The Missouri Review 11.2 (1988): 9-24. William Peden Prize in Fiction 1988. Special Mention, Pushcart Prize. Rpt. in The Best of the Missouri Review: 1978-1990. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991: 105-20.
Recognizable at a Distance
When it became clear that I didn’t know how to do anything to make a living, in other words when it became clear that the promise of my sensibility was not a lucrative promise, Daddy kindly sent me off to Tulane to get my M.S.W., it being agreed on all hands but my own really that social work was an appropriate field for a young woman who had insisted for many years that she was interested only in the nature of experience and what it meant to be human. I was twenty-two. My father had stopped repeating his observation that I was a “hellcat,” but nobody had ever paid me for a poem. I was, after all, grown up, they said, and so for the fifth time I left my home in Hunter county, Mississippi, a home that I had treated as a sort of halfway house for some years by then, and went out into the world.
Although, indeed, some unfortunate romances and some unsuitable jobs had sobered me somewhat, I was nowhere near Mama’s prime idea that the Plan is all right and we are just wrong. In fact, I was still thoroughly convinced that I was just fine and the Plan was all wrong until I got to New Orleans and began to think that there wasn’t any Plan at all and everything was wrong.
No one had ever prepared me for the vengeance with which a constantly thwarted idealism can career off into a bitter cynicism. I had been wounded and depressed before, but my spirit had always knit itself back up again. I was totally unprepared for a stretch of time, and I trembled to think that it might be the stretch of my life, in which everything that I did or felt or read or saw or thought, in which, I say, everything struck at the root of me, robbed me of strong feeling, left me with dreamless nights. I tried to be good, and I did actually have a knack for working with the unfortunate and the poor, the confused and the insane, and everybody thought that I was finally doing what I was expected to do, but I was not good inside. All of my motions were the result of a sort of intellectual dry heat; a strong wind would have done me in, and even my writing stopped coming to me. I don’t know what it was. I had friends, I touched people, but I was overwhelmed with this sense that I was just passing time. Three years passed.
I met Ned at a party. Roy, an insipid medical student with whom I was spooning at the time, had gone to get me another bourbon and I was standing around, wearing what I then considered my inscrutable look, in a great mill of people. I saw Ned and I knew that he was the gentlest person I’d ever seen, and I knew too that he was not all there on the surface, and I knew too that this was the first thing that had aroused my interest in a long time, and I beat back the old pre-New Orleans knowledge that everything wonderful means everything horrible, and if you have some of it you have to have all of it. We watched one another awhile and I moved away from a dull med student conversation and walked toward him as though I had to walk past him for some reason, but we both knew. We stood in front of one another for a minute, amused. Ned said, I’m going to the Keys tomorrow; do you want to come?
Yes, I said, yes. Roy was rather scandalized, but people get used to whatever it is you’re doing if you keep on doing it so that it’s clear to them that nothing they can do can stop you from doing it. Roy broke up with me when I got back and told him I was in love with Ned. Edward was not one to commit himself to anything much, nor was I, but we moved in with one another anyway. When he got a job teaching at my old alma mater in Blufftown, Mississippi, I went with him and kissed New Orleans goodbye.
LIKE I SAID
Ned breathed life into me, and because of him I could give it to everything I touched, and I even started writing poetry again. He was from Virginia, and, with a sort of provincial jealousy, I thought that he did not really understand ways further south. He was writing a book on that vague category of literature called Southern, and, with a primitive fear of being effaced through definition, I thought that he had probably already plugged my family into one of the vague myths with which he wrestled in his den of letters. But he left me out of it and he had the sense to recognize a thing when he saw it and not get it confused with what he thought it was before he saw it, and I knew it would be all right, that he would be kind enough not to deprive what I loved of its complexity.
But, like I said, you never can have some of it without the rest of it flailing and reeling into the party too. My father called me before we left New Orleans and said, your mama and me your mama your mama and me well we are getting a divorce, and I said, Daddy I’m sorry, about time, and then I tried to be lighthearted about it but I felt betrayed inside the way I had always felt betrayed when I was cruising up the Pearl River in my little motor boat and found a nice little sand bar where I could stop and sit and think and write only to see a fat moccasin skimming his poisonous mouth along the surface of the water. I felt betrayed, I say, the way I felt when I’d had a good walk through the woods muttering to myself and deciding that the sky and the pines and the gooseberry bushes were enough after all only to find that I had poison ivy after I got home. And I was angry too because everything for once was going right for me, and now the refuge I would have had if it stopped going right was gone, and I would have to make it right all by myself. But I didn’t let on about any of this; I just tried to rub it away in my secret heart. I was twenty-five. I was too old, I told myself, to feel betrayed. I felt wretched and childish and selfish.
