Introduction by Genevieve Hudson
The first time I read a Chelsea Bieker short story was during my first fiction writing workshop in graduate school, where we were both enrolled. Bieker turned in a piece titled “Calla Lilies in Bloom.” I remember it vividly––the pull of drama, its humor twinned with tragedy, the heat of the world. I couldn’t believe the story came from a peer in my program. It felt so gripping, so wholly wise, as though it had risen through the rank darkness still glinting with light.
That’s how I imagine it goes for most readers: You remember your first encounter with a truly gifted writer, how it opens you to new ways of seeing. You sink a little deeper into yourself. The everyday dullness falls away and up spires an entirely new world to care about. Bieker is that kind of writer, the kind you begin reading and then suddenly look up and a whole day has passed. You remember your first time with her work because it enters you and when it does, it changes you.
“Fact of Body,” which you will find below, is a gorgeous, tragic, and deeply moving story from Bieker’s new collection, Heartbroke. The eleven stories within radiate the same pulsing themes of longing, loss, abandonment, and despite it all––hope. Because through the hard knocks and humorous wiles, the characters never stop believing something better might be just around the bend.
When we meet our narrator Bobby, he is living in a car with his mother at the edge of a toxic beach. They are selling his mother’s handmade dream catchers while she continues to draw Bobby into the darkest corners of life, convinced she will soon be discovered for the true artist she is, and they will leave their bad times behind. One day, two documentary filmmakers pull up next to them and take notice, and it seems, just maybe, that their luck might change.
In this story, a small window into Bobby’s reality, you see Bieker at her best. The way she deftly shows the narrowing a life can take. How the road to another existence can be so close and still be missed again and again. How the longing for a mother’s love can pin a boy in place. If this is your first time reading Bieker, know that you will soon encounter a beauty of a story, with a brilliant beating heart at its center. And if it is not your first time, you already know what I mean.
– Genevieve Hudson
Author of Boys of Alabama
She Sells Dreams and Delusions at the Sea Shore
“Fact of Body” by Chelsea Bieker
We lived for a time in a car, my mother and me, alongside a slow-buzz highway that led to a toxic beach. We had come from the valley to the coast with new plans of making our way as clam diggers. I would spend the summer eating ice cream on the boardwalk, and we would take in a stray dog to keep as our own. My mother said living in the car was just until her dream catcher business took off, and that it would be fine. No, better than fine. It would be fun.
In the car on our first night, my mother slept soundly but I laid awake, keeping watch. At fifteen, it was unspoken between us: I would take care. The next day she woke with vigor and crafted her tiny dream catchers one after another. I had drawn a sign for her business that read MAKE ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE and I held it up while she waved to cars as they passed and talked in loops about manifesting her number one destiny: that a documentary filmmaker would discover her and they might fall in love and he would take us into a new stratosphere entirely, her specialness leading the way. You have to be specific, she always told me. So the universe can hear you.
We sold one dream catcher keychain to a woman who had stopped only because she thought we were in trouble, and my mother felt it was time to celebrate. We walked down to Seashell’s, a little shack bar at the foot of the power plant that had leaked the year before, cracked open in an earthquake. I grew quiet then.
“Bobby, don’t get judgmental,” my mother said. She looked at me and I watched her cross over into the bad way. It hadn’t always been like this. I remembered her picking me up when I fell as a small boy, kissing the hot red bump under my chin. Carrying me around on her shoulders like a little prince. Singing He’s my one and only, who could ever have a boy like this? Me me me me me.
Inside the dim bar, I sat in a corner booth drinking plain soda water and soon enough, as she always managed to do, she made a friend. She had promised me no Seashell’s situations would happen in this new toxic town, but now. Well.
I walked over to them. His arm was already around her shoulders. She seemed surprised to remember I was there at all. I looked at the man.
“She’s a thief,” I said to him. I knew better than to try and convince her to leave. I’d have to convince the man.
“Bobby,” my mother whined. She looked at the man. “Excuse me for a minute.”
She got up and led me back to my booth. “You wanna eat tonight?”
“No. I don’t want to eat. I’m fine not eating.”
“It’s one time and then never again.”
I shook my head. I felt like crying. But I didn’t.
Sure enough she ended up in the blue lit bathroom with him and then back in our car, where his heavy sequined blazer shed stars over the dark fabric of our car seats. She normally never brought anyone back, but she said this one was special, which just meant she wanted more money. While the small car shook in the familiar way, I pretended to be asleep in the trunk but of course I could hear them and life was closing in. I felt it in my chest, sharp heart pains and little heart skips. I couldn’t breathe deep enough. That night the man told my mother what a boy my age could make at Seashell’s and I heard her mind spin with this new information.
