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By Joan Schweighardt
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1992 Joan Schweighardt
All rights reserved.
My father is married to a woman who believes God was once a supernova.
My father was teaching literature at the state university before the change came. We were fine before the change. We went to school in the daytime, and in the evenings we read, to ourselves or to each other. Father and me. And when the shelf space ran out in our living room, we began to pile our books on the fireplace mantle, and then on the floor in stacks against the sides of the hearth, and then on the hearth itself. And then we did not have fires anymore in the winter. And then the change came.
It came on a day when the temperature was well below zero and the schools were closed, and we were sitting before the hearth which was surrounded by books on all sides so that it seemed a hearth within a hearth, and while the inner hearth was constructed of rough stones which had come from the bottom of the creek that runs beside our house, the outer hearth was constructed of all the thoughts of all the persons who had ever thought the thought they'd had was worthy of the writing of it, which is to say the outer hearth was built with the rocks of wisdom, cemented with more wisdom, and sometimes some foolishness, and sealed by time, an arch of time that was beyond time, and by far more illuminating than would have been the fire which could no longer be burned within it. But my father put down the book he had been reading anyway and stared into the humbled black mouth of the hearth for so long that I put down my book too. And I said, Father? And he mumbled, Fire. And then his jowls, which are loosely hung to begin with, began to quiver, and a tear rolled down along the side of his nose and followed the path of the crease that makes a half-moon around his mouth. And when he turned to look at me, I saw that there was another tear moving down the other side of his face, that the second was larger than the first and was gaining on it and would win the race and drop from his chin to the book in his lap before the first unless the one that was now following the first, which was zigzagging along quickly because its path had already been moistened by the first, combined with the first to make an even larger tear than the second, which was also now being trailed ...
I think it was then that my father decided he had to have a woman who would believe God was once a supernova, for it was not long after that that he brought her home and said to me, Meredith, this is Carole, and Carole may be spending the night. And Carole rushed forward to take my hand and say she was going to be making us the biggest breakfast in the morning — Carole, whose eyes bulged fishlike — French toast and scrambled eggs, and juice fresh-squeezed from the oranges which her parents had sent her from California, and which, dropping my hand, she lamented were still in the trunk of her car and had better be brought in right away because of the cold. And turning down Father's offer to fetch them for her, she rushed out of the house and stood — we watched her from the window — several seconds staring down at her scruffy brown boots before she rushed back in to get the key that would open the trunk. Amazing monster!
And then the next thing I knew, Carole had moved in with us — she and Charlie, who is two years older than I — and little by little the books around the hearth (Carole insisted on calling the hearth a "fire pit") began to disappear. And in the early spring when all the books had been cleared away, Carole brought in the wood which Father had chopped four years earlier when Mother was still living and made a fire which was so poorly built it went out shortly thereafter, and Father and Charlie had to blacken their hands taking out all the charred logs, and splinter their hands chopping more kindling, and blacken their hands crumbling more newspapers, and begin the fire all over again. And then Father suggested that we all join hands and look at the thing, the fire that burned in the place of wisdom and foolishness and the time that bound them together in a state of timelessness, in the house that had been adequately heated to begin with. And I excused myself because I did not want my hands blackened, and I went into my room where the books were lying in boxes — some under the bed and some against the wall — instead of in the basement where Carole would have put them if I had not taken a stand.
And after the ceremony, father began making the holiday plans, even though it was still too early, even though he was still busy grading papers. And so he wrote the letter to the man and woman whom he had not seen for fifteen years, whom I had never seen, but whom I suspected would likewise think that God had once been a supernova, and invited them to join us on the island. And their response came at the end of the spring semester, just before the summer session, and they said, Yes, they would come, and I thought, At least I will have Charlie.
But then, at the end of the summer session, while Father was still grading finals, the call came from Charlie's father, who used to be Carole's husband, who wanted Charlie to spend some time with him. Carole laughed when she hung up the phone, but then Charlie said, Maybe I might. Would you mind so much, Ma? And then Carole cried, and Charlie cried too, but he was still saying, Would you mind so much, Ma? And Father gathered up all his students' poorly written essays on the works of the Russian whose name only two in the class had been able to pronounce, and excused himself, saying he had no right to interfere. But I stayed to hear the outcome and to watch Charlie rolling on the kitchen table the red pen Father had left behind in his haste, and I thought, Don't you do it, Charlie. Don't you let him, Carole — because I had plans of my own and Charlie was an important part of them.
