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Mother once said I'd marry a quarryman. She looked at me as we washed clothes in the giant steel washtub, two pairs of water-wrinkled hands scrubbing and soaking other people's laundry. We were elbow-deep in dirty suds and our fingers brushed under the foamy mounds.
"Some mistakes are bound to be repeated," she murmured.
We lived in Stony Creek, a granite town at a time when granite was going out of fashion. There were only three types of men here: Cottagers, rich, paunchy vacationers who swooped into our little Connecticut town in May and wiled away time on their sailboats through August; townsmen, small-time merchants and business owners who dreamed of becoming Cottagers; and quarrymen, men like my father, who worked with no thought to the future.
The quarrymen toiled twelve hours a day, six days a week. They didn't care that they smelled of granite dust and horses, grease and putty powder. They didn't care about cleaning the crescents of grime from underneath their fingernails. Even when they heard the foreman's emergency signal, three sharp shrieks of steam, they scarcely looked up from their work. In the face of a black powder explosion gone awry or the crushing finality of a wrongly cleaved stone, they remained undaunted.
I knew why they lived this way. They did it for the granite. Nowhere else on earth did such stone exist mesmerizing collages of white quartz, pink and gray feldspar, black lodestone, winking glints of mica. Stony Creek granite was so striking, it graced the most majestic of architecture: the Battle Monument at West Point, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Fulton Building in Pittsburgh, the foundations of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. The quarrymen of Stony Creek would wither and fall before the Cottagers, before the townsmen. But the fruits of their labor tethered them to a history that would stand forever.
"You'll marry one, Adele I'm sure of it. His hands will be tough as buckskin, but you'll love him regardless," Mother told me, her breath warm in my ear as the steam of the wastewater rose around us.
I didn't say that she was wrong, that she couldn't know what would happen. I'd learned that from the quarry. Pa was a stonecutter and he cut the granite according to rift and grain, to what he could feel with his fingertips and see with his eyes. But there were cracks below the surface, cracks that betrayed the careful placement of a chisel and the pounding of a mallet. The most beautiful piece of stone could shatter into a pile of riprap. It all depended on where those cracks teased and wound, on where the stone would fracture when forced apart.
"Keep your eyes open, Adele. I don't know who it will be a steam driller, boxer, derrickman, powderman? Maybe a stonecutter like your father?" I turned away from her, feigning disinterest. "There's no predicting," I told her.
In May 1936 the sun, convinced of an early solstice, shone so warmly that the citizens of Stony Creek kept fresh handkerchiefs in every pocket to wipe off their perspiring faces. I kept three and used them all as I walked the mile from our boardinghouse to the quarry. I brought lunch to my brother, Charles, and to Pa. Despite the heat I basked in the freedom of my walks. Out of school until autumn, I was under the constant scrutiny of Mother, who always had a fresh pile of laundry that needed attention, and if not laundry, then some other chore. I welcomed any errand that took me out of her eyeshot.
Upon reaching the work site I would look for ways to dawdle. Sometimes I could convince one of the quarrymen to tell me a story. Most of the men didn't mind chatting as they worked. Still steeped in the lore of their ancestors, they spoke to understand where they'd come from and where they were now, how it had come to pass that they spent their days in a giant crevasse hacked out by their own hands. Maybe the granite itself kept them talking. The patterns in the stone were hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, powerfully inducive. Stare at them too long and you could start to see things, people and stories compressed between layers of sediment.
Old Man Richter, a stone loader, spun the best yarns. That day I passed him at the creek bank. Here, an estuary whooshed by fiercely before giving in to the sea. All around, the blades of the salt marsh bent under gentle winds. Old Man Richter was fishing for eel a free lunch. He was up to his knees in the brackish water, stabbing the muddy bottom with a hand-fashioned spear: a pocketknife tied to a broom handle. His rolled-up sleeves and pants' legs revealed sinew and strength, the physique of a younger man. Yet he was the oldest worker in the quarry by at least a decade.
"Afternoon,Mr. Richter," I piped.
Though I knew I oughtn't Mother wouldn't have liked it I took off my shoes and waded into the creek. The water nibbled the hem of my skirt. The pebbles, slick with algae, felt smooth and cool under my feet. I sidled up to Mr. Richter carefully.