I spent the next day alone at the beach dreaming, pushing away what the man had said, floating in the condemned waters on an abandoned raft, letting the sun bake my skin, thinking about the school my mother said I would attend in the fall—maybe I’d make friends, maybe there would be a girl who liked me. Maybe my mother would find meaning in joining the PTA. I was being specific.
But as we walked to Seashell’s again that night, she reminded me it wasn’t her fault the world ran on money. When I said no, anything else, she said, “You want me to leave you on the side of the road? ’Cause I will.” That was my first night working.
After that night I could no longer afford the fantasies we kept up, that my mother was different, uniquely talented, and that someday soon a filmmaker would show up to change our lives forever. She would say to me all the time, “Bobby McGee, imagine the feasts! Dungeness crab for days.” Once I’d asked, “Why a filmmaker? Maybe you could just get a job at like Denny’s or something.” And she’d scowled. “I am a creative, Bobby. How dare you suggest I work like a basic person? Who raised you?” And she’d sort her remaining pills, the ones that kept her up in one pile, the ones that put her down in another, then shove them back in her pockets all mixed together.
Once I started working at Seashell’s, my mother became more affectionate, treated me like a friend, perhaps, comrades finally in the great toil of life. She liked to imagine that I was like her, that I forgot the days as they happened and woke each morning with no memory of us or the things we’d done, but that’s where she had me wrong.
The reason I tell my story is this: while I had stopped believing in miracles, and stopped believing anything my mother told me, what came to pass that summer on the loneliest highway in the world still sits with me as a kind of intervention that could have only been constructed by angels. It is why even on my darkest days, I must revere the possibility of magical fate, of protections beyond imagination.
Because my mother was right. A few weeks after I’d taken up servitude at Seashell’s, a documentary filmmaker did come. The sight of his car parked next to our beat-down Fifth Avenue pulled me from my depressive fog. The filmmaker told us he was on his way to the toxic beach to see if things were as bad as everyone said, and maybe he would shoot a film about how the community had abandoned the beach instead of fixing it. There was a young woman with him and she stayed in the car looking at her phone, and then at her pretty self in the mirror, applying pearled gloss. The young man said he had passed us before during their reporting trips and wanted to know why we were here.
“We’re traveling artists,” my mother said.
She said it as if it explained something, our filth for instance. We didn’t shower, but instead wiped down with paper towels in the Seashell’s bathroom. My mother wore her hair in a matted bun on top of her head and with time it had grown large and larger until it was nearly the size of her face. In it she stored feathers and shells, sometimes a pen. She wore a full face of makeup every day, layering blushes and foundations over each other. I never knew if the drugs came before her mind collapsed, or if she took drugs because of it. I wish I could say she was beautiful, but she was not.
The young man said he was in school for documentary-style art, and his girlfriend was in school for journalism. The beach story was their senior project. He said maybe we could be part of it, to show the world who had been displaced by the nuclear waste spill, how the government had let a mother and son slip through the cracks. I didn’t stop him to say we hadn’t been displaced by any force other than my mother. We hadn’t even been here when the earthquake shook the town into a terror. We were hours away, living on a raisin farm in the Central Valley where we turned plump grapes by hand, letting them shrivel and die on trays, another life my mother had ruined. We never stayed anywhere longer than six months.
The mother and son by the highway, the young man said, would add a human element to his piece.
I watched my mother’s eyes fall in love with him. The girlfriend squinted at us as if she couldn’t bear the full view.
Their names were Andrew and Jean. My mother and the filmmaker shook hands.
I woke early the next day to a camera outside the car window. My mother snored on. She had celebrated the night before, eating uppers a client gave her at Seashell’s, and wouldn’t be awake for at least a few hours. I didn’t know if I should pretend to be asleep or get ready like I normally did, take my piss in the heavy ocean air, brush my teeth with my finger. What did Andrew want to see? I got out of the car.
“Hey, Bobby,” Andrew said. “Just act natural.”
“Are you going to interview me?” I asked.
“Uh, sure,” he said, like he’d just thought of it.
“Of course we are,” Jean said, holding a notebook. She stepped in front of Andrew. She was different than the day before, suddenly present and attentive. “We’re just getting some footage of, you know, the situation.”
