Occasionally the mailman would bring the wrong mail to our door. We’d collect for 55 Puerta Alta at the door of 55 Point Alma, and before we knew it was wrong Harmony and I would open the envelopes that weren’t sent to us. We read their electricity bills and tore pictures from the bridal magazines. One time we received a package for 55 Puerta Alta, and we opened that too: a fleece pullover, size large.
Vanna, our mother, made us return all the mail, and collect any of ours that was dropped at the Puerta Alta house. Harmony wanted to go by herself, though she wouldn’t say why. Puerta Alta was on the other side of town, where the North Rudera bridge connected to Dogtown Flat. Over there, the trees receded, leaving exposed the remnants of old mines. Harmony walked there in the afternoon and returned later that night. I asked her what had taken so long, and Harmony said she had been talking to the fat women. The fat women? The ones that live at the Puerta Alta house, Harmony said, and went onto describe them. There were two, who were twins (like us) but who looked differently now because they weren’t identical (like us) and because the years had changed them in different ways. Both were fat, but one was fatter than the other, and fat in the way that her skin bunched like grapes over her waistline and folded in over itself, like clothes made out of skin so that even when she was naked, Harmony speculated, she wouldn’t really be naked; she would be concealed by her own body, which seemed a feat of strength. The other was fat in her neck and her arms and her thighs. And her feet were fat, too. She didn’t wear shoes. Not in the house, at least. She wore compression socks that had the added benefit of dusting the floors where she stepped. The other one was barefoot, her toenails painted red. We ripped up your mail, they told Harmony. We used it as cat litter. They thanked her for bringing back their mail and dumped it in a pile on the floor. Harmony asked if there had been any postcards, and the women said no, just mailers from stores in the mall, a Sears catalog. They had bags of chips spread over the coffee table and Harmony asked if she could have some. Sure, the fat women said, and made room on the couch. They sat there and ate chips and watched the Home Shopping Network. Over the television sounds they gossiped about women the fat women worked with, ones who smoked during their pregnancies and their babies came out with bad lungs. There’s a crystal for that, Harmony interjected. It’s a kind of quartz, with these little stripes inside it. It clears out the bronchial tubes. The fat women laughed—bronchial tubes, who told you a thing like that? Marisol did, Harmony said, before she was a liar. Marisol, the fat women repeated. She lives in the trailer park, Harmony explained. You mean Marigold? I used to work with her, said the fat woman with red toes, at the movie theater. She was so strange. Always fucked up the popcorn for people. Would always drop it, or use too much butter. Her clothes were stained, her hands slick from butter. A gross girl, she said. Harmony didn’t bother to correct her. She’s a liar, Harmony repeated. Well yeah, she lied to you about lungs. And then all three were quiet, and watched TV. The cat—a white tabby with orange stripes—wound between their feet, lapping chip crumbs from the floor. The socked woman went into the kitchen to make a Frito casserole. The woman with red toes remarked about things she wanted to buy from the Home Shopping Network while she buffed her nails. Harmony looked outside, where the sun glowed orange behind Venetian blinds.
I could get you some quartz, Harmony said. For the baby. The fat women laughed. You got a rock collection? No, but I know where to find some. They come from underground, Harmony said. The woman with red toes shook her head. I don’t give a fuck for what some dumb mother did, she said, and she still got a kid. It don’t work like that, anyway, she said. You can do everything wrong and turn out right, and you can do everything right and turn out wrong. It doesn’t matter when, it just is. Stop talking about babies, the other fat woman said, preheating the oven. I’ll talk about whatever I like, and damn the memories, the fat woman said. I still talk to my son. You have a son? Harmony said. The fat women shook their heads. Stillborn, the woman with red toes said. Never breathed a day of his life. He probably breathed too soon, the socked woman said. Breathed while he was still inside and drowned. I didn’t do nothing wrong, the woman with red toes said. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t do drugs. And he still didn’t come out alive. You talk to him, though? Harmony said. He talks to me, the woman with red toes said. He tells me what growing up in heaven is like. He’s growing? Oh, he’s growing. Complains all the time. Says how he’s growing too big for heaven. How small is heaven? Small, the woman with red toes said. So small you can’t even fit time in there. Everything happens all at once. He’s growing and he’s too big and too small, all at once. I don’t understand, Harmony said. We don’t need your crystals, the socked woman said. It won’t do a thing of good, the fat women said. It won’t do a thing.
