Back when I had to reach high for her hand, everyone thought my mother was a cop. I don’t know if it was her clinical gaze or that she found the false friendliness of California obscene, but she retained an authority from her days as head nurse that made people tremble like they’d left socks on the kitchen floor. Everywhere we went, secretaries terminated personal calls, herbalists hid their pot, and jay-walkers corrected course. One jaywalker, freezing in the street, got hit by a VW Bug. My mother administered triage until the ambulance came.
Against the hippies, my mother gleamed like an icicle, sharpening in the swelter of ‘69. Men chased her shade, and she wanted a man, but fear of arrest halted their advance. This constant harassment, coupled with frustration, increased my mother’s taste for being alone. Silent in ribbons and Mary-Janes, I traveled, safe as a wallet, inside her psychic shield.
But her favored escape—cigarettes—made men comfortable. Between men offering her lights and men trying to distract her from their partner’s petty crimes, she could never puff in peace. Until one day, at the zoo, when one too many men asked if she wasn’t really a stalking panther, she spied a shady nook in the penguin house.
Straightening her back, she clasped my hand and turned the latch on the almost invisible door carved through the wall of artificial ice. The penguins raised a fuss, but no one questioned us. We waded through flapping fish and sat on a slimy rock.
Still wearing her gloves, my mother took out her crushed pack of Winstons while I patted the friendlier penguins, all of whom I named Sid, on the head. I expected squelchy patent-leather, but found their craniums soft to the touch. My mother smoked in glorious peace. I flapped my wings and fell in the water.
Walking home, the smell of guano, our dripping dresses, and my bloody shins (where—understandably—Sid bit me for plucking his feathers), kept the men at bay. My mother stripped off her ruined kidskin and pointed at trees and flowers; ribbons of smoke trailed from her cigarette and, when I stopped to pet a caterpillar with my penguin feather, she squeezed my hand.