In the Grace of the Electra
The Peanut turned eleven and asked me to drop the "Peanut" from her name. She wanted to be called Cosmo, and I argued that the cat was Cosmo already, and wouldn't they get confused?
My hangup. Cathy had given her that name the moment we knew she was pregnant nearly twelve years ago. Now in her preteen years, my daughter would be shamed out of the shopping malls if her friends heard her called anything diminutive.
So, she got me to agree she'd outgrown the whole cutsey nickname scenario, and I'd start calling her just Penny, and that reminded me of Cathy, which was true of everything.
Penny didn't flinch when I slipped on "Parents Open House" night at the middle school and introduced myself to her teacher as the father of that mysterious goober.
Emily Hart laughed, and Penny pursed her lips, put her hands on her hips as Cathy, and tapped a toe as I tried to undo the damage.
"That's okay, Mr. Katzantzakis," said the teacher. "It doesn’t go past me."
The walls of the seventh-grade classroom were plastered in students' papers and colorful posters. A polar bear screamed that reading was cool. An airline pilot suggested he'd never get off the ground without a firm grasp of fundamental arithmetic.
The Peanut showed me her projects. A few of her 'A' grade papers had made it to the wall next to the raven's cage. Her model of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant was on the table in the science corner. And on her desk was a theme paper she insisted I read. I embarrassed her by nearly choking up on after the first paragraph.
"I never met my mother but I know she is special. She is the bravest mom in the world. She looks down on me from heaven, and if I am good, she grants my wishes."
"You're doing a wonderful job, Mr. K." I looked up from the paper. Ms. Hart ventured toward me as if I would bite. I tried not to.
She said, "Penny is a marvelous student. I know it must be hard for you, raising a daughter alone."
"Lots of people do it, but it wasn't exactly the way I would have chosen things to be," I said, not intending to be rude but as usual, having it come out that way.
"Yes, and I didn't mean to suggest..." Ms. Hart said.
I fumbled on, "It's okay, I'm sorry." And I was, for a change. I said, "Penny really likes you. I've never seen her so anxious to go to school."
Then Penny came by waving an envelope, begging her teacher, "Can I tell him now?"
Upon receiving permission, she handed it to me. It was the first prize for the class
I barely had the certificate out of the envelope when Penny asked, "Can I go? Please? Can I?"
Penny had won a ride with Ms. Hart in a private plane. I wasn't sure what it suggested. Did Ms. Hart actually have her own plane? Was she going to fly it, or would there be a professional?
"I rent time on one down at the municipal airport," she said. "I've been flying since I was twelve. I know some parents get nervous and so if you'd rather not, there's another wonderful prize, a gift certificate to the All Star Video."
"I don't want a video. Please, dad. Oh can I?" Penny pleaded, clasping her hands in mock prayer and holding them at her chest while dancing on her toes.
My gut reaction was to imagine a flaming piper cub crashing through a condominium complex. "But you're always begging me for monster's this and Nemo that at the Video Corner," I said, hating myself immediately. The words "Sweetheart, I don't think I'm comfortable with this" almost escaped my lips. But I couldn't say it. The look in Penny's eyes. The thought of Cathy's voice.
The thought of my little girl flying scared me the way Cathy's mountain climbing terrified me. Why wasn't she afraid? Was I afraid enough for all of us?
After the flight, Penny started consuming books on the subject. She read every flying book in the children's section of the library, and then had me check out a couple from the main section.
Once as I made my nightly rounds before bed I noticed the light under her door.
I knocked. Opened the door. Penny lay in bed on her stomach, transfixed by a picture book.
"Lights out, sweetie," I suggested.
"Dad." She grabbed the book and sat up. "Look."
I sat next to her not knowing what to expect from the black and white photo of a woman standing in front of a 1930's era propeller plane. She wore a leather jacket and slacks. Her hair was cut short.
"It's Ms. Hart," Penny said.
Then I read the caption and corrected her. "That's Amelia Earhart. She died a long time ago."
"No dad." She turned the page. There was Amelia in formal dress at the arm of George Putnam, looking very much like the same Emily Hart who'd taken Peanut for a ride.
"Well it does look a lot like her. But that's just a coincidence. This is from a long time ago. Your grandpa was just a baby when they took this picture. I wasn't even born yet."