"Say, Adele, do you remember when the shanties were close to here? When they were only yards away? You could get out of bed and practically trip over the edge of the quarry."
"I think I'm too young to remember."
He squinted at me, his eyes settling on my long braids, on the smattering of freckles on the bridge of my nose.
"Oh, too young," he repeated. "Sixteen?"
Mr. Richter had always been a presence in my life. When I was a child he'd doted on me as if I were a favorite grandchild or niece. He'd come to my Sunday tea parties, sitting outside on a make-believe chair between two of my make-believe friends. I'd pour seawater from a chipped blue teapot Mother let me borrow and Mr. Richter would unearth linty sugar cubes from his pockets. He'd always remembered my birthdays, too. Once, he'd surprised me with a bicycle. It was a boy's bicycle and a little worse for wear, but how dazzled I'd felt when I'd laid eyes on it.
"Seventeen," I corrected.
His eyes widened merrily. "My! You'll have to pardon me."
"What was it like living close to the quarry?" I asked him.
He jabbed the spear, stirring the already murky water. When the knife came up empty, he sighed. "Not so different, except for the black powder. There are accidents now, but not like then. No one knew what to expect from a blast, no matter how careful we planned it. My lord, we had to watch ourselves. Stone was always flying. My wife was sure I'd lose an eye. She was sure we'd all go blind eventually. She had big statues of all the saints lined up on the bureau. Every night she'd save a little of our dinner and offer it to them a bribe to keep me safe." He smiled, the remainder of his teeth worn down and yellow-rotten. "A loon, that woman was."
Old Man Richter's spear emerged again. This time an inky, slippery-long fish dangled from the tip. Though the knife had plainly impaled it, still the eel squiggled.
"Want a bite?" he joked, waving the spear in the air.
He couldn't have expected girlish squeals or even blushing. Mr. Richter knew as well as anyone that I'd grown up around the quarry, that I was used to rough talk, and fish scales, and granite pebbles lodged in the soles of my shoes. One thing I would never be mistaken for was a Cottager's daughter.
"Cook it up and maybe I will," I told him, my words coming out so clipped and fearless they stopped him outright.
I pulled on my shoes and left Old Man Richter to skin and cook his lunch. After circling the work site several times I found Pa. He was sitting on an empty dynamite keg outside the cutting sheds. I was surprised to see him at rest he seldom allowed himself a lunch break. I knew I had only a few minutes to give him his meal before he went back to work, his smile upon seeing me replaced by grim concentration.
Pa ate quickly, wheezing and coughing between bites. He'd tucked the dust mask Mother had sewn for him carelessly in a pocket. He'd promised to use it, but wore it only when representatives from the insurance company came for inspection twice a year, like clockwork. It was obvious that he was resigned to his fate: silicosis, the stonecutter's black lung. He'd carved his tombstone five years back, at the age of thirty-four. All the stonecutters made this morbid gesture early. Everyone knew that their day was distressingly near, so much dust come back to haunt them.
"Delicious, Adele," he said. I smiled, though I knew he was lying. He ate the same lunch every day: cheese, homemade pickles, and salami tucked between slices of brown bread.
"You've been helping your mother?" he asked. I nodded. His eyes were kind, and I felt buoyed by them, like the channel markers that bobbed on the surface of Long Island Sound.
"But I hope you've saved some time for yourself," he continued, tilting back his head, lips parted as if to drink in the sun, the blue blaze of sky. "A day like this doesn't come around often." I, too, dipped back my head. Together, we watched the clouds drift past like elegant ladies in wispy white gowns.
"Francisco used to spend whole days like this doing nothing," Pa said. "He never felt bad about it, either. No matter how much my mother yelled at him, or how much the teacher scolded him for skipping school, he didn't give a darn. He did things his own way, at his own pace, no matter what."
