Authors: Armistead Maupin
THE DAYS OF ANNA MADRIGAL
FOR OLYMPIA, NATURALLY
AND ONCE AGAIN FOR CHRIS
The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.
âG. K. CHESTERTON
Some people drink to forget. Personally, I smoke to remember.
ummer had been warmer than usual this year, but the heat that throbbed in the East Bay was already coaxing pale fingers of fog into the city. Anna could feel this on her skin, the chilly caress she had come to think of as “candle weather.” She had not owned a fireplace since her landlady days on Russian Hill, but to her mind the proper application of candlelight carried all the primal comfort of a campfire.
She grabbed the purple plastic firelighter on the sideboard in the parlor. Her legs, however, weren't cooperating, so she steadied herself for a moment, slouching ludicrously on one hip, like Joan Crawford in 1940s gun moll mode. This thing in her wobbly old hand
disturbingly gunlike, complete with a trigger and a barrel.
Mustn't think of it as a gun. Think of it as a wand.
She aimed the lighter at the top of a candle, a stately pillar whose rim had grown satisfyingly wavy with use, though she did not recall having seen it before. She wondered, optimistically, if her companion Jake had been burning it in his room.
“Stop!” Jake sprang from the sofa, having just noticed her above the top of his magic slate. “Not that one!” The alarm in his voice suggested someone arriving at a gas chamber with a last-minute stay of execution from the governor.
Anna dropped her firearm, surrendering on the spot. “Sorry, dear. Saving it for a special friend?” This was naughty of her, since Jake was easily embarrassed, but she liked the notion that he might have found someone worthy of candlelight.
“It's for you,” he said placidly, shaming her with his teddy-bear dignity. “Got it at Pottery Barn this morning.”
“Ah. Very thoughtful.” She was still confounded by that melted rim.
“I can get some more, if you like it.”
“I do .Â .Â . yes.” She hoped this sounded sincere; there was not much you could say, really, about a plain white candle. “And why am I not allowed to light it?”
He took the pillar in his hands, fidgeting with something on the bottom, causing it to glow, candle-like, from within. “Wa-lah!” he crowed.
“Oh my,” she said, unable to manage anything else. Was there nothing on earth this child could not replace with inscrutable electronics?
“You don't have to light it,” he said. “And you don't have to blow it out.”
Anna widened her eyes at him comically. “And you don't have to burn down the house.”
“That too, yeah.” Jake smiled without losing his aura of parental resolveâan achievement, really, from someone almost sixty years her junior. How could she blame him for fretting about this? One afternoon last winter, after the first cold snap, he had come home from the gym to find her asleep in her chair, the remains of an amethyst candle dripping off the end table like a DalÃ clock. She had not heard the end of it.
“Here's the cool part,” he added brightly, soldiering on. “It's on a timer! You can make it turn on and off whenever you want. Amazeballsâright?”
She had wearied of this “amazeballs” business, but she let it pass; she was touched by the effort he'd put into this campaign. She regarded him benignly until she caught his gaze. “So this is the end of candlelight?”
He hesitated. “Well .Â .Â . if you wanna put it that way.”
“How would you have me put it?”
“Jeez, Annaâthe End of Candlelight? You just can't light stuff when I'm not around, that's all.”
“I understand,” she said calmly, because she did; some of her old playthings now required adult supervision. Her days were full of such small surrendersâwhy make a fuss over them? You could see them as loss, or you could see them as simplification. Her daughter Mona would have called this an act of faith, this Zen letting-go of familiar pleasures. Anna chose to think of it as leaving like a lady.
“I have bade farewell to flame,” she declared, lifting her hand in a fluttery theatrical wave that she hoped would disguise any actual melancholy on her part. “And I am so much lighter for the journey.”
He sighed with relief. “Thank you, but you have not .Â .Â . âbade farewell to flame,' or whatever. There's gonna be plenty of flame in your life. Trust me.”
This sounded so strangely purposeful that she was taken aback. “What on earth does that mean?”
