Rich in Loveby Josephine Humphreys
At the age of seventeen, Lucille Odom finds herself in the middle of an unexpected domestic crisis. As she helps guide her family through its discontent, Lucille discovers in herself a woman rich in wisdom, rich in humor, and rich in love.See more details below
At the age of seventeen, Lucille Odom finds herself in the middle of an unexpected domestic crisis. As she helps guide her family through its discontent, Lucille discovers in herself a woman rich in wisdom, rich in humor, and rich in love.
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On an afternoon two years ago my life veered from its day-in day-out course and became for a short while the kind of life that can be told as a storythat is, one in which events appear to have meaning. Before, there had been nothing worth telling the world. We had our irregularities; but every family has something or other out of whack. We had my mother's absent-mindedness, my sister's abnormal beauty, my father's innocence; and I was not without oddities of my own. We were characters, my friend Wayne said. But nothing about us was story material.
Until the day, May 10, when one of us betrayed the rest and set off a series of events worth telling.
I rode my bicycle home from school. All looked normal. I sniffed: high spring, Carolina, health and prosperity. People were shopping like Crazy in stores along the highway. Plants were growing in the median, big sturdy weeds that looked a lot like carrots and celery, with thick stalks and ferny leaves dense enough to hide the underlying road trash. Traffic was a carefree stream of cars. The afternoon was average and happy, to the eye of a casual observer.
Supposedly your hair stands on end in the instant before you get struck by lightning. I had a similar sensation that afternoon on the highway. I recognized the tingle as a premonition but a useless one: no specific details, only the feeling. Feelings were a problem to me at the time. I was prey to them, and yet I could never tell exactly what they meant. They seemed uselessly vague. For example, what good is a premonition (advancewarning, by the Latin root) if it doesn't say what you are being warned against? I looked around me. I rubbed my upper lip, a habit of nervousness.
Seventeen years old and in possession of a valid driver's license, I could have been driving my mother's VW campershe didn't drive it muchor my father's Buickhis license had been temporarily suspended for speeding. But I preferred the open air and the way the afternoon spread out around me with its sounds and smells. I could form a good idea of where I was, whereas in a car I couldn't quite get the feel of a place except as a sort of television show sliding flat past the window, dull as advertising. My sister Rae felt like I did on the subject, only she didn't ride a bike anymore. She had a twenty-year-old Impala convertible, a car as huge and smooth as a parade float. Because it opened up, you could ride in it and still feel the scenery. She had driven herself to Sweet Briar College in that car four years in a row, and then to Washington, D.C., where she worked for a U.S. senator. When the car malfunctioned, she cussed it up and down. "The salesman said this car runs like a dream, Lucille," she said in her joke Southern voice, easygoing and high. "But I swear he must have been thinking of those dreams adolescent boys have. The engine overheats and the thing revs up and then sputters and spits and cuts off." But she loved the car. She had never had a pet or a doll in her life, and when the Impala came along, I guess it filled a void.
I liked Rae's car fine, but the bicycle was better for me because it was quiet. I liked to travel silently.
Where I rode, the old zones of country, town, and city had run together. Originally we had the city of Charleston, the town of Mount Pleasant, and then the country, but now they were jumbled, haphazard as a frontier settlement. This new section of highway had been laid out with no regard to preexisting roads, and some of the old roads came up to the highway and dead-ended in striped barricades. Wild animals, to judge by the carcasses, had not yet adjusted to the new system. Out in the developments, some of the new roads curved back upon themselves, and I sometimes lost my sense of direction trying to get somewhere; or I might be riding along and all of a sudden the smooth asphalt turns to soft dirt and I'm in the country, with wooden houses balanced on concrete blocks, and the tragic crowing of roosters, and the black people on porches, innocent as natives.
It was as if new places had been slapped down over the old ones, but some of the old was still showing through. I tried not to lose myself in those pockets. It could sometimes be too much for me, a house at the edge of a field, the rim of pines, the smoke. It wrenched my heart. There was too much emotion for me in the country.
Every so often I'd run across what I called a dream house, one that somebody had started but never finished. They were scattered through the woods like ruins of a defunct civilization, but they were only the ruins of defunct families. Somebody had wanted a house, and had gotten as far as slab and walls; but then the money had run out, or the wife had run out, and all that was left was a cinderblock shell, the house a dream of itself, square-eyed and black-mouthed. Soon weeds would hide it, snakes and raccoons find shelter in it. Whenever I saw one, I stopped by the side of the road and stood leaning on my bicycle to look.
