is an online magazine of the literary arts.

17 May 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 1


It's Sunday—just barely. At five a.m., the only light in the studio apartment creeps in from the broken streetlamp outside her tiny basement window. The rain follows, because the super never fixed the split wooden frame, only bought a space heater to replace the lost warmth. The bleakness of the December morning is overpowering; intruding precipitation falters, cascades through uncaulked cracks down a mildewed wall. Fat drops splatter on a Chinese takeout menu held safe to the floor by an open Dickens novel and a pair of paint-speckled jeans. More paint congeals vermillion on a tattered Washington Post, the Saturday edition, two steps left.

Jo rests on a worn futon in the middle of the room. She is unable to stand her dream any longer; she's had a nightmare. This one recurs weekly; it is a widescreen production of a young child, a girl, walking hand-in-hand with an older woman. The child senses something behind them. A steamroller, perhaps: the smell of tar is unmistakable. The child tries to pull her guardian to the sidewalk, but the mother can't feel the tug, and doesn't budge. Then, all is dark. Jo can never remember what the mother looks like and that bothers her more than the ambiguous ending.

In response to the nightmare, she pulls the acrylic-stained satin covers over her bare breasts. It's suddenly cold despite the forced warmth from the building-controlled radiator. Jo swallows hard and reminds herself it's winter. It's Sunday and today she's thirty-eight. She strives for reality. With calloused hands, she diverts the few strands of just-graying hair plastered to her mouth behind her ear. Reluctantly, she opens her eyes. She scans the room, holding her breath, and her stare stops at the digital alarm clock, waiting for the block numbers to change. A new minute is significant. Jo allows herself air only when the numbers transform.

She doesn't want to notice that the mattress moves with the rhythm of another's stilted breath; she wants to be alone. Somehow the previous evening's entertainment negotiated room for a new and still-sleeping twenty-two-year-old. The girl is blonde and thin, too thin. Her ribs are her predominant feature. Jo will feed this girl before she asks her to leave; she will move the art books that clutter her dining table and serve, though she has little in her kitchen and her stove rattles with wear. Jo makes breakfast for every one-night stand before she wishes them well and waves goodbye; she lives by pattern.

Watching those fluttering eyelashes, Jo knows the girl's name is two syllables in life, three on stage. The girl only works enough shifts to pay her tuition, that's what she says. It is obvious she tries to leave her bottoms on until the very last second of her act; she doesn't wear thongs or panties with ties or velcro like the other dancers do. She wears boy shorts on her stick-pin legs; she spreads her hands like protective birds over her belly. This veiled innocence was what first caught Jo's attention. After three drinks and a good-natured, though drunken, prod from the man at the table behind her, she waved to the dancer. It was cold outside and Jo never could get warm by the thermostat alone. They shared a cab to Jo's art studio on 5th Street.

Pulling lint gently from the blonde's faux tresses, Jo notes she still smells like the gentleman's club—sugary sweat and vanilla lotion and crisp ten-dollar bills. Make-up mars her collarbone and lower, on her small chest. She breathes in and out in time to the skid of Metro wheels a block behind the Northwest, D.C. building, and her ribs jump the tracks of her spine. Despite her profession, her eyebrows knit with comfortable sleep, and her skin is clear as truth. Jo runs a hand along the girl's back and counts her freckles by the lilting flame from the leftover candlelight. She counts in rhythm to a nursery rhyme: "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick…"

It's early, but Jo pulls her hand from the sleep-warmed skin when she hears the slap of the Sunday paper against the building steps. There was a time when her ears weren't so attuned, a time when sex was enough, or art or alcohol. Now, she needs words. She prays before she puts on a sweatshirt: I once was lost but now am found… It's the only hymn she knows. Her arms are thankful for the protection of cotton, though her skin is dry and chafes a bit.

Jo stands straight and walks to the door. There is an abandoned pair of running shorts balled like a small world on the floor. She tucks supple legs into the thin material, slips her feet into balding athletic shoes. The door squeaks less than it did when she first moved in, but more than it does in summertime. Jo is moved by this: she must find the paper on the front steps before precipitation seeps into the ill-fitting plastic cover and slices the printed pages in half. She must find it before the lines become liquid and unreadable.