In that time I started noticing the difference between fun problems and real problems.
A fun problem could be any problem that was fun, for example this: at school there was a boy that thought Harmony was cute. But it was a boy that Harmony didn’t think was cute, so it qualified as a problem: Harmony didn’t want this boy to think she was cute—her shellacked teeth, a propensity to be mean—yet he did. We laughed at everything he was wrong about. Harmony’s meanness was also a fun problem, at least to us. Because we were on one side of the meanness, and sometime later, weaker girls were on the other. For the other girls, it was a real problem. For us, it was fun.
The boy who thought Harmony was cute was a good two inches shorter than her. This was something we laughed at because hypothetically Harmony would have to lean down to kiss him, which was funny, and a problem. And every day at school Harmony would see the boy and catch him looking at her. His eyes would dart away when Harmony met them, and set hers rolling, and all through the next period her mind would rock, unmoored, drifting from a dock into the lawlessness of waves. She never told me the boy’s name, as if the name was too fragile to say. I later found out his name was Liam, which on the surface seemed infallible, and then broke down into a million, fallible components, the vowels together in the center, sounds opening too wide, falling through like a sinkhole.
Maybe Harmony was beautiful. It was a fun problem we hadn’t previously considered. Harmony brushed it off—if she was beautiful, she maintained, the short boy wouldn’t have a crush on her, and surely a better boy would—but the more we began to notice eyes, the more obvious it was to see where they were looking. Harmony’s crooked teeth, yes—but also Harmony’s eyes, which over the summers seemed to bleach, an ever-thinning green, and Harmony’s hair, the color of dried leaves.
Between everything that came naturally to my siblings, I had a hard time finding anything that was really mine. In biology class, we dissected into the reasons behind bodies. Their processes, what made them happen and not happen. We started by dissecting frogs. My teacher divided the class into pairs, partnering up people that, outside of class, would never be partnered. My lab partner was a boy named Ignacio who had a mouth that produced excess saliva, and who had to swallow multiple times per minute if he wasn’t to drool. Ignacio knew a suspicious amount about frogs. He told me while we prodded its nerve endings, that a dead frog would twitch if triggered in the right place by a small probe, because the nerves still functioned. That frogs could move, even when dead, because nerves responded to electrical impulses even while dead.
It also works with salt, Ignacio said.
He took me back to the biology classroom at lunch. The teacher was eating a sandwich at her desk. She looked at us suspiciously when Ignacio asked, politely, for another dead frog.
It could be for extra credit, he said.
I didn’t care about extra credit, and I got the feeling that Ignacio didn’t either. The teacher, in the end, didn’t give us extra credit, but gave us another dead frog. I watched Ignacio splay its slimy legs out on the counter, tear the corners of a salt packet he’d taken from the cafeteria. He snowed the small salt crystals over the frog while we didn’t breathe, waiting for a response I wasn’t sure would come.
The frog’s legs twitched. We expelled our lungs. The frog’s lungs remained limp, like a sack of yard clippings.
It’s the ions in the salt, Ignacio explained.
It seemed weird, jolting the frog, even futuristic. Something wrong asserting its rightness just because it had happened.
I liked frogs, as living things—had seen them many times in the small creek that ran through the canyon by our house, in puddles that collected tadpoles, that when we were kids, Harmony, Crockett, and I would collect. We brought them home in ragged cans and bottles, dumping them and the water into a fishbowl that had always been in the house, and since it had never been used, seemed to exist by accident. We watched the brown things swim around, bump into the walls where our faces peered, sprout the smallest hint of limbs. The way their bodies when held between our fingers still swam. Our impatience for them to turn into frogs stunted their growth. They paddled around in small circles as long as we looked, and then, growing tired, went to sleep. The next morning, we’d find the bowl clean and on a shelf, empty of water and tadpoles, Vanna swearing she didn’t know what happened to them.