“Nothing.” Jake was blushing beneath his stubble, obviously mortified at having said more than he'd intended. He was helplessly chameleonic, this boy, forever blending in with his emotions. “It doesn't mean anything,” he said.
“I'm not expecting a funeral pyre,” she said.
He scowled at her. “That's not funny.”
“Well, what does âplenty of flame' mean?”
“It's justâyou know, a figure of speech.”
She knew Jake to be many things, but metaphorical was not among them.
hey read in the parlor until bedtime, as was their custom. Anna was reuniting with an old friend from childhood:
Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels
. Even now its bulk was downright biblical; it must have overwhelmed her as a child. She turned the yellowed pages slowly, past murky black-and-white photographs of Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, a dirigible tethered preposterously to the top of the Empire State Building. The illustrations had never impressed her, but the author's kinetic prose had more than compensated. His description of Iguazu Falls was a waterfall in its own right, a torrent of subordinate clauses that spilled off the page in a sibilant white mist. Mr. Halliburton, for all his swagger, had been something of a queen, and Anna had responded to that subliminal fact long before she had identified her own particular brand of royalty.
“Whatcha reading?” Jake was looking up from his magic slate.
He grimaced. “Dick Cheney's company?”
“No.” She shuddered at the thought of that horrid little man invading her beloved tome. “The adventurer. Richard Halliburton.”
No reaction from Jake.
“You knowâwho had himself declared a ship so he could swim the Panama Canal?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“He was very handsome.” She peered down at the image on the page, a sunburned blond sitting astride a camel. “He wasn't even forty when he died.”
“What happened to him?”
Anna shrugged. “His junk disappeared.”
“What? You mean .Â .Â .” Jake's brow was furrowed in confusion. “He was like .Â .Â . T or something?”
“No, dear. He was not âlike T or something.'Â ” She leaned on the letter to convey her disdain for Jake's latest relabeling of their once-exotic species. “What on earth does that have to do with this?”
Her companion shrugged. “You said âjunk.' I thought .Â .Â .”
“Yes.” She remained patient, assuming a more deliberate tone. “He was sailing a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to the World's Fair on Treasure Island. It was 1939. There was a typhoon at sea. They never found them.”
“He had a captain and a crew. And a beau, Paul something, who wrote the books with him. They traveled the world together. I guess you could see it as wildly romantic. Two men deeply in love, lost at sea.”
“How do you know they were deeply in love?”
“They'd better have been.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it's preposterous otherwise. A Chinese junk? What on earth was the point? It wasn't a world record. They were just being
He gave her a lopsided smile. “But not if they were in love.”
“It would help,” she told him. “I'd be far less impatient with them.” It was difficult, at her age, not to be a little put out with
Jake was silent for a moment. “How long have you had that thing?”
He meant the book. She ran her palm across it, as if comforting an old cur. “Since before I was me,” she said. She lifted the book to her nose and inhaled the scent lingering in its cardboard bones: a hint of rosewater and Lysol that instantly genie-summoned the Blue Moon Lodge. It was Winnemucca condensed, this book, the only thing she owned that could still predictably take her from here to there.
Bet your book can't do that, she thought.
But she knew that Jake wasn't reading a book. She had heard the telltale cackling of his favorite game, the one with the evil birds and the catapults. The sound of it had bothered her until she'd learned to connect it to Jake himself, to his endless coltish curiosity. There were times, in fact, when she found it almost comforting, like a music box in a nursery. It meant that Jake was there.
“Are you winning?” she asked.
“You don't exactly win,” he replied.
“Ah,” she said, as she returned to her book.
No, you don't, she thought. You just get to the end.
otch, her old rescue cat, sauntered into the room and climbed onto her lap. They dozed off together for a while. When she opened her eyes again, Jake was stretched out on the sofa. In the light of his magic slate his cheek was gilt-edged, Rembrandtesque. He seemed to be reading now, so she assumed it was his latest, a book called
by an author with whom Jake had once tweeted in a state of delirious fandom. He had even read to her from this book, a passage about a man being swallowed by a giant vagina that had amused them both for entirely different reasons. Or perhaps, come to think of it, the same reason.
