by Caroline Leavitt

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By Caroline Leavitt

Dzanc Books

Copyright © 1982 Caroline Leavitt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-3715-3


Duse's name was a living presence for six months before she herself was. It always bothered her; it never really seemed fair. She told Isadora that she had been labeled rather than named, that her own mother had tried to predetermine the contents, to shape and mold her when she wasn't even fully formed, when she could have been twins or male or anything really, but who and what she was. That prebirth naming was the first of what Duse called "sins against identity," the worst kind of fault because it meant an unfair thwarting of the self, a kind of killing.

It began for Duse in 1929 in Chicago. Her mother, Anna Polov, noticed a piece of newsprint skittering across the road. She was a superstitious woman who saw signs and portents in almost everything, and she stooped to pick up the paper, balancing her swollen stomach with one gloved hand, scooping up the paper with the other. She managed to stand, a little gracelessly, and leaned against a blue Ford parked in the street. The paper was stained with fish and it smelled, but still she smoothed it out, picking off the few shredding pieces of mackerel sticking to the headlines. The whiteness of her gloves was already tinted with fish. On one side of the paper was an advertisement for men's beaver coats, on the other was a picture of the actress Eleanora Duse and an article about her place in theatrical history. The photo was blurry, but Anna traced the features of that famous face, letting them mark her like a wound. She had never seen a play, had never really cared to, but she knew about Duse, she remembered when Duse had died, just a few years back, and how all the magazines had rushed out articles on her.

Anna liked that face. There was something intangible playing in it, something that she didn't think could be bitten down or destroyed. Duse, she said aloud, tasting the sound, experimenting with the feel of it in her mouth. Duse. She thought names carried power, that a good name could influence you, could rescue you. She wanted a little girl, she thirsted for a daughter, but she didn't want her to be tired and married the way she was, she wanted her girl to be special.

She named the baby right then, while it was still growing inside of her and her thoughts were swirling about it, nourishing it. An actress traveled, an actress could escape places as well as gossip.

Anna sliced the photo free of the paper and took it back to her tiny house. That picture would influence the workings of her womb, it would give her a gift of a girl. She put the photo into a long red scarf and knotted it about her belly. She never removed the scarf except when she bathed, and she loosened it as she grew still larger and bulkier with child. It was only when she carelessly tipped over her tin laundry tub, sloshing warm soapy water over her belly, that she undid the scarf for good. She spread the scarf out, shaking, and she could see that the photo was nothing more now than damp shreds of gray papery lint.

Duse might not have had control over her own naming, but she would always tell Isadora that at least she had seemed to choose her own time to make her entrance into the world. Duse was born in the late afternoon, right on Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed. Anna was cooking dinner, rattling the pans along her enamel stove, keeping one hand pressed lightly on her cramping belly, the other fisted about a wood stir spoon.

When Duse started up Anna's labor, Anna told herself to ignore it, she wasn't due for another month, and the pains were simply because she had feasted on corned beef for lunch. That was all. There was nothing to be so coltish about. She took a deep breath, she turned the Welsh pudding down, and then the pains were deep and sudden, they folded her right over. The baby was born quickly, almost casually spilling out onto the floor, crying at the smell of dinner blackening and smoking in the pot, at the light, at the ragged terror in Anna's breathing, at her disbelief.

Duse's father's name was Richard. He was a photographer, and, according to Duse, he was responsible for some of her hardesthealing sins of identity. He would never be able to forgive her for being born the same day the market folded, he would always somehow associate her with the Great Depression, and he saw no reason to celebrate either. Any parties, any gifts, were always given to Duse a day late, and there was always an argument with Anna.

But Anna, too, had her own difficulties with Duse. Richard left Duse's raising to Anna, but Anna never had any idea how to deal with a baby. She had been an only child, unexposed to babies, and she fumbled blindly. She was having a hard enough time with Richard being out of the house so often; there were always things she needed from one of the markets, things she had to run outside for, and she couldn't afford to hire anyone to watch Duse. So she ended up leaving the baby alone.

At first, she was plagued by guilt. A baby would slow her down, she told herself, it was really better for her to rush like this, to let Duse incubate in the heated house. She carried the plaintive cries of Duse inside her own breath as she pushed down the street; she made it a habit to ask for advice from anyone who was willing to give it—the grocer's wife in her dotted swiss apron, the woman buying meat from the butcher, another mother wheeling her baby in a covered pram. The grocer's wife told Anna about scientific childrearing, told Anna that she was being silly to worry. "It's good for babies to cry," she said. "It makes them strong. You don't want them coddled like eggs. That little one will get used to being alone soon enough."

