On the east side of the Altamont Pass, the tule fog was trapped all the way from the summit of the western range to the Sierras, not that we could see more than about twenty yards ahead. I concentrated on driving and refused to speculate on Bodie's suddenly evinced desire to date my sister.
"Jeezus, this stuff is thick," said John, who'd asked to sit in the front passenger seat so that he could learn how to drive in it, he said. Apparently he'd had a good enough time with us that he was planning on future visits at this time of year. "How long does it stay like this? Sorry, am I distracting you from your driving?"
"This isn't bad tonight, to be honest. I can see three sets of taillights in all three lanes -- I just have to watch for brake lights, and the inevitable idiots who don't believe fog applies to them, just like speed limits don't apply to them. Just wait, someone is bound to illustrate that by weaving in and out of the lanes trying to pass everyone. And no, you're not distracting. Sometimes the danger of the fog is in letting your mind drift because everything looks the same."
He glanced into the dark back of the van. "Looks like both of them are out for the night."
"Hah!" I snorted. "You don't know them. They don't have to go to work until like 2pm tomorrow. They're catnapping so that they can stay up until dawn hashing over the day, probably over more wine. Hatching plots and strategies." Good, we were past Tracy, just a few more miles to the bypass, and then just a few more to home.
"Staying up with them?"
"Good God, no. I have to be at work by nine-thirty. I was supposed to call my sister this morning, and I forgot. By the time I'm done talking to her, me and my fluffy little dog are going to be ready to hit the sack."
He laughed at my description of Gabe as a 'fluffy little dog.' "He's probably been sleeping all day."
"I wish. Sometimes he's perfect, and other times he just barks and digs. I think I had him set up right today, though. We'll see. Look there, John, there's our exit coming up. Thank God. I think that the time I pray the most is during fog season when I'm driving. Wouldn't that make a good Advent sermon? I've got to tell Fr. Delbert that when I get back." I exited the highway -- six blocks to home, and comfortable slippers, Gabe's head on my lap, a warm robe ...
"You're leaving?" John asked.
"I spend the holidays at my sister's with the kids. Oh, I don't know if Mary has talked about my family or not. My sister has five kids. She's been out of the country for most of their lives, so I kind of filled in as the helpful Auntie a lot. I love them like they were my own. I can't wait to see them over Christmas."
Gabe was barking his head off as I pulled in the driveway. I hugged Bodie and Andersol goodnight, shook hands with John, and trudged into the house feeling sated and happy and bonelessly weary. I let Gabe in the house, snuggled with him until he seemed to feel secure again, and then checked all the doors for the night. I dialed Jesse's number while I changed into pajamas and kicked the day's clothes into a corner.
"Jesse? This is Sully, I got your message yesterday."
"Yesterday?" her voice said loudly. "And you couldn't call back until tonight?"
I nearly said to her "Gosh, you sound just like Mom, are you channeling for her now?" But I didn't. Instead, I pretended she hadn't spoken. An outburst like that was uncharacteristic of my sister. "What's up?" I asked in a non-confrontational tone.
"All five of the kids were suspended from school yesterday, that's what!" she continued to shout.
"Shh! What? For what? What happened?" I was aghast.
"Some playground bully shoved Kelsa, and all the rest of them got involved until Marca broke the kid's nose," and the principal suspended them all until after Christmas break. "What the hell kind of school are they in, anyway? I thought this was supposed to be a good private school!"
"Jesse, just tell me what happened with the kids. Step by step."
"Okay. Apparently there's some kids in the sixth grade who've started shaking down littler kids for money. He caught Kelsa by the back of her dress and her hair and told her he wanted her lunch money. Her lunch money, for God's sake!"
"What happened, Jesse, just what happened for now."
"She told him no, so he shoved her face-first onto the sidewalk by the school! Michel pitched into him and said not to treat his sister like that. Then that little bastard slapped Michel across the face and knocked him down. When he was going to kick him while he was lying there, Oesha came up and grabbed his arm and told him to stop it.
"The dirty little brat grabbed her by the hair and twisted, which was when Owen piled into him. He let go of Oesha to wrestle with Owen, but since he was three years bigger and older, he knocked Owen down, too! Then he turned away from those four and around right into Marca's fist. She punched him right in the nose and laid him out on the grass! Someone called an ambulance and called me and the kids were suspended from school like they were criminals when they were just trying to defend each other!" Her voice was rising and she was talking faster than I had ever heard her in our lives. "How can this be happening? What kind of incompetent moron punishes children for defending their sister? "
"Jesse, calm down!" I cried loudly into the phone. "Stop!"
She was quiet.
"Is the kid with the broken nose going to be all right?" I asked.
"How would I know?" she demanded angrily.
"Because you need to know that. He may be a bully, but he's still a kid. Did you talk with his parents yet?"
"Whaaaat? I haven't called my lawyer and sued them yet, if that's what you mean!"
Weariness sunk in like San Francisco's fog sweeping in from the sea.
"Did you go to the school and pick up the kids' assignments for the time they're suspended," I said, not even making it a question.
"Assignments, what assignments would they give a kid kicked out of school, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of!"
"Suspended simply means they are not allowed to attend for a specific period of time, Jesse, not that they are expelled or relieved of study requirements. I take it, then, that you didn't go in for a consultation with the teachers or the principal."
"How would I know I was supposed to do that," she began shouting again. "That's what Charles and you and Nanny did, not me!"
"Jesse, please. Stop yelling! You have plenty of time before the Christmas break to get all these meetings done, but you have to bite the bullet and do them. Go to the principal first, and -- "
"I can't!" she wailed. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do or ask or say! All I want to do is get that little bully out of my kids' school permanently! How dare he shake down a child six years younger than him?"
