“I hate this Base. The house is a dump,” Jolie Minotier grumped from the kitchen doorway. “I want to go back to Miramar. Why couldn’t I stay with a friend until I finished high school? Why do I have to be here?” With her hands on her hips, Jolie whipped her mass of curly red hair so that it stretched to the tips of her shoulders. Her father, Commander Byron Cooper, called it her cobra attitude.
His wife, Joan Katz Cooper, turned to face Jolie, one hand at her back to counter-balance the baby she carried. “Give it a chance, Jo. We’ve been here two days without our furniture.”
Their assigned three-bedroom Navy bungalow wore the streaks of all its former inhabitants. Mackie, Joan’s two-year-old, was already adding to the general worn look by having a go at the kitchen wall with a green crayon. The coffeepot brought in the station wagon for camping out until the furniture arrived sat on the worn Formica kitchen counter next to paper plates and plastic utensils. Their sleeping bags, a rickety lamp, and two folding lawn chairs with striped cloth seats decorated the living room. The jumping sheep printed on Mackie’s sleeping bag added the only lightness.
“We could paint it before the furniture gets here. That would help.”
“They painted it,” Jolie muttered, “if you weren’t such a jerk, you’d know it.”
“I’m pretending I didn’t hear that!” Joan called. Jolie stomped from the kitchen with a snort and angled down the hallway toward the bedroom that would be hers.
“Your Aunt Robin and a friend are coming tomorrow night. That’ll be fun,” Joan followed her. “Jo, we’ve got to talk.” They met where the hall intersected the living room.
“You’re not my mother. So just quit acting like it!” Jolie scooped up her calico cat, Schiz, from the seat of one of the folding chairs in the living room. “I don’t have to do anything you say!”
“Jolie, please,” Joan tried, “I don’t want to be your mother.”
“What kind of a shitty crack is that?” Jolie buried her face in Schiz’ stomach. The cat hissed and jumped out of her arms.
“I meant I don’t want to replace your mother. No one hates you. Your father is a naval officer. He has to go to sea. We were lucky to have him home as much as he was at Miramar.”
“He was never home!” Jolie crossed her arms but remained in the hallway. Joan lowered herself into a folding chair. It was wretchedly unfair of Byron to rotate back to Vietnam and leave her in this situation when he knew how Jolie fought her.
“If Dad didn’t want me, he shouldn’t have come for me. Uncle Laury would have found me.”
Jolie plunked down in the other folding chair and stared down at her hands folded in her lap. Her lustrous red hair shadowed her face. Joan couldn’t see her eyes only hear the hurt in her voice.
“Damn your Uncle Laury,” Joan blushed as Jolie’s eyes bore into hers. “Your father has tried his best to make a home for you.”
“Then why did he marry you?” Jolie asked. “I needed him. Me! Just for a little while.”
Joan met Byron through Robin, her Officer Candidate School classmate while stationed at a Naval Air Station in the San Joaquin Valley. Byron was everything Joan wanted, a Naval Aviator, an instructor at Top Gun, one of the golden ones. He was brash, self-assured and naïve. She chased him until he caught her.
Mackie carefully pulled a blue crayon from the green and yellow Crayola box, studied it then put it in his mouth. Joan motioned for him to come to her. When he did, she took the crayon from him. He immediately began to cry.
“I’m going to ask you this one time,” Joan hefted the squalling toddler to what remained of her lap. He put his thumb in his mouth. Slurping loudly, he nuzzled his head against her distended stomach. “What is bothering you? Really?”
“Dad always sends me to Laury for Christmas, so your little family can be together. Not this year. This year I’m here. Last time, I was here my mother dumped me like a cat out the window of a passing car.”
“She was busy blowing up an office building in Oakland. I suspect it took her mind off the holidays.”
Jolie shook off the sarcasm in Joan’s voice.
“Blowing up the building was your mother’s decision. She chose that over you. She deserted you. Your father came back for you. You figure it out because I’m tired of it,” Joan’s voice broke, “We’ve got six to eight months while your father is on cruise. Help me, Jo?”
“Don’t call me Jo!”
Joan smoothed Mackie’s wet black curls. She listened to the life thumping inside her body feeling calm return. She put a hand on her stomach hoping that this one was a little girl with her daddy’s eyes.