Sometimes out there I would get the hollow feeling. I called it loneliness, though I knew it wasn't exactly loneliness because I was the type of person that likes solitude. But maybe it was pre-loneliness, or loneliness anticipated. Whatever it was, it was hollow and sad. Had I known someone who had died? I couldn't think of anybody. My grandparents had died before I knew them well enough to grieve their loss.
Rae was never lonely.
In high school she had been friends with all the boys and more than friends with more than a few, but she had never paired up with one. She had never acted in love like most girls do, and thank goodness. Rae was on her own. She was well-known as wild, although she was actually conservative when it came to drinking, drugs, and sex. But she had an unpredictability of the sort that distinguishes an untamed creature from a domestic one. People were in awe of her because she was so brave. She sang with a black band and had a black best friend. She laughed whenever she wanted to. She was Miss Wando High and had left a trail of stammering boys behind her. Her looks were unnerving, brown eyes and blond hair.
But I knew her better than anyone did, and I knew the little shiver that now and then came across her mouth. Recently her postcards from Washington had worried me; the handwriting had changed, loosened, and risen off the horizontal like a child's. I was pretty good at analyzing handwriting, and I could discern three things in Rae's: kindness, strength, and future disappointment. Women like Rae sooner or later run into disappointment because beauty has given them a heightened awareness of themselves. It isn't vanity. It is high hopes and optimism. Think of starlets, how they begin and how they end.
From Wando High to Mount Pleasant was straight uninterrupted shopping with no letup, a hive of purchasing activity that was reassuring. I was a poor shopper myself, too easily baffled by the array of goods. In malls I became overstimulated and wound up taking a seat in the community service area watching cloggers or the kids' poster contest. So if I really wanted something I tried to buy it out of a catalog or at a yard sale, and once I even stole a lipstick rather than go through the process of legitimate purchase. Kleptomania did not strike me as a weird disorder: I could imagine ethics outweighed by desire. But methodical shopping as a daily activity was beyond me, and I was always impressed on this highway by the hordes of people stocking up on new shoes, blue jeans, groceries, hamsters, mini-vans, tomato plants, sheets of plywood, ice-cream cones. The level of shopping was an indicator, in my opinion, of human trust in the future. I myself sometimes woke up in the middle of the night scared to death. When I tried to pinpoint the fear, nothing logical came to mind. All I could come up with was the end of the world, but nobody else feared that. Look at them 'swarming into the Garden Centre, coming out with flats of two-tone petunias and soaker-hoses!
But I had that tingling. Maybe ordinary life can continue only so long before the extraordinary will pop into it. I didn't know where it might come from, but I was prepared. I admired the Boy Scouts (though I didn't know one personally) for their "Be Prepared" motto. Good advice. I kept my head down. The most immediate danger I could think of was from trash. If I hit a bottle or a shoe I might swerve into traffic, most of which was people my age heading for the beach.
People my age were murder. Sometimes they tossed stuff out of cars. I could tell when something was coming at me, even though I never gave them the satisfaction of a glance over my shoulder. Their car would slow down and let out a puff of music as the window opened. Then the beer can or whatever would hit my arm, and the car was already so far past I couldn't see who it was. Possibly the people in the car did not know what harm they could do me. Possibly they did know.
But if I had one personality trait it was vigilance. My personality in toto was a mystery to me; for some time now I had been trying to figure it out but could not seem to get a good look at it. I kept a diary by my bed so that if I thought of an attribute I had, I could write it down. But the list was short. One I was sure of was "vigilance." Let the world do its worst, Lucille Odom was ready.
I sensed that I was on a verge. A large block of time was due to crack open in front of me, the future that up till then had been impenetrable.
I stuck to the highway. Even though I had traveled it that morning, I saw new things. I noticed for the first time a new TV tower in the distance, making a string of six now in the long stretch of marsh up the Intracoastal Waterway. And then I saw that the small swamp between Seagull Shores and Oakview had turned into dry land, and a sign had gone up saying, "Gator Pond Estates." I noticed that the names chosen for these places were memorials to what had been bulldozed into oblivion.
A car went by. Something pinged against my helmet. A jelly bean could do me in, I realized.
I wore a safety helmet and did not care how it looked. When other seniors were screeching out of the Wando parking lot in their Cherokees and Broncos, I strapped on my helmet and backpack in plain sight and let them have a laugh if they needed one so desperately. If I had been a normal teenage girl I might have cared, but I wasn't and didn't.
