The Quotable


When I moved back home after the hospital, my mother started giving me journals.  “For you to write down your thoughts or prayers to our blessed mother,” she said, knowing I don’t pray. Instead of words, I filled the journals with hand drawn maps of Los Angeles forming an encyclopedia of unnamed constellations.  I detailed each glaring spot I know—a stretch of beach, a house, a bedroom, a body part.  I connected the dots with invisible lines.  Only when I filled up several journals did a larger picture begin to take shape, one with borders and limits.  It was coherent, organized, unified.  My maps have become my skeleton story— a narrative with pieces, large and small, that fit together just so.

Only once has my mother knocked on my door and asked to see my journals.  In the morning, she is usually waiting at the kitchen table, tentatively sipping her coffee when I emerge from the back room. The fact that she avoids the room, that my living in it makes her uncomfortable, fills me with a perverse satisfaction.  After she brought me home, she offered to empty out my old room— now a riot of half finished scrapbook projects fanned out across several folding tables.  I knew she didn’t really want to disturb her little garden of pictures.  She spends hours hovered over swatches of brightly patterned acid free construction paper, rearranging faces, situating collages of festive family events.  But she didn’t want me moving into my grandmother’s room either.  It didn’t matter; I insisted.

It was clean, except for the grimy outlines on the wall that marked where my grandmother’s peeling gilt mirror and Mexican papier-mâché masks used to hang.  I told my mother that I loved the way you could still catch the faint scent of my grandmother’s woody perfume lingering in the room. “It has been years,” she said, dismissing me.  Still, she couldn’t hide the urgency with which she made her escape or how she seemed to hold her breath until she walked out into the hallway.  That’s how she is with me—always holding her breath—even when she finally came to my door months later, gently knocking before she entered, as if she were diving into a swelling wave.

Sitting next to me on my bed, she reached out to touch the nightstand and, in a flood of words, asked if she could take a look inside the journal just inches from her fingertips.  I placed it in her hand and, because there was no key, I tried to read the maps to her.

At the center of the first page, I have drawn a golden orb.  Streaming out behind it are several strong, arching lines.  These are the routes I charted from all the other houses of my childhood—each one incrementally closer to the California coast—to my grandmother’s home at the center.   I circled that North Star with the pad of my finger and explained this to my mother.  But after a moment she began flipping the pages back and forth as if she were looking for a slip of paper or a bookmark stuck up against the spine then she gave me a wounded look.  I snatched the book from her hands, not out of anger, but because I didn’t want to hurt her any more than I already had.

“You don’t remember things accurately,” she said.

She means it as an accusation. She means I don’t remember things the way she does.  She means my strangeness is a burden she bears out of love.  But mostly, she means I hurt her with my unreachable, telescopic distance.

She has never asked to see them a second time, but she still leaves new, blank journals for me on the kitchen table. I continue to make my maps and I keep them close, on the nightstand next to my bed, to remind me where I have been and where I want to go.  But my borders are starting to disappear, and I’m afraid when they’re gone I might forget where I am and disappear as well.


My grandmother’s home was a white stucco bungalow with gleaming red roof tiles that clung impossibly to the broken hills east of downtown. I have drawn pages of blueprints from my memory.  In the early mornings of my childhood, weekdays and often weekends as well, my mother drove me there and left for work, blowing kisses out her window as the two of us watched her speed away, back down the hill.  I remember playing hide and seek, eating nopales at her thick wooden dining room table, or helping her set out a perimeter of cat food tins for the feral cats and wild raccoons around her house.  “You were too young to remember those times,” my mother has told me.  If my grandmother were here, we would laugh and shake our heads at my mother’s denial; my grandmother would cackle loud and strong for someone so compressed.  We would recall the creaking hardwood floors and the cool, rounded archways.  We would reminisce about the way it seemed to cradle us as we napped together, she and I.

By the time I was six, I knew my grandmother did things that I thought of doing, but had already realized I wasn’t supposed to, like picking up a crayon and scribbling all over the walls, petting the angel hair halo around the neighbors cactus, or tasting the cat food she kept beneath her kitchen sink.  Some afternoons, she threw open the panes of her living room window.  We would climb onto the wide, oak sill and dangle our feet over the chaparral and the other houses tucked in the loops and turns of the roads cut into the hillside.  In the entrance to our portal, she took my hand in hers, and we quietly looked out past the mirrored towers of downtown, glinting beneath the smog that hung over everything and stretched out to the horizon like the sea.  Sitting with her there on the sill filled me with a wild inertia.  I had the sensation that at any moment things would stop and I would be thrown into the dry air.