After Mine Ed and I settled into a little two-story house on a steamy little street in Blufftown, I drove over to Hunter County to see my parents and I visited with each of them alone, my father first.
Daddy looked forlorn and older, and I loved him then because he refused to trap his pain up in words and theories as was my wont. Not big on words, my family, not much talk except as a sort of code like this code my father and I have when we take walks together: we name all the trees, and that is our way of saying everything to one another that we can say with certainty. So we took a long walk in the woods and Daddy named for me every tree and bush and finally when we were in the great silence of the middle of it he said, there’s nothing for it, and I turned my face away from him and wept while he shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot before taking me in his arms and making me laugh by reminding me of some silly thing that happened when I was a kid.
But Mama now was a different story because we’d never paid much attention to how one another felt and the old rivalry had never been resolved and its resolution was just another item now on her list of pain. We tried to act like everything was really all right. I was standing in the kitchen with her and she was peeling an onion with a knife over the sink and she made a particularly quick and determined cut with it that went right into her thumb. She was very still for a moment clutching the onion with the wounded hand. Blood welled up from her thumb and began to slide down the side of the onion in the shape of a little Africa. Then she dropped the onion and the knife and turned the tap on and held her hand under the water and turned her face up toward me her eyes bluer and larger with the tears and choking back a sob she whispered: this can happen.
THIS CAN HAPPEN: RED AND WHITE
We used to keep three lovely fat white rabbits in a hutch. One day, too clever for their own good, they somehow undid the door and lolled out into the day lilies and clover. It was early spring, one of those Mississippi spring afternoons when the sun has burnt off the morning’s haze, and everything is in focus, and it’s still a bit cool in the shade, and everything feels green. I was standing around in the yard, looking up at the sky and breathing, and Mama went to feed the rabbits and then I heard her call my name from the edge of the yard. I went over to her and her face looked like Mary’s face in those hideously-colored pictures of the crucifixion that they used to show us in Sunday school. She didn’t say anything. She led me down to the hutch and there on the ground were our three rabbits. The dogs had gnawed their throats and shaken the life from them then dropped them there on the new grass. Three forlorn little white bodies with great flowing crimson scarves at their necks, wasted.
We didn’t say anything much to one another. We went and got a couple of shovels and buried them near where they lay. Neither of us was very strong; it took a long time. Sometimes we would stop and just look at one another. Sometimes I would stop and just stare up through new oak leaves, follow little racing jewels of sun along a branch or two. It was as if everything but the day had stopped. My mother and I were at that moment in perfect accord with one another, felt the same thing, were one woman baffled, horrified, stunned at the lack of recourse. I understood suddenly that she had always been the one who buried my accident-and-pneumonia-prone pets before I got home from school. Every failure of love and imagination, everything senseless had been crystallized into that one moment, those pitiful white bodies marred with the sloppy erasure of death, those two women making graves. We cried when we finished. When Punkin and Toulouse and Paula got home from school, we told them that the rabbits had escaped.
THIS CAN HAPPEN: BLOOD IN WATER
When I was about four a kid at nursery school hit me in the back of the head with the butt of a heavy metal toy gun. We had seen cowboys do this on television, but I had a lot of real blood and I threw up. So first my mother came home and then she called my father home from the hospital. He was an intern then. He bent me over the edge of the bathtub and held my head under the faucet and ran cool water on me till all the blood washed away and he could see the cut. He has the most wonderful hands in the world. When they touch things, they make everything right, and I knew I would not die. I was scared at first. I could see the bloody water going in the drain beneath my face: it was deep red, pale rose, then almost clear. The shock of the blow was gone and I was conscious only of my father holding me, the soothing rush of water, the fading blood, and I didn’t feel the pain anymore because I was filled with an intense yearning for that moment to be repeated eternally. I wished then that little Johnny Took had wounded me forever so that forever my father could heal me with his love. Forever. But it was just a skin wound. No stitches. The fear went out of my parents’ faces. I could not keep them at home. I went back to nursery school. Johnny’s gun was confiscated.
