Cissie's mother is sitting in a pink canvas chair on the deck at the bed-and-breakfast, her legs propped on the rail, her head rocking gently as if she's listening to a slow song. All Cissie can hear as she shuffles sleepily onto the deck are gulls and waves.
They've come to Santa Cruz to spend a few days before Cissie takes the train up to her father's place in the foothills to go backpacking with him and his fiancée, Lesley, and before school starts again and Cissie, who has just turned fifteen, becomes a sophomore. "Officially a wise fool," her father says.
Cissie spends a lot of time wondering what's going on in her other home with her other parent. She's always leaving things at the wrong home, so she has two of almost everything – backpacks, radios, sets of clothes, beds and dressers, of course. Even so, when she wants to wear a certain pair of jeans or listen to a particular CD, it's always at the other place.
And she's always missing out on something, not necessarily something fun, just some family stuff her mother or her father thinks she was around for. Her father will say, "Remember when we stopped at that little restaurant in Gila Bend?" "I wasn't with you, Dad." "No? Are you sure?" To this day, her mother swears that Cissie saw a monkey balance a lemon on its tail in Griffith Park. "I've never been to Griffith Park, Mom." Her mother always looks puzzled. "But why would we go to the zoo without you?" Why would you? Cissie wonders. Who was there instead of me?
The three of them—mother Janet, father Grant, and Cissie—did visit Santa Cruz together ten years ago to watch the fireworks over the ocean and go to the boardwalk. They all remember that. And Richard, Cissie's stepfather, Janet, and Cissie have come here a couple of times since. This time, it's just mother and daughter.
Cissie pulls a chair over to the rail and sits down. Janet reaches across the table between them, pats Cissie's leg, says, "Morning, Sweetie," and they watch the ocean and the volleyball players on the sand below. The air is chilly, but the sun feels warm on the top of Cissie's head and across her shoulders.
Juanella, the bed-and-breakfast lady, brings a tray of juice and grapes and oat bran ollalieberry muffins and sets it on the table. On her shirt pocket, Juanella wears a plastic button with a school photo on it, a shy-looking blue-eyed teenager. She pats the button and tells Cissie, "My granddaughter, Crystal. She'll be a sophomore, just like you."
The muffins are huge, chewy, and filled with moist, tart-sweet berries. Juanella says, "Ollalieberries are the 'in' berry, you know."
Janet sniffs her coffee, sighs, and recites, "Complacencies of the peignoir, and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair." She points to a pelican swooping down at the shoreline. "It's called 'Sunday Morning.' Wallace Stevens. Your dad used to like that poem."
"It's Tuesday, Mom. How about, Shorts and sweatshirts, juice and muffins, on the deck at the beach?"
Janet laughs and flips open her organizer. Sometimes she writes down things she's already done and then crosses them off. "Okay, what's on the agenda? The campus? It's pretty up there. The mall again or the boardwalk? Mystery Spot. We've got to do the Mystery Spot this time. Juanella says it's fun." Janet stretches, fingers reaching for the sky, and looks down at the beach.
They watch the tanned, barefoot volleyball players and listen to their grunts and shouts and the thwap of the ball shooting back and forth, sometimes straight up. At first there were four, now there are already eight. It's only nine o'clock. Janet and Cissie have been here two days now, and there've been at least two or three playing all the time, sometimes with girls hanging around watching, lounging in the sun, posing. One man—boy? college boy?—tall and dark in chartreuse shorts has been there continuously, it seems. Cissie imagines herself sitting in the hot sand, him walking towards her, kneeling next to her, brushing the sand off her feet. She sees them talking, falling in love, getting married, having kids, and getting divorced.
Cissie says to Janet, "I'm never getting married."
Janet kind of laughs and says, "Oh, you'll change your mind." She pauses and studies the cuticle on her right thumb. "Well, maybe not. Maybe you're smart. It's not easy."
Cissie wants herself and Janet and Grant to be a family: daughter, mom, and dad, maybe a brother and sister, all living in the same house, going to Griffith Park together to see the monkeys. But she also wants Janet and Richard and Cissie and the dog—there is only one dog. And Grant and Lesley and Cissie. But, she thinks, if Mom and Dad had never got divorced, I wouldn't know about Richard or Lesley or the other houses or the dog, so I wouldn't ever miss them. And I wouldn't ever feel bad or guilty about being here or not being there, would I?
