She said, "More quietly please," but that was me in the middle of the danse du ventre, and the record on the dansette, Orin Twill's "Summer Almost Wasted," all but commanded me to "cut a pigeon's wing" as the barnfolk say, so I shrugged and shook the little God had granted me to the flagrant twitterpations of the music. Although the lodger shook her head, she did not persist in her attempts to silence the racket. By the polite strategy of closing my eyes and lunging to and fro across the room in total transport to the ukelele and bass drum, we were both spared the embarrassment that must have accompanied her finally closing the door to my bedroom and leaving me be. I felt sorry for the old seacow, but there were other considerations tonight.
I read somewhere that the danse du ventre, the belly dance, was actually supposed to mimic the pain of childbirth, the sacred mystery of motherhood, but it had been debased over the years by burlesque. Actually when I say I read that somewhere, I will almost always mean that I heard it from my father, but I don't like that he's a know-it-all. I don't like that he's a granny, and I won't play into his attempts to make me subservient to his already overindulged brain matter. So, I'll annoy him by saying I read something interesting in the newspaper, and then proceed to relate to him the very tidbits of knowledge he imparted to me the night before. Just this morning I looked up from toast, formed my mouth into the most wicked of Os -- as if I'd suddenly recalled the phone number of the Queen of Borneo -- and said, "Daddy, do you know why they call that lump in your throat the Adam's Apple?" Before he could swallow his mouthful of runny eggs, I obliged him the answer: "It is the morsel of forbidden fruit that stuck in Adam's throat." He tried to smile at me around the slurping of the runny eggs, but I made as if he hadn't followed my course of thinking. "Adam, you know, of Adam and Eve."
There are wet, moldy coffins drying out on our porch and father doesn't see why that would have anyone in an uproar. He says he'll dismantle the damn things as soon as they're dry, says he doesn't want the waterlogged wood to crumble as he tries to pry the boards from the frame, but this just does not appease some people. Some people think it's ruthless luck to have the things standing upright, waiting. Father tries to calm them by saying that it's no such thing at all since the coffins were already used once and thus couldn't be awaiting any of them. The curse was taken off these coffins when they were buried with their original occupants. Now that they'd been disgorged from the graves by the flood and the bodies floated down to the river and lost forever, the luck of these receptacles, bad or good, had been nullified. They were just pine boxes now, some boards moldering, some quite usable. Most of the neighbors and the lodgers would swat at the air as my father explained, or make the "yap yap yap" gesture by placing four fingers close together and whacking them up and down on their thumbs.
I feel about the coffins as I feel about my collection of funeral fans, my collection of glass taxidermy eyes, my archive of newspaper articles relating to those who've jumped from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. I feel as though we Lowrings are looking death in the eye while the rest of the world divert their gaze and whistle by nervously, as if the grim reaper is some pencil salesman. If you ask me, we show death its proper due. We memorialize it, so that it might show us the same respect later on. Perhaps we won't be found in our underwear, hunched forward into a pudding, or hanged from roofbeams, our heads the color of plums. We will pass away in starched white sheets, our closest friends and loved ones wiping the sweat of our last exertion from our brow with warm washcloths from a big porcelain bedside bowl. A sliver of cloud will bisect the moon gently, the way you'd cut a pomegranate, and as silver gently passes through silver, we too shall pass into the next life. And we'll get our funeral wishes, as well. Not a soul, not the barbeled mortician or the brilliantined minister, will question the eccentricity of our deathbed resolutions. There will be nothing but tubas in the funereal march. The Black Mariah will be bedecked with sunflowers. Belly dancers in grass skirts (dye the grass black if you must, reverend!)will dance on the altar in place of mourners. All this because the Lowrings befriended death and didn't treat the pale shade as a pencil salesman.
