Mineral Palace: Unabridged Library Editionby Heidi Julavits, Susan Ericksen (Read by)
In the drought-ridden spring of 1934, Bena Jonnsen, her husband Ted, and their newborn baby relocate from their home in Minnesota to Pueblo, a Western
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In a bold debut novel of the Great Depression, a young dosctor's wife uncovers the sordid secrets of a withering Colorado mining town, even as she struggles with the ravaging truths about her marriage and her child.
In the drought-ridden spring of 1934, Bena Jonnsen, her husband Ted, and their newborn baby relocate from their home in Minnesota to Pueblo, a Western plains town plagued by suffocating dust storms and equally suffocating social structures. Little can thrive in this bleak environment, neither Bena and Ted's marriage nor the baby, whom Bena believes - despite her husband's constant assurances - is slipping away from her.
To distract herself from worrying, Bena accepts a part-time position at Pueblo's daily newspaper, The Chieftain, reporting on the "good works' of the town's elite Ladies' Club leaders, women such as Reimer Lee Jackson and her plans to restore the town's crumbling monument tot he mining industry - the Mineral Palace - to its turn-of-the-century grandeur. Bena is drawn to the Mineral Palace and to the lurid hallways of Pueblo's brothel, befriending a prostitute, Maude, and Red, a reticent cowpoke. Through these new emotional entanglements, Bena slowly exposes not only the sexual corruption on which the entire town is founded, but also the lies enclosing her own marriage and the sanctity of motherhood. She returns again and again to the decaying architecture of the Mineral Palace; within its eroding walls she is forced to confront her most terrifying secret, which becomes her only means for salvation.
With her gritty and magical prose, Heidi Julavits elegantly examines the darker side of paternity and maternity, as well as the intersection of parental love and merciful destruction. The Mineral Palace is a startling and authentic story of survival in a world of decadence and depravity.
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The Stolen Pillbox
As soon as the Ford Touring Car crossed the St. Paul city limits on April 20, 1934 ('You Are Leaving St. Paul, Minn., Home of the Inlagd Sill Herring Festival, Please Visit Us Again'), and passed into the great, square-upon-square expanse of the surrounding farmland, Bena jotted down the odometer reading with the golf pencil she kept in the ashtray: 5,434.
She did this cautiously, steering with her left hand. She wrote it on the cover of Lectures on Surgical Pathology, the first in a stack of medical journals that rested between her and Ted. She wanted to record the mileage, because it would provide a way to appreciate the distance they were about to create between their old existence and their new one. As the city receded in the rearview mirror, so, she fervently believed, did their life up to that moment.
Ted glared at her scribblings. No doubt he wanted to scold her for defacing his reading materials. But he held his tongue. Bena knew he considered himself fortunate that his wife was an inquisitive woman, not bound by the usual female fears and preoccupations, such as ringworm, rabies, cold cream, colic. Besides, she imagined, it would be entertaining, when his interest in, say, 'Synovial Cysts of the Choroid Plexus' lagged, to try to break the code of numbers jotted in the empty margins. A string of 22s, 23s, and 24s that he might attribute to the daily high temperatures one week in March could actually be a tally of the birds that visited the feeder outside their kitchen window. Bena was comforted by numbers, and found a sense of assuredness and direction through herconstant accounting of them. While there existed numbers that were to her undeniably dark (8, for example, because her brother drowned on the eighth day of August), certain possessed the glow of fortune, like the number of her father's favorite golf club (9-iron), the number of unloneliness (2), any number of her birthday (7/13), the street number of her childhood house in St. Paul (45), and others simply because they appeared round and portentous (33, 64, 89) and full of a substance one might easily interpret as luck.