I loved to hear Pa talk about his brother and the adventures they'd shared as children. It didn't matter that I'd never met Francisco. In fact, my ignorance probably added to his allure. What I didn't know about Francisco, I had the privilege of imagining: the way his hair blew lazily in the wind, how his laugh lines made his face ruggedly handsome. Pa had disclosed some details over the years. I knew, for instance, that you couldn't pin Francisco down. He lived by neither calendar nor clock. A traveling musician, he possessed an aversion to routine and obligation. Pa said he preferred untrod continents, sun-blanched earth, pungent spices that came from across wide seas. Though he was younger than Pa, Francisco had already seen the greatest places in the world: the Taj Majal, the Great Wall of China, the pyramids. He sent Pa postcards of these distant wonders, but I'd never seen them. Pa kept them tucked away.
Sometimes, when I stared at the gray water in the laundry tub, I conjured Francisco's reflection, or rather, how I pictured it to be: something like Pa's, but livelier, a thrill about the lips, eyes brimming with intrigue. I'd feel my heart palpitating, and I'd worry Mother would notice that something was different, that I was acting strange. I knew if she asked me any questions, guilt would consume me and I'd blurt the whole thing: how I was infatuated with a relative I'd never met.
Staring at the clouds, Pa and I were quiet for a time. The silence was comforting a lull rather than a void. I felt sustained by it, even nourished, the clutter and noise of the day secondary to the vista above. But the foreman's whistle sounded all too soon and Pa was back on his feet. His eyes shifted into focus. I was in the periphery now; his work, the splitting and drilling and polishing, at center. A pang of regret took me. I wished we'd had more time to daydream. My father seemed happiest when he slipped away from normal consciousness, forgetting for a precious clutch of seconds that he was at the mercy of his job, and Mother, and even, I suppose, of me.
"Hurry to Charles," he said, bending down to collect his tools. "He's in Tahiti." All the sheds were named after islands in the South Pacific. No one seemed to know why, exactly. But stonecutters are storymen, and I reckoned the blue of the tropics was more captivating than the muted shades of New England. "By now he'll be ravenous, I can bet you."
I found my brother surrounded by a cloud of dust that billowed from the cutting and carving machinery. A raggedy cap sat askew on his head, casting a shadow over his eyes. Engine grease marked his cheeks like war paint, contrasting starkly with his parchment-pale skin. His clothes and thick-soled shoes were coated with granite powder. Scrap rock sat in heaps and tumbling piles everywhere the waste of splitting and cutting the dimension stone. The air inside the shed moved sluggishly a hot, murky, amorphous mass quite unlike the clouds Pa and I had just admired.
"You're late again. I swear you do it on purpose," Charles said gruffly, eyeing the lunch pail. I removed a second sandwich and offered it to him. He snatched it like a street urchin stealing fruit from a stand. At the same time some of the men looked up, noting my arrival with interest. A long, low whistle escaped from the other side of the shed, followed by laughter. Girls were a rarity here. And even girls like me, perch-pole thin, sun-browned, and dressed in patched clothes, roused excitement.
"I can't keep waiting for you," he chastised.
"Sorry. I was just I was talking with Pa."
I noticed that under his hat my brother's hair was damp. The blacksmiths must have dunked his head in the cooling barrel again, a common enough prank, but one usually reserved for tool boys and newcomers. Charles, a year older than I, had worked in the quarry every summer since he was eleven. By now he should have been one of the gang.
"Why do you let them do that?"
"It's not up to me," he charged, struggling to keep his voice low. "If it were if I had any choice at all I wouldn't be here. You know that."
"You shouldn't separate yourself."
Mid-chew, Charles glared at me. "And what would you know about that? You, who prance around like you're in some kind of fantasy land?"
I heard echoes of Mother in his talk. She, too, frowned upon the stonecutters, and all the quarrymen for that matter, even though she had married Pa, even though our lives were weighted with granite. "Their ribald talk, how it tires the ears!" she would say, always in front of Charles, who already eschewed the stonecutters' company, who already courted their ire. He acted like he was better than they were, but that would mean he was better than Pa, and surely he couldn't claim that.
"I should get going," I hastened. "Mother expects me back."
I wanted to say something else, something that would extinguish the flicker in his eyes, which threatened to spark, to explode into flame. But I couldn't say what I truly felt that he could burn us all with his discontent.
"Isn't it nice to have that luxury? To leave when you want? To do what you want?"
"We all have duties."