Jo wants to find her mother, and there are very few clues. She placed the daily ad in the Post knowing full-well that this woman could have moved; her own mother could have died without her knowledge. She thought, only, I've got to try. On her way out of the apartment, the orphaned adult looks over her shoulder. She knows the studio is just six hundred square feet of dry, warping wood floors and chipping plaster. It's not a home; she would never bring the dancer to her home. It's simply an art studio, and there's a bed because often art calls in the middle of the night like a newborn, or a call-girl. Jo is content scrubbing these floors and bleaching her kitchen when a painting or woman calls. When the buckets are empty, or her sheets are cool, Jo feels as though the damp space is adequate for a woman finding herself.

Jo is back in the apartment, having left the chill on the steps with her pride. Paper in hand, she sits with her back to the cheap futon frame. Her feet are in Buddha pose and she must consciously relax her jaw. She pushes a fan of always-falling dark hair from her eyes and scans the paper with a trained laser gaze. There is a mug of steaming milk-white tea in her other hand. The floating remnants of leaves remind her of the palm reader she saw once. She paid twenty dollars for a wish and left with this: she'd meet the man of her dreams in line at the grocery store. Even then, she didn't date men. She thanked the woman in the headdress, but left without leaving a tip.

Jo leafs through paper that stains her; the adjacent print pages hold wedding announcements, birth announcements, thank-you notes to Saint Jude and the Virgin Mother. There are classified ads that offer rock-bottom deals on hammocks and beach rentals in bold face; community yard sales and local crime reports are in italics. The plain black and white type she paid for, letter by letter, is a simple plea: Looking for Birth Mother. Catholic Charities. 1969. (202) 783-5000. She is afraid to say any more, yet terrified that if she doesn't her mother will fall through the cracks of this city's uninspected sidewalks.

Over the brim of newsprint, Jo stares at the canvas in the corner. The painting of the fifty-something woman in the trendy coffee shop is just half-done. Jo saw her through the hot glare of a two-way looking glass in DuPont Circle, became enamored and stole a pencil portrait in her organizer while the woman ordered a latte. This recurring older woman— blonde in line at the coffee shop, brunette at the grocery store, and, in the next painting, all gray and running the opposite direction through Rock Creek Park—is the haunting and unknown genetic code that makes the motherless, adult Jo question herself when she checks "Caucasian, Non-Hispanic" on medical forms. This fantasy woman makes it necessary to explain to her ob-gyn that there could be a history of cervical cancer in her family.

There are many trials for the abandoned.

At six a.m. the predicted sleet begins. D.C. is known for such bad winter weather, just like it is known for crime and crowded streets. Jo swallows the last mouthful of chamomile in her MOMA cup, though it burns her throat; she wonders if she ought to push a towel between the front door and the floor. The moisture will cause more mold. To hell with it, she thinks, as she turns the page past her dream of an emotional reunion with her mother, a complete stranger. Nothing in the classifieds section points to her genetics. There is no response to her vague ad.

In the Arts section Jo sees the announcement. Joanne Woud's "Oedipus Womb" now showing at The National Women in the Arts Museum. December 15- January 27th. She knows the world thinks she is successful. Her paintings hang in museums all over the globe with placards explaining abstract themes such as "Love," "Loss," "Guilt." Society doesn't know she learned to paint in a rectory with supplies left in the children's charity basket; Jo holds her dignity as close to her chest as her Friday night poker hands and never gives interviews. She drops her chin to her chest and closes her eyes. Reading is over.

The panting voices of construction workers attack from under the windowsill and through cheap glass. They holler to one another to cover their works-in-progress, their clangs and curses inappropriate for such a church-going morning. An elderly neighbor complains about the language from across the way; she bends out her fogged second-story window wearing a lace hat fancy enough for a Baptist wedding or funeral. She yells, "Do your Mommas know you talk like that?" Her cries are answered with a cloud of middle fingers and several snickers. None of this is distraction enough. Jo can't stand the room's silence any longer.