THIS CAN HAPPEN
I put my arm around Mama and held her hand under the water. We busied ourselves with first aid cream and bandaids. I took her out on the porch and made her sit down. She looked relieved all of a sudden. I went back into the house and threw the onion away and washed the knife. We drank iced tea on the porch and talked about a painting she was working on. At 3:30 my two younger brothers and sister pulled up in their three separate cars from school. They looked at us as though we were guests at a dinner party who had stayed too long and had too much to drink. They trampled into the house without a word of greeting and turned on a thousand TV’s, radios, stereos. This can happen, you see. You think that you’re living in a place that for all its shame and spite and quirkiness has its own regional integrity, then all of a sudden it is merely America.
I DON’T SUPPOSE
I don’t suppose I need tell you about Ned’s English department, where several years earlier my maudlin experiments in poetry had been supported and I had been encouraged to read books, and was thus assured of never being happy with any of the jobs I could get, although I might tell you that Ned’s department is more genteel, that is, more polite and repressed, than others I have seen. Political maneuvers are conducted with intense discretion and highmindedness. Women are consistently denied tenure or driven crazy by Dr. Drive, the department head, apparently for life. Junior faculty are friendly with and wary of one another at once. Because jobs are hard to get, Dr. Drive manages to hire at least one person from one of the “better” schools a year, and these people live here as though they are exiles and make us act like caricatures of ourselves. There are a lot of cocktail parties at which people veer toward speaking honestly with one another and then excuse themselves the next day. It is commonly thought that there is much infidelity and unsavory psychic bonding beneath the courteous surface, but its nature is unknown and speculation about who is doing what to or with whom or what is never really taken seriously except among students and faculty spouses and I do not really count as either of those.
I DON’T SUPPOSE
When I got home from that first visit with my suddenly divorcing parents, Ned was kind enough not to get analytical and fictional about it, and he has been so kind as it has continued all this time now to eat at my heart in the most inexplicable way. When I look at my family I see these shifting, impenetrable surfaces and I think that only someone in my family who knows the code of surfaces can understand that it says something unspeakable, horrible, that it is some face on a disease that we’ve all caught and pass back and forth among ourselves in caresses and blows. I am the one who wants to get analytical and fictional about it. I am the one who needs the comfort of the formula, the myth. I am the one who is lost, lost in what is going on.
I have spent some time with a woman from New York who teaches Fem Lit and will not last long in the misogynous realm of Dr. Drive. We recognized one another’s weaknesses immediately, spewed the highlights of our little histories at one another over a few afternoons of gin and tonics, but I could not say that Cara Victus and I are really friends. She is a lovely and frail hysterical bird, more along the lines of another warning for me, a sign of how intimate losses can make love flutter and spout and misfire in us, a sign of how the mind can transform everything it lights upon into something recognizable and dreadful, a sign that self-awareness does not mean control. At first, I wanted to fold her up in my love and calm her; but she demands too much, and I bolt at the vampire specter of demand. The fiction through which I would have to grapple to reach her is that I am a younger, culturally deprived version of herself. Tenderness and violation are her powers; she carries them in the same hand.
Something horrible will happen, something horrible will happen, poor girl, your poor daddy, something horrible just like it did to me, she said in the midst of little shrieks when I told her about my parents’ divorce.
BUT MY FAMILY IS NOT AS CRAZY AS SOME OTHERS
I was working for a little over a year after Ned and I moved to Blufftown at a place owned by the Cupid brothers. It is a place called Youth in Turmoil (YIT) where incorrigible adolescents are sent by courts and families to stay for a few months to cool down and get socialized somewhat. I was a counselor, and this mostly meant supervising behavior modification programs for three kids at a time and supplementing those programs with leading questions, affection, and mere presence. I did best with children who played the guitar or painted or wrote, kids whose emotional problems seemed more complex and interesting to me mainly because they were capable of talking about them. Some of my co-workers like to get the real crazies, but I never got anywhere much with crazies except for this one kid one time who liked to make spaceships out of clay and then smash them with his face. I thought he was wonderful, and he liked me too, so after a few months he stopped setting fires and biting the resident psychiatrist, and he was in pretty good shape when we shipped him out. But we usually didn’t get them like that, and I requested children with minor problems.
