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Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life. And she does not give it up out of scorn or indifference but only when she is forced to admit that she has never been able to pronounce it properly and has committed continually its grossest grammatical errors. For such a woman marriage remains a foreign tongue, an alien landscape, and, since she cannot become naturalized, she finally chooses voluntary exile.
Evelyn Hall had been married for sixteen years before she admitted to herself that she was such a woman. But now, on a plane that was taking her from Oakland, California, to Reno, Nevada, she felt curiously unchanged. The anger, guilt, grief, and resignation that she experienced now were the same emotions that had always competed in her. And the same, small public securities she had felt as a young wife were with her now. It was true that the Mrs., which had been an epithet, would soon be no more than a courtesy; and the ring she had never taken for granted would not, of course, be granted anymore. It was odd that she could not take it off. She had tried before she left the house, first casually at the kitchen sink, then frankly in the bathroom, but soap and water would not ease the ring over a joint thickened those sixteen years into obstacle. It would, she supposed, have to be cut off. It was possible to have the Mrs. cut off, too, but, just as she was not to be married, she was not to be single ever again either. She was to be divorced, a convention that might be as strange to her as the convention of marriage had been.
From the plane window Evelyn looked out at the new landscape, the mountains shelving down under her to the edge of the desert, to the town through which a river flowed and disappeared into miles of burning sand. If it looked familiar, it was not because she had ever been there before. She had seen the travel posters and the advertisements. She had reluctantly read westerns. And in dreams she had experienced what was now the actual descent, a lurching uncertainty toward earth.
In the airport waiting room, the calendar read July 27, and the hands of the wall clock hedged their specific way to four. Though the Chamber of Commerce had left its few stamped souvenirs, the syndicate its double row of slot machines, time seemed more local than place. The passengers waited in a slow humiliation of heat. The flies were terrible. They crawled across floor and counter. They settled with indifferent intimacy in the hair, on the face, refusing to be brushed away. But dirty and airless as the waiting room was, it provided shelter from the direct desert sun. Evelyn was reluctant to step out onto the pavement to claim her luggage. There the sudden brutality of heat made her sweat with a threatening nausea. She did not wait for the limousine. She signaled a taxi, the first of so many small, necessary luxuries.
The address of the guesthouse was in the lawyer's letter. He had suggested that it would be pleasanter and cheaper than a hotel. As Evelyn watched the cab meter, she wished she had asked Mrs. Packer just how much she charged for room and board. It had seemed, at the time Evelyn was writing, indelicate to inquire.
Perhaps, after all, she was changing. She was full of new proprieties. She had bought two hats and made some effort to give up smoking. And she had caught herself twice in the last few days referring to George as Mr. Hall. Guilt, not only at its source but in its expression, is reactionary. For years she had kept it in her house, as dull, vague, and persistent as the company of a cat; but now, more sharply focused, it struggled to become righteous indignation.
The billboards advertising restaurants, outrageously expensive motels, and gambling casinos only mildly offended her, but she was truly angered by the jewelers' exaggeration of their wares along that wide desert highway. Wedding rings were as big as hula hoops or moon gates, to play with, to walk through, to roll down a hill. And the all-night jeweler claimed to be just doors away from the famous neon chapel, which offered, in great block letters, twenty-four hour service, including a minister, flowers, a photographer, and witnesses. Perhaps they also supplied spare brides and grooms. As the billboards dwindled to the edge of town, they were replaced by the actual buildings, more substantial and garish than their copies. Evelyn was almost grateful for the occasional familiarity of a supermarket or used car lot.
The cab turned off the main street into an ill-defined neighborhood of smaller public buildings, newly shadowing the few private houses, where homemade signs offered music lessons, alterations, and tea. There was a deserted school, a tall building with small windows, surrounded by a blank, baked-earth yard. Over the roofs of the next residential block there was the inverted exclamation mark of a church spire. It was Sunday.
As the cab pulled up to the curb, Evelyn looked out at a large, gray house set back from the street, silly with window boxes. She would not let her body falter as her mind did. She got out of the cab, paid the driver, picked up her suitcases, and walked quickly toward the house.
Frances Packer opened the front door. She was a small, round woman in her fifties, mother-faced, proprietary. She greeted Evelyn by name and then called to her son, Walter. He came into the hall from the living room, a tall, square, bland-faced boy, blinking into the sunlight, the Sunday funnies still in his hand. He reminded Evelyn of so many anonymous youngsters who lounged somehow comfortably in the restrictive chairs at the back of her lecture room day after day, year after year, repeating and spreading themselves like perennials.
"Will you take Mrs. Hall up to her room, dear?" Then she turned to Evelyn, pleasantly. "Dinner's at five."
"That's fine. I'll just have time to wash."