That was the lovely thing about Jake: he had come such a long way to meet her. For most of her life she had tried to imagine the company she'd be keeping at the end. There had been both men and women in those anxious/hopeful visions (an ex-wife, a couple of old beaux, and the long-lost daughter she had found and then lost again), but she could never have imagined Jake. He had arrived out of nowhere, like a unicorn in a forest, this man-child who knew her journey as clearly as his own.
She fretted about him, though. He should be having his own life, his own evolving dream of last companions. He was well into his thirties and, since his hysterectomy two years earlier, had become a far more sociable creature. He even brought friends by the house these daysâa varied ensemble, to say the least, some bejeweled of brow and brilliant of plumage, others swaggering in Elvis haircuts or prim as movie librarians, pop approximations of their psyches. They seemed fond of Jake, she was glad to see, and some of the ones with boys' names stayed the night.
That's what she fretted about: whether she was cramping his style.
“You know,” she said, “the chair in my room is much more comfortable.”
He glanced up at her distractedly. “What?”
“It's just as easy for me to read in my room.”
“Now, you mean?”
“No, dearâwhen you have company. You should be able to entertain without having an anthropological exhibit in the corner.”
He rolled his eyes. “Read your book.”
“Do you understand me?”
“And you should know that when you have visitors in your room, I can't hear a thing. These old plaster walls are thick. There's no need to whisper. Just go about your business.”
Jake's eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How do you know we're whispering? If you can't hear a thing.”
“Don't talk back to your elders,” she said.
ust before bedtime, Jake brought out the Volcano, a contraption that never failed to amuse Anna in every phase of its nonsensical operation. It was silver and squatâcone-shaped, like a mouse-size space capsuleâand its purpose was to deliver the herb, superheated and free of smoke, into the clear plastic bag writhing above it. Once inflated, this voluptuously bobbing bladder would be removed and handed to Anna, who would puff (only once) on a mouthpiece that looked as if it belonged on a wind instrument of some sort, possibly a bagpipe. Jake invariably conducted this ritual with deadpan solemnity, so Anna, out of respect, tried to follow suit, though she could never shake the feeling that they were engaged in an East European clown act, or a fraternity prank involving rubbers and a tank of helium.
The Volcano had been a Christmas gift from a friend, a former tenant at her old house on Russian Hill. Mary Ann had spent her middle years in the East with a well-to-do Republican husband, only to return to the city on the brink of sixty with a pocket full of alimony and a heartbreaking need to ingratiate herself to the past. Jake had only to declare within earshot that fancy vaporizers of this ilk were “seven hundred fucking dollars,” and Mary Ann was off and running. She'd presented it to them almost formally during a picnic lunch she'd organized at Occupy San Francisco. They had no place to plug it in, of course, so full appreciation had been postponed.
this?” Anna was holding the valve of the balloon now. She half expected that, if released, it would fly around the room making farting noises.
“What is what?”
“The name. I enjoy the names.”
“Oh.” He picked up the shiny gold packet from the cannabis club. Its sleek design evoked something you might find in a Japanese grocery store. “Blue Dream,” he said, reading the label. “Same as last time.”
She inhaled the sweet smokeless cloud and held it for a moment. “Lovely,” she said at last. “I think it's my favorite. The Purple Tush was a little oppressive.”
Jake chuckled. “Kush.”
“Purple Kush, not tush.” Jake took the balloon from her. “Purple tushâugh.”
She finally caught his gist. “
purple tush, no less.”
He laughed like a child who had just been tickled.
“They must have an ointment for that,” she added, wanting to prolong his mirth, but was promptly interrupted by the cricket chirping merrily in his jeans. He tugged his phone from his pocket and examined the surface. “It's Brian,” he told her.