The day came, of course, when I was assigned a child who would have been a problem for anyone. These kids often came from families and places that were foreign to my experience, but moments of intuition and close attention could undo the disadvantages of that. But this child was from a place that no one has even imagined yet. She was thirteen, fat, short, lethargic, quiet. Whether the sausage plumpness of her face or the general flatness of her character kept her from having any observable range of facial expression was something I could not decide. She responded to nothing at our first meeting. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, and they sat flat in the great fold of her face. She had the presence of a cooked, stuffed bird, or a great, impassive baby doll. She said yes ma’am, no ma’am to me; I could not get her to call me by my first name, and I could not get her to show interest in anything, could not get her to show amusement, anger, fear, confusion. She was what my friend Alex’s aunt used to call another of Alex’s aunts: the personification of a zero.
I saw her right after she got there and I wondered why someone had sent her there. I wondered what she, who appeared to lack all will, could have done to be sent from home at such a tender age. So after I had settled her into her room, I headed for her file and Harold Sounder’s initial report. As I discovered from her file, she had exercised her will on several recent occasions by running, or trudging, away from her home, an obscure place near the coast called Erono.
HAROLD SOUNDER’S INITIAL REPORT ON SENSI DOLORIC
“Sensi Doloric is a white obese female with a remarkably flat affect. Her adjustment reaction to adolescence is complicated by her unusual sexual history, and, I might as well add, the unusual sexual history of her family. Although Mrs. Doloric, whom I met before my interview with Sensi in Hoodoo County Detention Center, is apparently concerned for the child, she has not been and is not home very much to regulate the activities of her own family and several relatives who appear to ‘drop by’ frequently. I say this because of several reports from social workers and courts concerning certain activities of the Doloric household that led the Doloric’s neighbors to complain, the courts to intervene, and Sensi to YIT. I will now summarize the main points of those reports.
“Sensi Doloric was sexually molested by her father, her two older brothers, and a male cousin, who is now at Parchman for rape, from her third year until six months ago when the court order that finally brought her here went into effect. This abuse appears to have been recurrent although not continuous in time, as the father, the brothers, and the cousin during this time have all been in and out of various prisons, and Mrs. Doloric has on several occasions asked for and received the aid of the Law in keeping these men from her home. Mrs. Doloric is a bit reticent about these events, but a pretty clear picture of them can be gained from the reports of the physicians who have examined Sensi and the neighbors of the Dolorics who reported them. I refer you to the xeroxed reports at the back of this file. I need not point out to you that the sexual abuse to which Sensi has been subjected went far beyond exhibitionism and fondling and veered into rape, voyeurism, group sex and several other things that I, in all my years in this business, had not even heard of before this case.
“Her marks and attendance at school have been consistently poor. She has no friends that we know of. And she appears unwilling or unable to discuss what is going on.
“I suggest that we supplement her program with daily sessions with our staff psychiatrist, and I think it best that we quietly give Sensi a great deal of attention and let her recover from her hectic home life for a while until Dr. Onothat tells us how we should handle her and why the hell the legal system has sent her to a treatment center for mild social adjustment problems. Her case, indeed, is more extreme than those that we usually see, and I know already that our entire staff will wonder if what we can help her adjust to here bears even the faintest resemblance to her home environment. I know already that a great cry of outrage will go up from you all concerning the purpose, the justice, and the utility of having her here for six months and then sending her back to Mrs. Doloric’s untidy household, but Sensi is, after all, here, and we must do something, and I am sure that each of you will give Sensi your best shot. “H. A. S”
I WENT TO SEE HAROLD
Immediately I asked that she be transferred to another counselor and told Harold, quite frankly, that I felt incompetent with such a case, but Harold told me not only that no other counselor was available but that a switch might unsettle Sensi and make her feel rejected. He called Dr. Onothat in, and after a couple of hours the two of them manipulated me into being calm about Sensi Doloric and treating her as though she were an ordinary child who had had a few arguments with her mother and smoked a little pot and got caught like most of the other residents I counseled.
CHESS AND PAINTING WERE OUT OF THE QUESTION
I had to think of something that Sensi and I could do together for our two “one on one” hours each day. I tried trips to parks and zoos, but Sensi simply lumbered along beside me and stood aloof as I made a fool of myself over lions and squirrels. I tried Old Maid and Go Fish but Sensi didn’t care if she won or lost. I tried jigsaw puzzles, but her marked inability to recognize and connect patterns frustrated both of us. It was difficult for me to arrange what we call “success experiences” for Sensi. Finally the two of us just sat in the day room together. She would not talk about school, she would not talk about the weather or clothes or the dust that settled inexorably on everything at YIT despite daily cleaning. Harold and Dr. Onothat came up with the brilliant idea of my just being quiet and present with Sensi. Perhaps at this point steadfast, kind presence is enough and she will make the first move, they said.
