Little Bit’s mother lived in the house next to her father’s. Yes, that is the way it was. The house her mother lived in had been a barn. Whenever Little Bit walked in she thought: This was a home for horses. The walls of two old stalls stuck out from the far end of the living room and there were still nails in them with the chalk outlines of a shovel and rake for mucking them out. Also, the windowsills were loaded with herb-garden boxes of dirt. And scrap metal from the dump sat in the middle of the living room waiting to be turned into sculpture.
Little Bit didn’t have a bedroom at her mother’s so she slept in the old hayloft. One morning, she crawled out the hayloft window onto the roof of the barn to watch the sun come up. On the window screen, two crane flies mated. Little Bit put her palm to her thick knee and bent to see. They were joined butt-to-butt like Siamese twins with two heads and eight wings. Their stick legs overlapped in a pattern of triangles and diamonds on the grid. “A tessellation,” Little Bit said. “A tussle. A tessellation of bug and metal.”
Little Bit had never been to real school. Her mother taught her what she needed to know at home. “Learn the world with your hands,” her mother said. “Learn the world with your nose.” But if she had gone to school she would be in the sixth grade.
From the roof of her mother’s house, Little Bit could see her father’s house. They lived in Connecticut. The house was a Colonial with natural shingles and peeling cornflower-blue trim. At her father’s, Little Bit had a proper bedroom. At her father’s, the knives lived neatly in a wooden chock. The clothes hung like fish from pegs in the bathroom.
Little Bit crawled back through the open window slowly so as not to disturb the sexing bugs; closed it diligently behind her. Then she went down to the kitchen, spooned out a bowl of coffee ice cream, and ate it at the table. Then she lay down on the floor with the chocolate lab, Scooter, and rolled around with her. Also on the floor was a fly swatter, and mini Milk-Bones, pens without caps, and fluorescent pink Post-it notes that had lost their sticky and flew off of things. Little Bit read one: Shelley has ceramic buffalo head.
Little Bit’s mother did not like to cook and she did not like to clean. She ate sandwiches or granola for dinner. She put hot sauce on everything. Little Bit’s father made sausages and peppers and roast chicken. He scrubbed the pots and pans every night and hung them on hooks. “It is good to feel that you have a clean life,” he said.
Little Bit’s mother was a mushroom farmer. She grew Shiitake, and Wood Ear, and Lion’s Mane, Cremini, Portobello, White Button, and Oyster in peat moss and on fallen oak trees in the back woods. She sold them at the farmers market. Fungus was her trade.
When Little Bit’s mother woke up, they packed the truck full of mushrooms for the market. Before they left, Little Bit checked the bugs on the screen. One was getting plump and bloated and the other was wasting away. “Huh,” Little Bit said. On the drive they listened to the news for a while before Little Bit’s mother waved her arms around her head like she was shooing a mosquito and changed to a station playing Reggae. “Don’t pay a mind to that,” she said.
At the market, they set out the mushrooms in wicker baskets. A sign posted on a telephone pole near their booth said: Cheer Camp July 23–27. A call for sullen people, Little Bit thought. A camp for glee. Lessons on smiling. S’mores and bunk beds.
Little Bit liked to listen to people at the market as they walked by the booth:
“You have no job, you have no income, but you’re still getting laid.”
“Give me some of them little sweetums.”
“Chick, you ain’t but called two people. You want something done you have to go to City Hall. You don’t have to be mad—you just have to look mad. What you got to do is go down to City Hall and you tell them you ain’t leaving until you talk to the mayor. You ain’t leaving until you talk to someone with some authority.” Little Bit didn’t know what any of these things meant. She knew they were of the world. Her father was of the world, she knew. Her mother was not, she didn’t think.
But Little Bit’s mother was a good saleswoman. She told people what other people liked and that made them buy. She told people, “You can eat these raw on a salad. People like to do that.” And, “This you sauté and put a little Italian dressing on it.” And, “Good for soups. Filled with antioxidants. Go on and bite it and counteract the free radicals. You’re eating good, too, you know.”
“You have to remember people,” Little Bit’s mother told her. “That’s how you build customers.” Maybe her mother was of the world, Little Bit thought. Maybe she knew better than anyone. “Your father could never do this,” Little Bit’s mother said. “He can’t sell to people. He’s awful at talking to people.” Her mother said, “Your father’s concerns are a man’s concerns. He used to be freer.”
Little Bit’s mother had not always lived in the barn. She had met Little Bit’s father in a bar on Broome Street after a friend’s performance at a gallery during which the friend carved into the skin of his abdomen with an X-Acto knife: It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.
Little Bit’s father had a bushy beard and a law practice and Little Bit’s mother followed him out of the city and moved into the Colonial. She had grown up in Forest Hills, Queens, and Connecticut had seemed the wilderness to her but she liked it. During her first winter birds took the place of leaves on the trees, one at the end of every branch. Clouds passed fast in the windy bright sky. The light that came through the windows of the house darkened and lightened so quickly, throwing shadows so she’d thought someone was in the hollow room next to her. It’d spooked her at first but the clouds kept her company. The changes in light directed her moods. The hours seemed like a deck of cards shuffled and laid out over and over again, light and darkness, light and darkness, signaling her into and out of her jeans, sweater, hat, scarf, bed. In the evening, fog settled on the ground and the snow became matted with mud and tamped down with the textured soles of her boots. Canada geese honked and flapped and landed in the yard and picked at the sodden ground, their own rubbery feet sloshing and sucking.