Every evening before going to sleep Crockett watched the streets. He sat on his windowsill until his eyes drooped, and his brain fuzzed into particles, and he flipped through a deck of cards, trying to predict which numbers would face up. Two, seven, Jack. One of three times he was right, which he thought was probably above average, as far as predictions go. He watched two raccoons rummage through the trash cans left out for collection. One raccoon climbed the telephone pole that lined with Crockett’s window, and paused when it saw him watching, so Crockett looked down. The raccoon lumbered up. The closer to sleep, the better Crockett’s guesses became. Joker, five. His fingers knew the numbers before his eyes did. It was like a warmth on the back of the cards, and he would know. Ten, two, Queen. Something scratched above the rafters and leaves littered down. It was then that Crockett decided to stay awake all night, for if he could manage, he reasoned, he could predict all the cards in order. Nine, four, King, ace, three. Staying awake was no different from sleeping, really. Sometimes a car passed and their lights cast the trees near transparent, the raccoons seeming to float. A car across the street dipped into the front yard when it parked, shapes moving around inside. Arm, arm—Crockett could only make out arms in the car, but it was hard to see. There was no moon.
The cards ran through his fingers like water. The rafters scratched again, and then his window. Another raccoon was outside, looking at him. Go away, Crockett said. His voice sounded loud to himself. The raccoon just stared. More scratching came from above, more leaves shook to the ground. It’s building a nest, Crockett realized, they’ll never leave. The raccoon at the window scratched. I’m not letting you in, Crockett said, but the raccoon continued to tap. Seven, Jack, six. Crockett decided he would go to sleep, if only to dissuade the raccoons. But when he walked to his bed he was already in it.
Whenever Harmony talked to us, she talked about the fat women of Puerta Alta. She talked about all the good food she ate at their house—six-layer bean dips, frozen pound cakes—not because they’d offer it to her but because she’d raid their refrigerator under their noses, and they never told her to stop. She grinned about this like it was crafty, but then went on to play her own devil’s advocate: I think they probably notice, but they just don’t care. It was better, even, that they didn’t care. Harmony would run around their house doing chores they didn’t ask her to do. She picked up their mail, looking through for any of our own. She vacuumed the floors that crackled with crumbs. She offered to paint their toenails when their muscles were stiff and they couldn’t bend to reach.
When she was in Puerta Alta she’d spend time circling the mines, peering into their holes. She’d tell the fat women their solutions were down there. I can climb down, she offered, and bring back all the crystals I can find. The fat women laughed, shook their heads. There’s no crystals in those mines, they told her, there’s nothing in them. But this didn’t make sense to Harmony and she didn’t let go. They dig the holes where they find things underground. The fat women again told her she was wrong, so wrong. Those are gold mines, they said. Just gold. And the gold’s all gone by now, anyway. Gold was mined clean a long time ago.
Harmony didn’t believe the fat women. She didn’t believe them because that’s not the way the ground works. If you dig far enough you can find anything that’s hidden for years, shielded from the light. If she believed Marisol—and she selectively did, whenever Marisol had something to say that Harmony wanted to hear—then crystals would be found deeper in the ground, but close to where other minerals grew. The gold miners were just stupid, Harmony insisted, or they didn’t care enough to dig deeper. Harmony knew better than that. There are crystals down there, she insisted. I’m going to bring them back.
But every time Harmony returned from the mines, her hands blistered from the oxidized ladders, she didn’t bring crystals. Instead her pockets were stuffed with hair, in clumps or long strands, dull where the light refused to catch, iridescent when laid out in the sun. She enlisted me to pick through the tangles. She explained that she hadn’t climbed deep enough yet, but she’d found the hair in the walls, growing out of the rocks like grass.
At school, girls began to flock to Harmony, through no effort of her own. There were many reasons why. She possessed an odd beauty that drew eyes and then deflected them anytime her teeth showed. This caused an unusual phenomenon in which boys wouldn’t want to talk to her, and girls would. I’d overhear talk in the bathroom stalls, where I’d wait for Harmony after school let out. The girls broke Harmony into distinct features. Her eyes are too big. She has so many freckles. Her teeth. Her fucking TEETH.