"Duties? You have simple chores things I could do blindfolded. You're so provincial, Adele. You don't even know how small this place is. When I think about all the things I'll do when I get out of here, all the people I'll meet and plans I'll make...I tell you it makes me want to throw in my tools this very instant."
His voice had risen and he was motioning broadly with his arms. But I didn't know what he was waving at the dust clouds, the machinery noise, the resentment of his peers?
"We all have duties," I repeated, a little ashamed, knowing that I wasn't convincing anyone, least of all myself.
On my way home I walked slowly. By now Mother would be watching the clock, but the shoreline was simply too beautiful to rush past. Once again I took off my shoes, my toes sinking into the wet sand as I wandered the beach. The sharp salt air caught in my lungs and I felt heady, almost reckless, as I dug into the lunch pail and unearthed the last sandwich. This I tore up and fed to the gulls that spun, zipped, and dove overhead, suspended as if on marionette strings between sky and sea.
I'd always had a fondness for seabirds. When I was very young I'd found a fledgling huddled on the beach, unable to fly. Its delicate, downy feathers had been soaked with sea spray. I'd cupped the bird in my hands gently, determined to make it my pet. Then I'd noticed its straw-thin legs, half-crippled, snarled in fishing line. For how long? I'd wondered. I'd spent hours untwisting and unknotting. Underneath the tangle, the bird's feathers had matted, the quills digging awkwardly, viciously, into its flesh. These I'd plucked with great reluctance, for by then the gull's pain had also been my own.
I didn't know if the animal would live, lame as it was. When at last I removed the line, it hobbled away, wanting nothing more to do with me. Wings beating frantically, it struggled to fly. I didn't think it could, but after tottering down a stretch of beach, yellow legs regaining purpose, it lifted. Aloft, it lurched, making desperate, lopsided bids to right itself. I thought it would careen into the water, but it found its way somehow, growing bolder, more confident, as if the fishing line I'd tucked into my apron were nothing more than a bad dream.
I'd smiled, joyous. But envious, too. I'd wished my life could be so suddenly changed. Despite what Charles thought, he and I weren't so different.
When I finally arrived home, I was intercepted on the front porch by Greta Prowl, our landlady. Miss Prowl owned and managed the house from her apartment on the first floor. My family lived in the apartment on the second. As I made my way up the porch steps, which were rickety and in need of a fresh whitewash, she stood up from her rocking chair. It was the perch on which she spent much of her day. She liked to peep over an open magazine or book, watching neighbors scurry past. I was sure she kept a running tally of their goings-on.
I passed and she leaned over to yank one of my braids, a hostile act disguised as playfulness. She had never liked me much, for reasons I didn't understand. Indeed, the older I became, the more her aversion manifested itself.
"It's about time you cut that hair, Adele Pietra. Don't know anyone else who wears it long and plaited like you do."
I shrugged, trying to get by, but she stood like a barricade.
"How is your father?" she asked. Her red lipstick had smeared clownishly. Despite the shade cast by the house's overhanging roof, she was perspiring heavily. Large wet spots soaked her underarms. A trail of sweat snailed past her ear.
"And your brother? He's fine, too, hey?"
"Sorry, Miss Prowl, but I need to get in the house. I'm late."
"Late for what? It seems to me you're following no one's schedule but your own." I wondered if she spied on me, not just here but down by the water, too. I gave her a hard look, hoping to break her momentum. Carmine laced the whites of her eyes. She smelled dankly of perfume and spirits.
"Your brother," she continued. "He's grown up handsome, he sure has. I can tell he'll go far. But you, you're taking a while to find your place."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Of course you do. You know that the options in this town are limited. Hell, they're downright measly."
I didn't reply, yet Miss Prowl seldom needed a second party to keep conversation flowing. She tugged fretfully at her blouse, which bunched at the waist, revealing her formidable girth. Her mouth pursed. At the same time, the lines on her forehead deepened, revealing her age, which she tried to conceal by way of carriage and dress.
"You're almost a woman now," she continued. "I remember Gertrude at your age oh, all too well. Not that you two look much alike."
I knew she wasn't necessarily referring to my mother's appearance, but to her history back in the days when she had been called Gertrude, Gertie, or, more commonly, Miss Mockleton. It was a subject gossips delighted in, which was why I suddenly saw no reason to mind my manners.