“Now this is the kind of room I’d like to die in,” Little Bit’s mother said that first winter. She and Little Bit’s father made love on the floor and she felt the house beneath her, the support beams between her shoulder blades. The solid walls absorbed her small sounds, muffled groans, and she felt the whole house settling into the ground, weighing into the earth.
She’d gotten pregnant that first winter. And Little Bit’s father had come home from work smelling of cigar smoke and Wrigley’s spearmint gum. His whiskers were long enough not to scratch when he kissed her. He pressed his icy hands to her collarbone and then went out to shovel the walkway in a tee shirt and leather gloves. She watched him from the window, his forearms flexing red against the cold and his breath coming in clouds under the golden glow of the bulb above the door. When he came back inside with condensation frozen in tiny globes in his eyebrows and beard, he’d said, “Winter makes you walk in straight lines.”
Little Bit’s mother thought that she’d gone in for the bohemian life when she followed Little Bit’s father to the country. She’d imagined a nice commune. Maybe some chickens; a goat or a cow. It was that way at first. They used to smoke pot and stitch macramé plant holders. They used to go camping a lot. Little Bit’s mother thought they’d spend their old years traveling Europe on the cheap. But Little Bit’s father liked to stay home. He had developed an aversion to the unforeseeable.
At home after the market, Little Bit’s mother reclined on the couch with a mug full of chocolate chips and spread a newspaper on her lap. “Where’s your father?” she said. Little Bit’s parents were always asking her where the other was. She thought they would not have to ask this if they lived in the same house. She also thought that they knew the answer to this question most of the time.
Little Bit saw the lights on in her father’s house. She ran outside and across the driveway. “How is your mother’s mushroom business?” Little Bit’s father said when she came in.
“Robust,” said Little Bit. “Dad, are you concerned with men’s concerns?”
“Your mother said that?”
“You don’t have to be mad, you just have to look mad,” Little Bit said.
“I’m not mad. Who’s mad? Where’s your mother?”
“Does she need help at the house tomorrow? She lives in that derelict state.”
“Dad, did you used to be freer?”
“Freer,” Little Bit’s father said. “Your mother doesn’t know what’s what in the world.” Maybe her mother was not of the world, Little Bit thought. She didn’t know either way. “Freer?” Little Bit’s father said. He thought about it. “I do all I want to do.”
Little Bit’s father had not always been so practical. He’d spent his youth goofing off, he nearly failed out of college, he spent three years on a motorcycle in Mexico. He was the one who knew how to stitch macramé. When he decided to get his act together, no U. S. law school would accept him. His father had a friend on the board at the University of Puerto Rico, so Little Bit’s father went there. He did speak Spanish. He had a maid who came three times a week to dust and do the dishes and squeeze fresh orange juice. He took in a mutt from the street and named her Sunshine.
When he met Little Bit’s mother in the bar on Broome Street he thought she was just about the closest thing to an angel he had ever seen. She had long wavy golden hair and she was shaped liked a vase. She had a habit of pinching her lower lip when she was concentrating. He wanted to marry her but she said she wouldn’t participate in the institution. When she agreed to come out to the country to live with him, he loved her more for it. But he’d had expectations that he did not anticipate. He found himself asking why dinner wasn’t made. They fought about dust bunnies. She arranged flowers and fruit on the kitchen table and left them there for days while she painted a still life. When they fought she went out and slept in the hayloft in the barn. She kept a sleeping bag there. Then she moved all her art supplies out. And then a cot. Then they blew insulation into the walls and the roof, and added heat, and put in a small kitchen. This took a few years. It’d been a gradual disassembling of their domestic life and a slow fashioning of this other arrangement. The mushrooms came later.
Little Bit’s father had made concessions. He had wanted Little Bit to go to real school, but her mother was adamant, and he did believe that there were many paths.
“I don’t know about freer,” Little Bit’s father said to her. “Freedom is getting to make your own choices for yourself. I can choose what I want. I have security. That’s free to me. I don’t know what freedom your mother has.”
Little Bit was a house divided. She could live like her mother or she could live like her father. But not both. They did not go together. They were not joined up so good. She was trying to figure if she was a barn person. Would she live in a house for horses? She did not know.
Little Bit’s father said, “You just need the right tools. You get the right tools and you can do whatever you want in this world.” Little Bit thought of the knives neat in their wooden chock in her father’s kitchen, the solid pegs in the bathroom. She thought of the outline of the rake and the shovel at her mother’s. “You work hard at something every day,” Little Bit’s father said, “and you’ll get whatever it is you want. You just work harder than the next person, that’s all you need to do.”
As the sun went down, Little Bit went back to her mother’s. She climbed to the hayloft to check the bugs on the screen. One was fat now and the other had fallen away. He lay drained and dead on the shingles of the roof. “Well, shit,” Little Bit said. She bedded down in the hayloft. Her mother had put a sleeping bag up there for her. She could hear her mother rustling in the living room below. Through the window, she could see her father moving about his bright kitchen, washing pots and pans and putting them in their places.