there? he asked.
There’s a motorcycle, I said.
Correction: Ducati. Cost me the fucking bank.
It’s a nice color.
You’re cute, he said. His skull rotated toward me. It’s Anna, right?
Yes, I said.
What are you, thirteen?
How’d you get stuck coming here?
She was late, I said, feeling helpless.
Can you keep a secret?
O.K., I said.
You won’t tell?
I nodded, then shook my head, then said, I won’t.
I’m doing this for her, he said. For them.
Doing . . . the baptism? I asked.
All of it, he said. I am who I am, you know?
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to agree, but I nodded anyhow.
Pinkie promise, he said, sticking out his finger. I leaned forward and touched it with my own pinkie, feeling sick sick sick.
Be good to her, he said. Your mom. She’s clueless as fuck but means well.
I heard voices and they were back, all of them, Mike and Cheryl were stepping into the bathroom, my mother following close behind. On her face was a look I knew: just about to cry or just finished crying. I squeezed past them and stood in the hallway with Joyce.
Is it true? I heard the father say. You’ve repented?
Yes, Dad, Benjamin said. I’m so sorry—
A great wet sobbing noise; I saw the father drop to his knees. My son, my son, I wish you could have realized sooner.
Let’s give them some privacy, Joyce said, closing the bathroom door.
My neighbor is a geriatric psychiatrist. He says whoever you are in your youth and middle years, whatever characteristics come to define you, the way you learn to respond or not respond to stimuli, to react or not react—these characteristics will intensify in your later years, hardening into nonnegotiables as you approach death. We die the way we live, my neighbor says.
We age into ourselves, my yoga teacher says: As you think, you will speak; as you speak, you will act; as you act, you will form habit; as you form habit, you will develop character; as you develop character, you will create destiny.
My mother just turned eighty. Her phone calls always begin with her telling me in what ways she’s at work for God: a talk she’s preparing on the Book of Acts, the Bible clubs she leads in public elementary schools in Glendale.
They’re so cute, the kids, almost all of them immigrants, she says.
Sometimes I want to scream. Sometimes I think, Yes, a fucking saint, my mother.
She asks me questions. What are the girls up to? How’s Jonathan? What are you working on? I tell her about my trips to Barcelona and Marseille for magazine assignments. I tell her about Jonathan’s clients, the older daughter’s new boyfriend, the younger’s interest in classical guitar.
Anything else? she asks.
I tell her about the homeless woman on Third Avenue who lives in a tent because the shelter is full. How, before the recent cold snap, I took her a propane heater, enough propane to last two weeks, and a bus pass, good for the rest of the year. Also some cookies.
I’m so proud of you, she says. Being the hands and feet of Christ like that.
I tell myself I should be so lucky to age the way my mother has. Her life honed to a singleness of purpose while my father stumbles about, narrating the current state of his illnesses. My mother nobly bearing the loss of my brother, who disowned her, my father, the entire family. Another story. Refusing to grow bitter or give up hope that someday my brother will return like the prodigal son. Watching her sister, my aunt, go through a divorce at the age of seventy-eight because my uncle wanted to “explore his options.”
Burying her father, her mother, my father’s father, his mother.
I choose joy, my mother says. It’s a choice, you understand.
I buy groceries for the downtown Widows Harvest. A Christmas tree for a single mom with three children. I call my mother to tell her I’ve done these things, to prove something, though I’m not sure what that thing is.
On the drive home my mother had told us, Joyce and me, that Benjamin had ended up going face down.
It was the only way to get him fully immersed, she said, but it was glorious, that eleventh hour. The way he lifted his arms up and hugged them—so much holiness in that little bathroom.
There isn’t going to be a funeral, she said. Only a burial with the family.
Last week, during one of our phone calls, I asked my mother what she remembered about the yogurt days.
That man loved frozen yogurt, she said. I was the only one who brought it to him. He wanted nothing to do with the Bible, but I kept showing up. And then he just . . . decided.
I remember that day, I said.
That’s right, you were there, weren’t you? she said.
Not for the actual baptism, I said.
You should have seen him after, she said. Lit up like an angel. ♦