On clear evenings, when my mother worked late, my grandmother showed me the stars and taught me the names that held them together.  She told me that some people mapped the sky. They could follow the stars in the heavens to get where they needed to be on earth.  One day, I was sitting next to her in our window seat as she drew the outline of Virgo in the air with her finger and I asked her if she followed the stars from Mexico to Los Angeles when she was young.  Over the years the story changed, became a different incarnation every time she told it.  But the real story is the first one she told me as we sat in her window watching the stars.


It begins in a village near a copper mine.  Most of the men from the village worked in the mine. The women watched the men leave early in the morning and waited for them to return after dark, trying not to imagine the dark gaping mouths in the earth their men entered every day.  Sometimes the mine would swallow a man whole, but most of the time it just swallowed their insides and left an empty shell.  The emptiness was so big that it often seeped out and swallowed entire families.  And, perhaps because they were already swallowed, so many women were afraid to lose their men but not afraid to lose themselves.

My grandmother did not want to stay and marry a young man, to eventually become as light and empty as a pod.  It was one thing to sneak a man into her room, to let a man inside her so long as he left her the way she was.  But she feared that eventually someone would insist on taking her completely.  So, she set off alone through the night and the desert, and followed the stars until morning.

When the sun rose, her thirst became unbearable.  She thought she was going to dry out, fossilize, and sank down onto the sand in resignation when she felt her skin begin to pull away from her body.  Suddenly, she heard a snap, as her insides were released from her skin.  The dry, opaque wall of skin that surrounded her held up like a mold, and inside she quivered like flan for a moment, then stilled and looked up.  She could see the opening of where her mouth once was, wide and circular and strained towards it.  She could feel the sun and wind drying the moist top of her head as it began to force its way out of the orifice.  She shed that skin like a snake and walked into the desert, smooth and clean.  But she didn’t know her body held a tiny piece of her past already rooted deep inside her that she could not escape.  She wasn’t all alone after all.  My mother, the size of a tiny bean, made the journey with her.

This story, of course, terrified and excited me.  I wanted to ask if only copper mines had the power to swallow someone up. I wondered, could a bank, or a school or a dentist’s office do the same?  I wanted to ask her if she thought I could shed too.  But I was too afraid that if I asked her, the response would confuse me even more – or worse. She would realize that maybe she shouldn’t be telling me her stories.  I held myself so still and tight that my neck began to ache and tried to concentrate on remembering every word.  I wanted to save those confusing bits in the back of my mind to pull out and examine later – when I was much older – when everything would fit into place, become sharp and clear.

Looking closely at my grandmother to see if I could detect any signs that she would suddenly shed again, I hoped for the stars to stay out and shine brightly, for my mother to get out of work late so I could sit in the window with my grandmother and listen for the wind.  But, just as fervently, I hoped to see my mother’s car turn up the road at the bottom of the hill and make her ascent towards me.


In college, a boy I hardly knew used to take me on late night trips to the beach.  He’d make me wait in front of my dorm when he picked me up, so he wouldn’t get lost.  And yet, sometimes he’d drive slowly past me, without noticing I was there before his headlights caught my shadow slanting across the sidewalk toward the curb.  The first time he took me out, I didn’t ask where we were going.  Without the weight of sunshine and smog, the streets were a lighter, faster current as we headed west then south, towards the ocean.  I imagined a pier with a Ferris wheel lit up over the water with the two of us suspended in the night until he turned onto the dark, coastal highway and the night seemed to open up.  I noticed several stars and forgot about the Ferris wheel.

I didn’t notice the smell, the red and white striped towers from the sewage treatment plant in the near distance, or the raucous bonfire parties that raged in their shadow until he pulled into the sandy lot between the highway and the beach.  As we stumbled through the sand in the opposite direction of the noise, an airplane screamed overhead, momentarily drowning everything else out.  He tucked a Mexican blanket underneath his arm, took my hand and led me to a spot on the sand.  It didn’t matter where he spread out the blanket; we were surrounded.  We sat away from the bonfire noises and pretended we couldn’t smell the sewage mingling with the brackish air.  He once pointed vaguely into the sky and said he had found Andromeda, the girl who was saved from certain death by her own white-hot radiance. But it was Andromeda’s mother who had almost gotten her killed by slighting a powerful goddess with some small utterance. Divinity is fickle and cruel, and mothers are often powerless before it. The deity, wanting only vengeance, demanded Andromeda’s life.

I wondered out loud what she could have been thinking when her mother’s hand led her, naked, to the edge of a cliff to be fed to the sea.

“If she were less obedient or less beautiful do you think she would have had less faith in men and miracles?” I asked.

“Crazy girl. It’s just a story people made up a long time ago to explain things they couldn’t know,” he said and dug his feet into the sand.