“I hate it when you do that,” Jolie said, “I hate it when you look like you have the biggest secret in the world. You don’t. You’re pregnant. Dogs and cats, do it all the time.”
Jolie stood and made three circuits of the bare room. She grabbed the knapsack her mother had given her five years ago for her eleventh birthday, months before abandoning her. She slammed out the door into a foggy, dreary day at Naval Air Station Alameda.
The sun tried to eat a hole in the mist. The barest shadow formed before slipping away as first a wisp then a slab of fog blocked the sun’s attempts to break free. It was December. It was supposed to be sunny; the fog was a summer phenomenon reliant on the excessive heat of the San Joaquin Valley to pull it ashore.
Jolie checked her backpack for money. She had enough to buy a bag of Oreo cookies, so she started the long walk off Naval Air Station Alameda toward the strip of shops at the north end of Alameda Island.
A dry cleaner, several liquor stores, a bar, a tattoo parlor, a small grocery store, a fast food store, and a handful of restaurants lined either side of the road. The island town of perfect little Victorians with perfect little families was to the south, this was NAS-land. The Air Station at Miramar had been bustling with Navy brats, hotshot pilots with her dad’s charm and, if married, their over-the-top wives in wicked hot pants. All she had seen since they arrived in Alameda were Navy wives in everyday dresses. It felt stifling.
It was as though without the sun of Southern California everyone had become conservative, it didn’t suit her. Jolie loved the sun, the heat, the Navy-town atmosphere of San Diego. It had meant something to be Commander Cooper’s daughter there. Here she was just the daughter of yet another aviator on cruise, living in another dump, with her dad’s dumpy pregnant wife. Jolie paused to slip her knapsack off her back and pull out her sweatshirt. Once in the sweatshirt, she lifted the front. The yellow letters on the navy-blue shirt spelled: Top Gun. It was her dad’s. She held it to her nose.
The swirling fog reminded her of the cruel, chilly nights she had spent in Berkeley’s parks after her mother disappeared. Sometimes she considered telling her dad what she had done to eat or sleep safely. But he wouldn’t understand. Commander Byron Cooper was pure Navy gold, as close to pedigree as the Navy had; everything came to him early with gold braid. He wouldn’t understand the price of a warm meal. He had never been alone, almost twelve and hungry for food, for love, for security, wondering if he would make it through the night unharmed.
Jolie glanced over her shoulder. A young man wearing a baseball hat strolled behind her, seeming not to notice her at all. By his walk, Jolie knew he was a sailor. His shoulders were straight, but he had that slight roll one gets from standing on deck at sea. If he got frisky with her, she would pull rank. Alameda may have been the worst, but it was still Naval Air country, and the name Cooper meant something.
She walked past blocks of apartment buildings where enlisted men with their families, bachelor officers, and Air Station support personnel lived. Children giggled. The creak of swings flying back and forth was continuous. She ran her hands along the top of a privet hedge then stopped to select the perfect leaf. She licked the smooth blade before tucking it between her two thumbs, as Laury had taught her, then blew. Her reward was a crisp quack. At the end of the last long block, she turned west. Two doors up, she entered a small, single-story grocery store with a blue awning over the sidewalk.
She smiled at the Japanese man behind the counter. Worn linoleum coursed the aisles. The whole place smelled of stale bread and mold. It was not a bad smell, just an old smell. She walked the aisles looking for the cookie row. Day-Glo plastic F-8 fighters hung from a shelf. She pulled an orange one off the display strip for her half-brother, Mackie, then grabbed for a large pack of Oreos. She exchanged the large package for a smaller one, afraid the big one would go stale without her dad to help her eat it.
She glanced up from her package of Oreos. No one was there. She cruised down an aisle to the back of the store to check if the sailor from the street had followed her. She found him in the last aisle intently reading the ingredients on a cereal box. He checked her over. Jolie averted her eyes. Her stomach tensed. It was so confusing being here. Maybe her dad had asked the Base to watch out for her, he could be like that, protective when she least expected it. Like with the surfer kid she had been dating, there was nothing that boy could do to make her dad like him.
Jolie raised her chin as she passed the sailor. His eyes followed her down the aisle. She added a half-gallon of whole milk to her selections. With cookies and milk as a bribe, maybe Joan would sit with her tonight and talk sensible, grown-up talk. She paid for her purchases at a counter, crowded with gum and horoscopes for sale. When the clerk gave her change, she offered him thanks then left the store with a backward glance over her shoulder. The sailor did not follow her.