This summer, Janet and Richard and Cissie moved to the new, blue house, and next month Cissie will go to a new school. She has decided to use her real name, Calista, at this school. She will write Calista on her papers and ask her new friends to call her that.
Janet says, "Look at those guys, would you. They're so tan." She shakes her head. "Not good. They should wear sunscreen or caps, at least. There's a mystery for you. Where do they all come from anyway? What do they do besides play volleyball? When do they eat?"
Juanella pours Janet's "just half a cup" of coffee and picks up the tray. She says, "I heard they got a grant from the city, gets them off the streets. They entertain the tourists." She clicks her tongue.
Cissie and Janet go inside and pull on their new, not-yet-washed tank tops, pale blue with hand-painted starfish. Janet wears Levi's, Cissie pulls on a pair of blue and white bike shorts, shiny spandex.
"Does this look funny? This top with the shorts?"
"It looks fine, Sweetie. Look, twins." They're the same height now, both slender, curly red hair, brown eyes. They smile at each other in the mirror, Cissie automatically pulling her upper lip down to cover her braces. Richard likes to call them "my two redheads." Richard doesn't know that Grant, before the divorce, used to call them "my two redheads." Then, Cissie was much shorter.
They walk to the rental car and drive down the freeway a couple of miles. Janet takes the Soquel exit and turns at the black and yellow Mystery Spot sign. "Bermuda Triangle in the trees," Juanella called it. "There's this crooked trail and a crooked house where you lean sideways all funny and don't fall over. And you get dizzy and birds won't fly there. I think they do it with mirrors." Cissie remembered Juanella say, "There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile."
Janet says, "I love mysteries. Jack the Ripper. Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster."
Cissie says, "I want to know about Stonehenge. How'd all those serious rocks get there?"
They're driving through an ordinary neighborhood, kids and bikes on lawns and an old man washing his Oldsmobile in a driveway. They could be in Vacaville just around the block from home, except it's greener here.
"It might rain," Janet says. "Why does it rain when you wash the car? Another of life's little mysteries. And why do only good-looking guys play volleyball on the beach?"
"Okay, why are some people pretty, some ugly, some plain? Who decides what's pretty and what's not? Why do bad things happen to good people?"
"Good one, Cissie! Great title, let's write a book."
"I know. Just teasing, Sweetie. Maybe we should read it and find out why."
"Why do good things happen to bad people? Why does that rotten Katie Cooper always beat me in the 880 and always get A's in Spanish without studying? Why, when there's two things to choose from, do you always wish you'd picked the other thing?"
"Or, when you go out to dinner and drive around and finally park half a mile away, there's always a parking place right in front when you get to the restaurant."
"What about diseases, horrible diseases? Cancer and AIDS. Where'd they come from? Why? Why can't they cure them?"
Janet says, "Why can't they even find a cure for the common cold?"
Cissie says, "Who are they, anyway?"
Janet says, "Hmm. Well, today's mystery is how to find the darned place!"
They've been driving in circles. They pass the same yard sale, the same fake Cape Cod house. Now the Oldsmobile man is polishing the bumper. He looks up, waves, and points to his right. "Two blocks!"
At last, they're on a narrow, winding, tree-lined—pines and eucalyptus—road that leads them to a parking lot. There are only a few cars in the lot and, as they walk up to the booth, a tour is about to begin. Milling about are a Japanese family—mother, father, four kids, maybe five, six, seven, and eight years old, and an older couple who change their minds and walk back toward the parking lot after the guide tells everyone about the short but steep path. The wife says, "We'll just eat lunch early, Benny, and then go on to Hearst Castle. They have buses."
There are two college-aged couples, one of the girls all in black, halter top, long skirt, China flats; the other three wear different school sweatshirts: Princeton, Yale, Stanford. Janet leans over and whispers, "What do you bet they all go to some community college?"
And there's a middle-aged man in green hospital scrubs and a young father with three boys. Cissie wonders if they're all his sons, or just one or two and a friend or cousin or two. Where's the mom? Maybe he's the divorced dad doing his summer vacation duty. They'll spend the afternoon on the boardwalk, eat lots of junk food, drive down to Monterey to the aquarium tomorrow, play on the beach, and go home to Mom with sunburns and dirty clothes.