When I say I was not normal, I don't just mean I had the usual adolescent delusions of being different from everyone else. My upper lip had failed to fuse during a critical embryonic stage, and I had been born with a split there. Not a full-fledged harelip, but a small, neat slice not quite all the way through. When I was three, the lip had been repaired, and now, they said, it was hardly noticeable.
Well: Does "hardly noticeable" mean "noticeable" or "not noticeable"?
But I wasn't one to set store by looks. In fact, my scar had taught me a thing or two. It had put me into a different sphere. I sometimes felt as if I were a member of a third gender or secret species. On occasion, I saw people in the street who for one reason or another struck a chord in mea man with a rocking limp, a boy with one side of his face stained redand I would say to myself, "There's one."
Of course, I never spoke this thought.
For a long time I felt guilty about my lip, and I had an urge to apologize to my mother for it. Imagine, expecting another wonder baby and getting one with a flapping lip. However, I later found out that I had no need to apologize. It was more likely that she needed to apologize to me. I accepted the seam, ran my finger over its shiny ridge whenever I was in deep thought, and went on with my life. I had no time for guilt or resentment; I had interests that required all my attention, interests unlike those of most teenagers. I was studying certain things.
Not that I counted myself superior. Gladly I'd have given up my pursuits in exchange for an afternoon in the hair stylist's chair getting my hair flipped over one eye, or lying on the beach slathered in Bain de Soleil, or trying on lingerie at Sweet Nothings in the shopping plaza. I'd have enjoyed those things as much as the next girl. But I wasn't free.
Something had come over me. Recently, like within the past few weeks. I could not tell at first whether it was an affliction or a gift. It was primarily a feeling, but different from the others in that it was constant, it didn't ebb and flow. I called it "invision" because it was almost as if I could see into things. I could not take my eyes off physical objectsplants, dogs, faces, birds, all the world of naturebut also manufactured items such as cars, mailboxes, chain-link fencing. Things glittered at me as I rode past. They had started glittering after I read in the paper about a study done by Clemson University scientists concerning the greenhouse effect. The level of the ocean, they had learned, was on the rise. Their computer had generated a map of the coastline of South Carolina as it would appear fifty years from now. I studied this map carefully. We were not on it. Our house, town, most of the city of Charleston, were shown in blue, i.e., covered by water.
Inundation would be gradual, inches per year, but inevitable, unless everyone in the world immediately stopped burning coal, using fertilizer, and spraying aerosol deodorant. Fat chance, I said to myself. So every time I looked at my own yard, every time I rode the bicycle, I saw not the good old world I had known forever, but a world it was nearly time to say good-bye to. Beauty doubled and tripled around me. The place was doomed.
"Invision," I decided, was a gift, and I received it the way a child receives something that may very well not have been meant for him. I hid it.
One time I mentioned it to Wayne, who was just nuts enough himself to sometimes know what I was talking about. We were at a Dixie Youth League baseball game; Wayne was coaching a team of twelve-year-olds. He sat on the bench with the team, and I sat behind the fence in the bleachers. Our team, which was quasi-integrated (a pale brown right-fielder whose parents were lawyers) was up against a black team. We didn't have a chance, even though some of the opponents had no gloves and caught with their caps.
I saw the red infield, the parched yellow outfield, the white lime baseline. The playground was a new one in the middle of nowhere: you could still smell pine resin from leaking stumps. I saw the little boys, ours tough and foul-mouthed out of fear, theirs wiry and friendly out of fear. I saw an aluminum bat flash in the sun, which was heading down behind a stand of long-leaf pine. Seagulls passed over with their disjointed flappy style of flying, and I heard thin radio music. Radio music out-of-doors has always been hard on me. I experienced a sort of heart flutter and called out to Wayne.
He motioned time out to the umpire and came up to the fence. "Yeah?" he said.
"Um," I said. "Is there something funny here?"
"We're getting our butts knocked in the dirt. I can't get another pitcher in there until the next inning, goddammit."
"No, I mean here." I waved to include the world. "Is there something about this whole design?"
"Well, the scene. I thought ... the trees looked like they turned black. Our uniforms turned pink. I heard this song."
"Lucille?" he said, cocking his head at me. "Did you smoke something before you got here?"
"Of course not."
"Where'd you get it?"
"I didn't. I don't."
"That's what I thought, but now you're making me wonder."
So I said, "It must be the sun going down."
If Wayne didn't see what I meant, who would? I gave up. I don't recall the score of that game, but I know how the slow sun moved and the pines loomed and everythingeverything out theresank through a million changes before night fell onto it.