Sensi and I were sitting in the day room together quietly. There was no one else around. I felt like going to sleep. Suddenly she said, Helen, she said, you know? I thought, at last, at last, she trusts me, she will talk about feeling fat and ugly, she will talk about resenting her mother, she will say she wants piano lessons, she will ask me to take her out for ice cream. I said, yes, Sensi, yes, go on.
She said, you know how it smells when they do it. And for the first time Sensi’s eyes began to sparkle. She appeared animated, excited.
No, Sensi, I said, beaming a patient beneficence at her. I said, I do not know exactly what you are talking about, perhaps you will explain?
My Pa and my cousin Jakes she said when they you know and the house always smelled like it and I went to bed one night and my pillow been got all wet with it and Jakes and Bib that’s my brother they were all laughing about it but Bib like to beat the shit out of me when I begun acryin.
Then, for the first time, Sensi smiled, or rather leered, at me and I really really thought that I was going to throw up. I thought that I would be very calm and say something like: please excuse me, Sensi, for just a moment; we can continue this interesting discussion when I get back. And then I would go to the bathroom and retch out the great sickness that had just welled up inside of me. But there is no physical release for the disease I’d just caught from Sensi Doloric.
THIS IS WHAT THEY TAUGHT ME TO DO INSTEAD OF GIVING ME A GARRET AND LETTING ME WRITE POETRY
I thought, well, she needs to cry about it a little and be comforted, but she sat there grinning before me and she wet her thin child’s lips with her tongue. Sensi, I said, Sensi, I know that that must have been a terrible experience for you, but before I could continue she said, not really, it happened lotsa times. Sensi, I said, Sensi, I think this is something you should discuss with Dr. Onothat this afternoon, but I hope that in the future you will be open with me the way you have today but our one-on-one time is about up and I have to go to the recreation room to supervise games do you want to come with me there and play Monopoly or something with the others?
NOT REALLY, SHE SAID
I went to see Harold and I said, Harold that child has real problems that I am not prepared to deal with and I want you to give her to someone else. I can’t, he said. Harold, I said, I quit. I thought, he said, you wouldn’t be able to handle it when we hired you but oh no, oh no, Dr. Onothat and Sally Strew said she’s bright and sensitive and knows her stuff. But you can’t handle it can you Helen?
NO, I CAN’T
After my bout with Sensi and Harold, I went home and got in bed and stared at the ceiling. When Ned got in from classes he came in and looked at me and said, what? I said, I cannot even begin and you would not even believe it if I could; I quit my job. Blind leading the blind anyway, he said, you want a drink? No, I said, I just want to die. I’ll be in my study, he said, and he kissed my forehead and patted my hand and left
I JUST LAY THERE
One time before, after I finished college and was waiting on tables, this happened. Waiting on tables was constantly trying for me: I was efficient and polite, but that I was dutiful was somehow not enough for many customers who expected me somehow to be an obsequious part of their evening’s entertainment, to be chatty, cute, and coy all at once. I found these expectations unreasonable, and I never made much money in tips.
There was new kitchen equipment and a new menu and the cooks were revenging the radical nature of the change by getting alarmingly sloppy with the food. This was a particular cause of anxiety to me because I clung, in the face of experience to the contrary, to the belief that most people really did, or really should, go to restaurants to eat.
The night was really like any other night. I was irritated, as usual, when two men persisted in calling me sugarfoot, honey bunch, little darling. I was puzzled, as usual, when I served dessert to a young couple and the woman gave a hard stare to her companion and, in a voice too loud not to be meant for me, said, but I bet she cannot even add, then stared defiantly into my face. I was filled with pity and tenderness, as usual, when a woman who had obviously been in assertiveness training firmly sent a shrimp remoulade back to the kitchen five times. And I was irked, as usual, when another woman asked me where I had gone to school and when I told her her eyes glittered with a sort of triumph and she said, hunh, and now you are here waiting on tables funny how things turn out ain’t it?