The sun had made a pair of Dutchmen’s britches in the sky, a faded blue showed through ragged strips in the fog. A ribbon of warmth ran up her side. Jolie walked practicing how she would be kind to Joan, what she would say to her, and how she would help her. As her dad climbed his A-7 to ferry to the carrier, he had hugged her and told her to do her best.
While packing some of the stuff he kept in the garage in Miramar, Jolie had found a framed black-and-white picture of her mother, Chloe Minotier, in a light sundress with a full skirt. Her mother appeared to be about the same age as Jolie was now. A person did not keep a picture like that, even in the garage, especially in the garage, unless it still meant something. But what? A memory? A want?
The sun blazed the sky red as it set. There was no justice, cold and damp all day, clear and crisp all night. Though with this sunset, it should be sunny tomorrow. Maybe she would take Mackie out for a run the next day. He loved to run full tilt. Jolie opened the door to the Cooper’s quarters just as the light faded.
“Jo?” Joan called, “Sorry…Jolie. I was getting worried. Will macaroni and cheese be okay for dinner? Mackie can eat that, too.”
Jolie held up the airplane as Mackie came squealing around the hall corner, his hands outstretched, his curls damp against his forehead. Jolie put a hand to his forehead as he grabbed the plane. The storm had passed for now. Joan stepped into the kitchen to breathe.
“Hey, guy, let me get it off the cardboard first,” Jolie said as Mackie kept grabbing, “You’re an awful little twerp aren’t you, kiddo. Aren’t you?”
Joan stirred the macaroni as giggles of delight filled their quarters. Jolie was on her back on the living room floor flying Mackie high on her legs. He flapped his arms as Jolie repeated her dad’s chant, “Lift and drag. Lift and drag.”
Jolie lowered him. Mackie drew his dark eyebrows together in an altogether uncharacteristic frown then said, “Whift Maggie.” Whoosh! Jolie pushed so fast that he levitated above her bare feet for a few seconds, Jolie’s hands steadying him as his laugh tickled the bare walls.
“I miss Dad,” Jolie said to no one in particular.
“Me, too,” Joan said to the macaroni.
Jolie and Mackie sat side-by-side on the floor. Jolie ate her macaroni and cheese. Mackie counted them, his chubby fingers pushing them around a paper plate set on a paper towel placemat on the floor until he began to stuff macaroni up his nose. Jolie wrestled the macaroni from Mackie’s hand. He narrowed his blue eyes. Jolie ruffled his black curls. “He looks so much like Dad when he does that, doesn’t he?”
“Right now, you both do.” When Jolie didn’t react negatively, Joan asked, “Has your mother tried to contact you?”
Jolie began playing with her food, separating the macaroni from the sauce, just like Byron said Chloe did. Jolie’s demeanor mirrored every petulant picture Joan had seen of Chloe Minotier with her liquid gold hair tipping perpetually bare, perfectly formed shoulders.
“I thought I was followed today when I went walking,” Jolie said. “But it was a sailor. He was too clean-cut for one of my mother’s friends.”
“Tell me about them.” Joan tried not to sound as curious as she was.
Jolie put her plate aside. Mackie reached for it, but Schiz, the cat Jolie had inherited from her Uncle Laury’s Berkeley days, got there first. Mackie grabbed the cat’s tail. Schiz hissed at him. Mackie wrinkled his nose and pulled his hand back. Jolie held an arm up out for him. He snuggled his body against hers, stuck his thumb in his mouth, and slurped.
“He shouldn’t suck his thumb.”
Joan shrugged, waiting for Jolie to respond.
“I was pretty young. It was hard for me.” Jolie stroked Mackie’s back.
“I know it was, hon.” Jolie’s eyes snapped at the condescension. “I’m not trying to be your mother. I haven’t a clue what she was like. Just what your father told me.”
“That must have been interesting!”
Joan stroked her stomach, the forced angle of the folding chair plus the macaroni was building into gassy pains. The baby kicked. Jolie averted her eyes.
“Actually, it was. Look, in a lot of ways, your dad is still fighting to grow up, grow out of his own loss. Your mother is and was part of that. The night you were conceived, he cared for her as much as he could anyone. He told me that. But, in the end, it hurt him too much, in too many ways.” Joan’s eyes deepened. “But, he never for a minute regretted you.”
