Two Novels in One about a Marriage in Transition
By Carol Shields
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2010 Carol Shields
All rights reserved.
Every morning Brenda wakes up, slips into her belted robe, and glides – glides – down the wide oak stairs to make breakfast for her husband and children. The descent down the broad, uncarpeted stairs has something of ceremony about it, it has gone on so long. She and Jack have lived in the Elm Park house for thirteen years now; Rob was a baby when they moved in; Laurie, twelve last October, has never lived anywhere else.
In the kitchen she reaches for the wall switch. It's seven-thirty, a January morning, and the overhead fixture blinks once, twice, then pours steady, lurid light down onto the blue countertops, causing her to reel slightly. Her hands set out plates, reach into the refrigerator for frozen orange juice and milk, into the cupboards for Raisin Bran and coffee beans. Her husband, Jack, has given her a new coffee-grinder for Christmas, a small Swedish toy of a machine which is still a little unfamiliar to the touch. A button on its smooth side sets a tiny motor whirring, a brief zzzz which releases a pleasing instantaneous cloud of coffee smells. 'Philadelphia,' Brenda murmurs into the coffee-softened air of the kitchen.
She boils water, pours it carefully. 'Philadelphia.' Her voice is low and so secretive she might be addressing a priest or a lover.
For a month now, ever since she decided to go to Philadelphia, she has had her flight schedule thumbtacked in the lower right-hand corner of the kitchen bulletin board. Departure time, arrival time, flight number – all printed in her own hand on one of Jack's three-by-five index cards.
Above where the card is pinned there are a number of other items. It seems to Brenda, yawning and retying the belt of her robe, that some of them have been there for weeks. Months. She tells herself she could get busy and weed out a few, but the confusion of notices and messages mainly pleases her. She likes to think of herself as a busy person. Brenda Bowman – what a busy person!
The clutter on the brown corkboard speaks to her, a font of possibility, firmly securing her, for the moment at least, against inactivity. On the other hand, she sometimes feels when she glances at it a stab of impatience; is there no end to the nagging of details? Appointments. Bills. Lists. Announcements. Furthermore, these small reminders of events past and present carry with them a suggestion of disappointment or risk. That old theatre program, for instance, the one from the Little Theatre production they'd gone to – when was that? last November? The Duchess of Malfi. She had hated The Duchess of Malfi. So, surprisingly, had Jack.
Someone – Jack, of course, who else? – had pinned up a newspaper cartoon about the School Board scandal, two pear-shaped men balancing on penny-farthing bicycles and grappling over a sack labeled $$$. The point of the bicycles, though Brenda has been following the scandal with some interest, escapes her.
And there, snuggled cleanly in the corner – she has cleared a small area around it – is her flight schedule. It looks purposeful and bright, winning from the welter of other items its small claim to priority. Brenda glances at it every morning when she comes downstairs to make breakfast. It is the first thing to catch her eye, and even before she plugs in the coffee-grinder and starts the eggs, she examines and is reassured by her own meticulous printing, Flight 452, United Airlines, departing Chicago at 8:35. Tomorrow morning, Saturday. Arrival at Philadelphia at 1:33.
There are two short stops, Fort Wayne and Cleveland. The round-trip ticket – she will be gone only five days and so cannot qualify for the one-week excursion rate – comes to $218. Her tickets lie in an envelope on the hall table under a piece of pink quartz someone once brought them from Greece. The thought of the tickets touches her with a wingbeat of happiness which is both absurd and childish and which makes her for a moment the object of her own pity. Ridiculous. As though her life at forty was so impoverished that the thought of spending five days in Philadelphia could stir her to exaltation. Pathetic!
Not only pathetic, but unrealistic. She and Jack have been to New York a number of times. Once, when she was a child, she went for a trip to the Smoky Mountains with her mother. Later there was her honeymoon in Williamsburg; to Denver and to San Francisco with Jack for a meeting of the National Historical Society; twice to Bermuda; and four years ago to France. Philadelphia wasn't even supposed to be a particularly attractive city. Someone – she's forgotten who, someone at a party recently – referred to Philadelphia as the anus of the east coast, one of those cities that suffers from being too close to New York, nothing but highways and hotels and factories and an inferiority complex. Nevertheless, when she murmurs the word 'Philadelphia' into the rising coffee fumes, she feels engorged with anticipation, a rich, pink strangeness jiggling round her heart that interferes with her concentration.
In recent days she has felt impelled to disguise her excitement, to affect calm. A hand on her shoulder seems to warn her to be careful, to practice sanity and steadiness. (A false steadiness that has nevertheless yielded a real calm, for she has succeeded in making lists, she has been orderly.) She even managed a shrug of nonchalance when the printed program from the Philadelphia Exhibition arrived in the mail a week ago with her name listed on the back: Brenda Bowman, Quilter, Chicago Craft Guild.