But she did let him do it.
And then we were sitting in the car, riding through the south, coming from the north, Father and Carole in the front, and me in the back, and Carole was saying, Yes, I believe that, that all energy, physical and spiritual, because they were one and the same then, are the same now, concentrated into one tight, too tight package, one small thing, invisible and indivisible, and yearning and yearning, and then poof! And she threw her hands apart to simulate the wild burst she had been trying to explain, hitting Father on the side of his head so that he had to readjust his glasses, and I thought, amazing monster!CHAPTER 2
I met Carole in the cafe where Forneau, from the French department, and I were taking our lunches during the spring and fall semesters of '86. I had seen her there, at La Vida's — which despite its name does not serve Spanish cuisine — many times before. In fact, she had even waited on me. But because my deliberations on weekdays at that hour were generally composed of female undergraduates, I had never paid her any particular attention. On the day of which I speak, however, Forneau and I had the good fortune to seat ourselves at the table in the corner just below the air-conditioner. And midway through the meal, Forneau (who had been relating a funny story about how his wife, with her poor English skills, had tried to explain to her parish priest that she had dropped the hundred dollar bill into the collection basket accidentally) suddenly interrupted himself to cry out, "C'est comme glace!" to which Carole responded by turning abruptly from the table she had been setting beside us, and blinking at Forneau for several seconds. I explained that le Monsieur was cold and she stopped blinking and set us up at another table.
Later, however, while Forneau was up at the register and I was fumbling through my pockets for the tip, Carole came up to me with a tray of beer mugs balanced on one palm and asked how the other gentleman had known her name. It was then I took my first good look at her and saw, in the perplexity that had solidifed in the ochre streaks in her otherwise brown eyes, some quality that I myself lacked. When she revealed that her last name was Glass, I understood her mistake and explained what Forneau had actually said and what it meant. She laughed then, and the ochre streaks seemed to change shape, like the color patterns in a kaleidoscope.
In what was at that time three years since my wife's death, I had had but two affairs, both with long-legged, golden-haired undergraduates who were young enough to be my daughters. One was bright and well-read, and in between our physical encounters we had some productive but tedious conversations about literature. The other was not so bright, but she had her own apartment outside of town where no one knew me. Neither affair had been meaningful for me, but whenever I thought about dating women of my own age, of whom there were plenty of unattached ones in the English Department alone, I lost heart. It was not that it bothered me that they pretended not to puff on the stairwells, or that they colored their hair and made up their faces with products which promised a subtle deception, or that they ran around the track in packs in their free time. What bothered me was that they impressed me as having agreed, behind men's backs, to alienate themselves from their pasts. Like Gatsby, they seemed content to believe that they had sprung from some Platonic conception of themselves. They were too much of the present, too determined to be young now in a way that seemed to negate the fact that they had ever been young before. And the price they paid for their ongoing youth was a loss of naturalness.
Carole, on the other hand, struck me as being very natural, and therefore outside their conspiracy. It is true, she wore no make-up to conceal the delicate lines around and beneath her eyes, and her hair, which was pulled back tight into a ponytail, smelled of cheap baby shampoo, and the ochre streaks in her eyes confirmed the spontaneity of her reactions — but there was also something more. What it was I could not say, for my inference had been, for the most part, an intuitive one. But as the weeks went by, I became obsessed with finding signs that would prove me correct in my analysis. And the signs were there.
For instance, there was the butterfly tattoo on the back of her neck, signifying, to my mind, the natural impulse of a young girl to create about herself an aura not unlike her ancestors before her who, since the beginning of time, had marked themselves in order to effect protection against evil, or for tribal identification, or as the sign of an alliance with a particular god. I did not notice the tattoo the first week after our brief conversation, or even on the second, because Carole wore scarves, dark in color and often patterned, tied around her neck. I did not see the scarves as a contradiction to her naturalness, for I did not believe it was the butterfly she was trying to hide. Rather, I believed it was her naturalness she was trying to conceal — as a means of self-preservation — and the butterfly was only its emblem. Is it natural, one might ask, for a woman to attempt to conceal her naturalness? Yes, that is my point precisely! What is not natural is when a woman attempts to cover its loss.