The upstairs hall smelled faintly of incense, but it was cool. The room Walter showed Evelyn into was large and leaf-dappled. The double bed had been modernized, the headboard removed, the footboard now serving in its place so that the bed settled quietly and less importantly into the floor space, no longer a stage for a production, now a simple place of rest. It was the antique secretary in the corner that dominated the room. A social psychologist could not have designed a living space more appropriate.
"The bathroom's right next door. There ought to be clean towels just inside the closet there," Walter said, as he put one suitcase on the luggage rack at the foot of the bed, the other across the arms of a chintz chair. "Don't smoke in bed. There isn't any fire escape. Put toenails in the ash tray. And don't keep pets. Mealtimes and other house rules are in the printed folder in the Gideon Bible by your bed. Any questions?"
Evelyn grinned at him, grateful for his nonsense but unable to think of a suitable reply. Outside the classroom she had always been slow-witted with adolescents.
"Well, I have one," he continued. "We've been having an argument. I told Mother that she should call you Dr. Hall, Isn't that your proper title?"
"It doesn't really matter at all," Evelyn replied. She was one of the few women she knew who preferred Mrs. to Dr., perhaps because her marriage had been more difficult than her Ph.D. to achieve and maintain. Then, too, George had been sensitive about it. Walter was right, of course. Dr., now was her only "proper" title, but it seemed too easy a solution, or too ironic.
"If you come down about quarter to—that gives you fifteen minutes—there'll be sherry in the living room."
As Walter closed the door behind him, Evelyn took off her hat and opened one suitcase to find her cosmetic bag. In the large, clean, old-fashioned bathroom she discovered the source of the incense. Airwick or a pine deodorant would have depressed her, but incense was her great aunt Ida, maiden and militant, who had lived alone in a house very like this; but she had mastered the master bedroom with nothing but her own royal virginity, which had deserved the stage, unaltered, on which she had been conceived. The bathroom, just like this, had fascinated Evelyn when she was a child, but she was never allowed to use the incense. Like snuff, like wine, like perfume, it was for adults only. Though now Evelyn had no intention of offending the air with more than the scent of her own soap, she could not resist the temptation to light a small stick of it and set it in the stand, candle of corporeal service, in memory of Ida; but the odor, confined in the room, caught in her throat. She had to put it out. "Ah, Ida," she said softly, "it's true what you used to say: we are a weaker generation." Evelyn looked at the tub, long, deep, claw-footed, and realized how much she wanted a bath, but there wasn't time now. After dinner she could be leisurely.
As she went down the stairs, cooler, cleaner, if not quite refreshed, the voices in the living room sounded cheerful. It might, after all, be quite a pleasant place to stay. The thought that she might actually enjoy herself had not occurred to her before, and, irreverent as she considered it, she did not rebuke herself.
"So there's a new arrival, is there?" It was a woman's voice, young and mock cheerful. "Delivered, as every one of them is to this house, full grown and female out of our All Father's racked brain. And she looks like me."
There were only two of them, Walter struggling up out of a deep armchair and the girl whose voice Evelyn had heard. She stood in a cage of sunlight by the bay window. Evelyn smiled, consciously amused and invulnerable because the girl was as young as a student; but as she turned, embarrassed and apologetic, to Evelyn, Evelyn was startled.
"Dr. Hall, this is Ann Childs," Walter said. "How about some sherry? Would you like a cigarette?"
"Thanks," Evelyn said. "Hello, Ann."
"Hello." Ann stared at her.
"There's a line from Cummings," Evelyn said, "'Hello is what a mirror says' ..."
"We do look alike," Ann said. "Frances was right. Don't we?"
"Yes, very much. It startled me."
"Do you think we're related?" Ann asked.
"Maybe we are," Evelyn answered, but she did not think so. There was no family resemblance, a turned eyetooth or a surprised left eyebrow that siblings share from a common grandparent. It was rather an impression which, when analyzed, seemed to have no firm basis. Ann's face was, for Evelyn, a memory, not a likeness. "But probably not."
"No," Ann said, her own certainty fading. "Walter says you teach at Cal."
Walter handed Evelyn a glass of sherry. When she sat down, he did also, choosing a chair that would keep him at the edge of conversation. But Ann continued to stand. Perhaps it was the strain of looking up at her; perhaps it was the sherry: Evelyn felt a not altogether unpleasant lightheadedness. She found it difficult to follow and answer the questions Ann was asking her. And, as she watched rather than listened, she thought how extraordinary the girl's clothes were. On that hot evening, she wore black wool frontier pants, black boots, and a brilliant blue-green long-sleeved shirt. Evelyn had not been in the real West before, but she assumed that such a costume was reserved for rodeos.
"Do you think so?" Ann asked at the end of a question that had something to do with symbolism and Yeats.