Pop had lost his license after a number of speeding offenses. He was a good driver, had never had a wreck, but he couldn't help driving fast due to his faith in the world. Caution is an attribute of the suspicious mind. When Pop got on the Interstate, he just naturally let the speedometer ease right up to seventy, eighty miles an hour. When last arrested he was doing eighty-three between Charleston and Columbia and didn't even realize the siren and light coming up behind were aimed at him. He apologized to the arresting officer, and they had a chat about the scarcity of black ducks this season, but the incident turned out to be the last straw in the opinion of the highway department computer, which suspended his right to operate a motor vehicle for six months.
A man without a car is a miserable creature, especially a businessman, especially a Southern businessman. What was he supposed to do, he said, ride the bus? Mother said the bus was quite nice, in fact. But she ended up driving him everywhere he wanted to go. He was embarrassed to the bone and sat with his head lowered. Sitting on the passenger side made him feel like a pansy, he'd said yesterday.
"Oh, Warren," Mother said. She was interested in homosexuals and protective of them, ideologically. I was riding in the back seat, listening. I loved their discussions and listened whenever I could.
"I can't help it," he said. "I'm not passing judgment, I'm just saying ... I feel light. I feel passive. I feel like ... like I'm not in the driver's seat."
"That's very interesting," she said, smiling faintly. She always seemed mildly amused by the world. "You feel threatened by my driving."
"Not at all, not at all. You are a fine driver, an excellent driver. I love your driving. Drive me to Builderama for shingles and nails."
"I think you should go to the hardware store," she said. "I don't like ramas and thons. Dioramas, telethons. Cineramas, walkathons. Let's just buy the shingles at Mr. Powell's store. He has them, doesn't he?"
"He does. Drive me to Mr. Powell's."
She hated the driving. She liked to have days to herself instead of being at his beck and call. "How long till you get your license back?" she asked,
"Six months," he said. "Not long." He reached over and touched her hand on the wheel. They loved each other in their comfortable, easy way; I had been a constant witness to it ever since I could remember. They were what you could call devoted to each other.
"Six months," she said.
From my bike I could see over the stores to where the sky was clear. A few big pines still stood in the woods behind the shopping strip, tall enough to make that design against the bare sky that I liked, a black silhouette showing the essence of the tree, i.e., loneliness and heartbreak. Pines. I loved them.
I loved the weeds as well, their vast greenery and indifference to surroundings, their anonymity, their humility. Some bloomed and bore fruit even between the lanes of Highway 17. They were common varieties easily found in any patch of dirt, but they had no names that I knew of. So I named them. Spanish Thistle, Heart-of-the-Moon, Beanweed. That way I could think about them better.
In the distance the highway appeared to flare suddenly into the air; that was the bridge into Charleston. But before the bridge, just beyond the television station, was an opening in the shopping strip and a nondescript road that cut back behind the import repair shop. That was my road. It led to my town, Mount Pleasant, which huddled secretly behind all this new development. In Latin class (the only useful course I had at Wando High) I had studied the town of Herculaneum, buried by hot mud in the year 79 A.D. My town had been similarly engulfed, not by mud but by overflow from the city of Charleston, which had erupted and settled all around, leaving Mount Pleasant embedded in the middle. You might never suspect, if you were a traveler on the main route, that just down this unmarked road lay a real town.
I made the turn at Channel Three and then down behind the repair shop, where all the doctors brought their Mercedes-Benzes for tuning. Doctors were one of my interests, because of their unique vantage point both in and above the world. They know so much they could be priests, and yet they love the material world and participate in it fully. This was an attractive area for them: good hospitals, good boat ramps. The Mercedes mechanic had studied in Frankfurt. While he worked on their cars, the doctors often leaned over the hood observing, as if what they really wanted to be was mechanics. Sometimes Wayne's father was in there; his new 280 SL was regularly screwing up. He usually waved to me, knowing he had seen me somewhere before. But he wasn't there now, and I was disappointed. I had not seen Wayne in a month, I didn't want to see him, but seeing his father's car or his father's girlfriend or her car gave me a sort of thrill.
The simple truth about me and Wayne was that I could no longer keep up the sexual pace of our relationship. I had pretty much lost interest in it. Wayne's idea about sex was that it was still a healthy, fun thing for people in love to do, especially us because we were new at it. He said so whenever I held back. His argument was "gather ye rosebuds," slightly modified from the original. Sex, he said, was dying out, and we ought to take advantage of it while it was still available. He envisioned the whole world of pleasure eventually shutting down around us. "There's no doubt about it," he said. "Five, ten years, and you won't be able to drink anything or smoke anything or rub up against anything. I'm serious, Lucille. Nobody will be moving. We're looking at a classic case of now or never."