Admittedly she was one of hundreds listed; the print was the size of telephone-book type, all the quilters crowded together with the spinners, the weavers, even the tapestry-makers and macramé people. Yes, Brenda has told Hap Lewis, herself a macramé person, yes, she's glad she decided to go. Why not? It would be interesting (and there she had shrugged, lightly, dismissively) to see what quilters from other parts of the country were doing. It might even be (another shrug) inspiring. She had held herself in check, even with Hap, whom she regarded as one of her closest friends, projecting a half-grimace over the cost of domestic flights, passing off the trip to Philadelphia as a mere whim – though a whim which required a certain amount of preparation. Jack and the children weren't used to having her gone. There were the meals. There was the laundry. 'Fuck the meals, fuck the damn laundry,' Hap had encouraged her.
Leaving 8:35, arriving 1:33. Brenda has taken this information over the phone asking the United reservation clerk to repeat the times and the flight number. She loves the busyness of facts, but distrusts them, and today, after breakfast, after everyone has left for the day, she plans to phone United again for a confirmation.
In the frying pan she melts a minute quantity of butter and cracks in four eggs, two for Jack, one for each of the children, none for herself. She is watching her weight, not dieting, just watching. Maintaining. And keeping a restive eye on her daughter Laurie, who in the last year has gone from a child's size twelve to a fourteen Chubette. Laurie's brand-new Big Sister jeans hardly fit as it is, but when she finishes her egg this morning she will be sure to reach for a second piece of toast. Only the stuffing of carbohydrates keeps her civil these days. Puberty is the worst of diseases, worse in its way that disease of withering appetites and painful restrictions. Brenda stares at the shiny side of the percolator and sees beyond it the tender beginnings of Laurie's breasts, melting and disappearing under new layers of fat. She imagines returning home in a week's time and finding her daughter obscenely bloated with food and maddened by sugary cravings. Poor Laurie. 'It looks like we're going to have a baby elephant on our hands,' Jack had remarked to Brenda only a week earlier. Brenda had reacted with fury. 'It's only baby fat. All girls go through a period of baby fat.'
She should, though, sit down with Laurie today; have a little talk, just the two of them.
But there is so much still to do, and she hasn't started packing. Two of her blouses need pressing: the green one, the one that goes with her suit and with the pants outfit as well, and the printed one, which she plans to wear to the final banquet. At 3:15 she is having her hair cut, tinted, and blown dry at a new place over on Lake Street which has wicker baskets and geraniums in the window and scarlet and silver wallpaper inside. And if there's time, she wants to make a casserole or two to leave for Jack and the children – lasagna maybe, they love lasagna. Not that they aren't capable of looking after themselves; even Rob can cook easy things – scrambled eggs, hamburgers – and Laurie's learned to make a fairly good Caesar salad. They're not babies anymore, Brenda says to herself, either of them.
Tomorrow morning. Saturday. Jack will drive her to the airport. They should plan to leave the house by seven; no, earlier, the car's been acting up lately, the rear brakes. She'll have to take it in herself when she gets back from Philadelphia and have it checked over. Jack tends to be vague and overly trusting (or overly distrusting) about mechanical things. What if they get a flat tire on the way to the airport? Unlikely, but still ... She should set the alarm for six, have her shower, get dressed and then wake Jack. She will say goodbye to the children tonight. No point hauling them out of their beds on a weekend morning.
Besides, there's always the danger that Laurie might cling to her. She should be past clinging, but she's not. Even going off to school in the morning she sometimes stands in the open doorway, letting the heat escape, clinging to Brenda. These embraces are wordless and pressing, and Laurie's breath seems imprisoned inside her heaving chest. Brenda can feel, or imagines she feels, the desperate, irregular thud of her daughter's heart through the material of her ski jacket.
And Rob has been so bad-tempered in the morning lately. Loutish, Jack calls it, though Brenda rises to his defense; Rob, or Robbie as she still sometimes thinks of him, is, after all, her firstborn child, and his lowered eyes (sulkiness) and dark, curling hair still make her heart seize with love. 'It's only adolescence,' she tells Jack. 'It's hormones. Fourteen's the worst age. We should be thankful he isn't on drugs. Or skipping school. Look at Benny Wallberg. Even Billy Lewis ...'
She puts forks and knives on the table, checks the eggs. She will have to stock up on eggs today. They could always fall back on eggs. Eggs, the complete food; where had she read that? And she should buy some canned soup. Jack likes chicken and rice, but Rob only likes tomato, and Laurie ... and what else?