"Excuse me," I said coldly, reaching around her, making for the doorknob. "I have chores waiting." Miss Prowl's mouth opened in protest, but I slipped away before she could reply.
When I reached the second floor, Mother was already standing in the doorway, arms akimbo. "You're wasting your time, Adele. And mine, too."
"Sorry, always sorry, but always late."
"Miss Prowl wanted to talk."
"Talking with Miss Prowl is no better than loitering around the workers. I've told you before what they think of girls who linger about the sheds." She sighed, smoothing her apron. "Have you had your lunch, at least?"
I nodded. "On the way home."
"I can't tell from the looks of you." She clasped my wrist with her fingers, squeezing until she struck bone. The safe feeling I'd had since seeing Pa vanished completely.
"Well, have a little lemonade, at least," she continued. "I just made a pitcher."
I poured myself a glass and cut a few chips of ice from the melting block at the bottom of the icebox. Before I could take the first sip, though, Mother handed me the sewing basket. It was piled high with socks.
"I've been darning, but my eyes are tired," she admitted.
I thought she would retire to bed to rest. Instead, she followed me to the kitchen table and took a seat beside me as I threaded a needle. I was not as nimble as she, and my fingers felt clumsy under her stare. It was always this way.
For several minutes we sat in silence. Unlike Pa, Mother loathed moments of quiet reflection. Silence did not become her. She was a person of motion and purpose all fluttering hands, fleet speech, and rapidly blinking eyes. She pretended to be idle only when she had news to share. I waited.
"Your father. By now you must realize his condition is getting worse," she said at last. She fingered the ruby brooch at her throat. But for my mother, no other quarryman's wife wore jewelry; no other quarryman's wife owned jewelry. The brooch was a remnant from her earlier life. Its sparkle caught the sheen of her eyes, an ardent glimmer that at once attracted people and kept them at bay.
"There is no easy way to say what I want to say, so I'm just going to come out with it: the security you've known it is no longer guaranteed."
For many months, perhaps even a year, I'd heard Pa coughing through the walls at night. The noise pierced my dreams, keeping me awake and reeling with worry. Yet his coughing was so persistent, it seemed almost innocuous in its constancy.
"Your brother will move on," she continued. "It's in his nature to look forward. But you I'm concerned that you have not yet thought about the future. You're so preoccupied, Adele. So dreamy. Most of the time I have no idea what you're thinking."
I watched her face rather than the needle until the sharp point struck my thumb. She swiftly grabbed my hand and wiped away the burgeoning bead of blood with a handkerchief. Her eyes strayed to the crimson blot, unnaturally bright on the starchy white cloth.
"He's been coughing a long time," I reasoned, watching the blood boil up again from the puncture. "His health is probably the same as it was."
"Your father's father died when he was thirty-four. He died in the quarry, his hands still clasping a cutting tool." Of course I knew this story already, and was upset that Mother would revisit it so casually. The crisp tone of her voice had turned my skin to gooseflesh.
"That was a different time, a harder time," I argued.
"Was it? Your grandfather died of dust in the lungs, and chances are your father will meet the same end. The only thing that's changed around here is the state of the industry. Before you were born, there were four companies mining the quarry. Now there's only Palanzas, and even they're shrinking. I don't know how much longer it will be before they start laying people off. Lord knows we all thought it would have happened already."
I cringed at her words, so brusque and incisive. Did the possibility of Pa's death stir nothing in her heart?
"What I am trying to say, Adele, is that you will need a man to take care of you."
"I have Pa," I cried indignantly.
"Aren't you listening, dearest? I'm talking about survival yours and mine. I'll have no way to support you. We own nothing, not even this apartment. And Adele, listen to me, you're not a child anymore, much as you act like one."
"I know what you're getting at." And I did. She meant for me to marry; she'd hinted at it enough times. Mother had wed a quarryman, and more than once she'd called it a mistake the worst she'd ever made. So why, then, did she expect me to hitch my life to a quarryman's too? I couldn't comprehend her logic. How could she assume that Charles would forge ahead and beyond, while she simultaneously believed I would retrace her steps, ensnaring myself in all the pits and traps she herself had already exposed?