"But it is her," she insisted.
I slid the book out of her hands, closed it and laid it on her night table. "You are a very smart girl, and you have a very good imagination. That's not your teacher." I kissed her on the forehead. "But you don't have to believe me. Bring the book with you to school tomorrow and show Ms. Hart and see what she says. Maybe she's related or something."
"Why don't you believe me?" Penny asked as I reached for the light.
"I believe you think it's her, Peanut."
"But you don't believe it is her. Why do you think I would tell you it was, if it wasn't?"
In my best Ozzie Nelson imitation I said, "We all want to believe a lot of things that aren't true. It's natural. You'll learn when you get older."
And then I turned out the light.
"How was school today?" my dad asked Penny when she got into the car. I turned in the passenger's seat and saw my daughter staring blankly out the window.
"Fine." The answer was terminal.
"Everything okay? How is Ms. Hart's class?" I asked.
"Is Ms. Hart going to take you flying again?"
"Yes." She shifted in her seat, obviously unhappy she needed to answer my questions.
She nodded this time, still staring out the window.
"You gonna tell me what's wrong, or you gonna give me the silent treatment?" I asked as my father turned toward the local ice cream shop.
"I'm on a diet," she said to Dad, anticipating.
"Well, I want some," Dad said, as he turned into the parking lot. "You guys will just have to wait for me."
"Honey...?" I asked again, internalizing the futility, but having to try anyway.
"You don't believe me about Ms. Hart."
"If it was true, it would be kind of weird, don't you think?" I said. Then, "And did you ask Ms. Hart like I suggested? Did you show her the picture? What did she say?"
"She said she wasn't."
"See?" I said as Dad pulled us into a space and turned off the engine. We got out of the car as a reflex more than out of desire. I put my arm around Peanut's shoulders as we walked. "But it was a very interesting idea."
Penny stopped walking and looked straight into my eyes with a ferocity I'd never seen in her before.
"She can't tell us her true identity, Dad. Don't you know that?"
"Mom sent her here to rescue us."
"Sweetie, we don't need to be rescued from anything. Everything is fine. Where are you getting these ideas?"
She stamped her foot, crossed her arms, and said nothing but "thanks," when Dad handed her an ice cream cone.
To me he said, "She's just like her mother."
Agnes was in the bushes this time. The acidic smell of sticky dark urine and regurgitated Jim Beam pierced the air between us. There was a new Burberry overcoat over her multiple sweaters that I suspected she'd lifted from a seat at the bistro. She'd lost another tooth; wouldn't say how.
This time she cleaned up in the restroom at McDonald's. I gave her a new set of Cathy's clothes and trashed a couple of the torn blouses she was wearing. We got her hair combed and trimmed. Went to dinner at the steak joint where she could get all-you-can-eat muffins and three bean salad.
I pushed the uneaten half of porterhouse back under her nose and took away her fifth blueberry muffin.
"You need your iron. Your anemia bothers me," I said.
She pushed it away and downed the muffin half with a gulp of cola.
"My anemia is none of your fucking business," she blurted, and I told her to watch her mouth.
She leaned forward toward me and whispered, "All of me is none of your fucking business."
"Would you just eat this? I want to get out of here," I said. There was only so much charity I could summon before it tired me. I was at theif Agnes didn't want to help herself, why the hell do I carepoint. That meant it was time to go. I'd just leave her in the steak house if I didn't think she'd cause a scene and have the manager running out to the parking lot to retrieve me.
Agnes put down her muffin. She stiffened her spine and wiped her mouth with a napkin.
With a deliberateness I'd never seen her summon for any reason beyond the pursuit of cheap alcohol, she folded her napkin and held her head erect. Did Agnes have multiple personalities and I'd never seen more than one?
"Why do you help me?" she asked, now someone of certain mind playing the part of a bag woman.
I couldn't avoid echoing her sudden self-respect. I sat straight in my seat. Kept my elbows off the table. Tried to answer, but I couldn't. What made me do it?
"Is it because you don't want pretty Penny to turn out like me?"
"I don't want anyone to turn out like you. Even you."
We sat in silence for a moment. Then Agnes began stuffing muffins into her oversized carpet bag.