In the strange way that Harmony posed no competition to other girls, she was a useful friend to have. She drew eyes. She cut class. She seemed mean but no one could be sure. Girls that hung around Harmony experienced the sensation of being seen for the first time. They went on more dates and were invited to more parties. Bring your freaky friend, boys would say. Boys pretended not to know her name. Girls pretended not to care.
You’d be pretty if you fixed your teeth, girls would tell her. The ifs were always emphasized. When Harmony didn’t care the girls would pretend not to care too. Some girls didn’t care easily, and these girls stuck around Harmony the longest. They’d even make concessions for her teeth. They’re not that bad, anyway, they’d say. They’re kind of interesting.
Harmony would make the girls who followed her do things, and they didn’t care enough not to. She would ask them to bring her things, and they would: Joe Asney’s inhaler, Megan Lisden’s history notes, and then Megan Lisden’s diary. Kaylee Farmiga’s cellphone and Liam Bruck’s wallet chain. Mandy Kauffman’s gold-plated heart locket, a gift from when she was the flower girl at her cousin’s wedding. Michael Patton’s watch, that according to talk was given to him on his father’s deathbed. Harmony brought every item to the fat women’s house and buried them in the backyard, making a miniature landfill.
She made Carolina Walls crawl down an old mine shaft past Puerta Alta, out in Dogtown Flat, supposedly because there was still gold down there. All the time spent climbing up and down trees, in and out of holes, Harmony could have gone herself but she told Carolina to do it, and Carolina did. We heard about it that evening, when Harmony came home in a police car. Vanna made us hide behind the blinds when the officer knocked, until we heard Harmony’s voice through the window.
Harmony looked down when the officer explained that Carolina Walls had broken her arm, that Harmony had called at a car on the street for help. That Carolina hadn’t climbed down the whole way before the ladder snapped, and they had to call the fire department to pull her out. How Carolina, crying over her arm, stopped to tell Harmony that there wasn’t any gold left in the mine, and then how Harmony had burst into tears, slapped Carolina on her snapped arm, and spit in her eye.
The officer left with a warning: get your girl counseling. Vanna looked like she might say something and then her shoulders dropped, and she went to make a phone call.
Crockett and I asked what we were all thinking. Did you push her? I’m bored of talking about this, Harmony said, and walked away.
Crockett followed the raccoons when they walked at night. One crawled down the telephone pole and scratched on his bedroom window, and Crockett unlatched it, followed it down. Sometimes there were two raccoons, rarely were there three. The second was either on the roof and climbed down with the first, or met them at the street, waddling from under a car, and then they walked, with Crockett trailing behind. Sometimes they made chittering noises at each other. Crockett wondered if he was a ghost, and that when the raccoons glanced back at him to make sure he was still following, they of all creatures were the only ones that could see him, but there were no people out except the blindly drunk and he couldn’t test this theory. When the drunks stumbled over a branch or a dip in the sidewalk the raccoons chittered as if they were laughing.
Occasionally, one raccoon would verge to something that interested it—an upturned can or a box filled with soiled blankets—and Crockett waited with the second raccoon, or followed with the second raccoon. He watched them paw at the box and leave the innards upturned and expanded when they lumbered on, like flowers blossoming in their wake.