The situation: my still-sleeping mother, me eating stale cereal from a box with my hands. I saw my knees, scraped and dirty, and then ran my fingers through my hair to find it was somehow past my shoulders now, matted with sea grease. I’d grown out of my clothes and I spent most of my time shirtless, shoulders peeling and burnt. A mysterious bruise on my rib had turned a muddled green. Sometimes I wore my mother’s floral blouse, but that day I wore only too-large boxers that had appeared from nowhere months before.
My mother was so still when she slept that I imagined her dead each morning and I played a game, wondering what I would do if it were true. She had threatened me my whole life with her death in one way or another, using it for everything. If I didn’t work at Seashell’s, she wouldn’t have money for her pills, and do you know what happens if you abruptly stop taking medication? You die, she said. Do you want me to die? I did not want her to die. But in my imagination, I let myself go high and low, feeling the boil of panic and then, shamefully, the welcome cool relief.
I tried to wake her and she swatted me away. “God willing and the crick don’t rise,” she muttered, still in dream. When she saw Jean and Andrew she sprang up and shook into a manically efficient version of herself.
“Howdy!” she said.
For a few hours they filmed my mother telling them her whole life story. She spoke of a beauty pageant she won as a teenager, how she’d dressed as a pineapple and tap-danced and the glitter from her hairspray stayed on her scalp for weeks, how her mother had stapled her evening dress shut in the back because a zipper broke at the last moment. She smiled up at the cloudless sky to show them the face she’d used when they placed the crown on her head. Maybe she had won the pageant, I thought for a moment, taken with the story myself, but five minutes later she told it again. In the new version she was a runner-up kiwi and her mother hadn’t even shown up. Tears streamed down her face. I saw a flicker of annoyance pass over Andrew as he lowered the camera.
“Let’s try again,” he said. “Just tell me what it was like being in the earthquake. How did it feel?”
“Come ’ere, Bobby,” my mother said, and I stood by her. She shook my shoulders hard back and forth, laughing. “Like that.”
“Were you scared?” he asked me.
My mother squeezed my arms and tossed her head back.
“He’s my boy. He doesn’t scare.”
“Terrified,” I answered.
Jean pulled me aside as they were leaving and asked how we had any money. Her eyes speared me. It was clear Andrew was there for himself and his social media, excited to be holding a camera, but not really engaged with us. But something about Jean’s intensity made me nervous.
So how, she wanted to know, did we have any money to speak of?
“I can’t tell you,” I said.
“Don’t want to get Mom in trouble?”
“I’m almost a man.” I thought of the guy I’d been with the night before who kept saying that to me like a song, You’re almost a man, aint’cha? You’re almost a man. I mean I was, wasn’t I? Only three more years until eighteen.
“If you don’t tell me what’s going on, I can’t help you,” she said. She said it easily, and I imagined us inhabiting two entirely different worlds. In hers, there was help to be had. In mine, there was only my mother.
I wanted to grab her thin wrist then, for her to take me with her, but I couldn’t bear her recoil, not wanting my filthy hand on her, looking at me like people sometimes looked at my mother. With disgust.
“I don’t need your help,” I said.
They drove away and all day I imagined myself standing on a crumbling stone ledge overlooking a swelling sea. I could just jump.
My mother decided she needed new clothes for the film and so I stood outside the men’s room at Seashell’s and waited for the signal, a needful person walking past who would tap his pointer finger three times on the door before he entered. I’d wait a few moments before following him in. No one cared what went on in the bathroom, but the ceremony felt like something sacred to me, a small bit of respect. I waited while my mother crushed pills on the bar top and sucked them up through her nose, before lighting a spiced vanilla cigarette. She wasn’t opposed to working herself for money, it’s just that boys did better on Tuesdays, she explained, stroking my hair.
“How come you didn’t tell Andrew and Jean to follow us here tonight?” I asked her.
She smiled at me, put her arms around my waist. We were the same height.
“The dream catchers are our real job, honey,” she said. “The metaphysical arts. This is only the beginning. Soon we’ll have people following us around, wanting what we have. We’ll be teaching them all our ways. Andrew said I was like a female Jim Jones, the way I talk. I mean, he gets me.”
“Who’s Jim Jones?”
“Well, he meant the good parts about him, not like the making people drink all that Kool-Aid stuff.”
A man walked in and did the signal. “This is our real job. Right here,” I said.
“When you get like this, I just can’t connect, Bobby. It’s like you leave the spiritual realm and you’re just all about reality. I hate it.”