I said, "You know, I think I got stuck somehow. Penny dragged me to the soup kitchen. I thought it was a great idea to help on Thanksgiving. But you can't just do something like that once and walk away, right? That's what you said. It's hypocritical. It has to be part of you to help or it isn't."
Agnes began to stand. I asked her if she wasn't going to finish her steak, and she shot me a glance; started to walk away.
I said to her back, "Maybe I just didn't want you to think I was one of those people."
She turned and raised a finger. Opened her half-toothless mouth to scold me as was her custom, and then stopped.
"But I guess I am one of those people. Hey. Look. You got a few meals out of me. Right? Okay. Let's go." And now I was ready to leave her.
She followed me to my car and said, "nowhere," when I asked if she wanted me to take her somewhere.
When I got in and started the car to drive away she knocked on the window. Instinctively, I reached into my pocket and took out my wallet. I had about thirty bucks I pulled out. She'd spend it on booze, but that was no concern of mine. It wasn't my fault if she couldn't use my charity appropriately.
I rolled down the window and held the cash toward her. But she wouldn't take it.
"You actually care what I think?" she said. Now I could see she was crying.
"Damn. Don't you start. Here." I waved the bills toward her. She ignored them.
"I do have somewhere to go. I have something to show you."
I'd seen where she slept, and frankly, I'd the feeling the sight of someone in clothes less than ten years old under the highway bridge would probably induce a riot among the street people at my expense.
"Maybe next time," I said.
"University of Chicago."
Had I heard that?
"Do you know what that is?" I said in disbelief, figuring she was mimicking someone she'd heard in the restaurant.
"Biophysics. Building 202. Room B232."
When she didn't answer right away I wanted to leave. I put the car in drive but she clamped a hand on the door and wouldn't let go.
She said, "That's my office," like someone who had an office at Argonne National Laboratory.
To Penny, it was a field trip. To me, it was a chance to catch a glimpse of delusion. Drive a couple hundred miles to a national defense lab. Go to the front gate. Ask the guy with the gun to let you, a kid, and a semi-cognizant transient into the building with all the ray guns and nuclear weapons.
Peanut dressed Agnes in one of Cathy's outfits. It was a bit out of date, a little too 80's for the new millennium, but she was supposed to be a scientist and retro-by-accident was the scientist fashion.
We found she had dentures that filled the gaps in her teeth and we made her wear them.
We polished a pair of shoes she had in her bag. She was neat with just enough slovenly flair to pass for an absent-minded, socially unconscious genius.
After two hours driving we got to the front gate. I rolled down the window and leaned over to the soldier who came and was about to ask directions to the visitor's center when Agnes produced a laminated ID card from an unseen pocket.
"Ms. Condulis. Welcome back." He pulled out a clipboard, paged backward through a thick sheaf of paper fastened to the board, found what he wanted, then took a pen and made a checkmark.
He said, "Very good. And we have your two guests as arriving, too." Then he went back to his drab beige guard house and produced two bright magenta badges attached to lanyards and handed them to me saying, "Please wear these at all times inside the facility."
The badges proclaimed: ESCORT REQUIRED. Penny and I slipped them over our heads and they hung at our chests.
At the door to an office numbered 232 in the Biophysics building, Agnes produced a key
and unlocked the door.
Nothing up until that point had convinced me this wasn't some elaborate ruse she'd devised by lifting someone's identification out of their coat pockets at McDonald's or the park. Until then I'd only seen Agnes drooling on herself and begging, her outstretched hands covered in torn woolen gloves, her body reeking of effluent.
Now this same woman escorted us into a room filled with books and electronic equipment. In the corner was an olive green military-issue desk. On the desk was a large Lucite paperweight with the logo of a company called Zonta, and a picture of Agnes and a man in an embrace on a tropical island, the late afternoon sun bleeding orange light all over them.
Penny rooted around the library while Agnes came back with a large specimen jar containing what looked like a human brain suspended in a slightly viscous orange liquid.
"This is what I have to show you," she said.
"You need to show me a lot more," I told her. "What the hell is all of this? Is this all really yours? Are you this personthis scientist? Why are you on the street?"
"It's complicated," she said, and it made me angry.