What an indignity, to become a side note in your own story then have the shame of it burned into the sky and mapped into time.  I let him put his gritty fingers down my pants and his gritty tongue in my mouth anyway.  I laid back onto the blanket, listened to the ocean and wondered if the sewage would make me sick if I decided to dive in.


When I was twelve, my mother and I left my grandmother behind when we moved to the other side of the city.  My mother had also decided that I should no longer spend so much time at my grandmother’s house.

“It is not normal,” my mother said when I turned away from her and refused to speak to her or help with the move.  While my mother packed up the last of our things and watched over the movers, she let me spend a last day at my grandmother’s house.  But before the sun set, my mother picked me up, her sedan filled with boxes.  We waved our arms out the car window yelling out “see you soon”, “call you later”, to my grandmother stooped on her sagging front steps.  Her brightly colored window curtains moving in the breeze framed her, making her seem like a ghost.  The dark hardwood furniture, too big for the small room, was visible from the open front door, making the house lurch and sway as if at any moment the whole thing would tear away from the side of the hill it was moored to and sail away.  I let out a howl from the passenger seat.

“Remember?”  I recently asked my mother.  She shook her head, her face tense, her eyes filled with disappointment and frustration.

We were only moving twenty minutes away, but as we drove west to a new home I hadn’t seen yet my mother looked dreamy, as if we were going on a long vacation.  I began to sweat, packed between several boxes.  My mother cracked the window.

“Can you smell the sea breeze,” she asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

At the new house she gestured to the scrubby dwarf palm in the center of a patch of brown grass.

“A yard,” she beamed.  “And a room in the back for when Grandma visits.”

I knew that my mother would soon force my grandmother to sell the precious, dilapidated bungalow.

Less than a year later, my mother bought her a new bed and a small dresser, then decided that there were few other items she needed from her old home, so my grandmother moved into our house with just one carload of boxes filled with prayer candles, diabetes medication, lace doilies, support hose, Mexican folk art, house jackets, and the afghans she knitted.  As my mother unloaded the boxes, my emotions shifted back and forth between excitement and guilt.

I showed my grandmother around the new house to cheer her up and to stave off the mercurial emotional shifts I was experiencing.  I showed her the fireplace with a key and no logs, the garbage disposal, and the garage door opener.  I took her into the backyard to look up at the clear, bright sky.  There were palms but there was no ocean, even if my mother said we were close.  The sky was wide and flat.  I took her into the front yard and the street was wide and flat as well.  I told my grandmother that I wanted to live someplace with a view when I grew up.  I told her my favorite view in the world was from her old house.

She took my small pale hand into her wrinkled brown palm, her forehead and cheeks folded into a thousand tiny creases, and I was filled with adoration for her and admiration for her belief that everyone needed to speak regularly to imaginary friends or else they would stop talking back, her belief in laughing, crying or screaming any time she felt like it, and stealing candy from liquor stores.  And, for four more years until she died, we climbed into her bedroom window to dangle our legs out into the night and look for stars.


When some unlikely friends from my geography class suggested a trip to Mexico, I agreed and offered up Mexico City.  I wanted to walk over to the thick, grey slabs of stone at the Templo Mayor, built and rebuilt six times, hundreds of years before the Spanish arrived.  I described to them how the Spanish had almost completely razed it, how new homes were built directly on top of the sacred temple at the heart of the city until almost everyone in Mexico forgot it ever existed.  I had maps of the subway system and the many districts and museums with endless rooms of artifacts.

We went to Cabo San Lucas instead. And as soon as we arrived, the town made me feel achy and tired – as if the entire place was forcing me to smile for a tourist photo.  For days, I sleepwalked over the powdery sand and sipped sunset hued drinks.

As we wandered through the shops on our last day, I noticed a boy wearing dirty blue shorts and no shoes, selling packs of gum on the sidewalk.  Boxes with little white pieces inside as perfect as a young enameled tooth.  Chicle, he asked me but I couldn’t stop staring at his own small baby teeth, decaying in his mouth.  I wondered if they would just fall out or if one of those little teeth would give him an abscess – make him sick, kill him.  I wanted to go home.  But, suddenly I couldn’t remember where home was.  I started to cry and couldn’t stop.


In the hospital, I told my doctors that I want to study cartography.  Mapmakers, I told them, look around and then make a mark, saying, I am here.  A landscape eventually takes shape, emerging from that first point of origin.  What I have learned is that whoever draws the map chooses the perspective – like conquistadors landing on a distant continent hundreds of years ago, planting a flag into the rich earth and proclaiming, I am here!  Their mapmakers brought compasses, parchment and quills, and drew up boundaries, wrote in new names and marked off territories, willing their false discovery into existence.