This philosophy seemed inadequate to me, but I had trouble discussing it with him, because in spite of his messed-up parents he was a good, caring person, and I didn't want to confuse him. I had nothing against sex. But with Wayne I never felt the feeling I call "desire." In "desire" there is darkness and some fear. You would never call it a fun thing to do. I had felt it only a couple of times, but its memory did not fade. The first time was at a black-and-white French movie in which a girl hiked up her skirt in front of a man, a stranger; and the second time was in a dream about Wayne in which he so differed from his real self in every detail that he was the contradiction of himself, and drew me like an undertow. After that, sex with the real Wayne was difficult. I thought maybe something was askew with me, and I didn't want to add to his troubles. I advised him to start seeing Laura Migo, who I thought most likely shared his sense of urgency in the matter. Besides, her father was a cardiologist; surely doctors pass on to their children a scientific and healthy attitude towards sex.
On the other hand, you never can tell about doctors. Wayne had told me about a big fight between his parents which indicated a non-scientific attitude. This fight was his earliest memory. His mother had taught him the word "penis." His father objected. "He will call it the tee-tee," Dr. Frobiness said.
"And what about the female anatomy? What will he call that?" said Mrs. Frobiness, hands on her hips.
"That's the woo-woo."
"Are you crazy?" she said. "You're a physician, and you want your son to say tee-tee and woo-woo? I cannot believe this."
This quarrel and other differences of opinion had escalated over a fifteen-year period to culminate in divorce. The Frobinesses were currently living out the one-year separation required under South Carolina law. Wayne believed they had detectives watching each other.
* * *
Past the repair shop I made one more turn and was on an actual street with sidewalks and a one-block downtown with a hardware store and a drugstore, neither of which did much business because anything they sold could be bought down the highway at a deep discount. But they stayed open for the few remaining old people who were suspicious of discount merchandise. The sidewalks had the springtime smell of damp, warm concrete. Houses were close to the street; they had picket fences, birdbaths, plastic big-wheeled trikes in the yard. I loved, loved, loved the place I lived.
Nobody in my school loved where they lived. Most of the students were either black kids or doctors' kids. They lived in shacks or they lived in executive homes, but they all wanted one thing: to be someplace else. I traced their unhappiness and antisocial behavior down to that one central trouble, geographic restlessness. It was what caused them to smoke marijuana and throw trash from cars. Home was exactly the place where they did not want to be. Greyhound, I thought, could cure the drug abuse problem overnight by giving out passes.
Nancy Reagan was wrong to advise children that they can just say no. A hunger rises. It is not exactly for drugs but for refreshment on the highest level: a new personality, a new world.... Listen, Nancy (I might have said), would you tell a starving child to say no to food? I had staved the hunger off; I was regarded as an abstainer in every respect, a good girl. But I felt the pang now and again. People like me are sometimes hanging onto their so-called goodness by a thread. I didn't know how I was going to turn out.
Wayne was going to turn out okay, because he had taken control of his life. Originally he had lived in Green Farm Estates in a four-bedroom house with a cathedral ceiling and central vacuuming; and even though only Wayne and his mother lived in it, there was not enough room for both of them. He had moved out and was living in his Ram Charger.
"Little holes all over the house. The place sucks itself out, Lucille. I couldn't take it," he had said.
There were other reasons, of course, which I probably understood better than Wayne did. (It stymied me, that I could fail completely to see my own life, yet have a sixth sense about somebody else's.) A divorced mother with one son is a good combination up to a pointthey are perfect for each other for about six months, and then they are disaster, each the last thing the other needs. Both of them could use a Greyhound pass. My heart went out to Mrs. Frobiness alone in her cul-de-sac; but it went out also to Wayne in his Charger, and to Dr. Frobiness in his tennis villa.
These families let themselves in for it:. All around me I saw the American family blowing apart, as described in Psychology Today. The American family needed to hold itself more closely, I thought. Like mine. We were a hermit family. We had each other and we had our house, and nothing could touch us. Whereas Dr. Frobiness had run off with a lady who team-taught the Episcopal Young Churchmen with him at St. Anne's. The Frobinesses had been active in the community, members not only of the church, but also of a fitness center, a plastic surgeons' supper club, a book club (Mrs. Frobiness), and a wind-surfing group (Dr. Frobiness). No family can stick together under the strain of so many outside interests. The human heart needs to be confined, not royally entertained, was my theory.
