They're on a dirt path in the woods. Her feet shuffle through blazing leaves, plowing them into furrows at either side of each of her newish fuchsia Nike's. His right arm's around her shoulders, resting under her hair and over the hooded, blue and orange Boise State Broncos sweatshirt she's got on along with a pair of gray Ole Miss sweat pants. He's hugging her close to him. Her arm's around his waist, under a frayed, fleece-lined Levi's jacket. Their ankles get tangled. They keep each other from falling, like a couple of drunk songsters off on a spree.
A buck stands still but for breathing among orange and yellow and red maple leaves on mostly bare trees, staring toward a doe and a mostly-grown fawn on the other side of the path. Giselle sees the buck's breath. She sees her own breath. She sees Abraham's breath. She sees Isaac's breath. He's toddling ahead of them in a new pair of blue denim bib-overalls and khaki Keds for kids his grandmother brought with her down from Chicago, picking up leaves and letting them go again like colorful kites with no strings. He chases one of the leaves but only briefly, then picks up another leaf, looks at it, traces the main vein leading from its stem with his finger, holds the leaf up against the sky, lets it go and chases it as it rocks through the air. The poor kid seems to have inherited Giselle's attention span, but he's got his dad's healthy head of thick black hair with pretty amber highlights shimmering in the Tennessee sun. He also seems to have inherited his Grandma Oprah's big butt, but that could just be the Huggies Pull-Ups he's got on under his overalls. God, he's adorablewaddling after a rollicking leaf! Nothing could be more beautiful than the family she's become; nobody could be happier than she is right this very minute. Her hair is tickling Abraham's nose, getting in the way of his long eyelashes when he blinks. He likes her hair tickling his nose, she knows.
"So, this is all just one big fat dream, right?"
"You could wake up and see, I suppose," Abraham says.
"Then where would I be?"
"You got me."
"I do," she says.
The path widens into a meadow filled with the remains of wild flowers gone to seed. The Great Smoky Mountains loom up in a mist over toward North Carolina, far, far beyond the trees behind Abraham's dad's house. Smoke pours from the stone chimney into the blue, blue sky. Isaac gives up on leaves and takes off, running as well as he knows how to run, toward his grandfather's front porch. They've been there before, plenty of times; winter, spring, summer and fall. Abraham sings softly through her hair, into her left ear. His voice is still deep and gravelly, still thrills her the way it did when she first heard it on the phone in math class a million years ago:
"...Every rock and rill, every distant hill,
Tells me of you, how I love you..."
Isaac pounds his pudgy fist against the oak door. Abraham's father opens it. He's got on an iridescent-bronze, brocade smoking jacket with black silk lapels and baggy black pants. There's a fire roaring in the stone fireplace. Oprah's dressed in powder-blue yoga clothes. Her hair's wet. She seems tired, drained, ordinary, just another middle-aged black woman slumped in an overstuffed chair under a brass floor lamp shortly after getting out of a hot shower. It looks to Giselle like she might be thinking about maybe getting up onto her feet to greet them, but she's too comfortable, too ensconced, and just waves the way she had in the parking lot by the golf course, instead. Giselle can't help but smile. Every time she sees Oprah, she can't help but smile. It's a complicated smile, made up of more or less equal parts of pride, disbelief, affection, curiosity and an ever-deepening concern about the viability of her own mental faculties.
His grandfather slips his hands under Isaac's arms, lifts him aloft, toward the ceiling beams, and lets go. Isaac's suspended in midair, weightless, free, giddy, giggly. His grandfather catches him under the arms and shoves him up toward the ceiling again. Isaac's ecstatic; laughing, gurgling, shrieking, glowing. Giselle would prefer that the old guy knock it off with the tossing of her kid.
"Have you gotten over being dead yet?" she asks Oprah.
"Sorry about that. Apparently nobody could know."
"Oh, it's not your fault." Giselle glances briefly at Abraham.
"It's nobody's fault," Abraham's father says, gliding Isaac through the air like Dumbo flying around, high up inside that huge circus tent.
"It'll be your fault if you drop my child on his head," Giselle says.
His grandfather hugs Isaac to his chest, sits down in the La-Z-Boy, cranks up the foot rest and lets Giselle's child do whatever he wants to do. Underneath the overalls, Isaac's wearing a blue homespun cowboy shirt with little white stars woven into the fabric. The shirt makes his eyes bluer, like his grandfather's eyes. How he got blue eyes, nobody knowsthey must have skipped a generation or two. What the kid wants to do, it seems, is squirm. He straddles his grandfather's chest, grabs his nose, put his fingers into his grandfather's ears, pulls his hair gently, curiously, bonks him on the head with his tiny fist. The old guy's eating it up, remembering being a kid himself, maybe, remembering grabbing his own grandfather's nose.