When the raccoons passed certain drunks they’d chitter between themselves, and from what Crockett could gather they seemed familiar with these drunks, like they passed by them on several nights. Or if they weren’t familiar with the drunks, they were at least familiar with their viscera. Benny’s, a raccoon would chitter, sniffing a puddle of vomit outside The Raven’s Head, the brown slush mottled with neon blue. The other raccoon would nod, and they’d go on forward, and Crockett trailing behind would avoid stepping in puddles or on broken glass. He looked more closely at where he was walking, mostly because the raccoons were so low to the ground. And the raccoons chittered about more drunks that lingered outside under the awnings. That’s Old Dov, one chittered, the fishy breath. Like he swallowed a jar of barnacles, the other raccoon chittered. They pattered past a watered down shit behind the parking lot at Lucky 7’s, and one raccoon took a deep whiff. Oh no, it chittered. Nuh-uh-uh. I know that shit, the raccoon chittered, but I don’t know that man. That shit’s all around town, it went on. This man’s leaving watery pancakes in all the places, but I’ve never seen his face. I’ve never seen nothing, the other raccoon chittered. We’ve been walking for a while, the first raccoon chittered, and the boy still hasn’t talked. And both turned to look accusingly at Crockett, who in his sleep-delayed state had just begun to recognize it as strange, the talking of these raccoons. Me? he asked. Me? the raccoons chittered. Me me me. It’s all about me, never about you. But what about you? Crockett said. Where are we going? Not to worry, not to worry, the raccoons chittered. One, and then the other. We’ll smell it before we get there, the raccoons chittered. You’ll know it when you see it, one chittered. I’ve never seen nothing, the other one said.
The fat women would get cold sometimes, especially in the winter. They didn’t have heat, Harmony explained, but they also didn’t have veins. Veins that were good enough, anyway. Or maybe it was nerves. Yes, Harmony said, nerves, not veins. The nerve endings were shot in their hands. And feet. They complained about it a lot in the Puerta Alta house. Their hands went numb, and their feet. Sometimes their fingers would tingle and sometimes they wouldn’t feel them at all. It’s like we’re disappearing, they’d say, and they’d explain how they felt themselves disappearing slowly, just under their skin, where the tingling emanated. You don’t look like you’re disappearing, Harmony said, but the fat women shook their heads. The disappearing happens so small that the eyes can’t see, and what’s more, it starts from the inside. That’s not how girls disappear, Harmony said, for she had seen girls disappear. Megan Lisden’s shrinking body coming out of the bathroom stall, her arms no thicker than wrists, and she told the fat women, Girls who disappear are stupid, but you’re not like that. They throw up all the stuff that’s good. You’re too young, the fat women told her. Some people disappear their bodies before themselves. For some it’s the other way around. When I can’t feel my hands, a fat woman said, but I can still see them, it’s hard to decide what’s real. Decide? Figure out. Throw your lots, what have you. It’s hard to decide, real hard. Sometimes I look at my hands and it’s like they’re ghosts. And they can pick up things and pick up the remote and turn on the TV and it’s hard to say if that’s a ghost’s doing or mine, or what the difference would be since it got done anyway. It’s worse for other people, too, the other fat woman said. The one with the fat neck. Some people disappear at the same time as their bodies. And even if their bodies turn up, the self’s not there to come back. But if people can decide, Harmony pressed on, they can decide not to disappear. You can decide not to disappear. Not when your body’s talking to you, the fat women said. Talking in all kinds of ways. All sorts of pains pushing their way out. Your hands tingling until you forget you were there. Telling you things you don’t want to hear. What does it say? Just repeating all the same things you’ve already heard, from all the people who loved you once and want to take it back.
Crockett was sick for three days. He set up camp outside the bathroom door, wrapping himself in a blanket so that when he slept, if he slept, he looked like a long worm. And while we all felt for him, and went out of our ways to make him feel better—Harmony brought him Gatorade after school, and I made him grilled cheese sandwiches, which he could only stomach a nibble of—the worm on the floor wore on us to an extent. At night we stumbled over him on our way to the bathroom or kitchen. We heard the retching at all hours.
Harmony, in particular, was bothered by this. It’s so noisy, she complained. It wasn’t the sound of the retching, though—it was the sound inside of him, of his stomach churning over, which even through the walls, and buried under other sounds, was grating to Harmony’s ears. It sounds like mouths chewing, she told me. Mouths chewing through the inside of a whale. We were in our bedroom, looking out at the lot that crinkled with sticks. Every so often the tenants from downstairs walked outside, looked around the lot, and walked back in.
