For Haylie Swenson
Mom spent her summers drinking lemonade-tea cocktails on the front porch, smiling provocatively at fathers hurrying off to work or coming home late, and telling other peoples' fortunes. Madame Peachy, they called her. Only, she didn't read palms or crystal balls or tea leaves the way other witches did. My mom only ever saw the cosmos spelled out in piles of peeled sunburn skins.
The neighbor kids would spend countless shirtless hours outside trying to burn that prime arm and chest skin that, some said, yielded better quality information than leg or face skin. Some kids—the boys included—even started shaving their arms and legs so that all the little hairs wouldn't get in the way of their peel. Some kids made a point of getting their burns by doing outdoor work (often in our yard), convinced that this kind of skin-peel meant a richer fortune would be coming their way. Other kids focused their burns through particular sports, believing that having those skins read and touched by my mother might somehow boost or bless their performance in the coming autumn season. There were kids who started early as possible and brought Mom the hard-won skins—those that often hurt to peel up because they were so fresh and tight, not quite committed to being dead yet. Spring Kids, Mom called them. Then came the sunny rush of classic Summer Kids. And then, finally, the latecomers, skeptics, and ritualists—kids who'd either thought way ahead or not at all about what types of skin they'd bring, how much of each kind, and on what day they'd bring them.
One way or another, the kids came up to where Madame Peachy sat sipping her lemonade-tea, their faces pink and peeling and sweaty, and their hands stuffed with sandwich bags, Tupperware containers, and old jelly jars to show her their collections. Just a bunch of bloody-whiskered cats come to drop dead things off on our smiley-sun welcome mat.
I often wondered how Mom got the initial word out about her gifts (Bulletin boards? Blogs? Radio spots in the morning announcements at school?), but, as an aspiring Buddhist, I knew I shouldn't care about things like that, so I did my best not to. And anyway, once it was out, there was no getting it back inside—out and out and out, till she had kids from across three different counties taking field trips to her front porch.
I never really cared much about any of it or ever thought to tell the other kids about how the Mysterious Madame Peachy snored at night or how she clipped her toenails straight into the carpet or how she hadn't even been able to foresee Dad leaving the way he did. But I was good at not caring about most things. I'd gotten very practiced at it by nine years old. It was only when he came that everything got all mixed up. He, the Handsome Optometrist.
Ophthalmologist, Mom always corrected me, not optometrist.
He lived only two streets down from us, but that summer was the first time I ever saw him come around and, when he did, he came with a shoebox full of dandruff tucked under his arm. "I've been saving it up since my eighth birthday," he said, and I believed him. The shoebox was for light-up sneakers with Velcro straps, kid's size five-and-a-half. I leaned over to see his feet, but was disappointed to find him only wearing plain brown loafers now like a lot of the dads did on our street.
At first, Mom just gave him her standard reply: Only sunburn skins; sorry, but then he smiled so sheepishly that she sighed and stuck out her hand for the box anyway.
I was right where I always was during her "Reading Hours"; sitting next to her in my own white wicker chair (identical to hers), daisy-patterned sunglasses balanced on my nose and my skinny legs stretched out in the sun, ankles crossed and heels propped on the porch's thick balustrade. I'd always been a white kid—Madame Peachy preferred Caucasian or, better yet, Aristocratic—but those summers I was the same caramel color as all my other "white" friends.
I liked the handsome optometrist right from the start and did my best to glance over my sunglasses at him just the way I'd seen all the movie stars do whenever their Handsome Someone walked on-screen. I liked that he had freckles instead of a burn and the way his shirt was so wrinkle-free he could've been in a laundry commercial. Mostly, though, I liked the sweet, embarrassed way he brushed fresh dandruff off his wrinkle-free shirt and into his carefully cupped hand.
I was sure Mom would only turn him away again with another, Only sunburn skins; sorry, but then she didn't. Squinting at him, she said, "Soon you will know who you were supposed to have come here with."
My sunglasses dropped clear off my nose and dangled stupidly from my ears beneath my chin. Mom's fortunes usually followed a very strict pattern: She'd hand her lemonade-tea over to me, hold out her hand for the offered skins, and then take her time sniffing and picking through them, twirling some between her fingers and carefully unfurling others to hold up and catch the sunlight with. When she was satisfied, she'd brush the skins off into the breeze, give her empty hands a big, noisy smell, and then, eyes hard and brown as a tree, say something like:
I see two little boys packing their swim trunks with wet sand. —You will always have a great deal of dirty laundry and will one day move to Greece.
Or, I see a tall woman, wearing all denim, sitting at a loom. —You will inherit a strange yet ancient family business and meet many people from across the world.
Or, I see a room filled with exotic fruits all hooked to the walls. —You will grow to realize many gifts, but share very few. You may also develop an unusual accent.