“Sometimes it feels like it.”
“I don’t think he knows much about raising daughters.” Joan patted her stomach. “I hope he gets to learn from the start. That would be good for us all.”
Jolie stroked Mackie’s cheek. He responded with a loud slurp on his thumb. Schiz strode past, eyed them then wriggled her way between Jolie’s legs. “Schiz has always been like this.”
“Chloe’s following?” Joan tried again.
“I remember five pretty distinctly—two women, three men. The men were a little in love with Maman. One woman called herself Bird Feather or something. She was sort of, I don’t know, absent. She always came with a short guy. He wore glasses and carried Tolstoy. Maybe he was memorizing characters from War and Peace. That would take six months or so, wouldn’t it? He never felt like much, like maybe just a hanger-on. Mother never paid much attention to him one way or another. I don’t remember his name. In my head, I always called him the professor.”
“Bird Feather and the professor? Sounds like an episode of Gilligan’s Island,” Joan joked, “The others?”
“One guy called himself Raven, another Ernesto. I don’t think the names had to do with anything much, maybe some inner, personal vision. Ernesto looked more Irish than Latin. He was fair-skinned, with black hair and blue eyes. He stood maybe five-foot-six. His nose swept to the left a bit like it had been broken. He had a scar in one eyebrow. You could really see it because his eyebrows were so dark and his skin so fair. I don’t know maybe he had been a boxer. He seemed athletic.”
She stroked her half-brother’s hair. “Like Mackie, but not half as cute. Raven had long brown hair—the kind of brown that is just a bit too dark to be blond. He wore it in a ponytail. I don’t remember the color of his eyes. He was tall but not as tall as Uncle Laury. I think he worked out or worked outdoors. He was always clean like he showered right before he came. He didn’t seem like mother’s type, but he did.”
When Joan nodded her understanding, Jolie continued, “Of course, when I first met them, I hadn’t seen her type yet, not until Uncle Laury showed up.” Joan shifted in her chair. “I know you don’t like Uncle Laury. But, at least, admit he’s a looker? Then, Dad shows up. He was such a contrast to them both. He noticed me, nobody ever did. Here is this tallish, Navy pilot with all the charm in the world talking to me like I was a real person. I had never felt so comfortable with anyone so fast in my life— like I’d found a long-lost brother. We teased each other. He is an awful flirt. He fell to pieces with Mom. I didn’t understand why, in some weird way that hurt more than all the trooping through of her radical following.”
“What about the second woman?”
“Funny, I don’t remember her. Not well. Her name was Johanna or something, she came with Ernesto.”
“You’re way too old, Jolie.” Joan stroked her stomach then pushed herself out of the lawn chair. “Milk?”
Jolie formed a big glass with her hands. Joan held up the one-size fits all paper cups. Jolie listened to Joan open the refrigerator door and pour the milk. It sounded like family. Returning, Joan handed Jolie both cups of milk then lowered herself into the lawn chair. Jolie handed Joan’s glass up to her.
“I feel way too old. Maman used to say she grew up too fast, too soon a woman, to be exact. Sometimes, I feel like that, too. Other times I just want the whole world to stop until I can catch up with it. It makes me want to snuggle with Mackie in his airplane bed.”
“You were telling me about your mother’s group.” Joan sipped her milk.
“The Oakland Tribune tried to put a name to them after the bombing, but that went nowhere. I’m not even sure the others were involved, just Maman…maybe Raven. Could have been a whole different group, everything would shift then reform like cells splitting. I saw Raven later when I was on the streets. I assumed he was watching me. I believed Maman had come back for me.”
“It scared you?”
“She used to tell me that if anything ever happened to her during a demonstration, she would find me at People’s Park. So, I hung out there. She never came. After the first week when nobody came, everything scared me. One day, just after I’d seen Raven, I found a McDonald’s bag with a hot hamburger and fries in it. There was some money at the bottom of the bag. I thought Raven left it. I sat on that bench waiting all day for him to return to take me to Maman. He didn’t. At least, I ate.” Jolie toyed with Schiz’ tail and was rewarded with a sonic purr. “Carol brought me food from her house when she could.”
“Carol! You must be dying to see her. You should telephone her. You drove Aunt Robin’s old VW bug all the way up here. I don’t see why you couldn’t take it to Berkeley to see Carol. Mackie and I can entertain ourselves for a day.”