Although I was rather confused by the things that my customers went out of their way to say to me, I was accustomed to them, and there was really no explanation for my suddenly bolting from the whole chore of bearing patiently their extra-culinary demands when this couple came in and sat at a deuce of mine and the man, as usual, said, what do you recommend? I have never, ever, been able to lie outright, and despite my early religious training, which I abandoned perhaps too soon, I have never been able to prevaricate with any truly effective degree of promptitude. After a fatal pause during which I thought you know I really ought to say I recommend that you two go somewhere else for dinner, after a fatal pause, I say, I said, well, it depends on what you have in mind but the steak marinade and the scampi are usually good. But, he said, heaving an exasperated sigh, what do you recommend? I usually prefer the steak, I said. But, he said, arching his eyebrows and glancing at his companion before he turned to me again, as though he were patiently trying to get a child to identify correctly a number or a color, but, he said, what do you recommend? Whatever you want, I said, and fled.
I passed my four-top, four businessmen who had all ordered steaks, and they said, we do not mean to be unkind but these steaks are awful, please take them back. I apologized, took the four plates back to the kitchen, set them down, and wept. I punched out in tears. I quit.
I went home and got in the extra bed in my sister’s room where I had been sleeping of late and I cried for a few hours. My father came in and I said I can’t take it it’s not just the work it’s just living and being human, Daddy, oh, God, Daddy, do I have to keep being? There, there, he said, and he sat next to the bed holding my hand as I wept. It’s not just the steaks, I said, it’s me, I try not to be too sensitive, but I am. Now, now, Helen, baby-doll, he said. Oh, Daddy, Daddy, I said, it is all so ugly.
I STAYED IN BED FOR THREE DAYS
Ned continued to live a normal life. He slept in the same bed with me each night as though I, too, had gone to work that day and come home tired. It was a sign of his love that he did this, that he acted as though I were in the realm of the sane by doing what I did, and it was my realization of the tenderness that he was spending on me that led me to get up on the fourth day and bathe and eat. You’re all right now? he said, circling me with his arms from behind as I stood brushing my teeth. I looked at his wonderful face in the mirror. Yes, I said, yes.
MY BIG BROTHER
My brother, Geoff, who leads a normal life in Blufftown lawyering and having a family, has always been good to me and he can always make what is going on run into a channel as though the channel had been there all along as though there is a secure and predictable course for everything as though we can live with what we are. I had lunch with him in the midst of the divorce thing. Geoff, I said, brushing a tear away and taking a sip of my Bloody Mary, I do not understand it.
Well, he said, buttering a piece of bread, they are doing what they want to do and have to do, and what passes between them is something only they can know, and we will just have to get used to it.
But thirty years, I said, and Punkin and Toulouse and Paula not even out of the house yet.
Helen, you are taking this too hard. These things happen. It will be messy awhile and then everyone will be happy. I don’t really understand why you are so upset about this, he said. You’ve been away from home for seven years now. You have a life of your own.
But they won’t be there together anymore, I said.
Arguing and being miserable with one another. He smiled his ironic smile just like Daddy’s
But didn’t they, I said, didn’t they love each other once?
My big sister Anna Laurie is nursing her new baby and I am sitting across from her at her kitchen table. They’ll be all right, she says, all of them. It’s not as though we didn’t expect it.
She looks down at little James nursing and I look out the window. We are quiet awhile, listening to the baby catch his breath occasionally, listening to the clock on the stove. Does it hurt, I say. No, she says, smiles.
What do you want, Anna Laurie, I say.
I want to get the hell out of here and move back to San Francisco, she says, and laughs. I drop my coffee cup on the floor and the baby begins to cry.
I HAVE DREAMS OF VISCERAL THREAT
I dream at night that I am in a city that is one big enameled-metal building. To move around I will have to get into elevators that are like ovens. I can’t take it. I can’t do it. I pace around in empty white rooms until great bladders of trilling flesh begin to sprout from my back like wings and Ned wakes me up and tells me to stop grinding my teeth.
Ned is teaching an extra course so I will not have to work for a few months. I am working on a long poem. I get up in the morning and write for a few hours, whether it’s coming or not. Then I bake things and do errands and then I take a nap. I work on what I have written in the morning in the afternoon. Sometimes we go out later, sometimes we make love, sometimes we play chess.
Daddy has married for the second time and he is very much in love. He is still living on the farm in Hunter County. Mama moved to Vicksburg about a week after the onion incident. Toulouse and Paula went with her. The divorce took a year. Now Daddy is gaining weight, but he is happy. When I met his wife it was as though she had always been there.