Meanwhile, Aztec priests in ziggurat temples looked up at the stars for the last time, and pointed to a specific, secret place in the heavens, exclaiming, I am here!  But where are we going?  What will become of us?  How could they not be reminded of all the boundaries their own great empire had made and remade as they conquered people in distant lands.  I have concluded that many of those priests must have gone mad upon discovering the sheer arbitrary nature of boundaries.

I am in the hospital, then I am in the desert, then I am at the beach, finally I am in my grandmother’s room, showing her my loose tooth.  I flashed her my smile, then flicked and sucked on the tooth with my tongue until it came loose in my mouth.  I produced a polished white pebble on the tip of my tongue for a second then it darted back into my mouth.  I bared my imperfect smile.  It didn’t even bleed.  Not a drop.  I handed her the tooth and she handed me a piece of diabetic candy from the pocket of her housecoat.  It was green apple with a white almost waxy layer around it and looked like an unpolished gem.  I could tell it would be virtually tasteless but I popped it into my mouth anyway.  I dug through her pockets looking for more but I pulled out a tiny little femur instead.  Then a little bitty jaw and a little bitty rib until I pulled out an entire little bitty skeleton.  I started to cry even though I’m not supposed to.  The hole in my mouth hurt and I couldn’t talk.


In the back room where my grandmother used to live among her mâché skeleton women in full bright skirts and lace veils, I remembered how they would click-clack a dance in their high heeled boots on top of her dresser whenever I threw open her bedroom door.  It was so bare in there without her, like a frame with the painting pulled from it.  I painted the walls marigold and tried to celebrate my demise with shots of tequila.  I could hear my mother yelling from the kitchen about boundaries, borders, limits under her roof, and telling me I am unbecoming.  I danced on the tiled floor in my grandmother’s old room, clickity-clack, clickity-clack.

All the stories my grandmother told me of women who couldn’t control their magic or fate rattled around in my head – of La Llorona, the Crying Woman who drowned her own children for the love of a selfish, fickle man; of Malinche who held the magic of five languages in her mouth and was betrayed by that snake, Cortez, who forced his child into her womb and then abandoned her. Of my favorite – Mictecacihuatle – The Lady of the Dead.

I spread out across the tile, thinking I’d be able to understand things more clearly.  I used to climb into her bed, pulling and poking and tickling her sagging soft skin until she spoke.  In a grainy voice like unrefined sugar, she told me that The Lady of the Dead had special insight because she’s the only goddess who died at birth.  She let just one breath pass through her tiny body before realizing its limits and its boundaries.  And after death, she grew.  Her skin stretched taught and finally tore; she shook her clean white bones and stepped out of her flesh, full grown.  This is how she became eternal, indestructible.

I woke up with my mouth bone dry and remembered shots of tequila.  Marigold burned through my eyes and seared my brain.  Talavera tiles pressed against my skull.  My ribs were sore.  I went to the bathroom sink to splash water on my face and survey the damage I did the night before.

I resolved to try harder.  I opened the cover of the journal my mother left on the bedside table and recognized her handwriting: Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession, was left unaided. This was not a comfort to me; I closed it.  Madonna and child were emblazoned on the cover.  They were clinging to one another within the folds of their voluminous robes, her cheeks were pink and flushed with love, her eyes were moist and sincere with longing for her child.

My mother told me that she prays for me; she prays everything will turn out all right.  I told her that the closest I ever came to praying was collecting prayer cards from her purse. The little rectangular pieces of laminated paper printed in honor of, in remembrance of, in loving memory of, were gruesome.  Wrapped in thorny crowns, saints’ hearts stabbed through with knives, bursting beams of radiant light shooting from their bodies and chests, angels with giant wingspans looming over mere mortals, even Jesus with his own glowing heart.  My grandmother’s stories still make more sense.


My mother reminded me how I lost my first tooth.  When a girl at school came to class with a silver dollar and a gap in her smile, I pulled out my own firmly rooted pearl of a tooth much earlier than it was supposed to come out.  I remembered how blood poured down the front of my shirt and the empty space ached.  I remembered that night I slept a troubled sleep, fretting over the small, fragile piece of me hidden beneath the cotton folds of a pillow. What if it slipped, fell to the ground unnoticed?  What was to become of my tooth?  I didn’t even want the silver dollar anymore.

“I have something for you,” my mother says and I pray it is not another journal.  She presses into my hands a little pink sack holding all my baby teeth.  I shake them like oracle bones and tuck them away.



Loretta McCormick received her MA in English/creative writing from California State University, Northridge in 2011. Currently, she is a first year PhD student at UWM interested in creating work that reflects her belief in partiality, aberrance, and resistance especially as they proceed from the level of language and from the perspective that truth is embedded in story

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