The odometer reading appeared a good omen to Bena, since the sum of the four digits (5 + 4 + 3 + 4) was the number of her father's college football jersey, a grass-stained crimson shirt that hung, still, in the basement next to his rifles and his fishing rods. The patterns of his sweat had burned his body into the fabric. The shirt was a relic to her, for it preserved the outlined shape of her father when he was a happier man. As a vital boy growing up near Council Bluffs, Iowa, Charles "Chickie" Duse had snapped the necks of chickens and even small, lame calves with his bare hands-apt and brutal preparations for his future career as president of the St. Paul Savings and Trust. Chickie was the one who discovered his outwardly high-spirited wife dead of arsenic poisoning after the birth of their second child, Bena Ingrid Duse (labor complications, the obituary read), and had endured his son's drowning at the summer lake house he had struggled to afford in order to prove, beyond a doubt, that he was no one's farmhand.
As the landscape frayed into the dizzying warp and weft of ankle-high cornstalks, their discouraged tendrils already a drab beige from the scarcity of rain, Ted began reading aloud from a large maroon medical text, The Journal of Immunology, alerting Bena to diseases relevant to their new home.
This was another aspect of herself she knew he appreciated: her fascination with his work. He'd told her how he'd been struck by this on their first date, sitting in a booth at Kaap's Soda Fountain in St. Paul, sipping on a malted through a pair of white paper straws.
He'd talked to her about his passion for fishing, because women, as he told her later, were frequently bored by medicine and bodies. To women in the past, he'd talked about the heart. He'd described the way the blood was pushed and pumped, he'd drawn diagrams on a paper napkin with his fountain pen. But these women always looked at him differently when they knew he'd held a dead heart in his hands; they'd gazed distastefully upon his fingers as if a bit of death were still caught under the nails.
Fishing didn't interest Bena Duse. Neither did Ted's sister's wedding, his cousin's new baby, his mother's recent commission to have a well-known landscape painter sit in a rowboat half a mile offshore in Lake Michigan to do a portrait of their summer property in Door County, Wisconsin.
Out of sheer desperation, then, he'd talked to her about the heart.
"Did you know," he'd inquired, seeming to detect the initial signs of intrigue in this private girl who was smart around the mouth, "that a normal heart beats seventy-two times a minute?"
She had raised a pale eyebrow. She was quite pretty, he later told her he'd thought that day, pretty in a way that sneaks up on you.
"At this rate," he'd continued, 'the heart contracts 4,320 times in an hour, 103,680 times in a day, 37,843,200 times in a year, and 2,649,024,000 times in an average lifetime.' Or consider the common shrew, he added, whose heart beats one thousand times a minute.
Bena had held out her wrist to him, and he, intuiting what she wanted, unhooked her silver charm bracelet and placed the fingers of her other hand over that bare place. He pressed his cold palm over her knuckles. She smiled at him when she located the beating of her own pulse. They held hands and stared at the second hand of the pink-lit clock over the cash register.
"Seventy-eight," she said.
"Well," she had replied, "you're the doctor."
"The causative agent of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Dermaceniroxenus rickettsi, is transmitted and perpetuated by the tick Dermacentorivenustus," Ted informed her now. "It is a minute intracellular organism found in cells lining the intestinal canal of the tick, in the salivary glands, the ovaries, and in the eggs, and in an infected animal."
"I thought Pueblo was in the plains." Bena jerked the steering wheel to avoid what was once a rabbit, now stretched to the size of a welcome mat across the asphalt. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure the baby was still sleeping soundly. He was. They had laid him in the top drawer of an old dresser, padded with a wool hunting blanket folded in eighths. The blanket was dotted with deer blood and gun oil. Bena had covered it with a clean kitchen apron, whose faint recollections of roast beef and molasses seemed homey imperfections more suitable for an infant.
Theodore Gaspar Jonssen, Jr., six pounds, two ounces, had been born six and a half weeks earlier, on March 5. His birth was a bloody, prolonged affair, and exquisitely painful, as Theodore Gaspar Jonssen, Jr., saw fit to enter the world as one might enter a forbiddingly cold body of water, toes first. At the last minute he made a wrenching somersault, pulled and prodded by the obstetrician's thick gloved fingers. For a long moment he was silent. Bena had watched the doctor's face harden as he slapped her gray baby with a flat rubber hand. Then the baby coughed and rasped and breathed with his seaweed lungs, and the blood rushed to color his skin, and the face of the doctor softened at the slender thrill of new life.