There were two of them, a man and a woman. They looked to be about thirty but Harmony suspected they were younger. Their clothes, she explained. They were pinning their laundry on a line stretched between the fence and the house. Most of the clothes were frayed: ripped jeans, shirts spotted with burn holes.
Harmony and I speculated about the downstairs tenants. We assumed they were a couple—it seemed the most likely explanation they’d be sharing an apartment—but we never saw any outward signs of this. To the contrary, the man and the woman seemed habitually disaffected. Outside they didn’t speak or touch. They looked at the sticks on the ground, the links in the fence. They picked up shards of glass from the ground—jagged clear pieces that littered the yard, that Harmony examined once and speculated to be quartz. They pinned their clothes so loosely that they sometimes fell, and this didn’t seem to bother them either. They’d bend down and pick up the fallen, pin them back up. Sometimes they looked at each other, but their eyes didn’t linger long and Harmony and I couldn’t tell what was in them. Mostly they looked at the sky. Sometimes they’d lie on the ground and sometimes they’d crook their necks back.
That’s stupid, Harmony said.
It’s going to snow, she said.
We’d heard the weather report, forecasting the first fall of the season. And while most people were chaining their tires, uncovering boxes of coats from the backs of closets, the downstairs tenants hung their damp clothes under a roiling sky that they had to notice, from the amount of time they spent looking up.
We shook our heads, and then we found ourselves looking at the sky, too. Wondering if we could see what the downstairs tenants saw in it. To me, it was just a solid, cement gray, the occasional twist of sun winding through. But to Harmony there was a greater image, more elaborate than possibly even the tenants saw.
Over the years Harmony filled the wall on her side of our bedroom with symbols—the ones she had shown me back before Crockett was born. At the time it felt like we were thinking the same things, a language not so much learned but airborne, a disease you catch at a young age and then gain immunity from. I didn’t remember what the triangles meant, and though I sometimes asked and Harmony explained, the definitions didn’t make sense like I imagined they did when I was small, and Harmony knew everything. But in hearing her talk and scribble more of those symbols on her wall, so many that they eventually stretched to mine, I began to patch together some of the structures that made up her mind.
From what I could make out, the triangle system conflated sight and sound as if they were entangled, as if even a silent picture gave off a sonic residue. For a while I thought my hearing was bad because I couldn’t hear what Harmony heard in the sky: a liquid churning, like weather leaking down a sink drain. I couldn’t hear the faint music Harmony heard in the trees. In her scratchy writing was something that the world was saying specifically to her that I, no matter how hard I listened, couldn’t understand.
Snow, too, had a sound, Harmony told me that night while we watched it fall. Like tiny laughs, she said. And then, like hiccups snuffed to the ground.
The raccoons didn’t come out during the day, as if they didn’t exist. But Crockett still had to go to school. The teachers asked questions that made little to no sense, and his classmates gave answers that might as well have been bird sounds, for all Crockett could understand of them. He kept his head down and sat in the back each day. And when he was confused, or fatigue crept over him, he imagined what the raccoons would say to his teacher’s questions. Why did the vast majority of Pre-Columbian settlements fall on the river outlets to the Pacific Ocean? How did the variations in landscape affect where miners settled during the Gold Rush? Where did Juan Bautista de Anza establish his missions? River stink, the raccoons would chitter. Gold stink. They settle where the stink does.
While the boys in his class lingered at the skate park behind the track, Crockett lingered too. Sometimes one of them would pull out a deck of cards and they’d get a game going. And when the first signs of dusk trickled through, a flatness stretching over the sky, and the boys all felt the twinges of hunger, they’d choose one of their homes—though never ours—and raid the cabinets, ruining their appetites for dinner, to the chagrin of some moms. They ate and played Nintendo, and at some point Crockett would excuse himself to use the bathroom, or grab another bag of Doritos, or sometimes he’d simply stand up without a word and leave. And if any of the boys wondered where he’d been or why he’d taken so long to return, they didn’t ask.