Abraham bends over and kisses Oprah's forehead. She smiles, pats the back of his arm and makes a lip-smacking noise in the general vicinity of his chin. He sits down, cross-legged, on the floor beside Oprah's chair, and pulls Giselle by the hand, trying to get her to come sit beside him.
"The tea kettle's boiling." Oprah points vaguely toward the kitchen while Giselle's still standing. Then, as if that weren't quite enough, she makes a slight motion with her head toward the kitchen, which Giselle takes to mean that Oprah wouldn't mind it if someone brought in a pot of tea.
Ray Blovits and his mother, Diane, are in the kitchen. Ray's sitting in a straight-backed chair, carefully peeling a long, single peel from a Granny Smith apple with a razor-sharp pocketknife. Diane's standing with her back to Giselle in front of the stove, wearing a white apron over a red-and-white gingham dress. Her bare, skinny legs are like extensions of the straight, limp, strawberry-blond hair that reaches down almost to the drawstrings of the apron. Cupboards and drawers are open, some wider than others. There are mixing bowls and canisters of flour and raw sugar and aluminum measuring spoons and tiny bottles of vanilla extract and McCormick spice jars in a three-tiered spice rackfennel, sweet marjoram, bay leaves, cumin, nutmeg. Giselle doesn't understand any of these things. Diane must be a genius. Besides the gently whistling copper tea kettle, two cast-iron pots and a cast-iron skillet are simmering on cast-iron gas burners. The oven's going full blast. Diane's Martha Stewart on steroids. Giselle shudders with bewildered awe.
"Hey, Mrs. Winters," Ray says. He and Isaac are both the old guy's grandchildren. That gives him and Giselle a bond they never had before.
"My little ray of sunshine!" She lifts her arms.
He smiles, finishes peeling the apple, picks up another. Diane turns toward Giselle. Her bangs and strands of her hair are stuck with sweat to her forehead and to the sides of her always-pretty face.
"Oprah seems to want some tea," Giselle says. "Although, technically, she didn't come right out and say so."
"She wouldn't come right out and ask for anything, no," Diane says in a soft, raspy, lilting, singsong sort of way, bobbing her head gently from side to side as she glances toward the tea kettle. "She tends not to want to be beholden."
"Has she always been such a prima donna?"
Ray looks toward the two of them as if they may be talking about him.
"The way I heard it, she was just a shy, normal, no-account little teenage kid when Dad got to know her but now that they've made her into an advertising icon she has to be more circumspect. People take advantage of her."
"Like locking her up in that nuke plant?" Giselle asks.
"Yeah. For starters."
"I might've asked a few more questions, myself."
"Oh, she asked all the questions she could think to ask," Diane says, dropping a handful of chopped parsley into the sizzling skillet. "It was brave of her, selfless, surprising. We were proud. If Dow hadn't gone all ninja on us, telling some news guy we had Oprah's weight in Semtex inside the containment building or whatever, things would've been fine. Well, that's what Rocco says, anyway. I wasn't there."
"I was. It was a mess. Plastered all over TV. The FBI hanging out in my god damn driveway, shooting guns everywhere, my little dogs shivering and shaking all over with fear. I still don't know how everyone got out okay."
"Neither do they. But you can see why she thinks she has to be careful."
"Does he take advantage of you?" Giselle frowns.
"Me? Nah," she wrinkles her nose. "I love doing what I do or I don't do it. 'Love doing what you do or don't do it.' Jesus said that. Well, according to my dad's bible, anyway. He didn't think much of the real bible, so he made up his own."
"Yeah, I heard. Like The Jefferson Bible. Abraham told me about it, but I've never seen it."
"Nobody has. We all just hear about it. Any time he doesn't know what else to say he comes up with a so-called quote from his so-called bible. I call it 'The Bullshit Bible.' That pisses him off. 'Bullshit, my ass,' he says." She smiles her radiant smile. "It's mostly just things he thinks Jesus might have said, or things he thinks Jesus should have said, or things he wishes Jesus would've said. The Jefferson Bible was mainly just New Testament stuff but Dad comes up with anything that comes to mind: Shakespeare, The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Gnostic Gospels."