"It's called the Front Range. Not Rockies, exactly, but nothing to turn your nose up at." Ted pulled a map from the glove box and unfolded it in his lap.
"Pueblo is here, see," he said, his finger hovering over the map and punching it whenever the Ford took a bump. "And the Range is here." His finger made a crater in the paper where the mountains were supposed to be. Bena saw a small black dot and the name of a town. Rye.
Ted pulled a paper clip off the cover of The Journal of Immunology and unfolded it. He slid one end carefully under the white bandage that covered his head.
He growled, seeking out the prickly stitches with the tip of the paper clip. As a doctor (and one who had recently been forced to leave a job at a reputable clinic), he was a predictably reluctant patient. Had he not been so reluctant, the mastoid infection that had grown, hot and irritated, behind his right ear, might not have required an operation to drain the abscess just as his wife was experiencing the first vise-grip clenches of labor. He and Bena were hospitalized at the same time, she on the fourth floor, he on the second. In the violent delirium of her delivery room, Bena predicted to the nurse who sponged her brow with a damp chamois that her husband would birth a child as well, just as Zeus's skull had cleaved to release a fearsome daughter. While Bena's labors yielded a clay-streaked and pleated baby boy, Ted produced nothing more remarkable than a beakerful of brownish puss.
A car passed them going the other direction. Bena noticed a woman's head turn back to look at them through the dust.
"Are the lights on?" Ted asked.
Bena fiddled with the dashboard. "I don't think so."
Of the next few cars that passed, two slowed and one honked its horn, flushing a family of pheasants that clattered over the Ford, assaulting the car with a quick rain of small stones and dirt. It wasn't until an empty farm truck nearly drove off the road as the driver turned to catch a glimpse of their retreating vehicle that Ted asked Bena to pull over.
He walked around the car, checking the tires, the lights, looking under the carriage to see if they were dragging a rope or the meaty remains of a small animal. Nothing.
Bena stepped out and stretched tentatively. She was still stitched and sore herself from giving birth, but Ted had been offered the job in Pueblo contingent on his arriving no later than May 1. Unfortunately, his infection had worsened after the first operation and he had, just the past week, required a second. As he was too dizzy and she was merely sore, Bena had agreed to do the driving. She'd stacked a pair of couch pillows beneath her to cushion her torn parts from the whimsies of the potted road. The trip promised to be even more excruciating and slow, given that they had to pull over every two hours to let the baby feed. But it would allow Bena to understand better the distance they were covering, and their dubious good fortune. Instead of watching the quick-passing grim and tawdry towns from the safety of the windows, she would be forced to stand in their midst, to smell the smoke of failing industry and hear the woody, uneven clopping of half-shod horses. She would be forced to appreciate, each time they stopped, the fact that her husband's only job prospect hadn't been in Sibley, Iowa, or Popejoy, or Latimer.
"Damned if I know." Ted folded his long legs back into the car.
They proceeded tentatively, Bena speeding up whenever a car approached. As they whipped past a grain truck just outside of Mandelia, they struck a crow picking at a pudding of hot innards on the road.
There was a snap of cartilage, of glass. The crow hung for a second, pressed against the windshield by the car's momentum, then tumbled over the roof and onto the road. Bena watched in the rearview mirror as it spun into the dry irrigation ditch that hugged the highway.
"That's a fine omen," she said.
Bena caught her husband rolling his eyes. According to her, it would be a bad day if there was a misprint on the front page of the St. Paul Dispatch, if the milk had spoiled overnight, if a robin broke its neck against their bedroom window, if she passed an amputee on the sidewalk before noon when the day was still impressionable.
Little Ted started crying from his dresser drawer. He didn't so much cry at this young age as cough, as if he were still part fish and clearing his lungs of water.