I made fifty dollars and gave her forty, saving ten for gas, something she could never remember to do. We went to the Goodwill situated in a small cluster of shops a few minutes down the road, and she blew it all right away, buying several stretched-out and crisped bikinis, in case they wanted to show us on the toxic beach, and a boxy yellow cardigan and green patent leather loafers she said would make her look professional. Then she picked out a mug with Donald Duck on it that said YOU’RE A QUACK! to give to Andrew as a thank you. She let me buy something with the remaining five dollars and I chose a pack of pens and a book of postcards of old California missions. Maybe I’d write a plea to the God of the toxic sea, send it sailing in the radiation waters.
I didn’t think Andrew and Jean would come back but they did. Every day for a week my mother wore the yellow cardigan over a bikini and every day she told more lies about her life, as well as her ideas for the commune she would start once she had her following. But I started to notice the truth slip in. She told them stories about being a girl, dreaming of the beach. About my father and the concert where they met and how the herbal blend her witch friend made had not worked on the pregnancy, here I was, and she was grateful. “Bobby and I have traveled many lifetimes before this one. There wasn’t anything that was going to stop him from coming into the world.” She told them in a stammer of gestures and clouded phrases about working at Seashell’s, how she sold true connection, something most people did not have these days, and Jean finally said flatly, “Are you a prostitute?”
My mother paused for just a moment, her eyes glancing at me.
“No,” I said before she could answer. “She’s an artist.”
My mother smiled. “Bobby gets me.”
“What is she doing to you?” Jean asked, looking at me, and this time my mother stopped. “Why are you defending her?”
“You said you were here to make me a star,” my mother said.
“Come on, now,” Andrew said, glaring at Jean. “Don’t make a scene.”
“No, I think it’s important, right, like what is going on here? He’s just a kid.”
I looked at my mother and saw her fade. I jumped in quickly. “Did she tell you how I had shark teeth across the bottom when I was little? Two rows of teeth.”
“Usually people with spiritual giftings have crazy teeth, it’s true,” she said sweetly. She pulled back her lips and showed them her loose front tooth. “This will be gone soon.”
“We’re good for today, right, everyone?” Andrew said. He packed away his things and Jean stood there staring at my mother. My mother smiled back at her so purely. “Bobby,” she said lightly. “I think Jean here wants to buy a dream catcher.”
When they drove away from us, I figured I wouldn’t see them again.
After the days with Andrew and Jean, my mother fell asleep early, her body reclined in the driver’s seat, feet on the dash, toe prints on the window, but I felt wired at all hours and would go for walks to the beach and listen to the water pull and push. I could stay there all night, the moon a headlight, and feel outside of myself and wonder if the things that happened to the body could fade away easily and on their own, or if they were facts meant to be carried forever. The touch of a person. Did it ever leave you? It didn’t seem plausible that as humans geared toward survival, as every animal was, that we could be so broken by the movements of others over us. It didn’t seem practical.
On their last day of filming, Jean brought me a brown bag lunch of pasta and salmon, sliced apples, and almond butter. Organic protein bars. She pulled me aside. “It’s not right, you living out here. She’s abusing you.”
“This is so good,” I said, shoving the oily pasta in my mouth.
“Bobby,” Jean said.
“Things have been hard for her.”
“Think about this,” Jean said, poking my chest. “You have one life. One. That’s it. Don’t you want it to be something great? It’ll never be great with her. You’ve got to believe me. I’m older than you, I know.”
I looked over at my mother dancing in front of the camera that Andrew had set up on a tripod. He talked on his phone, but her eyes were on him, crooning Oh, won’t you stay, we’ll put on the day, and we’ll wear it till the night comes . . .
“It’s temporary,” I said, hearing my mother’s voice run through me.
“I’ve heard what goes on at that bar,” she said.
My heart pains started up, and a new fear I couldn’t name covered me.
She handed me her notebook. “Why don’t you just write me a letter?”
I thought of how my mother always said that if I tried to tell anyone from the outside about us, they wouldn’t believe me and I’d end up worse off than I was before. I drew a picture of a waxing moon and Jean sighed.
“There’s a million other ways to live,” she said.
I was quiet and ate.
“I can’t sleep at night thinking about you out here.”
I smiled. “Imagine being out here.”
“I’ll have to do something, you know.”
I didn’t say anything.