While he was missing, Crockett examined the doors in the house. The clicks in their locking mechanisms, the creaks of their hinges, the small gaps above the floor that would let light through if it was dark, and the way doors in old houses pressed against the entryways as if it took every effort to hold themselves closed. He practiced popping locks with various instruments: a bobby pin from Harmony, a credit card belonging to Tom Solley’s mother (Crockett had no intention of using it, no cashier would believe he was old enough to open a line of credit, or that his name was Regina), and a metal hook he’d found on the street.
He found spare keys: in junk drawers, under rocks near the front or back doors, on top of high ledges reached only by climbing on top of patio furniture, in bird nests emptied of eggs. He labeled each with the house number and street and kept them in a box under his bed, in individual small bags so they wouldn’t jingle together. He tried to show the raccoons when they scratched at his window but the raccoons didn’t understand. They’d never seen keys before. Or they had, but only ones that had been dropped by drunks on the street, and those were usually scuffed. They’d never known a key’s purpose. For doors, Crockett explained. Doors? We thought they were teeth, one raccoon chittered. They open specific doors, Crockett said. So one person can get in, he explained, and everyone else is kept out. We thought they were teeth, another raccoon chittered. From a big mouth. Well, they’re not, Crockett told them. They’re keys, they open doors. Specific doors, the raccoons chittered. Teeth would be better, a raccoon chittered. Teeth would be better.
One night he followed the raccoons down Fonseca onto Pike Street, where they walked by a popular bar for truckers. He followed their patterns and no one paid him any attention. It’s like I’m invisible, he thought, if being invisible was being unwatched, and left to go anywhere. Some of the truckers stood outside smoking cigarettes and talking amongst themselves. They paid no mind to the raccoons, or to Crockett, rifling through a trash bin at the corner of the street. Crockett caught snippets of their conversation through the heavy metal music filtering out from the bar. Loud and quiet words about a sports game that was on the TV inside. Can’t fucking believe it, one of them said. A fucking upset.
Crockett, digging through the trash, found a small coin that looked important. It was gold, the size of his thumb. A Sacagawea dollar, he realized. He recognized it from a special on TV that Harmony watched, about novelty coins. They sold whole sets of special coins on TV that couldn’t actually buy anything, but some people liked to display them in their houses, on mantles or in books with plastic sleeves. It was a set the fat women wanted to buy, Harmony had told him, her eyes glazed as if she was either thinking or wasn’t. The girl on the coin, whose name was Sacagawea, Crockett knew vaguely, historically. He couldn’t remember her from all the times he slept at his desk. She looked out of the coin, over her shoulder at Crockett, as if he was following her from behind. The men from the bar, one of them a plumber, discussed a centerfold spread in a magazine.
A group of girls appeared from a vanishing point in the street. The men outside the bar noticed their approach. They nodded to each other. One of the raccoons chewed on a stink beetle it had found, and Crockett palmed the coin in his hand, feeling the shapes of the stamp on his skin. Eventually his skin grew accustomed to the coin’s ridges and depressions and he couldn’t feel them anymore. A jittering in the trees across the street proved to be a bird. Crockett couldn’t tell the age of the girls when they approached—somewhat young, but with crusty eyes. One had a sore above her lip. Sexy, a man said at them, wanna come to papa? Come to daddy, another said. Their crusty eyes looked and then looked away and the girls walked faster, a shift barely noticed except for the beat of their heels. They wore short skirts and thin jackets. One looked at Crockett even though he was invisible, and also looked away. Worms, a raccoon chittered, to no answer. The coin warmed in Crockett’s hand to the temperature of his skin until he forgot he was holding it and dropped it to the ground.
He thought back to the worst he ever hurt: when Harmony accidentally slammed his hand in the car door. When she didn’t realize he was exiting out of her side. She apologized, and later Crockett forgave her, but the door left a blue line in his palm that cut through the other lines that were already there. The pain, he remembered, was momentarily blinding, but soon dissipated, as though washed away by tiny white rivers. The pain was nothing but the line stayed, running the full length of his middle finger. And one day Harmony caught sight of it and asked what had happened. You slammed it in the car door, Crockett told her. Did I? She couldn’t remember. It was an accident, he said, and she shrugged.