Bena stiffened. Before the baby she'd been a slow girl, the world coming to her through a watery layer of her own unsorted thinking. Now she'd turned wolfish, her nose and ears alerted by the slightest noise or scent. Her mind, no longer flabby and dreamy, was sinuous and lean and almost nervous. It made her life simpler, though she could understand how it might eat at her, if she wasn't careful to cultivate her own needs from time to time.
Ted reached over the seat and pulled Little Ted from the drawer. He thrust an arm through the baby's bowed legs and tucked his head into the crook of his elbow. Despite the fact that he was a doctor and no stranger to bodies, he had been rather awkward and stymied around the baby. Ted watched him with fierce interest and affection as he slept, but shied away from the crying, pissing, waking calamity of him.
Bena stole quick looks at her husband and son together, the one with his bottom wrapped in a white diaper, the other with his head wrapped in a white bandage. And there the similarities ended. There was no evidence of her husband's dark blue eyes that pushed out at the world, no evidence of his vivid, earnest, greedy face. Her husband appeared far younger than his own son, a prunish little wise man with a fish cough and pale, pale eyes that stared with a premature discernment at the bleary world around him.
"Keep talking about bad luck and you'll bring it upon us." Ted jounced his arm until the baby's crying stopped.
"Luck isn't something you court," Bena corrected. She reached out to touch her baby's forearm, so soft it eluded perception by her more callused digits, her thumbs, for example. She had a new favorite part of his body every few days. At first it was the arch of his foot, then the back of his knee, his walnut ears. She didn't feel capable of loving the entirety of him, so instead she loved him, manageably, in pieces. "It's something you observe."
She saw Ted struggling to contain his irritation.
"So stop being so damned observant." He smiled and pinched her forearm. He felt comfortable causing her pain if it seemed he was joking.
Ted returned to his medical texts while Bena stared ahead at the road, counting the rows of fledgling cornstalks that passed the car at the same thump-thump-thump pace of her pulse.
Dodge, Iowa, population 115. The second day.
The sign was the usual rural roadway variety-dull paint, metal post listing backward, letters punctuated by bullet holes. Here someone had applied a curt warning in hasty red slashes above the faded lettering.
A spindly, more dispirited hand augmented the first command.
We all did.
Dodge was heralded further by a peaked water tower with a flapping tarpaper roof; next to that stood a windmill, a lone Indian sentinel, its wooden wind guide protruding like a feather from the back of its lazily spinning blades. White powdery soil and dead grass and empty white sky came together at the horizon to produce a disorienting vertical sweep of colorlessness that made the parched clapboard buildings appear to be the last outpost of civilization.
They'd spent the previous night at a road motel in Rumford Wells. The baby had slept in the top drawer of the dresser and Bena and Ted had fallen onto the concave mattress, too tired to move, or so she'd thought. She was asleep when he touched her hip and her new, slack belly. She was already so warm and dreamy that she forgot she was a mother with a baby asleep in a motel sock drawer, she forgot she was bone-angry with her husband for exiling them to the godforsaken plains of Colorado (it wasn't his fault, she knew). The way he touched her was unconscious and bodiless, and she touched him, half asleep, until they forgot each other and became new people for the night, without resentments and bitterness, with only a generous willingness to slip inside another person's skin in a dark, borrowed room.
Past the windmill, Main Street started to pick up-an empty beauty salon called The Chatterbox, where a woman in an apron smoked alone behind the screen door; the Dodge Mercantile, with its chapped western facade and dusty windows yielding gauzy views of canned goods; Dodge Grain and Feed, a building that sloped heavily to one side like the face of a stroke victim. Farther down were a sturdy yellow-brick bank, a Texaco station, a caf;aae with a faded round Coca-Cola sign.
Ted pointed to a bare lot next to Ewing Lumber and Hardware. Bena parked beneath a billboard of a woman in a black dress, hands on her hips, gazing with concern at her unremarkable thighs. "Don't be skinny," the billboard insisted. "Take Dr. Burt's For-A-Betta Diet Supplements and getta betta figure."
