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Inner Ocean Fantasy 2011
25” x25"
by John Babcock

Photo by Linda Babcock

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Paul Skenazy

Scorpion Queen: an excerpt

July 29, 2009

            Temper, CA. A tiny Gold Rush community in the Sierra foothills founded in 1848 by Constance and Solomon Temper, my Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandparents. Home to six generations of Tempers, including my parents, David and Harriet. This is where I was born, Joy Constance Temper, August 1, 1972, the first female Temper child in three generations (sister Jude to follow five years later). It’s where I roamed the woods, pounced on imaginary outlaws lurking in the shadows of downed trees, and walked the rut-filled red dirt of Bitter Root Road.
            When I drove into Temper a month ago for Grandpa Isaac’s funeral, I hadn’t been here for thirteen years. I haven’t lived here for thirty. That’s six-sevenths of my life, versus the one-seventh when I called Temper home. But Temper hangs around—memory, scar, sting—when other places fold into each other like recycled newspapers.
            When I was a child in the 1970s Bitter Root Road was a thin dirt byway to and from town: two miles of muddy potholed swamp in the winter and a parched, dusty rock-strewn path in the summer heat. It dead-ended at our house, an isolated eyesore surrounded by a forest of oaks and pines—an endless playground for me at four and five and six. Now the road is paved and called Ivy Lane and the entrance to our house sits snugly between two gated, brick-walled mansions.
            I live in San Francisco these days. Or did, until last weekend, when my partner Angie threw me out. So homeless, I’ve come home to Temper, where it all started. Where I started, anyway. It isn’t what I remember but neither am I. Yet it is still somehow Temper, where I like to think I was happy. Where Dad and Mom were together and in love. What I want to call love even now, suspicious of the word.


             From when I was four I knew how to hold scorpions so they couldn't sting me–– hold them the way I now do carrots or celery, eggplant or some rosemary I want to hang upside down to dry. This was, I was told, my special childhood gift, as fundamental a part of me as being a girl. Mom brags about her daughter the Scorpion Queen, who tracked the creatures as they made their way along the shadows of gravestones or rocks at home. I would appear with one thrashing between two fingers, snarling a little while I calmly held onto it. Dad still insists that “scorpion” was the first word I could write, long before my name, though I don’t believe him.
             Grandpa gave me my nickname one day when I arrived at his store with a scorpion hanging from my hand: "Well, if it ain't my little Scorpion Queen!" The other men sitting in front laughed and I smiled, rushing up the steps and at each of them in turn with my prize as they jumped away from me with a whoop. I want to believe I remember the touch of them: the slight resistance as I'd pull one up from the dirt or deck or at the edge of a pile of wood scraps or stones sitting outside the house. Even now I can imagine their wooliness. I liked to try to stack them, one atop another, like the Yertle the Turtle book, to see how many I could arrange before one moved enough to upset the balance.

            That was before Cheryl came into our lives. She was a real estate agent from Los Angeles who bought a ranch house in a new housing development that was going up just east of town. Dad had signed on with some of his buddies to do construction work on her house, to earn money to keep building ours. Or so the story goes.
             Cheryl was sitting at the picnic table on our deck that night when I stormed up and stuck a scorpion in her face.
             “Aren't those things poisonous?” she yelped.
              She was sitting with Mom and my sister Jude. I’d never seen her before, and assumed she was another one of Mom and Dad’s shifting circle of friends. She tried to jump back, got herself tangled between the bench and the top of the table and instead started falling towards me. She put up her hand, pushed at my shoulder and righted herself with a little screech. Mom seemed amused.
              Cheryl often freaked like that, little pips of sound coming out of her mouth whenever anyone surprised her. She had dark lipstick on and smelled. Perfume, which I didn't have much experience with at Mom and Dad's. Chanel No. 5 I learned when she and Dad got married and we started our summer visits to her houses.
              “It won't bite,” I told her.
             Jude was standing at the edge of the table. Cheryl was patting Jude's hair, maybe feeling some tangle there. Jude was just two. She giggled and moved towards me, her hand outstretched towards the scorpion. I pulled it out of her reach because she didn't know how to handle them. I moved around her to offer it to Cheryl again. I liked to show off like that. But Cheryl pulled back farther.
             “Don't they sting?”
             “Don't sting her,” Mom explained. “Prenatal vaccine. I got stung on my belly, when I was about six months pregnant. I woke up with this pain, like someone had stuck a shard of wood into me. I felt something scampering along my tummy, and started yelling to David that I was dying. He woke up, saw it, and swept it onto the floor.”
             They explained me that way all the time: protected from the womb.
             “Those are dangerous, whatever you say," Cheryl insisted. "You should get her a dog or something, something she can run around and play with. Wouldn't you like a dog?” she asked me.
             I was still holding the scorpion. I didn't like dogs. I think it was my size: I was short; didn't start to sprout until much later. I didn't need a pet to play with; I had a whole woods full of them. I lived running from one tree or sound to the next, distracted by a hoot or crackle from a bird, the noise of squirrels rushing along a downed log. I entertained myself with garter snakes on the deck, howled into the dark at what I thought were wolves living in the woods behind our house. I invented mushroom demons; fallen branches became dinosaurs, elephants. I hid in the cold mossy clumps of autumn leaves, sometimes slept out in the lean-to I called my cabin. An old rattler skin was my talisman that I used to summon ghosts, talk to black bears and owls that haunted my night woods. I remember bringing home used condoms, cracked mugs, rusty beer cans, a rhinestone ring I wore on a string around my neck for months.
             The scorpion still in hand, I turned away from Cheryl and back towards the house.
             “Leave it outside,” Mom told me, and I did, right next to the table, until Mom pointed. I picked it up and carried it over to the edge of the deck where Dad hadn’t yet finished the railing. I could see him at the bar-b-cue, turning meat, eggplants and peppers on the grill. I started to drop the scorpion so it would land on the wood pile where I found it. But something told me to hang onto it. So I went inside, found an empty Mason jar, stuck the scorpion in there for the time being and hid the jar in my bedroom.
             I headed off behind the house. I remember the night for a lot of reasons, mostly the fight after Cheryl left. But that was also the first time I ever climbed up the side of the A-frame to the deck outside Mom and Dad’s second floor bedroom. It was a steep slope, but Dad had left the boards he used for footing when he roofed the house. Between those and finger holds on the shingles I used to get up about halfway before I’d tire, stumble, and have to slide down. That day I made it all the way and was able to pull myself onto the deck. I let myself into their room and walked across it and out their doorway onto the upstairs hall, where I could look down on Mom and Cheryl sitting at the table outside the sliding glass doors.
             Mom was scratching at her arm just above the elbow in that way she does still when she’s upset. Jude was sitting on her lap, a piece of paper in front of her, a thick crayon in her tiny left hand. She only drew cats that year, or what she told us were cats. Cheryl was sipping at some whiskey or something in her glass, and chewing on the ice when it came up to the edge. She kept pulling down her skirt though it never moved that I could see. I couldn't hear what they were saying because the glass doors were closed. It was pantomime, TV with the sound off.