In the old village my tires rolled noiselessly through a thick, golden dust of oak pollen that had collected along the street and now stirred into clouds as I passed. I coasted in and out of the shadows of trees, past yards dark with a century of camellia growth, the bushes tall and gangly. The town had a physical effect on me; I shivered with pleasure. It felt good, bodily, to be here. Some of these houses, with their tin roofs and wide verandahs, had been built more than a hundred years ago. A ferry had once come across from Charleston to Mount Pleasant. It was the remnant of a summer town, a place people had escaped to when the city got too hot.
My heart quickened when I made the last turn and saw my house at the end of the street, or, to be accurate, saw the trees and bushes that rose in a jungle where our lot began. From the street the house was not visible. I lived in a hidden house in a hidden town. But the best thing about the house was that on its other side, away from the road, it faced the water with a curving porch. On one side it was closed and protected, and on the otherwide open to possibilities. I liked that.
Down the last block I pedaled fast to gain momentum so the bike would make it through the grass-and-sand yard to the back steps. As I hit the yard and the tires bit sand, I noticed my mother's camper pulled up at an angle next to the cedar tree, not parked properly in the driveway. But so what? Mother was never careful about parking, or about anything else. I leaned the bike against the steps and went to close the open car door. Mother forgot to close doors. She was not scatterbrained, exactly. She was more ... nonchalant. She was loved for her nonchalance.
On the front seat was a bag of groceries. The bottom had sogged out, and a slick of butter pecan ice cream was spreading across the seat and under Mother's macramé pocketbook. As a young woman she had gone through a hippie phase. She still liked certain styles of clothing that she'd worn in the sixties. She was forty-nine now, but she wore peasant blouses and blue jeans and drove an old Volkswagen pop-up. She always looked good. She had macraméed that pocketbook herself.
I was thinking about how she lookedtall, thin but wide-hipped, often in white-soled boating shoes, sometimes smoking a long cigarettewhen I realized how unusual it was that her pocketbook was there, that the ice cream was melting, that the car door was open. Beyond the house, the harbor sparkled but was quiet, I picked up the pocketbook. A pair of blue dragonflies coupled at eye-level; a crow cawed. Wind ruffled the feathery leaves of the cedar. Here was the extraordinary, the thing I had sensed hovering over my afternoon. Here it was.
Something had happened to her. I knew it just from looking at the dragonflies and the cedar tree, the car, the ice cream, the very sky.
It is not hard to interpret the world. I had recently learned to do it. You watch people and events and objects as closely as possible, then you put two and two together. Before I even made it to the house to look for her, before I called her name upstairs and down, I knew she would not be there. There was only the fan whirring in the kitchen window. And though the possibility had never crossed my mind before, I knew she had left us. It made sense, now that it had happened. Standing in the cool, dark hallway, with its bare gray floorboards running the length of the house, I could see out to the bright front porch and the lawn and the short mud beach and the dock where my father stood now catching a fish,
He jerked the rod to set the hook. I knew the pleasure he felt at that instant. Nothing made him so happy as catching a fish. And just as he hooked it, panic started inside me. That fish was about to be yanked into air it could not breathe; and so was the fisherman.
I looked away and caught sight of a piece of paper on the hah desk. A note, folded, addressed to him. While he reeled in the fish, I read his note. It had been written on Mother's word processor.
I should have discussed this with you in person, but the bus is coming and I have to run, so I will call you when I get settled. This is not just a sudden whim, I have thought it over very carefully. We can get together and talk about it later, but to make a long story short, it is time for me to start a second life. Please tell Lucille.
He was still standing on the dock, in old khakis and a long-billed cap. He took his fish off the line and put it on a stringer hanging from the dock, then rebaited his hooks. My only thought was how I could soften the blow I held in my hand. Mother's note was hard as a hatchet-chop. Where was the sorrow and the regret? You don't walk out of a twenty- seven-year marriageor catch a bus outwithout conveying some sort of emotion to the other person. This note had no feeling. I read the thing again just to make sure I understood it; except for a couple of phrases, it might have been a note saying she was stepping out for a yoga class or a camellia show. But there it said, "start a second life." It said, "when I get settled." There was no doubt about the message. But not a word of pain or guilt. Not a word of explanation. Just those starry gray words off her dot-matrix printer.
Pop had cleaned his hooks and was loading the tackle box. I got a pen and notepad from the desk drawer and wrote another note.