Bena considered her own figure, disguised inside the ample and forgiving shape of her traveling dress. She had never been a skinny girl, always a firm, efficient girl who filled out dresses and blouses just enough to show there was a person inside. Her hide was taut over her muscles that were big for her sex, muscles that came from summers sailing on Lake Susquetannah, hauling in sheets and anchor lines, and swimming across black, icy coves in a striped bathing costume that weighed ten pounds when wet.
She pulled the dress across her waist. Her skin was looser after the baby's birth, loose on her arms, her back, her legs. This body belonged to another woman, a woman with tight, low breasts and thighs that chafed and stretched in the heat, a woman who had been cored, the pit of her expelled between her legs, leaving a tired, cramping sag above her pubic bone. It didn't make her unhappy, but it did make her curious. She'd spent hours in front of the mirror while pregnant, watching the way her body groaned, her joints splayed, the way her breasts grew warm and heavy; they felt like a pair of small sleeping squirrels she'd chosen to smuggle, hidden inside her coat, into movie theaters, restaurants.
She reached into the backseat and awakened Little Ted in the dresser drawer. She unbuttoned her dress and freed a raw nipple from inside her brassiere, shading his face from the white, high-up sun. Her son had already distinguished himself as an insatiable creature, which made Bena immeasurably proud. Since his birth she'd done little but sit in an armchair and lift him from one breast to the other, then massage her nipples with a suet-and-ash salve as he slept. He was still too young to see or talk or even smile, but she could put an ear against Little Ted's spongy middle as he napped and listen to the raging, vital sounds his stomach emitted as he battled his way back to hungriness.
"I'll explore our lunch options," Ted announced. His face had grown pallid, perhaps from carsickness or dizziness. "Any requests?"
Bena watched in amazement as a dog galloped down the center of the street, dragging a wooden doll. "Whatever looks good," she said, doubting that anything could. The sky was oil-ringed where the sun sought to burn through. Because of the drought that had persisted since the previous summer (no rain, no snow), there were no plant roots to keep the world in place; the dirt sloughed steadily away, making the wind gauzy and visible. The weather was unseasonably warm, the April sun as glaring and tiresome as that of late June.
As the dog neared, she saw it wasn't a doll in its jaws. It was a prosthetic arm. The hand vibrated a wooden greeting to her as it passed. Bena tracked the dog's progress in the rearview mirror until it disappeared around the corner of the Grain and Feed.
"Might want to keep the doors locked," Ted suggested, his brows close and dark. He became unbearably handsome to her, gilded and ancient, when his chivalrous impulses overtook him. Bena felt safe and reckless in a far-back, animal way, as if they were badgers or bears or beavers, living uncomplicated, instinctual lives. She ran a finger along his belt, trailed up his shirt placket, throat, chin. Her finger landed on his lips and he obliged her by kissing it, then pretending to bite it. He bent over her to take Little Ted's foot in his mouth. He shook it wildly, the way the dog had shaken the prosthetic arm.
He kissed her breast, grazed his lips over her long nipple.
She swatted him on the shoulder. He squeezed her nipple between his thumb and forefinger.
"Be right back." He flashed her the sheepish smile that she had learned in their two and a half years of marriage to read as an apology in advance.
Bena watched her husband walk across the parking lot, a familiar anxiety crimping the muscles of her forehead. He took a left on Main Street and was blocked from view by a parked police car.
Ted's smile meant that, despite his promise to hurry, he would discover a caf;aae with a booth away from the kitchen and out of the sun, just vacated. He'd find a local paper left by the previous diner, its sections turned inside out and gravy-spattered, and there would be a daily special (calf's liver and onions, hot bacon-bean pie) that would sound far more appetizing than a ham sandwich wrapped in brown paper to be eaten on the car hood. He would tuck into the bacon-bean pie, accompanied by a tepid ginger beer, and skim stories about the railroad layoff, the folding of the Sharecroppers' Credit Union, a boy's disappearance. He'd hem and haw before ordering a slab of rhubarb cobbler and a cup of coffee that the waitress would take special pains to refresh again and again and again. He'd insist, "Wife's in the car, need to make this snappy," all the while continuing small talk with the poor girl, asking her where she grew up and how she got so pretty and making her so flustered that she'd forget his dessert order and put him back another ten minutes.
