"Pandora"

Her name was Pandora. She worked at the restaurant across the street from our apartment and used to walk our dog... when our dog could walk. Then the dog got arthritis too bad and her back legs were braced to wheels. Then Pandora used to just kind of wheel her. Now that I think of it, now that I'm older... whatever possessed some woman to name her daughter Pandora is just beyond me. I keep imagining her as a little girl on some playground somewhere in Indiana--that's where she grew up, isn't it? Indiana or Montana or Louisiana... somewhere-"ana" because she used to say that's why we had to be friends, since my name was Anna. So I keep imagining her on some playground, the oddball kid with some box that she'd found as she walked to school one morning, threatening to open it whenever someone was mean to her. What's sad is that I'm sure she probably did that at least once. I don't think you can be picked on as much as the two of us were and afford not to dream about doing something like that. And I don't really think you can be named Pandora and afford not to do something like that.

She used to tell me stories about how different it was between here and "back home." I don't remember why she came... maybe she was an actress, I don't know. Most of the kids who come to the city and never mean to fade away like they always do... they want to act. She had a car when she was younger, before she moved here. She sold it for the bus ticket, she told me. When I was eight, I believed it. I had no idea that bus tickets weren't really that expensive or that cars couldn't be sold so cheap, so one way or another, it made sense. But she was probably romanticizing. And she used to tell me how she'd speed down the highway going seventy or eighty. When I was eight, me being "city-folk" as it were, the only real car I'd been in other than a taxicab was the old Buick that my grandparents drove when we took the train upstate to see them. I couldn't imagine a Buick or a taxi going eighty, so I just thought she was lying. Now, of course, I've had cars of my own and I know what she was talking about. I see her still in my mind, pushing ninety down the freeway at midnight, the windows open, her red hair blowing all around and into her eyes... her face lit up with the multicolored lights of the dashboard, all of them lit and screaming at her at once--seatbelts, low fuel, emergency brake, check engine, oil, high-beams, turn signal, trunk ajar. This is how I imagine she spent her youth behind the wheel. And laughing. She probably laughed all the time.

My mother liked to tell me that my dad had died when I was a baby, but I knew he hadn't because I remembered him. I mean, she liked to tell me that I didn't remember him because he died before I could make memories, but I know he didn't die, and I know he didn't leave before I made the memories I have. I lived alone with my mother and kids made fun of me, saying my father was now some bigwig's mistress. Of course, I didn't know what they meant until I was maybe four and I finally asked my mom. Pandora never cared, though. She would just come and get the dog and talk to me like I was important. And that was nice. She was there for about a year and she was really the first friend I thought I had. Looking back, I think she might have been as scared as I was... scared of the world. I feared the kids, and she... well, I don't know what she feared... but it must have been something. She made me be friends with her. How old was she? Nineteen? She drew me out of the shadows, really... I used to play in the alleys, in the gutters... and she took me away from all that. I always saw her as so bright and so full of... everything... life, love, joy... she seemed to be brimming with it all. I wanted to be just like her. I tried to be just like her. I was. I really was. For a while, I was just like her. I mean, she must have made me who I am today. Because she... she was life. She knew where she wanted to be--which wasn't Indiana or Montana or Louisiana... it was here. Right here where all the action is. This is where she wanted to be and this was where she was. And she knew that. And I knew that. And my dog knew that. Even my dog with her two back legs on wheels... even my dog knew that. And I followed her lead.

Well, she faded away. I mean, all kids who come to the city and never mean to fade away... they all do. Sooner or later. They all fade. No goodbyes. Everyone... all the kids... they all said she had burned out. They all teased me and said that she was a coke fiend and that she'd stopped coming to see me or walk my dog because she'd burned out. They'd never met her, but they all said she'd burned out. But I... I stuck by her. I stood by Pandora. My memory of her, I stood by it. She was still life, you know? She was everything that was bright and good and funny about the world. She was that hand that reached into the rain gutters and helped me crawl up onto the street. Every day at four o'clock, she'd come and take my dog out and she'd smile at me when I handed her the leash. There had to be something wonderful about someone like that. And I had modeled my life after hers. I decided where I was going and said I would get there if it killed me. I would have a car and sell it for a bus ticket if I had to. But all those kids... they all said she'd burned out. I didn't even know what that meant until I was maybe ten and finally asked my mom about it. But I remember she was washing dishes, and she didn't even turn around when I asked. She said she didn't even know who Pandora was. She told me about coke fiends, though, oh yes... and about burning out. And disappearing. And again she mentioned the dog she'd had when she was little... some little mutt with two lame back legs who had to have a cart attached to its hips just to move around.

I'm saying all this now because it only seems important now... because yesterday, I went back to that apartment where I grew up. There's a movie theater across the street. And next to it, a department store and a drug store. And beside those, more apartments and a rundown hotel. No restaurant. I found some man sweeping a sidewalk, some old man... and I asked him about the restaurant... you know, that restaurant that used to be across the street. The one where Pandora worked, the one where she worked just after she'd come and walk our dog... the one... that restaurant... where my friend Pandora worked... Pandora who just faded away and never meant to. But the guy... he told me there was never a restaurant there. I must be confused, maybe I had the wrong block. But no... I remembered very clearly looking out our window--those windows, I knew those windows. I'd be waiting for my mom to get home... having to wait until nine o'clock--seven full hours... and I remembered the only relief being that I knew Pandora would come to walk my dog and talk to me every day at four. Pandora... that girl who told me stories about where she came from, who worked at the restaurant across the street and made me who I am and who finally faded away... and never meant to. No goodbyes.