"Oh, God, like most anything. 'Lord, won't you buy me a colored-TV.' Like, 'Don't kid yourself, kid.' Like, 'Don't lie.' Like, 'Don't do what you hate.' Like, 'God knows when, but you're doin' it again.' Like, 'Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it.' Oprah gets off on whoring herself out for money. She didn't hang out with any of the other mothers, not even at the beginning, so she missed out on a lot. That makes her of cagey, fearful, wary. She can't help it. We all tell her, 'Hey, when you got nothin' you got nothin' to lose,' but she doesn't listen, doesn't hear, can't hear, doesn't want to hear, whatever. We tell her she should keep all her money in a big brown bag inside a zoo."
"The thing to do," Giselle says.
"Yep. But it was still cool of her to have gone along with the nuke thing."
"Isn't it gonna be harder to get her to go along with anything else?"
"Nah. Dad's pretty persuasive." Diane's wistful, at ease, matter-of-fact, resigned. She removes a strand of hair from her cheek, turns back toward what she's got cooking on the burners of the stove and sings:
"Hey, good-lookin', what'cha got cookin',
How's about cookin' somethin' up with me..."
"Is that a quote from your dad's bible, too?" Giselle asks.
"Oh, totally," Diane says.
"What does he want Oprah to go along with now?"
"Nobody knows. I think that's what this whole pot luck thing's gonna be all about, why he dragged her down from Chicago, but I'm not sure."
"I thought she came to see Isaac?"
"Oh, she did, sure, but there's always more birds than there are stones."
"What pot luck thing?"
"He's got everyone coming over. It's gonna be a hot time in the old house tonight. Dow's bringing a Pad Thai."
"I'm making apple pie." Ray looks up.
"Or maybe he just wants people around to hear him play his new piano."
"I didn't see a new piano anywhere."
"He's keeping it a secret. He keeps everything a secret. He likes secrets."
Giselle comes back into the livingroom with a pot of tea and four Chinese teacups on a bamboo tray and finds herself in the middle of an animated conversation.
"You're not dying of in the gutter of tooth decay." Oprah looks over at the old guy stretched out in his burnt-orange La-Z-Boy.
"Ah, but lots of people are," he says. "If you don't have any money, you can't get your teeth fixed. Tens of thousands of people die every day of completely curable diseases. People are dying of abscessed teeth, for Christ's sake."
"You want to be a dentist? You want to pay a couple hundred thousand dollars to go to dental school, then spend the rest of your life picking the gick out of yucky, diseased, bad-smelling teeth? Who's gonna do that for free? Not me."
"That's exactly what I've been saying. Money isn't everything it's the only thing. One man's free market is another man's slave state. If you want your teeth fixed, you've gotta work three jobs, neglect your kids and sell your soul. Dentists make a hundred billion dollars a year and give it all to their greedy wives. Who would marry a dentist if it weren't for money? Nobody. No matter how poor or old or disabled or deserving you may be, you can't get an abscessed tooth fixed to save your life 'cause the dentist's wife needs a new Rolex. In Cuba they fix your teeth for free."
"So go to Cuba," Oprah says.
"What did I miss?" Giselle asks Abraham.
"They have issues." Abraham's tongue and teeth make a sound like a snake.
"There are none so blind as those who will not see," the old guy says.
"There's no fool like an old fool," Oprah answers.
Giselle fills the cups, passes them around, and sits on the hooked rug next to Abraham. He pulls a big green beanbag pillow over for her to lean on and snuggles his arm around her shoulders, being careful not to pull her hair. Her father-in-law lifts his teacup in a kind of toast from across the room, then asks, in his smug, twinkly-eyed way, "What do you know about this?"
"The tea? It's green. It's green tea," Giselle says.
"What else what? Wet? Hot? I have no idea. I guess it must have been tea leaves at some point, growing in the ground somewhere. China, maybe. I didn't read the package, I just put some tea in the pot and poured boiling water on it. That's the sum total of my abilities as a cook. I can pour the water someone else has already boiled onto tea leaves in a teapot, period."
"And I'm just gonna drink it and that's just gonna be that," Oprah says.
"The leaves had to be picked and dried and packed and shipped, right?" The old guy concentrates on Giselle. "Who did all that?"
"For money?" Giselle knows Abraham's dad has a thing about money.
"Enough already about money." Oprah throws up her arms. "I'm sick of money! Money sucks. Money's mean. Money's bad. Destroy all money forever. Burn it, ban it, obliterate ithang anyone who finds a dime on the sidewalk!"
"Then what?" The old guy ignores her.
"Then what what?"
"Take a sip. Tell me what happens."