Ted attributed his gregariousness to an overflowing bedside manner, but Bena knew her husband was simply a flirt, a man who, while he loved her, also loved to witness how the world came to adore him so easily. It was a quality she'd found endearing, until she began to locate in his compulsive gregariousness a strain of desperation. What made her most anxious was the constant suspicion that what she gave him wasn't enough, that he had to look elsewhere to feel loved thoroughly and properly.
He did, she knew, look elsewhere.
She'd seen him one afternoon on her way to meet a former sorority sister for lunch. He was supposed to be at the hospital and she'd seen him through a jeweler's window, fastening a garnet choker around a woman's neck. The woman offered her collarbone to him with her chin high in the air, as if she were spreading her legs. He stepped back to admire the necklace, the woman's neck and breasts, waist and ankles, and then he touched the buttons on her coat in a way that made Bena know for certain she was no salesgirl.
A week later, the necklace had appeared in a leather box for Bena's birthday. She'd remained stoic and straight-necked as he lowered the necklace around her from behind, his breath catching in her hair as he worked the cold clasp. Bena stared at herself in the mirror and experienced a strange power. She could know his most distressing truths and remain unbothered. That she'd caught him buying a necklace for another woman was evidence of his weakness; to have caught him selecting a piece of jewelry meant for her by the way it looked against another woman's throat was the most pitiful form of compromise. Unlike many women who might prefer not to know the illicit directions in which their husband's affections wandered, Bena liked to know these truths about Ted, because it allowed her to participate in his deceit as an equal partner.
She'd worn the necklace only once after that, to a medical dinner, at his request. Flush against her skin, it made her look as though she'd had her throat slit. She tossed the necklace down the toilet, but even then it continued to plague her, wrapping itself like a parasite inside the pipes. When the plumber removed the vile object, knotted with toilet paper and excrement, she offered it to him in addition to paying his fee. He didn't thank her; he must have heard the begging in her voice. He spat in the toilet, as he probably wanted to spit on her, if he hadn't been so desperate for money or anything like money.
After the incident with the necklace, Bena tried to leave Ted. She drove up to her father's summer house at Coeur du Lac and watched the winter land noiselessly on the lake like the flocks of geese resting on their flight south from Ontario. But by then it was too late. By then he'd burdened her with another secret, one whose creation they shared equally, though Bena housed it. She cried and drank bourbon and took icy swims at midnight beneath a pared moon, hoping to coax it out of her. But the only secret she managed to coax from between her pelvic bones was an unexpected discovery about herself. The truth was that she'd come to see her husband's infidelities as a relief. She and Ted had created a comfortable life inside of which they could hide from themselves and each other. The distance he maintained from her in order to protect his philandering meant that she could rightly be unknowable to him, and he to her.
Little Ted pulled away from her and started to cry. Bena stretched him across the seat and unpinned him until his musty, earthy body was revealed. He appeared so world-weary to her with his creased skin and skeptical old-man face; innocence, evidently, was a state for which humans had to age in order to achieve.
She reached into her tartan day bag for a diaper. She never went anywhere without a cakey pile of white cloth and various talcs and solutions, the soft and wet and powdery accoutrements of motherhood. The combination of baby and bag made her heavy and slow-moving, and brought her to question the evolutionary rationale to so many things, things that would prevent her from escaping whatever primitive pursuer might engage her in a chase.
Bena cleaned the baby with diluted rubbing alcohol. The tiny polyp between his legs still fascinated her because it represented the trickiness of her own body, and its devious ability to create a being so different from itself. She didn't understand how she could have made a man like that. It didn't seem possible that she could make a man, when men were something she couldn't claim to know much about.