In truth, Carole did not need the scarves at all, because her hair was thick and wavy below the rubber band, and it spread out unconscionably, like a raccoon's tail. But one particular Friday, a warm one at the end of the spring semester, the air conditioner had apparently gone on the blink, and Carole was sans scarf. Still, I would have never seen the butterfly if, while setting down beer mugs for a group of boys I had seen on campus, she had not lifted the heavy ponytail away from her neck and used it to fan herself for a few delicious seconds wherein the tattoo was exposed. At the sight of it, something stirred in me, and I felt the way one does just before falling asleep — warm inside, and overwhelmed by an agreeable willlessness. As I say, it was only for a few seconds, but long enough for me to discern the arrangement of colors, not dead center but off center, and low on her neck, yet not low enough to be hidden by her collar.
Of course, I did not know at the time that it was a butterfly. I carried the color arrangement home with me in my mind's eye and studied it most of that evening. By the time I went to bed, I had narrowed it down to two possibilities: Either it was an anemone, with a slightly irregular petal pattern, or it was a butterfly. Either one would have been satisfactory, but I preferred it be the butterfly, for the anemone, although it is the consequence of Adonis's death and the emblem of Venus's love, is still a perennial, while the butterfly is but short-lived. And I believed that Carole's beauty, both the inward sort which I had intuited, and its more obvious counterpart, would likewise have a brief life expectancy, for I imagined that the conspirators would catch up with her sooner or later, point out what they would call her flaws, and show her how to conceal them. I had seen it happen before! Furthermore, I sought in her tattoo some reflection of my interest in her, and I did not expect my love for Carole, if I may be so audacious as to call what I then felt for her "love," to be more than fleeting. I was not seeking a life mate. I was only hoping to find a woman whose naturalness would enable me to discover my own. Yes, I admit it. Sad and unfortunate though it is, I have never behaved naturally in my life, or at least not in that portion of it that is available for recollection. I am not, by nature, a natural man.
When the summer sessions began that year, I found I had no classes scheduled on the Fridays of either session, and therefore no reason to be at La Vida's. Moreover, my good friend Forneau and his wife had set out for the South of France. I could have gone to La Vida's on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays with Masterson, from the Computer Department, but I feared a break in my routine would have its consequences. I had given Fridays a singular significance — or rather Carole had — and I did not see how that significance could be spread out among the remaining days of the week without withering into its opposite. So I made a special trip to La Vida's, alone, each Friday for the entire summer, when I should have been working on an article about Wordsworth's transitional poetry. To counteract my guilt for such deviant behavior, I had only the knowledge that Wordsworth would have made the same choice himself, before and after his transition.
Freed from Forneau, I now chose to sit, for sentimental reasons, at the table in the corner below the air conditioner, which, due to the air conditioner's piercing malevolence, was always available. Because there was no apparent order to the tables the waitresses took charge of, quite often Carole did not even wait on me. In fact, I now preferred it when she did not, for although I am infinitely articulate when I am lecturing, I can neither start nor sustain a conversation. Besides, when she was not waiting on the tables in my area, she had no reason to so much as look in my direction, and thus, quite often, I was afforded the opportunity to study her, though at a distance, throughout my meal. I came to learn many things about her. For one, she was consistently energetic; all her movements were purposeful and precise. Furthermore, her relations with her customers were flawless. She neither joked nor chatted overmuch with them, but she was patient when they were undecided, helpful when they were confused, and obliging — through never penitent — when they were irate.
But more importantly, I had several opportunities, modest though they were, to glimpse her tattoo. Once, for instance, in late June, she lowered her scarf to have a scratch at it. And then, one rainy day in July, when her ponytail was higher than usual (and thus swayed when she moved), and the scarf she had chosen, being limp to begin with, sagged with the increasing humidity, I saw the thing peeking out at me seductively several times throughout the charged hour, and was sure, for the first time, that it was indeed a butterfly. In short, the butterfly and the woman who bore it became indistinguishable for me, and I became a lepidopterist.
Excerpted from Island by Joan Schweighardt. Copyright © 1992 Joan Schweighardt. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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