The girls at school came to discover, like Crockett and I had, that Harmony knew things. Occasionally obscure wisdom seeped into her words. She told stories about things that she couldn’t actually know—like, for instance, that a baby’s taste for food develops in the womb, that the food their mother eats flavors the amniotic fluid. Imagine that, Harmony said, trailing off. Swimming in food.
The girls listened rapt. I listened to the girls listening. I could hear the gaps between their thoughts, caverns primed for echoes. I didn’t always believe the things that Harmony said, so I’d look them up in the school library. Usually she was right. It became difficult to question Harmony’s truths because they were, invariably, the truth. The girls all went home and asked their mothers what they ate during their pregnancies. They probed the weird cravings, the obsessive habits. Sarah Burke’s mother kept a jar of pickles by her bed and now Sarah Burke loved pickles. Mrs. Kauffman was briefly vegetarian during her second trimester, explaining why Mandy couldn’t stomach red meat. Kaylee Farmiga traced her recent weight gain back up the birth canal to Mrs. Farmiga’s straight diet of Hostess cupcakes.
They returned to Harmony with their confirmations and Harmony, as usual, wasn’t surprised. That’s what I told you, she’d say. And then the most baffling thing Harmony said, that even in their quietest moments the girls didn’t believe: you are your mother, and your mother is you. You were your mother before yourself and your mother was herself before you. In the womb, you were eating your mother, and your mother was eating your mother, and your mother is you. You roll into yourselves and out of yourselves like a snake eating its own tail.
Their faces were screwed up, silent. They scratched the hurting parts of their heads. Even Harmony’s reputation for truth-telling couldn’t convince the girls. And so, she saved face. Don’t worry about me, Harmony said. I came from dirt. Later, I asked Vanna what she ate while I was in the womb, and she said everything. Also oranges.
The fat woman buried her baby in the yard behind the Puerta Alta house. A small foot-shaped stone marked the grave. It said Peace. It was one of those garden stones advertised in airplane catalogs, which the fat women received in the mail. We’d never been in an airplane, but the catalog was delivered to our house once. Harmony and I flipped through it, looking at all the things we could buy on a plane. There were closet organizers, patio furniture, and ramps for animals so they could climb into cars. Magnifying mirrors and toilet cushions. The fat women have one in their house, Harmony said, of the toilet cushion. They also had an automatic cat food dispenser in case they forgot to feed their cat.
Harmony told me how she measured her foot against the garden rock and found her foot was larger than the stillborn. She said it with a kind of pride that tapered into silence, and then she told me how she saw the fat woman cry once, when the fat woman didn’t think Harmony was looking. Not the mother, though. It was the other one, with the fat neck. The bathroom door wasn’t closed, either because the latch was broken or because the fat women were careless with doors, which Harmony believed to be more likely. She’d seen them leave the stove burners on, the smoke alarms chirping for days as the batteries died. Every portal in the house hung open: to the bedroom with the two twin beds, to the washing machine where clothes sat waiting for their cycle to start. The cat walked in and out when the front door was left open, each time returning with scratches.
The fat woman in the bathroom sat on the toilet and cried. A lot of good that cushioning did, Harmony snarked to me. When she cried it was as though her face was a sac, a membrane surrounding the water that pressed to leak out. The fat woman howled and Harmony tiptoed out to the backyard, to the stillborn rock. She laid her head over the small body. She took from her pocket a glassy shard she’d found in the lot beneath the downstairs tenants’ clothesline, digging it into the dirt.
You can still come from the ground, she whispered to it.
Maybe it wasn’t too late. The earth didn’t answer. When the other fat woman drove up the gravel Harmony listened to the ground crunch, the door swing. The words and the crying from inside lasted as the evening dimmed. She pressed her ear to the rock, listening to her pulse. How it sounded too cavernous, a cathedral in her bones.
Devyn Defoe was shortlisted for The White Review’s short story prize in 2017. Her fiction has appeared on Tin House’s Flash Fridays and in the artist book Girls In Trees (published by Instar Lodge) and she is currently working on a novel and story collection. She received her MFA from Columbia University and lives on most online platforms @devyndefoe.