Sometimes, as Anna made her way back to the apartment, she imagined Duse smothered in her baby blankets, broken or bleeding red on the floor. Anna's breath clamped when she jiggered the key into the front door. But Duse was always lying still, eyes open and blinking, content. The grocer's wife was right, that baby was growing used to the silence, to the dim light. When Anna cooked, she tried to keep Duse in the kitchen, but even then she worried that the banging of the pots would rupture those tender shell ears, so she plucked the baby up and carried her into the other room. She shut the door, sealing up the cracks at the bottom with some old and fraying dish towels. The kitchen noises wouldn't get through, but the sharp sudden cries of a baby would.

At first, she was delighted at how good a baby Duse was, how still. But then, with Richard gone until dinner, she began to feel lonely. She wasn't sure how babies were supposed to act, but she suspected that they might be a comfort, that they might offer company. She began to notice her Duse with a critical, slicing eye. She saw how Duse was neither comfort nor company. Duse hardly seemed to react at all sometimes. Anna would prod her, holding her baby mush too far away, but Duse would play with her fingers, suck on her toes. Anna would take away a bright toy and Duse would spend hours mesmerized by a fleck of dust; she'd pat it from one end of the room to the other. The thing that frightened Anna the most, though, was Duse's blank staring, almost as if she didn't acknowledge anyone's presence but her own.

Her Duse seemed to be living in a separate world, and Anna began to agonize that maybe this strangeness was her fault. She shouldn't have listened to the damning advice she was given, she should have just taken Duse with her when she went out, or simply not gone out at all. Instead, she had driven a love of solitude into that baby, and now she couldn't make it connect up with her. Maybe it went even deeper, maybe she hadn't worn the picture of that actress long enough, maybe it was because she had ruined the photo in the slop of the laundry water. That could have colored her baby, could have made her different. Anna worried that there was something terribly wrong with her child, something that even strangers might pick up, might mark her with. It made Anna distrustful. She didn't like anyone peering into the pram when she wheeled Duse, and she parried other mothers' questions. She was curt. She kept a heavy veiling over the pram, she shortened her skirt more than was really decent, but she did it so that she could outdistance anyone's probing eyes, anyone's slicing questions.

Anna tried changing Duse. She wouldn't let her baby sleep her long deathly hours anymore, but would prod her awake, shaking the crib, rattling a spoon along the wooden slats. If she saw Duse dreaming, Anna would clap her hands, would drop a plate, shattering it, startling the baby into activity. She kept the radio booming, she turned the sound of the serials up so that even the static was deafening. She wanted Duse to have voices all around her, to be aware of people, of sound. Anna tried to kiss and cuddle Duse, but Duse, used to silence, to no other touch but the air wafting around her, but her own fingers, never seemed to like affection, never seemed quite comfortable with another's hands on her. When Anna stooped to pick her up, Duse screamed, she growled, she clung to the tufts on the rug, until Anna, horrified, released her grip and set her down. Anna would weep until Richard came home, but he was always tired; it was all he could do to chuck her under the chin before he slumped to the table, hungry for his meal. He didn't want to hear problems, and it was not her place to insist.

The Depression changed Richard. It did something to him. The energy and feeling he should have given Duse, he gave, instead, to the times. He watched the Depression grow, not his baby, not his girl, and he was working such long hours that he seldom saw Duse at all. Not that he suffered. He was never one of those men carrying billboards strapped to their backs like extra coats; he never had to jitter and move in a dance of sales. Richard's job was a necessity. Everyone wanted all the sugar coating they could get, so the government hired Richard for "public morale" work. He snapped away at all the success stories of the Depression, the beauty contests, the mock food fairs—the ways people pretended that they were doing just fine.

The Depression jinxed his camera. Never again did he feel that old familiar giddiness, that sense of truth when he set up a shot. He saw how the camera lied about everything, how it manipulated; he took to staring at all his old photographs of Anna, to calling her into the room so he could compare the image with the woman before him. He never took pictures of Duse.

"Play with the baby," Anna told him. "Don't mope." And he sometimes did try, but as soon as Duse became cranky he would pull himself back, he would deny the contact. He shut himself up in his study a lot, and then, when he felt guilty, he would go and peek in at her while she slept, while she was silent and unmoving.

He wasn't around much when she started walking. By the time she started school, he had virtually no idea what she did during the day, how she played. At dinner, he hushed her prattle; after dinner, he wanted peace to listen to the radio, to read his paper. It wasn't until Duse was five that he suddenly noticed the way she sometimes looked at him, the way she would twist away from him. When he grabbed her, when he tried to give her a hug, she peeled his hands away from her, she jerked away. He stopped trying to give her hugs, he told Anna their Duse was an independent little thing, and when Anna agreed, he felt a little less uneasy.