"I'm sorry. I was admiring your shirt."
Ann looked down at herself. "It's a uniform. I work at Frank's Club, the night shift."
"At the Frank's Club?"
"What do you do?"
"I'm a change apron." When Evelyn looked bewildered, Ann explained, "I make change for the slot machine customers."
"You do?" Evelyn could not help showing her surprise and amusement. "How did you get the job?"
"I've been there for four years," Ann answered. "I live here."
"She could be a dealer," Walter said, "but she doesn't want to, the idiot. That's where all the real money is for the women."
Evelyn saw her own unconscious assumptions flower and fade in Ann's eyes like the blooms of transplanted bulbs. If Ann was not here for a divorce, if she lived in Reno, why was she in this house? Was she related to the Packers?
"Here's Virginia," Walter said, rising from his chair. "Dr. Hall, this is Mrs. Ritchie."
Virginia Ritchie was a thin, pretty young woman. She waited at the edge of the room even after the introduction, looking nervously from Evelyn to Ann and back again. It was obvious that she, too, saw a striking resemblance between them, but she could not comment on it. She clutched a hat and gloves, as if they steadied her uncertain balance, and waited for someone to explain.
"Have some sherry with us," Ann suggested.
"Oh, thank you, but ..."
"Come on," Walter encouraged, almost brusque with awkwardness.
"Frances says dinner's ready."
"Come along," Frances called from the dining room. "If we don't eat right away, Ann will be late to work and Virginia late to church."
"Going to evensong?" Ann asked as they moved into the dining room.
"I thought I would," Virginia answered. "Dr. Hall, perhaps you'd ...?"
"Thank you," Evelyn answered quickly. "I think not tonight. I haven't had a chance to unpack."
"No, no, of course...."
"Mrs. Hall, will you sit here?" Frances Packer indicated the place at Walter's right. Ann sat to his left, Virginia Ritchie beside her. "You go right ahead and carve, dear. I'll just get the vegetables and gravy."
Walter did not carve well. He was awkward and unconsciously brutal.
"Walter, dear, it's already dead," Ann said wryly, as she watched him struggle. "Relax."
Walter sighed, stared for a moment at the leg of lamb, and then continued. In his real irritation, he apparently did not trust himself to answer. Evelyn smiled. She did like him, and she liked Ann with him. They were like brother and sister in a sentimental play, rude and obviously fond.
"How long will you be staying, Dr. Hall?" Virginia Ritchie asked suddenly.
"Why ..." Evelyn hesitated. "... six weeks, I suppose."
"Oh." Virginia worked at her napkin furiously with both hands. In the silence Evelyn could hear Frances' spoon, dragging the gravy pan for foreign bodies. "I'm so sorry."
"For what?" Walter demanded with bursting irritation, but Virginia had begun to cry.
As Frances came in with the gravy, Virginia got up from the table and left the room to sob, step by step, up the stairs to her bedroom. Frances looked at Walter.
"It wasn't a deep cut," he said defensively. "She's hardly bleeding at all."
"Walter, you're old enough to be kind," Frances said. "Fix me a plate. I'll take Virginia's dinner up to her." She turned to Evelyn. "She isn't usually like this. Sundays upset her."
When Frances left the room, Walter began to serve.
"Did I upset her?" Evelyn asked. Surely she was not wrong about Virginia Ritchie, too.
"Everything upsets her," Walter answered wearily. "If I forget to pee down the side of the pot, she cries herself to sleep."
"And Walter's obviously sensitive about being a boy; so you can see how tense and psychological the whole situation is," Ann said.
"Two helpings of stringed beans for you, girl Childs, and no dessert."
"Careful," Ann warned. "You have a date tonight."
"Blackmailing capitalist! One of these days I won't need your car. If I weren't a poor, struggling young man, working my way through college ..."
"You're breaking my heart," Ann cried.
"I hoped I was."
Their teasing was routine enough to be mindless, and they used it now with a tired nervous energy to cover the awkwardness of Virginia's departure, Evelyn watched and smiled and wished she could think of something to say. She felt both curiously exposed and unknown.
"I hope you're not waiting for me," Frances said, as she hurried back into the room. "Have you had the gravy, Mrs. Hall?"
The phone rang.
"I'll get it," Walter said, as Frances started up from her chair. "Sit down and eat your dinner."
"I feel we shouldn't try to eat on Sundays at all," Frances said. "Walter says I'm a compulsive eater, but when I suggest ..."
"It's a long distance for Virginia. Shall I call her?" Walter looked into the room from the hall.
"Well, yes, do. I suppose so. But don't yell. Go up. I must have that phone moved out of the hall. I wish I could think where."
"How about the bathroom?" Ann suggested.
Excerpted from Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. Copyright © 1964 Jane Rule. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 9, 2010
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