I am so confused, absolutely adrift, I don't know what to do with my life at this point. After all these years I suddenly discover an emptiness at the heart of things. Please do not blame yourself, Warren, my love. This is something that I have to work out alone. Please forgive me.
All my love
Years ago, Rae and I had mastered Mother's handwriting, because she often forgot to sign our report cards and excuses and field-trip permissions. I could forge her signature perfectly. I hid the original note in my shoe. It was not as if I was changing the essence of the message; I had only made it more polite. I put the new note where the old one had been.
I might not have done this if my father had been a different sort of man. But he was a man with a breakable heart. Not many businessmen have one. For all his worldly success, he was an innocent person who took the world as it appeared and never questioned motives or suspected ulterior designs. It surprised me that someone like Pop could have made so much money. His demolition company had expanded into other states, and though he was recently retired, his partner still called him for advice. He had the love for his fellow man that you sometimes see, surprisingly, in war veterans. He trusted everybody, picked up hitchhikers, hired convicts on the work-release program, lent money to unemployed black people. In fact he lent money to Sam Poole, who was not only black and unemployed, but crazy to boot. There was no one Pop didn't trust, and he had trusted his wife most of all. To him she was the good center of a good world.
I knew the secret of long-lasting marriage because I had seen this one at close range all my life. The two people have to keep on an even keel. They don't need great passion, for each other or for anything else in the world, passion being the great destroyer; and I'm not talking about sex, necessarily. Passion means suffering, if you go back to Latin, which I often do when I want to know what a word really means. Love needs passion, but marriage needs the oppositesteady comfort, which they had.
He hosed down the dock, then turned off the water and stood looking across the harbor. A container-ship was leaving port, stacked with unknown cargo. He used to keep track of the shipping schedules, and whenever a ship came in or went out he'd know what it carried; he'd stop us in the middle of breakfast to point out the arrival of bananas or the departure of soybeans. But when container-ships were invented, it became impossible to tell what was on board. The shipping schedule in the newspaper said only "containers." He speculated: Korean computers or Communist automobiles. But he felt out of the know. For him, imagination was a poor substitute for fact. For me, of course, the opposite was true.
Looking back, I can see that that moment was the last of a stage, the protected stage, of our lives. He was sixty and I was seventeen, but we were heading into the second stage together. At the moment he didn't know it. As far as he knew, his life was what he had always wanted it to be. The fish were biting; he had money in the bank, a clean chest X ray, two fine daughters, a lovely wife. I knew that he considered himself lucky. He thought of himself as having successfully reached the end of the road without mishap. Like many successful businessmen, he had a lot of fearsfear of poverty, fear of disgrace, fear of solitude. And he had beat them all back! He had won.
That is why anger built now in me for what my mother had done and the way she had done it. My blood boiled. But what could I do? I hated my own helplessness. This was a familiar feeling, one that other people may or may not have, but I had it frequently, and there was no common name for it. I can only describe it by saying it was like sitting in a movie theater when something is about to happen on screen that you object to, but there you sit in the dark, stupid, seventeen, powerless. Things happen that you can neither halt nor moderate. Physically, this feeling manifests itself as a stomachache. I had named it "girlhood" and hoped to death that I would one day soon burst out of it.
"Many fish, Lucille," he called from the porch, taking off his sandy shoes. "Get out the frying pan." This was a joke between us. I didn't cook.
"There's a note here on the table for you," I said.
"Let me rinse off. I'm smelly."
"I think it's important."
"Read it to me," he said. He tramped through the hall to the kitchen and slung the stringer of fish into the sink. Some were still flopping.
"I believe it's personal," I said.
"How do you know?" he said with his laugh. "Women. Your mother opens every piece of mail that comes with my name on it. She considers if it is addressed to me, it is addressed to her. A study could be done of the female conscience."
"Please, take it." I handed him the note.
He squinted at it. "Sorry," he said. "The old eyes don't like to read anymore. They seem to prefer the long view now, the big picture. They say to heck with the written word."
"Where are your glasses?" I was frantic; I wanted this over with, the note read, the day done, the future rolling again. What if he wouldn't read it?
"Here," he said, reaching into the pocket of his baggy pants and pulling out the old glasses, spotted with salt water. "Can't even bait a hook with the naked eye."
I turned away and let him read in private.
"You read this?" he said finally.
"It doesn't make sense to me. Does it to you? What does she mean here? 'I don't know what to do with my life.' Do you understand?"