From upstairs come noises, the familiar early-morning noises coming from different corners, but weaving together into a kind of coarsely made filament of sound from which the house at this hour seems suspended. A radio (Rob's) playing behind a closed door, and the uneven clumping of Laurie's Swedish clogs across the bedroom floor. And the endless running of the shower; don't they realize – even Jack – what hot water costs per month!
In another two minutes they will all be down, hungry, frowning, slouching in their chairs, demanding, accepting, preoccupied, still bound up in sleep and resistant to smiles or greetings. Rob will have sprouted a colony of new pimples on his chin, and last week's batch, the old ones, will be tipped with scabs – 'never scratch, never squeeze' the doctor has advised. Poor Rob. Laurie's blouse will be pulling out of her skirt already, and there will be a dribble of egg, round as a tear, next to her mouth. Jack will come down smelling of talcum, smelling of a male sort of privacy, as though his body has already completed half its daily rituals. He will reach out blindly for the Trib.
Should she perhaps resent the fact that he always helps himself to the front section of the Trib and, like a potentate, hands round to the others the lesser sections, the fashion page, the sports, the business pages? Brenda herself tends to get stuck most mornings with the business section, which she has found over the years to be surprisingly interesting. Not that she studies the graphs or reads the articles about Gross National Products or falling cocoa prices in west Africa; what she likes is to look at the photographs, the column-wide pictures of men – an occasional women too, of course, times are changing – who have achieved some sort of recent executive splendor, who are freshly appointed to some distinguished board of directors, or who have been transformed into vice-presidents of silverware companies or management-consulting firms or fire-and-casualty companies. Or else they are rising through the hierarchies of curious firms which manufacture mysterious products like vacufiles or turfspinners or gyrograters. Their success seems to Brenda to be dazzling but contained; they are poised for action, about to leap off the page, but something restrains them. There's a withheld muscularity in the pleasant, truncated necks and knotted ties, a darkness at the hairline which gives an air of brisk loyalty and purpose and probably good health. No perilous sodium nitrates or cholesterol-loaded eggs for these chosen stars. So-and-So, a graduate of Northwestern (A.B.), master's degree in Business Administration from Harvard, long record of service with firm since joining as trainee in 1960. (1960? – that was the year Jack had been taken on part-time at the Institute).
This public recognition, Brenda supposes, is deserved, richly deserved. And where do these rising executives live, she cannot help asking herself. Wilmette? Clarendon Hills? The Near North Side? Here in Elm Park perhaps? – of course; she has several times seen people she and Jack know featured in the business pages. But for the most part these men are strangers, mere names attached to faces. They are married? Divorced? Are there children? Children grown difficult and morose? Never mind, they are the climbers of ladders. Their faces are fleshed out, made smooth and calm and American by success.
It is amazing, Brenda thinks, that every day there can be a new batch of these success stories; it is a wonder that there is room in the world for so much success and money. These photographs and announcements aren't cheap, she's been told. Space in the Trib costs money. The Great Lakes Institute where Jack works considers these announcements an unnecessary extravagance.
Otherwise he might have had his picture in the paper when he was made Acting Curator of Explorations. And though he's never expressed any disappointment about this lack of public recognition, Brenda knows that he would probably like to have had his picture in the paper. He is surprisingly photogenic. That picture of him at the lake last summer in his gold-striped golf shirt – he could pass for thirty-eight, not forty-three. He has a useful, temperate face, and he's been lucky with his teeth, which are both straight and white. In the summer he tans more easily than many men, and his sandy-colored hair doesn't show up baldness the way dark hair does. Poor Jack. He would have liked his picture in the paper. He would have bought extra copies: one for his parents, one for his Aunt Ruth in the retirement village near Indianapolis. When he went to Elm Park wine-and-cheese parties or barbecues at the weekend he would have been happy thinking that his friends knew of his promotion, that they had seen his picture alongside those of stockbrokers and equipment salesmen. 'Well, yes,' he would have said, 'there will be a little more responsibility, maybe a little more traveling, but more headaches, too.'
But the Institute where he works is funded by trust money and has a board which examines finances and which has recently suggested that air conditioning be cut back except during July and August. The library budget is under review too, and the decision to upgrade the office equipment has been postponed. Furthermore, Dr. Middleton, who heads the Institute, is attached to the scholarly ideal of anonymity, and so staff promotions are soft-pedaled rather than celebrated and announced in the newspapers for the entertainment of women in the suburbs who sit idling over their black coffee and dry toast. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Happenstance by Carol Shields. Copyright © 2010 Carol Shields. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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