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My Guardian, Claire my mother swaistlike abelt, and she stopped breathing when the ends met. Dr. Avery Schoenfeld's Bedside Guide to Good Health says death by a girdle of shingles is a myth. It says it is a superstition dating back to the early Greeks. Evidently it is a myth in which my mother believed. Claire took me in when disease cinched my mother's shrinking waist. Claire lived by myths of her own making. I hope my mother felt no pain as the skin scabbed round her middle. I hope it was like slipping into a dream. She told me 56 hen I was six years old, a ring of shingles wound around w she had dreamt me, my birth. She said it was clean and painless . She was relieved I was a boy, she said, because boys depart from the mother, splinter from God, more quietly than girls. She said I dropped from a cloud, rain dark at the edges with my expulsion , and tumbled down a shaft of wind, wet and silent as a mackerel. Muddy-brown pin curls decoratively framed my mother's oval face. They were so perfectly circular, they made me dizzy if I looked at them too closely. They looked like they'd been scribbled on with a Busy Buzz Buzz. She had tiny hands that nearly disappeared when she closed them and three freckles in a row above her upper lip, like ellipses, like there was more to be said. After the burial, I became Claire's full-time charge. Claire was a beauty operator, which made me think she carved good looks from flawed faces with scalpel and suture, but it was hair she shaped. She worked out of her basement, where she had two pedestaled chairs bolted to the floor. Whenever Claire pumped the chair up so that the customer's head was at aworkable height, it made me think of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunnyin the "Barber of Seville" cartoon. I imagined Claire perched on the heads of the customers, massaging hair oil into their scalps with all four paws. I sawwet-headed women careening toward the ceiling and bursting through Claire's roof. When I told Claire about my vision she said, "That Bugs Bunny. Whatever happened to him? A huge talent." Claire wasn't like the adults Iknew.People in the neighborhood and at the grocery store and the filling station called her "Claire the Loon." She said she was flattered. She loved birds. Some people thought it a scandal that my mother had made Claire, no blood relation, my godmother. My mother respected a well-crafted pin curl. Claire was always very polite to her and brought her a brisket when our German shepherd was poisoned. My mother and Claire had the same sense of kindness. 57 Claire's daughter and husband drowned in a boating accident during a fishing trip five years before I went to live with her. The only thing she ever said to me about it was that it made her feel sad for stealing the worms from the robins that had worked so hard at unearthing them that morning. Once she told me she had phantom pains of maternity that made her bowels ache and that she missed the smell of aftershave on the pillowcase . Then she sucked on my toes and stroked my feet and fell asleep. I was both surrogate spouse and child to Claire. And I was sweet on her. She gave me apples she'd picked herself. "They're not from my trees/' she'd say, "but God doesn't mind and Johnny Appleseed is dead." And then she'd laugh, her eyes turning to tiny fists, the gapbetween her front teeth threatening to pull me in. Sometimes they were only crab apples, and we pitched them at cats when they stalked the birds, stealthing along near the shrubbery. Claire said they were called crab apples because if they could talk, they wouldn't have anything nice to say. Claire, my godmother, had spoken with angels. They were sitting on her kitchen table, dangling their feet when she came in the back door. They smelled bad and had dirtyknees and necks. One had white hair, a wrinkled face, and a crusted, runny nose; the other had red hair, red freckles, and wore silver high heels and white socks. They were both small and shifty, ungraspable as beads of quicksilver.They had eaten all Claire's sugar...


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