Later, with the gift of hindsight, I would revisit Mother's motives with a clearer mind. I'd think that maybe she couldn't envision my life as different from hers because she was confined by her own example. Maybe, despite evidence to the contrary, she was a traditionalist at heart, believing that being a boy meant having special freedoms, while being a girl meant losing them. Her low expectations of me were not necessarily a sign of malevolence, I would try to convince myself. Maybe Mother's attitude toward me was simply a result of misguided thinking, favoritism, limited resources, or even unacknowledged jealousy. I didn't know at that moment, and even later, to be honest, I'd never be sure.
Mother didn't respond and I stood up. She rose, too. She was tall, taller than anyone else in the family, and as she faced me I found myself eye-level with the brooch.
"It will be yours someday," she said softly, following the trajectory of my gaze. I didn't tell her that I didn't like her jewelry: the brooch, or the matching necklace, bracelet, earrings, and ring she kept hidden under a loose floorboard. Such precious items sparked talk. They made enemies of the women who might have been our allies. Most of all, they reminded people that Mother was different, that she had once gripped privilege tight in her fist.
"I don't want it."
"Oh, Adele. You will, you will. You can't possibly be content with what you've got this quarry, your secondhand books. You're my daughter, after all." But I knew I would never have her taste for finery and flash.
Her hand rested on my shoulder, long fingers digging into my flesh. Mother had beautiful hands despite hundreds of hours in the laundry washtub. Most nights she wrapped them in rags soaked in her special salve: cooking grease, honey, the comfrey root and lemon balm she grew in her little garden.
"Silvio Russo has been watching you for some time. He inquires about you whenever I see him. Adele, he is a reliable worker and by all accounts a good man. Even your father likes him."
Silvio was older than Pa certainly too old for the likes of me. His face was a complicated map of wrinkles and planes, scars and pockmarks. It was a fascinating face, for it surely charted the course of his life, a life drawing toward a close. But mine was only just beginning.
"He's worked at the quarry for years. He's known this family for years," she continued.
If I weren't so shocked, I might have been outraged. Of all the men Mother might have suggested for me, she had picked one of the eldest and most beleaguered-looking quarrymen. Why, I wanted to demand, must I do as she had done and take another turn on this luckless wheel? Instead, I stayed quiet, frozen even, thinking about the pink rock of Stony Creek, how it would be Pa's undoing and maybe mine as well.
"Just consider it. That's all I ask," she continued, and I swear I caught a dash of resentment in her tone, just the tiniest shred. She searched my face, and I felt the familiar pressure of her eyes, how startlingly pretty they were, like her hands. "Remember that what you make of your future will affect me as well."
Her fingers slid from my shoulder then. My skin tingled where she had pressed. A moment later she left, leaving me to tend to the nick on my finger, which hadn't stopped bleeding.
That evening everything seemed a little different in our home. I noted the unmistakable pallor of Pa's face, how exhausted he seemed, slumped in his chair through dinner. I noted the friction between him and Mother, two ill-fitting granite blocks grinding each other down. I wondered if he knew of her plans for me. He said little during the meal, speaking only when addressed. Mother and Charles, on the other hand, talked endlessly of their favorite subject: the College Entrance Exam. Charles had been studying for it for a full year, and now it was nearly here only two weeks away. If he did well, Mother swore the unheard-of would happen: a quarryman's son would go on to higher education.
Usually college was left to the Cottagers, but Mother had long shook her head at that notion. She said Charles made excellent marks in school. He had an insatiable hunger for learning didn't his teachers always remark upon it? With the right recommendations and a full scholarship, of course a full scholarship, he would be poised for admission to the best universities. Perhaps even Yale. And that's when Charles's and Mother's eyes really glowed, for Yale to them would mean the ultimate escape: escape from this ramshackle house, from endless sacks of laundry, from this abyss of a town.
Yale was only twenty miles away, a short trip on the railway. Yet it had taken on the feel of a distant Canaan. I'd been to New Haven only once, but I'd been humbled by what I'd seen: young men dapper in their suits, all gloss, snap, and pomp, bustling with determination as I tried to look like I belonged, plunging my chafed hands into my pockets and wishing I'd styled my hair differently, not so much like a little girl's. The streets had been dazzling York and Prospect and Whitney and Chapel every one of them wide and grand, shaded by enormous elms, and I'd had no means of comparison, for the street on which we lived still turned to mud when it rained.