             Dad came up with the food. Mom stood, picked up Jude and offered her to Cheryl for a hug or kiss or something, and carried her inside. Cheryl smiled up at Dad and reached out a hand across the table, though he didn't take it––just busied himself cutting up the meat. I heard the tinkle of music downstairs that Mom must have put on to get Jude to sleep. Cheryl got up, fussed with her skirt some more, pulled a little mirror out of her purse and worked on her lips. She turned back to Dad and started to fall, until he rushed up and grabbed her elbow. She put her hand over his and that was when Mom came out. I saw her drop some knives and forks down on the table and stare off at the driveway though there wasn’t anything there I could see.
             I got up, went to my own bedroom, grabbed the blanket off my bed and the Mason jar. I walked back upstairs and stood in the hall looking down at everyone. I remember feeling invisible. No one noticed that I wasn’t around, that I hadn’t had my dinner. I wasn’t hungry but I kept waiting for someone to yell at me, tell me to do something. I looked at the scorpion and decided it was time to let him go. So I opened the jar in a corner of Mom and Dad’s room. Then I went over to their closet. There were a few things hanging, but most of Mom and Dad’s clothes, dirty and clean, were on the floor, where they usually were. That closet was one of my home spots, like the lean-to in the woods. I counted on the mess, loved the smell of the unfolded t-shirts, blouses, jeans, and underwear: worn and clean, the sweat mingled with sawdust and Tide. I burrowed in the way I did with leaves in the forest; the way I did, often, when I knew something was wrong, but not what. And went to sleep.

             I woke when I heard Mom yelling: “I’m meatloaf?” “You can split logs with one of those heels,” “Amy’s not enough?” I want to make up a dialogue out of that but the rest comes from movies, and what I myself thought of Cheryl during those weeks I was forced to spend with her on visits to see Dad.
             I remember Dad asking Mom to quiet down, remember him saying, “wake Jude and Joy” followed by Mom howling and something hitting a wall. Then there was a moment of silence, followed by a shriek, and I remembered the scorpion. Mom yelled Dad’s name, and pulled open the closet door, maybe looking for a hiding place. Jude started crying. I peeked my head out of the clothes and smiled at Mom.
            Mom stared down at me. Dad already must have had the scorpion in his hand. I heard him open the door to the deck and fling something out into the dark. When he came back in and saw me huddled in the corner of the closet he didn’t say anything. He picked me up, tangled in my blanket and their undershirts and bras, and carried me to my room. I was still dressed, still hadn’t eaten. He just covered me, turned out the light and closed the door. Jude was bawling, then quieted—I guess when they got to her. I lay there for a few minutes, then fell back to sleep. Nothing more was ever said about that night, and I never asked until Grandpa died and I started to unravel.

Paul Skenazy taught for more than thirty years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with brief stints in Spain and at Stanford. He expanded and revised a novel by a good friend,  Arturo Islas, after his death (La Mollie and the King of Tears, U. of New Mexico Press). Since he retired from teaching he has had stories and essays published in several literary journals. His personal piece on Chicago and Saul Bellow was selected as a “Notable” essay in The Best American Essays, 2015. Critical publications include a book on James M. Cain; articles on other noir writers; essays on ethnicity and memoir; a co-edited collection of studies on place in San Francisco literature; and a selection of interviews with Maxine Hong Kingston. He has published more than three hundred reviews of fiction and non-fiction for newspapers and magazines nationwide and for a dozen years was a mystery review columnist for the Washington Post. He was twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award for reviewing. “Scorpion Queen” is from a novel of the same name.

Karen Ackland
Paul Skenazy

Wilma Marcus Chandler
Dane Cervine
Dion Farquhar
Lisa Allen Ortiz

John Babcock

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