"I bet it's not. Why don't you try? Let's see how it goes."
"This is your husband," Penny said. She'd found the picture and held it up. "He's dead, isn't he? Just like my mother."
Like any parent would, I said, "Penny," in a reprimanding tone, hoping I could somehow erase the words from the air.
"Yes, he is," Agnes said, and then offered Penny her hand and drew the child toward the two of us. "Just like your mother. I pray for him every day."
Things seemed clearer. The story unfolded in my mind like a movie script. Agnes's husband dies. The poor widow has a mental breakdown from which recovery is impossible. She gets no help. Winds up on the street until Penny and I find her by accident one Thanksgiving and save her. Then something else occurred to me.
"Tell me that's not his brain," I said.
She said, "It's not. It's from a cadaver we were studying when Arno and I had the accident."
"A car accident?" Penny said. "That's how my mother died. We got in a car crash. We lived and she didn't."
"Yes. I know," Agnes said. She reached past Penny, opened a drawer on the desk, and pulled out a newspaper article. I didn't have to see more than one word of the title before I recognized it.
"Why do you have that?" I said, trying to take it away. But Penny was faster. She grabbed the article and read it over.
I'd my own copy. I'd never shown it to her. She was too young to remember the crash, and I didn't want her to start trying.
"That's what I have to tell you," Agnes said while Penny stared at the yellowing black-and-white picture of my mangled Ford as it lay under the cement truck. I knew that at the moment that picture was shot, all three of us were still in our car. Why hadn't I thought before of the car behind us in the picture?
Agnes said, "I'm a biophysicist. I study the interaction between humans and the physical world and I was studying the human brain when I ran into the phenomenon. It's really amazing. Do you know where memories are stored?"
"In your head," Penny said.
"That's what everybody thinks, but memory is a lot more complete than you could store in your tiny brain. And even infants have memories. Most infants are born with memories of their past lives," Agnes said, but I'd heard enough. The hair on the back of my neck began to stand.
"I think we should get out of here," I said to them.
Agnes continued as if I'd never said anything. "The brain is a transducer. It's not the core of intelligence, it's just an interface, like the plug that goes into an electric socket. It connects your body to the universe of memories."
Penny had begun to lose interest in the lecture. She hefted the paperweight and asked Agnes what Zonta was, but I was heading toward the door. None of it was making sense and I needed air.
"Penny, let's go," I ordered, but she wasn't listening. She thought she knew what Zonta was. Ms. Hart had told her.
"Yes. That's right. You have it," Agnes said. And then to me, "Please. They never listened to me. Nobody cared what I said. Nobody but you. And now nobody will forgive me."
"You gotta forgive yourself," I said, taking Penny by the wrist, horrified I'd gotten her involved with this mess. "It's that simple. Psychology one-oh-one. Forgive yourself, Agnes, for whatever it is you think you've done."
"But it's horrible," she said.
Penny complained, wrenched herself out of my grasp, and went to Agnes. She put her arm around the woman's shoulders and held her close whispering "It's okay," over and over.
The sound of rushing footsteps in the hall made my heart pound. Surely, someone would realize what a mistake it was letting us in.
"I'm so sorry," Agnes said, sobbing. "I wasn't trying to be a bad person. I was telling the truth but they didn't want it to be true."
Two soldiers appeared in the doorway. They wore fatigues, shiny black boots, kevlar helmets, and belts from which globular grenades hung like engorged ticks. They brandished assault rifles, pointing them straight toward the women. And I tried to put myself in the path of the bullets would take, but they managed to get around me.
A man in a dark suit followed the soldiers into the room.
He said, "Agnes, it's time," and I pulled Penny away from her.
Agnes looked toward Penny and me, suddenly a prisoner. And I wished her back on the streets. I couldn't help her. I didn't know how. How to protect Penny, and save Agnes from these armed men?
"You're not a coward, Mr. K," said the man in the suit. "That's what you're thinking, but you're wrong. Things are not at all what they seem. Don't judge us until you understand what you are seeing."
Penny pulled out of my grasp and said to Agnes, "Go with them. Please. They're for you.
To help you. Don't you recognize him?" then to me, "See who it is?"
"Don't interfere," I shouted at Penny. Then, "Agnes...what is this?"