"Well, yes, she's saying"
"And 'adrift,' where did she get that? 'An emptiness at the heart of things'?" He was growing agitated. He sat down at the kitchen table and reread the note. "Ah," he said, as if only now had the message sunk in. He looked up at me, his glasses low on his nose. "Did you, uh, see her off, then?"
"No, she was gone when I got home. Her car's still here. Her pocketbook's still here."
"Then how did she go?"
"Took the bus, doesn't it say?" I looked over his shoulder.
"No, it just says um, after all these years"
"She probably took the bus."
He nodded, but looked unconvinced. "This is ... this is a surprise to me, Lucille. That is, I had no warning. Did you ?"
"She didn't mention any plans ?" he said. "She didn't mention any ... dissatisfaction?"
"Nor to me," he said, picking up the note.
"Don't read it again, Pop. You've read it twice."
"I just want to make sure hereyou see, somehow, the tone is wrong. It's not your mother's tone. The word 'dearest.' It almost reads like a note that someone forced her to write." His voice thickened, and he looked at me with eyebrows raised.
"Oh, it's her tone, all right," I said quickly.
"You think so?"
"I know so," I said, taking the note out of his hand.
"But she sounds so distraught," he said.
"Of course she does! She ought to."
"We have to find her," he said, getting to his feet. "We'll drive where we think she might have gone. Where does the bus go from here?"
"But wait, Pop, she doesn't want us to find her."
"She does. I can tell by this note. She has never sounded so upset before. It's a cry for help, Lucille. I've read about this. I'm going to look for her."
"You can't drive," I said.
"I didn't say I was driving. You drive. I'll look."
I went with him, though I knew how hopeless it was. I knew his wife better than he did, and she was not the sort of person who lets herself be found. Long ago, when we played hide-and-seekRae and I and Rhody Poole, daughter of crazy SamMother sometimes played with us, and she played to win. We never found her on our own. She would stay in her hiding place until we began to be bored, having searched the whole house and yard in vain. As soon as we gave signs of losing interest, we would hear a little whoop from somewhere, and we'd zero in on the whooping until we found herin the laundry basket covered over with dirty sheets; or atop the armoire in her room, in plain view but so high we had not thought to look up; or once, in the trunk of the car, the lid not quite shut.
She claimed that she'd married too young and had not had time to get her fill of children's games. Halloween was her favorite time, and she would make her own elaborate costume and go out with us into the neighborhood, a gypsy or a vampire or some kind of animal. Once she was a Cheshire cat, in a suit sewed up from furry material, tail stiffened by a coat-hanger, a paper-bag head with eye-holes, whiskers, and that frightening cat-smile. We were a foursome for years, Mother in her thirties but looking in her twenties, Rae and Rhody teenagers, me a child sometimes unsure who the official mother was. Rhody had had a baby at age fourteen and given it to her mother; and that baby, Evelyn, called its grandmother "mama" and its mama "Rhody," and the Poole family lived together without confusion. Socould Rae be my' mother? I had my suspicions for years, though she was only eight years older than me; I believed Rae capable of anything. I read a tabloid story about an eight-year-old mother in Brazil, who, they said, was a top-notch mother. And then, Mother was never quite as interested in me as Rae was. Mother's interest was downright grandmotherly. Kind, wrathless, dispassionate. She was never upset with me, never dissatisfied, never emotionally entangled. Later I found out why, but up until the age of ten I didn't quite understand.
Pop and I drove everywhere that evening and into the night. We covered the city of Charleston, the town of Mount Pleasant, the surrounding suburbs, and even some of the countryside. I drove until he was no longer looking out the window and had fallen silent. When we got home, the telephone was ringing. He ran for it.
"Helen," he said, "what is this all about? Let me come pick you up ... yes, well, I mean let Lucille drive me...." He put a hand to his eyebrow. "But that's crazy, and not true. How could we possibly be better off without you? I'm telling you now, we would not."
His voice wavered, and he looked at me. "Yes," he said into the receiver. "Certainly. You have the right. Of course I see. Very well. Wait, wait, where are you?" He frowned. "Now, for God's sake, Helen. Suppose we had an emergency and had to get in touch with you.... I don't know, say Lucille got sickokay, okay. Okay. Then you'll call when, tomorrow? Yes. And, ah, you're sure you know what you're doing, you don't want me to come?"
She knew what she was doing.
I have never understood how events are linked in the world, and I don't know now whether the disappearance of my mother was like a trigger mechanism setting off the series of surprises that was to follow. There is no reason the one thing had to lead to the others. But a family without a mother is vulnerable. She left us sitting ducks.
If she had stayed, I believe we would have been all right.
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