But the handsome optometrist must not have realized how big a breach of protocol he'd turned out to be, because he only smiled (a nice smile, I thought) and went on his way. If Mom noticed the breach, she didn't let on either. Instead, she only reached back for her lemonade-tea and took a long, thirsty sip.
After that, the summer went on much the way all our previous summers had: hot, yellow, and laced with freshly-skinned children. Mom went on being Madame Peachy and tossing smiles at coming and going fathers as they knotted and loosened their ties. I tried tossing out a few of my own, but Mom always only shook her head at me.
You're doing it all wrong, she'd say.
And though I tried to bend and fix my smile to be just like hers, practicing in the bathroom mirror and in the backs of spoons—a little simpering, a little saucy, a little sunny, a little dark—my mouth just wouldn't tie into the proper bow.
Then again, according to my mother, there wasn't much about me generally that looked or acted as it should. My knees and elbows stuck out like baseballs; my hair was stringy and limp; I had a tendency to wish I could see movies as paintings and read paintings as books; and I never, never cared about Jo or any of her Little Women. According to Mom, I couldn't even burn right. Where other kids always came up to her with skins peeled in wide, amoeba-shaped coins or long, ribbon-curled strips, my sunburn skins—no matter how carefully I went about harvesting them, whether with fingers, tweezers, or tape—always only powdered off my body in a cloud. Where everyone else baked inside a perfect glove of themselves, I just dusted over, as if I'd been a flour sack in some previous life.
Don't worry about it, I'd try telling myself. You're a Buddhist now. You're not supposed to worry about those things anymore. And who wants to be like them anyhow? —I'm powder. I'm dandruff, just like the handsome optometrist. Who wants to get all burnt up and slip out of themselves like a snake?
(I do, I always argued back at myself. That's who.)
But none of it could touch me from my throne at Madame Peachy's side, my daisy sunglasses on and my legs propped up like I owned the place. Mom only works here, I sometimes thought to myself, and grinned.
All summer long, all the way into September, all of them—those kids with the snaky skins that burned up just like they were supposed to, kids whose knees and elbows were just the right sizes, kids who only ever wanted their movies to be movies and their books to be books—they all lined up along our immaculately mowed lawn, waiting with their dead skin receptacles in tow. All of them, except for the little girl the handsome optometrist returned with on the first of October. She didn't have to stand or line-up anywhere; instead, she was kept balanced on his shoulders like there was some distant parade she might be missing out on. She was pretty, with thick braids all done up in rainbow beads, dark skin—Madame Peachy preferred African or, better yet, Negro—and bright blue cat's eye sunglasses.
"Don't be orange now," Mom whispered to me and my sour stare, but I couldn't help it. Why should some other girl get to ride on the handsome optometrist's handsome shoulders?
"This is Brittney," he said, and set the girl down before my mother like an offering. "I recently removed some cataracts from her eyes and now she can see again."
"I couldn't see the way Mom said I should," Brittney piped up. "But now, with Dr. Ben's help, I'll be able to see just the way everybody else does."
(Dr. Ben? Since when is he Dr. Ben?)
Microsurgery, "Dr. Ben" called it. Phacoemulsification. "First, I broke the murky lenses into little pieces using sound waves," he said. —Using music, Brittney chimed in. Using my favorite song!—"And then I drew the little pieces out, just like wax on a wick."
Brittney looked around conspiratorially from behind her blue cat's eye shades and leaned in close to Mom, whispering, "Dr. Ben says you see things differently, too, but not the kind that needs surgery."
"Sometimes," Mom agreed, and smiled at Brittney in a way that had me going an even darker orange.
My way of seeing wasn't good enough anymore? Were my eyes like my knees and elbows?
"We brought the scraps from her surgery," Dr. Ben explained, and held up a lidded Petri dish as evidence. Handing it to Mom, "We were wondering if—"
Only sunburn skins; sorry. More than I'd ever wanted Mom to say anything, I wanted her to repeat that line of script then. Only sunburn skins; sorry.
Instead, she took the cookie-sized dish and held it up against a sunbeam. "This is the person," she said at last, "but not the skin." She leaned forward, making her old chair's wicker creak, and looked direct into the center of Brittney's shades. "Come back with the right skin soon."
The handsome optometrist smiled another handsome smile, but Brittney's mouth turned down. Seeing her disappointment made my orange curl up like springtime and giggle.
"Shelly," Mom said, turning to me, her lemonade-tea sparkling cold and copper between my hands. "Why don't you go keep Brittney company? Maybe work up a little sunburn for yourself while the season's still warm?"—She put question marks at the ends of these, but I knew she wasn't asking anything. She was telling.
I made a show of sighing and set her glass down where it'd be just out of reach from her chair. Taking Used-To-Be-Blind Brittney by the hand, I led her off without so much as a Hello or Goodbye and made sure to brush a wrinkle into Dr. Ben's sleeve as I went.