The guide says, "I'm Larry with the history of the mystery," and urges them to come closer. He says, "So. The laws of gravity are out of whack here. Or something. Nobody knows why. When planes fly over, their instruments go crazy." He points to some twisted eucalyptus trees. "Birds and animals don't much like it here. I myself have seen six, eight, squirrels this past year miss their jumps. Meteorite, some say. Who knows? All kinds of scientists have checked this out, Nobel-prizers, Pulitzer-prizers. They got an open invitation to explain what's going on. So far, nobody's solved the mystery. One of Mother Nature's little conundrums." He grins.
Larry is maybe twenty-five and nerdy-looking, Cissie thinks—glasses, messed-up hair, a green pocket t-shirt, jeans (generic jeans, not Levi's), black and white tennis shoes, a sweatshirt tied around his waist. He looks around the group. "Any you guys or gals figure it out, lunch is on me."
He leads them up the short but steep and narrow path. A few yards ahead and around a corner, they come to a wood shack sitting crookedly among the trees and bushes. "Slid right down the hill," Larry says. "Mystery numero uno." He sets a golf ball on a board sticking out the window. The ball rolls to the halfway point, pauses, and rolls back to the end. The children giggle.
Cissie tells Janet, "Miss Tyler did that in science, with a plum. It's physics."
With a flourish, Larry takes a small level out of his t-shirt pocket and sets it carefully on the board. "Level as Kansas," he says. "You can bring your own tools—levels, magnets, compasses, ouija boards, you-name-its. Be my guest."
He stands in the doorway of the shack, his body and the door jamb making a backwards N. "I'm perpendicular to the center of the earth," he says. "You draw a line at the center, I'm perpendicular." He sets the level down on the threshold. The young father leans forward and looks. "Bubble's in the middle. He's on the level," he says.
Larry announces, "Mystery numero dos, et cetera," and steps back to let the group into the room of the crooked cabin. Once inside, something is definitely haywire. Everyone walks through, looking ludicrously off balance. The man in the hospital scrubs takes off his glasses and exclaims, "Weird! This is really weird. Twilight Zone. Rod Serling, where are you?" Cissie's stomach feels queasy as she walks across the floor at an angle to the straight boards of the walls. She squints and tries to figure the angle—just about 45 degrees, she guesses.
Janet climbs up on a table and turns to the center of the room, leaning precariously out. She looks regal, even angelic—Janet who is afraid of heights and can't climb a ladder to wash the outsides of the windows. "Come up, Cissie. This is very peculiar!" Cissie climbs up beside her and they lean out together.
The girl in black jumps up to grab a bar and hangs, one-handed, at a 45-degree angle. Her boyfriend, Princeton, says, "Yeah, Rachel. Acute angle. Way to go." He grabs the bar next to her and the two of them hang there, eyes closed, gently swaying. Two of the Japanese children try to roll a ball down the slope and laugh as it slows and stops and rolls uphill every time.
Cissie weaves among the others to the back door. She's dizzy now and steps outside. She sits on the ground, her head spinning. It's eerily still out here, the hillside damp and shiny green. The smell, like sweat, Cissie thinks, of eucalyptus hangs in the air. There are no birds, no squirrels plummeting from branches.
The Japanese mother and father have also stepped outside, and they stand against the crooked fence. Whoops and squeals of laughter roll out the doorless doorway. The littlest girl, wearing a pink Minnie Mouse shirt, runs back and forth, holding her arms out straight, making airplane sounds. Cissie wonders what it would be like to be one of the Japanese children.
The girl in black now stands on the table, leaning forward. She raises one arm, middle finger and thumb nearly meeting, pinky curled. Her boyfriend says, "Yeah, a hood ornament, Rachel. Duesenberg. Hindenburg. One of those old cars."
Cissie feels as if she has twirled around and around and around as she did when she was a little girl. She used to think she could make the world speed up. She remembers an afternoon, a sloping green lawn, a red blanket spread under a tree, a picnic basket. She remembers running barefoot in the grass, Janet saying, "Be careful! Don't run into the tree," spinning and spinning, her arms flung wide, her fingers growing heavy, stripes of sky and grass and red blanket streaking by. She dropped finally in the grass and watched the world slow down again. She asked her father, "Did you go faster, too?" He said, "Yes, Cissie, yes. You took my breath away." He flopped beside her and gave her a hug.
The Japanese mother and father are gesturing at the shack and the treetops. Cissie closes her eyes, still dizzy-feeling, yet peaceful, and listens to the mysterious, soothing sounds. She wishes she could speak another language, could think in another language. The mother says, "Sawayaka na o-tenki." The father whispers back, and then Cissie hears him say, "Gorufu."