I am glad that he is not miserable anymore, but I cannot explain the rage that welled up and then immediately subsided in me the first time I saw his new wife familiarly ruffle the graying hair at the back of his neck and beam up into his face. She is a good woman, he says. She is nice-looking and there is no nonsense about her. And she is nice to me, although it is clear that she doesn’t understand what it is, exactly, that I do with my typewriter or why, exactly, Ned and I continue to live in “sin.”
She has four buxom, shrill-voiced daughters who click through the house in their heels sometimes when I am there. They are very normal. They talk about cars and clothes and the back-biting in the offices where they work. They look at me as though I am from another planet, and they have a cute pet name for my father. She also has five chihuahuas. And when I hug my father now, he holds me as though his embrace is all in the world that could keep me from dissolving into air.
Mama smokes too much and her voice sounds like a radio station that is really not coming in well at all. She devotes all her time to her painting now. Ned and I drive to Vicksburg to see her and Ned takes Paula and Toulouse to a disco movie. When we are alone, I tell Mama about my oven-bladder-wing dream and she frowns and purses her lips up and pounds her Benson & Hedges menthol out in a big crimson ashtray. I change the subject promptly to Monet and we have a pleasant afternoon in the only language we have in common.
We all have dinner together and Mama and Toulouse and Paula tell Ned what a hypersensitive, hot-tempered jerk I was as a child. Ned smiles at me. He has somehow included all of us in his love, and I feel a pain in my throat when I remember the few moments in which I have underestimated him. The next morning we drive back to Blufftown and I weep so violently that Ned pulls into a service station, goes into the bathroom, comes back with wet cool paper towels and bathes my face. I’m sorry, I say, sorry, ducking my head into his chest.
I DIDN’T GO IN
At the end of summer I drive out to Hunter County. I lie to myself and say I am going to see Daddy, but I know that no one is at home. When I get to the place where I grew up, where I spent my childhood looking for adventures in the woods and scaring myself, where I spent the most memorable parts of my adolescence sitting in mimosa trees and reading Byron and staring across fields green and blasted in turn, or where I locked my door and danced frantically alone in front of the mirror to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, where I sat under a hickory tree and wrote my first poem, a long elegy for a favorite dog, where the house had always been full of the racket of children, where my parents had nursed us through a thousand thousand sicknesses and small defeats, where my parents loved each other once, when I got to the house, I say, I started to go in but I didn’t. I had a key in my pocket and I could have. But when I put my fingers on it I remembered that the last time I had spent a night there I had misplaced my key and Mama had lent me hers. It was the one I had in my pocket. I forgot to return it then, and later I had started to mail it to her until I realized that she was at another address now and didn’t need it anymore anyway.
I stepped into the yard and stood and all the horrendous pounding down of all the days that all of us had lived filled up the space around me; an unfathomable clutter of memories surged into all the spaces of my forgetting and I had to turn away from the house to try to start forgetting all of it again.
I watched a few cows follow a spot of sun up a hill. A huge, lone white crane lifted up from the big pond, circled slowly once over me, then settled at the top of a pine tree very far away. I walked to the edge of the garden where there were just a few collard greens left and some late tomatoes and rows of dying cornstalks rasping in the wind. I stood there and screamed; I screamed: somebody. And as I listened to the echoes fade away I could hear those rat-dogs yipping hysterically from the house. I am here, I shouted, and the cry moaned over the pond and through the trees and never came back.
I shrugged. I started to wander around, foraging among the cedars, slipping against dry magnolia sheen, breathing the bite of dying leaves and damp under-earth. Here I have seen the dog set in her season, gritting her teeth, the calf lost and recovered on the long-road, the fine young bull rolling himself into the grass beneath the apple tree, and a half-acre of muscadine wracked and strangled by honeysuckle year by slow year of neglect. Things were always slipping away from all of us. I whisper a list of the names of trees to myself over and over before I get in my car to drive home. What I love here, I cannot have. I cannot even remember it clearly, and it steals my tongue but for this naming of the major terms in a language that I speak alone. In this late afternoon a sudden wind cracks the skin off this secret liturgy I am mumbling and pulls the breath from me to make things be here at all. Water oak, pin oak, pine, hickory, cottonwood, chinaberry, poplar, dogwood, holly, mulberry, apple, pear, crepe myrtle, fig, redbud, wild plum, magnolia, pecan, scrub oak, sycamore, cypress, peach, willow, cedar, mimosa.