Hoarse from too little sleep and the chain of nighttime guttural moans, her voice catches in her throat. She opens her eyes, puts down the paper. Jo says, "Carrie?" This is the stripper's post-bar name.


Jo tries to recall all that is still edible in her fridge. The milk must be sour by now. But there are eggs. "I thought I'd make us breakfast. Are you hungry?"

"Sure." The girl's head is embraced by a down pillow, her mouth isn't quite functional. She wipes the back of one hand against her wet chin and isn't embarrassed. Carrie's allergic to cats, she told Jo last night, and Jo's rescued tabby, Eros, insisted on sleeping in the dip of the futon's mattress. This meant Eros was enveloped by the dancer's young breasts and thighs, sheltered by her outstretched arm for hours while she sniffed searchingly for clean air. Carrie never complained.

Jo climbs onto the mattress, wraps herself around the girl's back like another cat. "It's sleeting."

"That sucks." Carrie is not alert yet.

"Are you cold?"

There is no sexual innuendo, but the young girl rubs an open palm over her taut stomach. "Mmmm hmmm."

"Can I get you a sweatshirt?"

Carrie sits up and pulls a pillow to her chest. "Oh. No. I'm okay."

Jo laughs at the splotches of paint adorning her own sweatshirt. "I do have some clean ones."

Carrie shakes her head. Noticing the canvas in the corner, she starts what should be an easy conversation. "Are you a famous painter?"

"I think so."

Carrie studies the gallery announcement. "Wow. The Museum for Women in the Arts."

"A nice venue."

Squatting low, Jo wonders if her thighs are pockmarked, and she can't remember if she's shaved her legs recently. Perception is everything in life, as in art; she told Carrie she was twenty-nine when they left the club. Jo was twenty-nine when she sold her first painting, when she left her first lover, when she signed the lease to the apartment on 5th Street. It was a starting point and the age stuck, psychologically. The girl had believed the white lie—a testament to her naivety and proof that she couldn't believe she'd ever be twenty-nine herself. She's just a child, Jo thought last night. Then she paid the cab driver.

"I'm impressed." Carrie gestures to the growing pool of sleet below the window. "Does it always seep in like that?"

"Yes. The fun of having a basement apartment."

"You should move. Since you're famous and all."

Jo smiles, charmed, because Carrie doesn't understand that this is, simply, a work place. "Then how would anyone find me?"

Pellets of ice attack like automatic gunfire through the open spaces surrounding the air conditioning unit. That noise is reminiscent of an old, neglected car backfiring. Eros paws at the ice duds littering the walnut planks. Jo's foot slips on his seasonal entertainment; she is embarrassed by her lack of grace.


"If you hand me a towel, I'll get it," Carrie says, wiping lines of frustration from her hostess' forehead. "Hey. Don't worry."

The couple falls to their knees to rid the floor of tiny, melting ammunition together. Jo regrets cursing, is resigned as she searches for the pricks of ice. She breathes, consciously; she's always searching. She knows her own mother was not quite Carrie's age when she abandoned her on the steps of the Catholic Charities building. She wasn't a stripper, though. She was a girl whose boyfriend was leaving for Vietnam. It's what the records say. Her mother might have had ringlets and dark eyes; Jo imagines this when she scans the streets or mall or parking lots. She's never seen a picture of her mother. Breathing in deeply, she nudges a swaddled towel into the crack between the window and the wood. Clogging the cracks is what this apartment dictates, winter or summer.

"There." Jo runs an aging hand along the puttied wall. She stands and thinks, My mother could be anywhere. It's a thought that often fogs her mind. She recalls being a child at the Catholic elementary school within the orphanage's walls: making paper carnations for Mother's Day, drawing family pictures for Back-To-School nights, shopping at the secret shopper boutique for $5 bottles of knockoff perfume at Christmas. She cut, painted, drew in order to fit in. The nuns didn't mean to be cruel, but neither did they stop to consider her orpha