"Where are we going?" Brittney wanted to know, kept asking and asking, her pretty little hand all small and pretty in my hairy-knuckled one.
"What? Can't you see it for yourself, Miss New Eyes?"
I knew I was supposed to feel bad about being mean, but this time I didn't. Why couldn't she have just kept on seeing things the way she had before? Why did she get to ride on the handsome optometrist's shoulders? And if Mom could really read his old shoebox dandruff, then why couldn't she ever read me?
It was hot. I rubbed a puff of fresh powdered skin from my arms. And then, because she kept on annoying-asking, annoying-asking, I told her: "We're going to the park. You want sunburn skins, don't you?" I looked ahead, thought about it, then looked back to her. "Do black people get sunburns?"
Brittney's laugh made me think of stones skipping on a pond. "I'm not black," she said, the beads in her hair tinkling. "I'm purple. Like dark chocolate." She stuck her nose out into the air. "It doesn't smell like a park."
"That's because we're cutting through The Forest," I said.
Really, we were cutting through old Cathy Cartinghart's yard, but it had the most trees of all the other yards in the neighborhood, so all us kids called it The Forest. From my house, it was the shadiest way of getting to the shadiest park in town. And whose fault was it anyway if Brittney never got burned again?
"Wait," she said, digging her pretty little heels in. "Stop a minute, Shelly."
"What're we waiting for?" I groaned, groaning.
"We're in a forest?" She was smiling big and wide. I saw her reach for her sunglasses and I tensed as if she'd reared back to sock me one.
"What're you doing? Aren't you supposed to keep those on or your eyes'll explode or something?"
Suddenly I was seeing things differently too. Suddenly I was seeing visions of my hide burned from spankings rather than sun for having led pretty Brittney off into The Forest where her pretty eyes exploded right out of her pretty purple head. (That was no way for a girl to win the heart of a handsome optometrist, I was pretty sure.)
"No," Brittney laughed, sending more stones skipping. "They won't explode. They're fine now. My mom says that Dr. Ben has a good touch. And besides, it'll be nice and dark in a forest. Easy on the eyes. Mom says that about Dr. Ben, too. —Y'know, I've heard that some forests get so full that they block out all sunlight. Only night plants and night animals can live under forests like that."
Horseshit, I thought, but didn't say anything out loud (just in case she was right).
Carefully, she took off her sunglasses and handed them to me the same way that Mom always handed me her glasses of lemonade-tea. I watched close, half-hoping she might be wrong about the explosions, but her new eyes didn't so much as sizzle. In fact, they looked positively chilly—twin pairs of blue ice chips in a dark purple head, as if Dr. Ben had shaved off a bit of blue-raspberry snow cone and slipped it under her lids. Watching her see, I suddenly found it hard to breathe. It was like all the trees had chosen that moment to drop their rugged togas and truly show themselves for the first time.
I'm seeing them like she sees them, I realized. Or could it be the other way around? Or another way entirely? Was it a movie as a painting, a tree as a moonbeam?
"What?" I managed, watching her stare, hoping I sounded tougher and meaner than I felt. "They're just a bunch of trees."
"Trees," she said, only she didn't say it until after stepping up and laying hands on a freshly revealed trunk. "Trees with lights in them."
And though her eyes kept a cool blue in her head, I noticed then that her hands, still pressed flat to the bark, had begun to smoke.
"Brittney!" I gasped, and yanked her away. As soon as I did, two neat, pretty little hands steam-gloved clear off her wrists and fell into the dark grass at our feet—two perfect, hollow, hot-purple hands. Glowing. I looked up again, expecting to find her eyes wide and her mouth open in some inaudible scream. But they weren't. Staring down at the fallen hands, I could tell, she wasn't frightened at all.
"A sunburn," Brittney whispered. "A tree burn." She looked up at me then with her blue-raspberry eyes, so pretty they made mine water. "It's the right skin, Shelly," she said, excited, and grabbed up my old hands with her new ones. "Try it—go on. Try it."
"It won't work on me," I told her, full-crying then. "I don't burn right. My skin's never right."
"Don't worry about that," she whispered. "Trees don't care about things like that. It's all the right skin to them." I looked at her, then to the tree, and then down at her still-glowing hands in the grass. A pair of ants had crawled up over her old right thumb and were touching antennas across her love line. "C'mon," she said, smiling. "I'll touch it with you."
Together, we took turns hugging the tree with the lights in it and burning ourselves new and new and new until even my powdery skin fell like sheaths of iridescent wax into the grass. The right skin, I thought, giggling along with her, skipping stones. Together we peeled our old selves away as I imagined all the world's original lizards and dinosaurs and tree-worshippers once had.
Gathering our fallen skins up in our arms like so much laundry, Brittney smiled at me, I smiled back, and we stepped out into the sun afresh—able for the first time to turn our faces up and unsquinting to that big burning star and see.