When the filmmakers didn’t come the next day, my mother refused to believe everything was over so easily. She wanted her fame to bombard us. She wanted to see the film. She wrote Andrew notes on napkins, confessing her love to him, offering herself to him for free. She buzzed around cleaning the car, moving our stuff to the trunk, asking herself questions about whether or not Andrew would like her to read his palm, or if he was more into astrology. She scribbled numbers on strips of paper and hid them under the seats and in the glove box so she could be surprised by them later. She was obsessed with angel numbers, any triple sequence of the same number. 555 was her special one and she said it meant life was handing over a significant change. We saw 555 all the time on billboards for Little Caesars Pizza, on other license plates. It seemed to me utterly ordinary.
“Bobby, Bobby,” my mother sang as she wiped dust away with a pair of my underwear. “Who knew we could be this happy?”
She pressed me to her and we twirled next to the car, sometimes bumping into the hot steel of it, and she laughed. She pulled me down with her and we lay on the sandy ground and everything was clear. Her speech sharp, her eyes steady. Maybe it was good the filmmakers had disappeared, maybe they’d forget what they’d seen. Perhaps this was my mother at last, the one I’d waited for.
“Probably need to get registered for school soon,” I tried.
She squeezed my hand. “I always knew someone would find us and tell our story,” she said.
“What’s our story, Mom?”
“We’re gonna be eating filet mignon every night, just wait.”
She dropped my hand and got up, went back to her tidying. She held a strip of paper up to the sun. “Bobby! It’s my angel number!”
“I don’t want to go back to Seashell’s,” I said.
Her face shifted. “Riches are on the way but until then you have to work.”
“Please,” I said.
“All the things I’ve done for you,” she sneered and crumpled the angel number up in her hand.
“And all I’ve done for you,” I said. She looked sad then.
“Aren’t you happy you aren’t ordinary? At least you can say, my mom—she was never boring.”
“Jean’s gonna turn you in,” I said. “You might go to jail.”
My mother scoffed but I saw her fear. “You would let them do that to me?”
“I want things to be different. I want you to have help.”
“You want me to be in an institution, but I won’t go. You want to be ordinary, you go ahead. But not me.”
It was a slow night at Seashell’s, the regulars on barstools drinking cans of Bud while two women, one old and one young, stirred cocktails in red cups with long pink straws and stared at one another, tired, waiting for a client. I sat on the stool on the far side of the bar and the bartender set a Shirley Temple filled with maraschinos in front of me. I wanted to be done but not yet. I needed money my mother didn’t know about. I needed money to leave.
“You look just like that mama of yours,” the bartender said.
“I look like my dad,” I said, though I knew my mother had given me her exact face. Our relation was a simple fact of body.
“Where she’s at?”
“She’s home waiting on something.”
“Tell her she don’t come she loses her spot.”
A short man in pressed flared jeans and an aquamarine buttoned shirt walked in and ordered a small glass of whiskey. He eyed me from under the brim of a stiff white cowboy hat while he darted a narrow tongue at his drink and then walked to the bathroom and tapped. I glanced at the women and they showed no signs of moving. The toes of his boots shined, his clothing clean. He probably had money. I finished the Shirley Temple and followed him in.
He sat on the toilet with his head between his legs. He had removed the hat and I could see his scalp shine through stiff combed black hair.
He stood. “My wife loved me, but she didn’t really know me.” He reached in for a hug. His hands spread across my back and it took me a moment to realize he was crying.
“How do you want this to go?” I asked.
“Say you love me,” he said. “Look in my eyes.”
I started undoing my shorts but he pulled my hands up to his face. “My wife is dead,” he said, I think to make me sympathize with him but instead I wondered if he had been the one to kill her. I couldn’t read him. I pictured Jean’s face and I stepped back.
“Just pretend to be her. It’s all I want. I’ll pay you just to stand here and hold me,” he said, and tossed a rubber-banded wad of bills at my feet. I picked it up. I could leave. My mother wasn’t on the other side of the door.
“Please?” he begged. But I ran out the back door of the bar and down to the beach, and as I ran I returned to a secret and comforting thought: that if I looked hard enough I would find my mother’s real spirit. That it was lost somewhere searching for her body and I alone could reunite them. I alone could fix her.
I let the ocean touch my feet back and forth and wondered what parts of it were toxic. Was it the sand caught between my toes that would poison me, was it the air, or the water? But of course, one could not be harmful without the other. They were all one. How long before it would be clean again? How many years would have to pass and what would need to be done?
Back at the car my mother was gone and her things were strewn around on the floorboards. I put on her yellow cardigan and sat in her seat, my feet on the dash. My body wouldn’t run. My body would wait. She was off finding our next opportunity. We would become clam diggers like she’d promised, in the next town up the highway. And what could Jean have meant about a million other ways to live? She didn’t know. This was my only. My mother, my only.