The soldiers closed in around Agnes. She struggled when they took her by the arms, then she began to scream.
In what seemed like a stream of futility, the man in black kept repeating, "Don't be afraid," but it only made Agnes struggle worse. I held onto Penny, not believing of myself that I would allow this atrocity to happen before my eyes.
And almost immediately, the man in the suit said, "Stop thinking that, Mr. K. Here. I didn't want to show you this. But if you're going to be that way"
He reached for a picture on Agnes's desk, took the picture of she and her husband out of the frame and pulled newspaper clipping from it. He handed it to me and he was right. I didn't want to see it. It made me swallow. My eyes swam in tears so I could barely see. A current of energy ran down my spine. What the hell was I seeing?
"You're seeing what you think you see. Not what is."
"I'm sorry," Agnes said, as the soldiers handcuffed her and put the barrel of a gun against her head. "You were so good to me, Nick. And Penny. Look to the cat."
And I had to move before thinking. To get him to stop. The soldier pulled the trigger. I watched my hand curl around the gun barrel as it went off and the world burst into silence around the blast. The other’s fired their weapons. The flashes touched me and where they did it felt like fists. Hard and deep. Head. Legs. Chest.
The shock to my chest deadened everything below it.
The gunfire went on as if time had slowed. Each blast stretched into a screech. The women screamed.
I fell onto Penny. Tried to hold my forearm against Agnes, a ridiculous instinct, as if I could protect her from the oncoming bullets. Push her back and away from what was coming.
In the silence I counted my last shallow breaths and prayed that if this was to be the end of our lives, that Penny wouldn’t be afraid, and had I done everything I could have. I knew we shouldn’t have come with Agnes. I shouldn’t have made that turn. I shouldn’t have been arguing. The minute I saw the workmen, I should have seen to the safety of the women. What was I thinking?
Red lights flashed. Red and blue. A stretcher rolled. Someone mentioned we wouldn’t make it.
“Sir, can you speak? Can you feel this?”
I don’t hear Penny. Penny.
After a while the taste went away and I could breathe again. I looked up from the lab floor to find I was home in my own living room, alone. And with my heart in my throat, I rushed to Penny's bedroom to see her sleeping soundly amid a pile of blankets.
I slid to the floor, sat beside her bed, and prayed to Cathy and God to deliver me from what most certainly was the very end of my ability to maintain my sanity in the mire of grief that had become my life.
"I'm worried about Penny," I told my father. We sat on the green steel bench at the park watching the clouds, the birds, mothers walking past with babies in strollers. "It's not me.
What's going to happen to her if they commit me?"
"Well first of all, she can live with me. And secondly, they're not going to commit you."
"Did you hear what I said? I had a psychotic episode, Dad. I actually believed a bag lady I was helping was a scientist and that I took her to a lab and they shot her for trespassing."
My father leaned back and took a deep breath as if the air was expensive wine. "Is that all that happened?"
"What else needed to happen?" I said, impatient for him to begin to show me sympathy and offer some solutions.
"If it was a psychotic episode, then there was probably a lot of allegory. Symbolism. Did you see any symbols?"
"Something about Zonta," I said. "And Agnes had that clippingthe one about the accident."
"And they fucking shot her, Dad. It was so real. I could feel the impact."
"You're missing something. Maybe everything."
I plowed through my memory, but the impact of Agnes's death had shattered most of my
clarity. Had she said something about memory? Something about brains. A newspaper
clipping. That's it.
"The guy who came for her handed me Agnes's obituary."
"And you didn't think that was unusual?"
"It was goddamned insane. It said she'd committed suicide in her office ten years ago. But they shot her right in front of me."
"Anything starting to click?" my Dad said, as if I'd just solved a puzzle I didn't know I was solving.
"Well, then I'd advise you to think some more," he said. Then he licked his lips and looked at his watch. "We have to pick up Penny in ten minutes. It seems like an ice cream day to me. How about you?"
Between spoons of chocolate mousse fudge swirl, Penny said, "Amelia says you have to ask the one question that's always on your mind that you never ask."
"We've been through this, Penny," I said about her insisting her teacher was the long dead aviatrix. Now I made a connection I hadn't before. We were both suffering delusions. My poor child had picked them up from me.