"Well, now we're all rebels," My father told us all a few months ago. He slapped his hands together so that I half-expected chalk dust to fly off them. Three of the lodgers left us in the night, without notice. One of the lodgers died and had been taken away by relations. That was very tense. The family seemed to blame us for something, though we could never tell just what. There was nothing whatsoever hinky in the lodger's demise and the police said as much, using the exact word "hinky," a word I shall always be indebted to them for sharing. I marched up to the lodger's father, in fact, as his family all stood in the corner of the kitchen whispering about us, and announced, "There was nothing whatsoever hinky about the death of your son, sir!" The lodger's father, a longbeard whose face nearly groaned with the weight of the whiskers, took his family by the shoulders and steered them into the library, where they reconvened with the same ominous disposition. There was one lodger left to us and she seemed at wit's end, but obviously had nowhere else to go. She'd most likely been fired from this or the other; we didn't pry. The woman was a month late on rent and we assumed by her timorous state -- and by the fact that she'd remained when everyone else had skulked away or perished to bid us adieu -- that there would be no further payments. She would wait us out, stay until the house burned to the ground or we took measures to oust her.
Here is the riddle. All of this occurred before my father and a few men in wading boots slogged those coffins up the front steps and installed them on our porch. The Lowrings had always been the victims of chinese whispers, but things were becoming dire and the reasons for it were a complete mystery to us. The house, which had been built by my great grandfather on my mother's side, was as close to a mansion as you can get without actually having scads of money. It was built to inspire riches, not as the mark of their attainment. It was constructed from whatever lumber and fixtures my great grandfather could scare up. But he was known as a good man of meager resources so many fine materials had been laid on his doorstep-to-be. He told everyone he saw that he was building this house for generations of Lowrings. If they had nothing else, he told them, they would have this house. People bought into his dream, his grandiose enthusiasm. That is how my family got a mansion. Of course, later generations of townspeople began to resent that they'd invested so much in a family that never really came to much. A few even walked right up to the house during lean times and pulled away trim or sizable lengths of porch rail. It was something to see them tucking whole shutters inside their ratty brown coats and walking away grumbling to themselves. This is all by way of telling you that the house was a unique and oddly luxurious place in which to live, so these lodgers who'd left us under cover of night, did not do so because we harbored vermin or would not repair faulty plumbing. They did not leave because we had in any way denied them the comforts a lodger should enjoy. And they did not leave because there were coffins stood up on the porch.
The last lodger, the seacow, had pretty much taken to her room. She still came downstairs for meals, however, and to watch her try to appear inconspicuous, sitting right there at the table with us, and consuming more food than the rest of us combined, made us hold napkins to our faces to keep from laughing wildly.
After one particularly ludicrous meal, my father cascaded into laughter. "With that shape," He buckled. "She expects us to mistake her for a table lamp!"
There is a fine balcony through some french doors in my father's bedroom. There is a slab of marble shaped like the state of Minnesota on it because my mother once begged for something other than raw planks out there. Father went to a local stone-cutting concern and came away with this ragged-edged -- but beautifully polished -- Negro Marquino, veined with pulverized fossils, one of the scraps salvaged from the wreck of a flatbed quarry truck. I belly danced into the master bedroom and through the french doors onto the marble which was slick with rain, and so showed me the ghostly brother of the full moon. I could still hear the dansette playing Orin Twill in my room, and I added a little ballet swirl to the danse du ventre, loving the cool swish of the rain and the marble on the bottoms of my feet. From the balcony I could hear the lodger sobbing quietly in her room. I danced and twirled. Finally my father came upstairs from his nightly smoke and whiskey. He leaned against the doorframe, relaxed as always.
"You go on," He said. "I'll have another cigarette."
He stood there in the doorway smoking while I danced atop the ghost moon. Every two or three moves I'd slide gracelessly on the rain water, and shrug at him. He laughed, crushed the cigarette out with his shoe, and toed it into the crevice where the rough-edged marble did not quite meet the house properly.
Then he said, "Now show us the shape of you," and I laughed up to the real moon, lifted my nightgown over my head, and let it fall onto the wet, Spanish marble like a lilypad.