= This Shoal of Space =
A Science Fiction Novel by John Argo
Chapter 1: Meeting Zoë Calla
"Mom, what's a faloshian?"
Zoë brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead while concentrating on the road ahead. "Not now, honey," she said while watching with idle alarm as an unknown but vaguely menacing blue van cut into traffic two cars behind her. They had just been to the doctor's office and she was fighting an inner scream of panic. Her son's cancer had been in remission for nearly five years, but now a questionable something had appeared in a leg X-ray. At the same time, life demanded that it be lived from minute to minute. She was late for everything, as usual. A basket of overdue library books bounced on the back seat.
Max frowned and pulled in his chin. "There's a dead one outside the zoo. They said so on the news this morning."
She held up her left hand in the slipstream to help the magenta nail polish dry. Traffic was heavy, and she needed to find a way to cut over two lanes. The blue van kept creeping up behind on her right blind spot. "Max please, I'm trying not to miss the exit to grandma's house. You can tell me there, okay?"
Serious tone: "Oh, okay."
A pair of young men whistled in Zoë's direction. She barely turned her blonde head and raked them with her Icy Glance, without really looking at thembut in their direction, so they would melt into puddles on the dirty sidewalk, like rancid ice cream on a blazing hot day.
She turned onto a side street. The blue van drifted away. Minutes later, as she pulled onto shaded Mulberry Street, Zoë saw that, once again, her mother was displeased with her. Zoë knew how to read her mother's house. If Mother was pleased, she would be waiting: watering the lawn, smiling, waving. Instead, Mother was inside. Sullen, without any sign of welcome, the house seemed to turn its face away.
Zoë stopped the car and looked at her son. "Want a hand?" The old question.
"Naw." The familiar answer. Max pushed the door open with his right arm. With practiced speed and confidence, he swung first one leg, then the other, onto the street. Zoë regarded her son through a thick layer of old love and pain. Wearing his school uniform, he was ten and looked beautiful. She was proud. "Grandma's mad about something," Max noted with a glance up the hill. "What do you suppose it is this time?"
They had a silent walk up to the house together. He worked hard on his clicking crutches. She, wearing medium heels and businesslike skirt, but gray sweat jacket with dangling hood, matched his pace with hands clasped behind her back.
"Max, can you wait here a few minutes?" She indicated the lath gazebo vined with pink and white trumpet flowers. She banged on the door. No answer. She rattled the handle, but the door was locked. She fumbled in her pockets until she found the key. In contrast to her annoyance, Max sat patiently. He had one forearm draped over both crutch handles while his interested gaze followed the flight of a butterfly. His name was Christopher, but as a toddler he'd invented the nickname that would follow him through life. As Zoë got the door open, she tried to take along some of Max's calmness.
"Mom!" her voice echoed through the house, "Mo-om!"
Mother's house was a dark swirl of silvered mirrors, petulant lace, sullen mahogany.
"Zoë, dear, you don't have to shout and bang around."
Zoë gave a jump. "IIyou scared me."
Mother smiled ceremoniously while placing pussy willow twigs in a small vase. "I was here in the kitchen the whole time. Where's Max?"
"In the gazebo." Zoë threw the envelope down on the table. "Here are the rent checks." She did not apologize that they were three days late.
"Why didn't he come in?" Mother searched for the perfect spot to place a twig she held like a spear.
"I just wanted to drop these off. I'm late for work. Is something wrong?"
Mother circled around the vase. "There." She stabbed the twig into place, then wiped her hands on her apron. "I wouldn't say wrong, Zoë." She put the vase on a high window sill. "There. Tomorrow or the day after I'll cut some marigolds and add them in. That'll look nice, don't you think?"
Zoë took nail polish from the sweat jacket's belly pocket. Sitting at the table, she worked on her right hand. Waiting.
Mother looked through the checks. "Was someone short?"
"No, just late. Davidson forgot to leave his rent money with me before he went on a weekend trip."
"If you're ever short"
"How did Max's doctor appointment go?"
"The doctors found a blip or something on his leg." Her fingers trembled.
"They want more time to evaluate the results." She wasn't sure if she could be patient with Mother just now.
"Zoë, I thought..." Mother looked ready to cry. "Five years... remission..."
Zoë snapped: "Doctor Boutros said he's sure Max is probably okay but he wants to check with another specialist."
Mother said, "Darling, I know you love him so." Mother rubbed Zoë's back. "Make sure he always gets his rest, and eats right, and..."
Zoë felt herself starting to lose it. "What do you think I have done every day for years, Mother?"
Mother sat down, folded her hands on the table, and looked at Zoë. Zoë felt her looking but did not look up. After a minute or two, Mother sighed. "It's none of my business, Zoë, but Harold Berger has called several times this week."
Zoë closed the nail polish bottle. "I don't believe it." A flush crawled up her cheeks.
"He is trying awfully hard to reach you, darling."
Zoë pictured Howard in her mind, cocked an imaginary elbow back, and punched him into the next country.
"Max really likes him."
"Max loathes him, Mother. And by now, so do I. I have to go. I have to drop Max off at school, and I'm late for work."
"Zoë, the boy needs a man in his life."
"I'm not going to marry Howard."
Mother reproved with a look that said, there you go again, bitch in tight jeans, make all the boys crazy.
Zoë changed the subject: "I asked for a promotion."
"At that job?" Mother made 'job' sound dirty.
Zoë rose. She was glad she'd asked Max to wait outside. "Mother, no guy is interested in a widow with a crippled son. I work damn hard and I need something better than life with Howard the nerd. I'm going to be thirty in two years. No Prince Charming is coming along to rescue me, so THAT JOB as you put it is my only hope to make it on my own!"
"He is a wealthy man. A good man. Young. Good-looking. What more could you want?"
Zoë strode away through the house assaulted by dull rumblings of china behind glass. There was something she was walking away from. What was it? A black hole in her past, graying toward daylight with numb time in a women's prison, a threat to lose Max if she did not shape up...
Her mother's voice rose to a near hysterical pitch as she invoked Zoë's failed marriage. "For God's sake, Zoë, don't do it again! Remember what happened with you and Frank! Remember what he did to you and Max!"
Zoë was glad to get back into the sunshine. "Ready, Max?"
"Yep." Click of crutch. "How'd it go?"
Zoë knelt and embraced him, remembering the enigmatic darkness in her past. His free hand stole around her neck. She smelled a hint of bath soap in the wet ends of his hair. Nobody was going to take this guy away from her.
They walked to the car. "Grandma wants me to do something I don't want to."
"Oh, is that all?" Max tossed the crutches in. "What else is new?"
"Ma-a-a-x," she warned as he climbed in. Tugging her door open, she saw that he was grinning. Driving away unnecessarily fast, she tossed the nail polish bottle in the glove compartment that bulged with paperbacks. "Well, at least I got my nails finished."
"Oh yeah Mom, I almost forgot. They got a dead faloshian at the zoo. Do you think they'll have a picture of it in the paper?"