"She says everything will fall into place, but you have to ask the first real question."
"Penny..." I said, my stomach sinking. We would both need help. We'd lived in the shadow of the accident for too long. I'd blown the chance to bring her up healthy because I couldn't get over Cathy's death.
"The child's right," my father said. "You have to ask the first question. I think it's for me, isn't it?"
"I don't know what you people are talking about," I said.
"Did you know they found evidence of the wreckage?" Penny said. "They discovered parts of the Electra and the heel of a shoe."
"Parts of Amelia Earhart's plane? Is that what you're talking about?"
"The heel of her shoe," my father said.
"What the hell is it with you two?" I said, frustrated. Fine. I was sick. "Are you saying you believe the kid? They found wreckage that proves she's dead, but you believe the kid anyway?"
Dad said, "Let's go to the airport. You can ask me the question that's on your mind on the way."
And when we got there, the Electra sat on the tarmac burning bright silver under the sun. Above us the sky was an azure I'd imagined only existed in books, or the mind of a writer so absorbed in his work he forgets the world isn't painted in primary colors and filled with villains and heroes.
The plane was a tail dragger. Twin engine. Polished aluminum. Monoplane with a twin tail. The number 6020 clearly visible underneath.
It was historically accurate. I didn't have to ask. I knew it was. I knew she was.
She never wore flight suits. She thought they were too "stuck-up". She flew in dresses and casual slacks. Never wore the leather flight helmet except when posing for pictures.
As we approached Ms. Hart had become Amelia, and I knew why Peanut had been convinced because at that moment, I was, too.
"You could be her," I said, when she offered me her hand. "This is amazing. Where did you get this plane?"
Ms. Hart said, "Are you ready to fly?" and Penny answered enthusiastically for both of us.
I turned to my father who with a hand wave urged me onward to the door in the plane. And I ignored the fact that his Ford Taurus seemed to have changed to a 1930's era Hudson, black, white walled tires.
"Where'd that car come from?" I asked my father. But like everyone else, he answered my question with one of his own.
"Something real, son. Something you really want to ask me."
And then it hit me. An itch that was always there, that never seemed right to bring up. Right in front of me. How could I have missed it all these years? Maybe I'd flown a plane once. Maybe I could feel the layout of the controls under my hands. Maybe I'd go home. The confusion was troubling. But suddenly I realized it came from a gap in my memory. It could be filled by something as simple as asking a question. Why hadn’t I done that?
The man stiffened and smiled, now beaming as if I'd just scored a winning touchdown in a high school football match.
"Dad, where's Mom?"
He clasped his hands together and waved them as if to cheer.
"She's home, son."
I asked before I realized what I was saying, “Where’s home?” The fact I hadn’t remembered, reminded me there were holes my time and space.
“Right where we left it.”
"Cathy, too," said Ms. Hart, and Peanut came from the plane and held out to me a black boot. On the sole was the trademark of the manufacturer. Cat's paw.
"It was this one," Penny said. "This is the one they find on the island."
And then it was as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. I felt as if light itself.
"Does she remember us?" I asked.
Amelia said, "You are closer to her heart now than you have ever been."
“How come…” I started to ask. But then, I really didn’t need to. It was in front of me in their smiles. How could I repay them?
"You know there wasn’t anything else you could have done,” Ameila said. “It wasn’t your day to choose.”
"And this..." I asked, wishing I could have come up with a better sky. I’d never been much of a painter.
Amelia answered with a shrug and Penny slid on a flight jacket. I had the impulse to stop her, then to ask her to stay with me, but it faded in the warmth of the sun I knew was perfect and yellow. She had spent enough time waiting. It was time to go on with her life.
Amelia said, “You can stay here and wait if you want. Some people are more comfortable in familiar surroundings. When it's time, she'll find you here. Or you can come with us. Now that you're okay, Penny and I are going to do a little exploring. There are some pretty amazing things just around the edge, where the sky meets the water."
I kissed my Penny and Amelia. I waved to the departing plane.
And now I'm here. I eat ice cream with Penny when she visits, and sit in the park with my dad in a time when it never rains.
And I wait for my love.
c 2003 by Joe Mastroianni