When Duse was six, she suddenly noticed how the photo albums were filled with Anna and were blank of her own face. She wanted to see for herself just what she looked like as a baby. She was tired of riding along on other people's descriptions. "I've been cheated," she thought, and she walked right up to Richard, she wanted him to take her picture right then. He held out his arms for her and when she wouldn't budge, he let them drop back down into his lap. "What do you need a picture for?" he said. "Go look in the mirror."

"I'm getting bigger," she said. "I need to remember what I look like."

"You do, do you," he said. "Well let me tell you something, baby, memory's just a cheat."

"I won't be this size forever," she said.

His face turned suddenly thoughtful. "I know," he said. "Everything always gets bigger, always needs more space."

She didn't know what he meant. But she began to think about it, about how he could see her one way while she was seeing herself another. She began watching him, too, seeing how he was. She saw him hanging around the kitchen after dinner, waiting until Anna was fussing in the dishwater before he would poke around in the garbage, bringing up a chipped cup that he claimed was perfectly good, scavenging in the food and demanding to know why Anna threw out a quarter of a pound of good meat. One night, when Duse couldn't sleep, she peered out her window looking for shooting stars, and saw Richard out there, barefooted, flexing his toes in the grass. He was just standing there, his eyes shut, and then she saw him stoop down by the rock garden. She saw him digging with his hands, then standing and putting those palms up to his face as if he were inhaling the scent of the dirt. She waited until he turned back to the house, and then she went back into her bed; trying to sleep, she put her own hands over her face, she inhaled and wondered.

The next day she asked Anna about it, but Anna said she must have just been dreaming, and when Duse approached Richard, he told her she was being silly. Why would a grown man go out onto the lawn in the middle of the night and put dirty hands up against his nose? Still, she noticed, when she went outside to play, the quick way Richard stalked her if she rambled in the rock garden. "Leave that alone—" he'd call. He told her he was worried she would get hurt and they couldn't afford the doctor bills.

There was a lot he said they couldn't afford because of the Depression. Duse didn't understand the Depression, didn't have any real sense of it. Later, of course, she would say that it had nothing to do with the times, that the Depression was simply people's fate catching up with them, that the lucky were being sifted from the unlucky. There was only one real way Duse suffered in those times, and that had to do with clothing.

Richard wouldn't allow Anna to buy new clothes or even to buy material to make them herself. Instead, she had to go and get boxes from the church rummage sales, she had to pluck things out for handfuls of the pocket money Richard gave her. She tried. She kept telling Richard how cheap clothing in the stores was, how much more they could get for their money (and there was money coming into that house), but Richard was stubborn, he wouldn't listen. There was always a slithering of skirts and blouses on the living room floor, always shoes with their laces knotted together, darned woolen stockings, jackets with the names inked right into the collars.

Every month Anna sorted out piles. "Come here," she would tell Duse, holding up a green dress. "Let me hold this against you. It's clean and it's kind of pretty, too, isn't it?" Anna always found things for herself. She could wrap someone's old fox fur about her, the head on it so mothy that it no longer gripped its own ragged tail, and she could make that piece hers, she could obliterate any past it held. But for Duse, it was different. Right from the start.

She could remember a blue shirt. She was six. Ricky Jones was two years older than she, tall and thin, and the back of his neck and his elbows were mottled, his flesh seemed to be rotting away from him. She recognized the shirt when Anna held it up. The neon blue of it hurt her eyes and she had to blink against it, but she had put it on, stroking the wrinkles flat against her skin. She wore it, the strange blue giddy inside of her, but she felt something taking root. Her elbows began to itch, the nape of her neck heated. She kept lifting her hair, heavy and strong and red, from her back to scratch, but her fingers never found anything but her own pale, smooth skin. When she rolled up her sleeves, her elbows were unblemished. Still, she felt poxed. The swift, clean shame ate at her, and she savagely tugged her sleeves down, buttoning the wrists. All through school, she could smell Ricky, the medication he slabbed on his skin. She had to excuse herself to go to the girl's room, to stare at her face in the mirror. Her features looked different to her, they seemed to be changing right in front of her. She wanted to jerk that shirt right off her back. Instead, she went back to class, she carefully took up a paintbrush and spattered red paint onto the shirt front. When she came home, Anna took the shirt and scrubbed the front of it with a nailbrush so fiercely that the cloth wore through.


Excerpted from Lifelines by Caroline Leavitt. Copyright © 1982 Caroline Leavitt. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eight novels. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a columnist for the Boston Globe, a book reviewer for People, and a writing instructor at UCLA online.

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