Jolie grinned. “I’ll get Mackie ready for bed. He could stand to have his diapers changed.”
“He could stand to learn how to pull down his pants and do his business on his own.” Joan patted Mackie’s wet butt. When her hand met Jolie’s, Jolie withdrew hers.
“He tries,” Jolie said in Mackie’s defense.
“About as hard as he tries to keep food out of his nose.”
Jolie lifted Mackie, now a slack heap, into her arms. She walked down the empty hall humming her way into the empty bathroom. The echo of Mackie’s soft protest at being wakened followed Joan into the kitchen. She scraped the remainders of dinner in the paper bag serving as the garbage can—paper plates included. As she unbent, she caught movement outside the window above the sink. Something pale, like a face, had been there. She was sure.
The baby gave a swift kick in response to her anxiety. Joan rubbed her arms with her hands, but the feeling that someone had been watching would not go away.
A small woman, her blonde hair cut in a shaggy pixie that fringed her blue eyes, walked across the stream of people leaving Customs at San Francisco International Airport to a large window overlooking the taxiways. Leaning on the casement, her back to the airfield, she scanned the waiting room. When a pair of appreciative eyes connected with hers, she pretended to check her manicure.
The carnelian polish on her fingernails matched the color of her hip-hugger bell-bottom pants. Black leather boots with stiletto heels took over at her feet. A white turtleneck under a leather vest finished the ensemble, serving to highlight her broad delicate shoulders and slender waist.
She studied the arriving travelers. A glimpse of a girl with curly red hair rushing to greet her boyfriend gave Chloe Minotier’s stomach a quick twist. To cover the emotion, she rummaged in a large handbag until she located a pack of unfiltered cigarettes and a lighter. After fumbling a bit to get the lighter to work, she lit a cigarette.
A tall man, his light brown hair cut long on top but neat over the ears and collar approached her. He put his right hand on her left shoulder then kissed her neck. She took a long pull on her cigarette, leaving a dark red lipstick stain. Flicking ashes to the floor, she said, in English accented by five years in the south of France, “You are late, n’est pas?”
“Mais oui, but you, Mademoiselle Minotier, are gorgeous. I take it you plan to hide in plain sight.”
“Mademoiselle Tonnelier.” Chloe took another pull on her cigarette. “Where is she, où est ma petite Jolie?”
“Officer’s housing at the Naval Air Station on Alameda.”
“Have you seen her?”
“No. But Cooper’s pregnant wife may have seen me.”
Chloe threw the butt of her cigarette to the floor grinding it into the linoleum with a sharp-toed boot. Her eyes on the activist she knew as Raven, she lit another cigarette. “When you speak of her to me, call her Joan. I never want to hear of Mrs. Cooper, the Commander’s wife, Cooper’s wife. Never. She is just Joan, pregnant or otherwise.”
She locked her blue eyes on his face until she was confident he understood.
“Did you have any trouble finding their home on the Base?”
“No. I thumbed a ride onto the Naval Air Station. We were waved through at the gate. Then I walked to officer country, as you call it, and used the address you sent me. By then it was dark, so I was able to do a little peeping. But I am sure that Joan either saw me or my shadow.” He did a little two-step.
“Where will we spend the night?”
“At your suggestion, I have rooms at a place called the Boatel in Oakland. You can see Alameda from the hotel room window. It is right at the foot of Broadway, the gateway to Oakland, Alameda, and Berkeley.”
“You are certain my daughter is with the pregnant Joan?”
“Yes, mademoiselle. We will be informed the moment Jolie contacts Carol Selkowicz. It wasn’t today, but it may be tomorrow. Things are in motion. When and wherever they meet, we will be ready. By the end of the day that Jolie makes that call, we will have her. I’m betting on the coffee shop on Telegraph. You remember the one, glass front, tables like an ice cream parlor and delicious muffins. The coffee wasn’t bad, either. We would meet there sometimes to talk about class assignments.”
Chloe nodded. “When you were my teaching assistant, and I was a professor of history. Oui, I remember this place.”
Raven put his hand on the small of Chloe’s back worming it up under her vest then guided her towards baggage claim. Chloe took a long pull on her cigarette, exhaled away from Raven’s face then smiled at him in such a way that he anticipated the night.