I let some seconds pass before I answered. "That kind of shit was happening when you and I were in grade school in Penn's Vale; don't get all melodramatic now because you didn't notice it happening then. There are rules of engagement, however, and you have to play by them, for the sake of the kids, for the sake of the parents, and for the sake of the school."
"Can't you come up here tomorrow and help me?"
"I'll see what I can do, Jesse, but I doubt that I can be there before Saturday. I'll try, but I don't think I can. Listen. Did you take any pictures of your children's injuries?"
"Damn right I did. I've got Kelsa's knees and Michel's elbow and cheek. And Owen's shirt, ripped up the side."
"Well, that's good, at least. Contact your lawyer and tell him or her what happened, just in case. Then you need to take notebook in hand and visit the principal and the school counselor."
"And what, I tell them my lawyer will be in touch with them and the kid's parents? Do I need to get some kind of legal statement before I go?"
Pulling the phone away from my ear, I looked at the receiver as if I might see Jesse's face in the earpiece. Was she raised by wolves in the jungle or something? Or had eight years of mothering hormones just kicked in all at once multiplied by five? "Jesse, no! You are going to see the principal to apologize and explain that this horrible thing will never happen again. Then you're going to visit the school counselor and find out what they want to do with Marca."
"What? The hell I will! My kids didn't start this!"
"No, they didn't, but Marca changed a schoolyard scuffle into an injury requiring medical attention. It doesn't matter that the bully started it, or that's he's older than she is. What are the children saying about the fight?"
"I don't know, I just picked them up during their lunchtime and brought them home; they went upstairs with Nanny while I was finishing up my presentation for the board of directors, and I was in meetings all day today, justifying my budget for spring semester, so I really haven't had a chance to talk with them since I picked them up." Her voice sounded edgy, rough, stressed. "I suppose that was something crucial that I forgot to do, too, is that what you're telling me?"
"Was there a lot of blood on the boy who was hit?" I asked. "The sight of blood scares children a lot. And it should, but they're probably afraid that the kid was badly hurt and need reassurance as well as a good talking-to about their conduct at school."
No response from the other end.
"Jesse, are you crying?"
"I can't do anything right," she croaked through sobs. "I don't know anything about this kind of thing! What if I screw up and ruin their lives?" She began to cry in earnest and couldn't say anything more.
The sound of her weeping cut me to the heart. She was right, she didn't know anything about raising kids. Managing dig teams in the field, yes, that she could do. But understand a child's fears and motivations -- I don't think she understood those things even when she was a child herself.
"Jesse, don't cry any more. You're all right. They're all right. I'll be up Friday night, even if it's late, and we can go together to see the kids' principal on Monday. The regular Christmas break doesn't start until Tuesday, right? Okay, the only things you have to do are to talk with your kids, and love them up, and tell them that fighting is simply not an alternative on the school grounds, and let the principal and the school counselor know that we will be in on Monday to meet with them, and ask them what is a good time for them. Can you do that?" I heard her blowing her nose. "Jesse, did you hear me?"
"I heard," she said miserably. "I can do that. Oh, God, I'm such a goddamn waste."
"No, you're not. You're not. It's like you said, you just never had to deal with something like this before. You have five wonderful kids, how could you have experienced anything like this before?" I heard her sniff loudly and clear her throat. "You'll do fine, you'll see. Why don't you sit down with the kids and watch some sunny-tempered video with them tomorrow, after you talk to them a while?"
"I'm supposed to meet with the head of the Anthropology Department tomorrow afternoon. The video will have to wait until evening."
I rolled my eyes at the ceiling, glad that I could make faces without her seeing me. "Then have them help you pick out what jewelry to wear to your meeting. You can always change once you're out of sight. They just need to know you love them and value them."
"How do you know so much about kids?" she asked, and then answered herself, "Duhhh, because you were there with mine when I wasn't. Okay, What's a good -- what did you call it? A sunny-tempered video? "
"Have you ever seen the movie Babe? It's about barnyard animals, in particular, a pig who thinks he's a dog. Or The Black Stallion." Just ask the kids, Jesse, why doesn't that ever occur to you?
"Okay, I wrote those down. Are they any good?"
"They're great movies. Look, Sister, I have got to hit the sack. I have to update and prepare all the accounts before our Christmas shutdown, which is Friday afternoon." I felt drained and depressed, and tried to recall the delight I'd danced in earlier in the day. "Let's call it a day and say goodnight, okay?"
"Okay," she said. "I'll see you Friday night. Good night, Sully."
"Good night, Jesse. Sleep well and happy dreams to you."
We were riding in a van along a road that ran near the edge of a deep fjord above dark blue water. The day was sunny, and we drove on the left side of the road, as they do in Europe. Yellow signs warned us away from the edge of the road, and the asphalt was crumbled away a little. I steered the van closer to the center of the road, but the erosion of the cliff face was too deep. The roadway began to disintegrate, and the van tipped and began to fall. I knew that we were going to die, all of us. As we toppled, I thought I should pray for us all to go to Heaven after our deaths, but as we fell through the air towards the water, I remembered it was only a dream.
If this is a dream, I thought, I have the power to change it.
I took my hands from the steering wheel, and stretched my arms to each side. We will not fall, I said, willing everything to comply.
No impact. No death. We can fly.
A strange harmony filled my chest and the descent of the van stopped. We were saved.
I woke soaked with sweat at the exertion of the dream. "Okay," I asked Gabe, "was that prompted by my conversation with my sister or just hot flashes?"
As I pulled dry pajamas from a drawer, the dog jumped down from the bed, glad for a mid-night opportunity to go outside. I let him out, tiredly thinking that I had one hell of a challenge ahead of me, but that I had everything I needed to meet the test, just as the dream suggested. As I let Gabe back in, I blearily pondered, Why the hell is it my test?