Mr. X

CONTENTS

1 How I Came Home, and Why

2 How I Learned About River-Bottom

3 How I Nearly Was Killed

4 How I Found My Shadow at Last, and What It Did

5 How I Learned to Eat Time

6 How I Spent My Birthday

Author’s Note

1 HOW I CAME HOME, AND WHY

1

Stupid me—I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. All along, a part of me knew that I was hitching toward southern Illinois because my mother was passing. When your mother’s checking out, you get yourself back home.

She had been living in East Cicero with two elderly brothers above their club, the Panorama. On weekends she sang two nightly sets with the house trio. She was doing what she had always done, living without worrying about consequences, which tends to make the consequences come harder and faster than they do for other people. When she could no longer ignore her sense of fatality, my mother kissed the old brothers goodbye and went back to the only place I’d be able to find her.

Star had been eighteen when I was born, a generous, large-souled girl with no more notion of a settled life than a one-eyed cat, and after I turned four I bounced back and forth between Edgerton and a parade of foster homes. My mother was one of those people who are artists without a specific art. She apprenticed herself sequentially and many times over to painting, writing, pottery, and other crafts as well as to the men she thought embodied these skills. She cared least about the one thing she was best at, so when she stood up and sang she communicated a laid-back, good-humored ease her audiences found charming. Until the last few years of her life she had a soft, melting prettiness that was girlish and knowing, feline and earthy, all at once.

I lived with six different couples in four different towns, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. The best of my six couples, Phil and Laura Grant, the Ozzie and Harriet of Naperville, Illinois, were almost saintly in their straightforward goodness. One other couple would have given them a run for their money if they hadn’t taken in so many kids they wore themselves out, and two others were nice enough, in a this-is-our-house-and-these-are-the-rules way.

Before I went to Naperville, now and then I did go back to Cherry Street, where the Dunstans lived in their various old houses. Aunt Nettie and Uncle Clark took me in as though I were an extra piece of luggage Star had brought along. For a month, maybe six weeks, I shared a room with my mother, holding my breath and waiting for the next earthquake. After I moved in with the Grants, this pattern changed, and Star visited me in Naperville. She and I had come to an agreement: one of those deep agreements people don’t need words to strike.

The core of our agreement, around which everything else wrapped itself, was that my mother loved me and I loved her. But no matter how much she loved me, Star didn’t have it in her to stay in one place longer than a year or two. She was my mother, but she couldn’t be a mother. Which meant that she couldn’t help me deal with the besetting problem that frightened, distressed, or angered the foster parents I had before the Grants. The Grants accompanied me on a procession through doctors’ offices, radiology departments, blood tests, urine tests, brain tests, I can’t even remember them all.

Boiled down to essentials, it comes out this way: even though