Giselle blows across the top of the steaming Chinese teacup, purses her lips, sips a sip of tea into her mouth, feels it cool against her teeth and settle against her gums, touches the warm liquid with her tongue and says, "Pfssh, too many things happen all at the same time. There's ten trillion cells going on inside me. I couldn't begin to tell you what one cell's doing let alone in all ten trillion."
"Have you ever seen a cell divide?"
"Yeah," she says. "On TV. Not in person."
She's waiting for one of his lectures. It doesn't come. Giselle takes another sip of the tea and feels something akin to photosynthesis going on in her mouth while she tries to imagine what all those poor little green tea molecules have in store for themselves, turning into brain cells or whatever, chromosomes choosing up sides, genes splitting apart, getting back together againattraction, affection, sex, love, lust, hunger, thirst, maternity, procreation, self-preservationhow deeply imbedded all those things are, how they have such lives of their own, such histories going back hundreds of millions of years through all the ups and down of evolution. Darwin didn't know the half of it. Nobody knows the half of it. She pictures herself as a galaxy, an evolving universe of galaxies, pictures how a skin cell in her cute little pinky toe is a mind-boggling distance away from a cell in one of the strands of her hair that grew out from her scalp before she got divorced from Dennis, how the two cells are so completely different from one another, how they haven't a clue that the other even exists, how they don't have a clue that anything besides themselves exists, and yet they're all uniquely her, her body, her brain, her heart, her soul, her infinite imagination. What holds it all together she can't begin to know.
Pictures of bees pollinating pink and white puffs of clover and purple trumpets of honeysuckle come into her head, a cascade of pictures come into her head, pictures of reindeer pawing at frozen tundra, shooting freezing, steaming breath out around the icicles dripping from their hairy nostrils, pictures of ants and snails and cockroaches and boa constrictors and sunflowers and pumpkins and people...replicating themselves in the incalculable numbers of ways they do, recreating themselves. Whoa. Recreation. What a word. Let us now all come together and recreate. What makes recreation? How do we recreate ourselves? How do snails? Sex, attraction, chemistry, what? Call it love, what the fuck. Who's gonna argue? It's got to be love that holds it all together. God is love. That must be it. There is no God but Love and Eternal Life is His Messenger. When people finally get to the bottom of everything they've been trying to get to the bottom of since being alive was born, that's what they're going to find...swimming around between atoms and electrons and quarks, hiding in the fabric of black holes, slipping and sliding in and out between the strings in string theory, keeping fractals from ever finding a beginning or end, instigating one big bang after another, moving slower than absolute zero and faster than the speed of light: love, that's what. All that dark matter astronomers can't find? It's love. The God particle physicists keep looking for? It's love, too. None of those stupid things stand much of a chance of being proven any time soon, howeverleast of all by her. Hm. Maybe she doesn't need a lecture, after all. Maybe the sip of tea is the lecture. Res ipsa loquitur, Dennis used to say. Saliva shoots like little squirt guns into the sides of her tongue. Maybe she's just hungry; maybe she could just use a bite to eat.
"Ray and Diane are making dinner," Abraham says.
"Yeah, I saw. Smells yummy," she says, still in a sort of daydream.
"I wish they could rustle us up some of them ribs we had back in Rockford," Oprah says with her eyes closed again. "Damn, they were good."
"Hunger's the best sauce, my dad used to say." Giselle laughs.
"Your dad's no dummy," Abraham says.
"Except that he married my mother," she says out the side of her mouth.
"And when you finally do get something to eat, mmm, mmm, mmm, does it ever taste good," Oprah says, shooting one of her big-eyed Oprah looks at Giselle. "I think I might smell me some of them ribs right now."
"I don't know what all Diane's got cooking out there. It's a lot, I know that. Apparently there's gonna be some big pot luck dinner later on."
"That's a secret," the old guy says.
"Did your Mr. Woo give anyone the recipe for them ribs?" Oprah asks.
"Diane's got a recipe for everything under the sun. I think someone gave her a magic hat like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. She's got brooms carrying buckets of water out there and Ray peeling apples for an apple pie."
"Mmm," Oprah says. "Ribs and apple pie. I'm so starving I could die."
"Man doesn't live by bread alone," Giselle says to no one in particular.
"But by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord, yes," Abraham says. "When did you get so Biblical?"
"Oh, I'm not Biblical, I just remember Dennis saying that once when he was trying to get into my pants."
"Did it work?" Abraham sounds jealous.
"Probably," she says, knowing the effect jealousy has on him.
"Probably? What do you mean, probably? Did it or didn't it?"
"We were married for a million years."
"Now, now, kids, let's be nice," Oprah says, opening her eyes again.
"Ah, yes, let us at all costs be nice," the old guy says.