Cissie whispers, "Gorufu. Sawayaka na o-tenki." She wonders what the words mean, whispers them again and again, wanting them to tell her something.
Suddenly, the father shouts, "Jason! Don't let your sister climb up there!" He darts into the shack and collects his children, herding them outside.
Larry steps outside, too, and calls the others. He says, "Mystery numero last one. You'll notice as we walk away from the cabin, the force grows weaker, but there's one more thing to try." He leads the group a short distance to a strip of concrete embedded in the asphalt path. He leans down and sets his level in the center. "Level as Kansas," he says.
Janet whispers, "I bet Larry never plays volleyball on the beach."
The hospital scrubs man says, "Kansas may be flat, but it ain't necessarily level."
Larry motions to the girl in black to stand at one end of the slab and Princeton at the other. "Okay, no problem there, right?" He points to the girl. "Look straight at him. Your eyes are about his chin level. And he's looking over your head, right? Trade places."
They trade places, and the group watches as she grows taller and he shorter. "About the same height now," says Larry. He looks pleased and proud, as if he has made it happen. The girl in black blushes and hops off the concrete and backs over to her friends. "Go ahead, the rest of you. Try it," Larry says.
Several of the others, two by two, take turns, pointing at each other's noses, switching places, laughing, shaking their heads. The Japanese man and his oldest, Jason, switch places again and again, fast, then slow, chattering in Japanese, checking the level on the ground. Janet claps when the boy throws back his shoulders and meets his father's gaze at eye level. Finally, Jason joins his brother and sisters. "Wow!" he says.
Larry says, "Okay, another group coming along, folks. Take a few more minutes on this one if you like. And be sure to pick up your bumper sticker on your way out."
The group straggles off down the path, and Cissie and Janet step onto the concrete. Janet gasps as they trade places and Cissie grows several inches. Janet looks smaller, older, far away. She says, "This is pretty incredible. I wonder if Richard could figure it out." They stand for a moment more, Cissie half a head taller now than Janet, arms folded on chests. Lightheaded still, she takes her mother's hand as they walk in silence back down the path and to the car.
In the evening, Janet and Cissie go back to the boardwalk for one last ride on the rickety-looking roller coaster. Cissie likes the boardwalk at night; it looks cleaner, brighter, magical. The smells of popcorn and saltwater tonight, though, and the stomach-turning ride on the roller coaster make her wish she were home instead—either home, the new, blue house or her father's apartment above the bookstore. They don't stay long and find themselves once again on the deck at Juanella's.
Juanella brings cookies and cider for Cissie and white wine for Janet. "Well, what do you think? Magnets in the trees? Mirrors? There's got to be a trick." Janet and Cissie scoot their chairs over to the rail. The volleyball players are gone. Janet points to the nets. "No volleyball tonight."
Cissie says, "I kind of liked the dark guy in the green shorts."
Janet says, "I don't remember green shorts." She sighs. "Well, it's home again tomorrow. I'm glad we had this time together, Cissie. I'll miss you when you're on your trip."
Cissie says, "Yeah, I'll miss you and Richard too. Don't do any fun stuff while I'm gone."
Janet laughs. "No fair! You'll be having fun without us. Look at that perfect sky." Streaks of pink and orange mark the horizon, and the sky is mottled blue and black; a few early stars shine. The ocean, dark and calm tonight rolls softly onto the sand.
Cielo, Cissie remembers from Spanish class. La playa. Amor. She tries to shut out the English words: Sky. Beach. Love.
Tree, she thinks. Árbol. She squeezes her eyes shut: árbol, árboles. She sees the twisted eucalyptus trees like veiny arms rising above the crooked cabin.
Madre, padre. Janet and Grant sit on the green lawn watching her twirl, the two of them shrinking, moving away, Cissie on a carousel without them. She wishes she could make the world go faster. She thinks about the trip to the zoo. Maybe she was there. Maybe she did see the monkey.
Cissie wonders, Why does love not last? She asks her mother, "Why is the sky black and blue?"
Judy Brackett’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in egg, China Grove, Miramar, Subtropics, Canary, The Lake, The Linnet’s Wings, Bird’s Thumb, Spillway, The Waterhouse Review, Dos Passos Review, The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Poets (Backwaters Press), and elsewhere.
She is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has taught creative writing and English literature and composition at Sierra College. Born in Nebraska, she has lived in California’s northern Sierra Nevada foothills for many years.