Mother and Charles had strolled through the city like they had every right to be there. They'd clutched each other's arms and pointed excitedly at sights that caught their fancy. What they saw was theirs and theirs alone. Pa and I, we walked two steps behind, staring at the sky like we always did when dreaming was preferable to real life.
When dinner ended I cleared the table. I scraped each plate clean, watching striper bones, snap peas, and bits of mashed potato fall into the waste bucket. Mother and Charles, meanwhile, prepared for the evening's studies. During the school year, Charles had plenty of time to pore over historical dates and mathematical theorems. But during the summer, with so many hours at the quarry, he confined his studying to the precious margins of his schedule evenings and all day Sunday. Mother was always ready to lend a helping hand. She'd told me once that she herself had dreamed of higher education, long ago, before love and its many complications had intervened. She'd grown up in an educated household, after all, her father a celebrated scholar. I still remember the excitement in her voice when she'd talked about the number of books her parents had kept.
"Hundreds, Adele, simply hundreds."
I ran downstairs to fetch water from the pump, then returned to fill the sink, letting the dishes soak. From below, I could hear faint drifts of music. Bessie Smith crooned "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" while Miss Prowl sang along, her voice tipsy, quavering, rhythmless.
In the adjacent room, Mother repeated vocabulary words from a list. Charles struggled to define them. When he missed one, Mother would cluck disapprovingly. She'd recited the same list several weeks ago and I recalled all the words, even the ones that baffled my brother. I whispered the definitions to myself as I carried a blanket to Pa. He sat opposite Charles and Mother, in his favorite old chair, its springs long collapsed, giving it a tired, droopy look. His eyes were closed. He was seconds away from sleep, his breathing deep and somber. I draped the blanket over his chest, tucking the corners around his shoulders. His eyes opened briefly, brimming with thankfulness. In the past year he'd become so sensitive to changes in temperature. Even in the summer heat, a light breeze could make him shiver.
I sat on the floor at his feet. I was too old for such behavior, I knew. A proper young lady ought to sit on a chair, back straight, ankles crossed, hands folded in her lap, but somehow I felt better here, protecting Pa like a loyal dog might. Protecting him against what, or whom, I couldn't say, but it was enough simply to be near him. I listened to his breathing, the long exhalations nearly hypnotic, and soon I grew tired too. I forgot about the dishes in the sink, the darning I still hadn't finished. I slipped somewhere else, maybe in the sky with the gulls. Eyes closing, I ceased to hear Mother's questions, or Charles's nervous, stutter-ridden answers, until one word broke through the haze.
"That which is inescapable, irresistible," I answered, suddenly awake, but not knowing, not believing, I'd spoken.
"Adele!" Mother lashed.
I was alert now, alert enough to see the contours of her face, which were sharp, surely carved of ice. Charles had turned in his chair. His eyes met mine with such naked distaste I stood up to avoid further shame.
"I didn't realize," I whispered.
"If you know what's good for you, you'll finish those dishes," Mother said tartly.
I felt her gaze, prickly on my back as I hurried to the sink. My hands dove into the water, now scarcely warm, grease and food particles floating on the foamy surface. I washed, just as I helped wash the sacks of laundry. I washed mindlessly; better for girls to work this way.
Miss Prowl's music had stopped. I imagined that she'd fallen asleep awkwardly in her itchy-tight clothes, lipstick still smeared, whiskey bottle inches away. I imagined Mother and Charles leaning closer in the other room, their profiles mirroring each other: angular chins, high foreheads sloping into straight Grecian noses. They looked so alike, identically pleated yellow waves atop their heads, while Pa and I had been cursed with pettish curls, sooty as a grackle's breast. Sometimes I wondered if Mother was swayed by color alone. Maybe the battle lines had been drawn based on something as superficial as physical similarity.
I heard their whispers, scarcely audible over Pa's soft snores.
"You saw how she interferes. Isn't there something you can do?"
"Don't worry yourself over such trifles," Mother said, so resolutely I was sure he ought to believe her.
Copyright © 2007 by Chandra Prasad