She let her head fall back on the car seat. It was hot in the Ford with the windows closed. She pressed her face into Little Ted's body. She felt her affections shift from his elbow to his tiny, bowed nose. He smelled of sour milk in his neck folds, and sweat and urine. She held him up so she could look into his face and see the people there. He resembled her brother around the eyes, and he had her father's lanky, oversized mouth. She thought she saw a bit of her mother in him as well, at least what little she knew of her mother from pictures of her as a girl growing up in Norway. In the time since Little Ted was born, she'd spent hours memorizing the distance between his features, the length of each finger, preparing herself to notice the minute her baby began to mutate into a longer, more wily toddler. She kissed him on the forehead and watched as his eyes swung wildly around their sockets, alternately humored and alarmed.
In spite of the crow that had struck the windshield, Bena had a good feeling about their move to Pueblo. It was new there even if it was nowhere. She and Ted could fix their tinny marriage in pleasant isolation and return to Minnesota in a few years' time, exhaustively adoring of one another.
She awoke to the sound of retching, and a muffled thumping against the car glass. Little Ted was as radiant as a hot-water bottle on her lap. She failed at first to notice the woman rapping on the car window. Instead, she focused on the white bandaged head crouched and vomiting, just visible in the alley between two buildings.
Poor Ted, she thought. She prepared herself for the likelihood that they would have to rent a hotel room in Dodge; he would be unable to ride in a car in this condition.
Rap rap rap.
Bena looked up and was startled to find herself under the close scrutiny of a woman in a beet-colored cloche. She signaled Bena to roll down her window. Black gloves ended just above her wrists, unbuttoned and failing to hide the scars there, burn marks and scratches.
"I wouldn't fall asleep with the windows up," the woman scolded.
"Especially with a little one like that." Her bobbed blond hair ended in an upward point, leading the eyes of any observer directly to her very full, very red lips. Her dress was a dotted-swiss chiffon. The full skirt rasped against its crinoline as the wind swept by.
"My sister lost one of hers that way," the woman continued.
"Not that she didn't have a few to spare. Gone no more than a half-hour, buying fabric to make her baby a summer suit." She shook her head and fumbled with her beaded clutch, and extracted a faux-horn cigarette case that she opened with some difficulty. Her mouth tightened. "Don't have a cigarette, do you?"
Bena, half asleep, reached into the glove box and fished a cigarette out from between the maps. She'd been a smoker in college, back when she believed she would be a newspaper reporter, working for The Minnesota Daily at the university and smoking all night with the men to keep herself awake. She still smoked from time to time, and hid cigarettes behind books and underneath sweaters, where her disapproving husband wouldn't find them.
"It's a bit sorry," Bena apologized.
"Beggars can't be choosers." The woman put the flattened cigarette in her mouth. She smelled of a man's spice soap and bacon. Her porous skin was dusted with a thick layer of powder, and she'd drawn a beauty mark above her lip. The mark was oblong with scalloped edges, and resembled the first stages of rot rather than the ultimate testament to beauty.
"Well," the woman said, exhaling and surveying Dodge, Iowa, population 115. "This town is one of the shabbiest I've ever laid eyes on."
"Not much in the way of tourist attractions."
"You a tourist?"
"We're on our way to Colorado, actually. To live."
"Ah. Colorado." The woman sounded as if she knew it well.
"Pueblo," Bena clarified. "My husband's going to be a doctor at a clinic there. I've never been. In fact, I've never been to Colorado."
She'd never been to Colorado because she'd never wanted to go to Colorado. And this was still true. They were driving to Colorado because they had to. The Depression, she'd told her friends. No jobs. Take what you can get. Before, this had applied to others, not to them. Since he'd started medical school, Ted had been guaranteed a job by his uncle who ran a reputable private clinic in Rochester.
The woman in the green coat came into the clinic six months after he'd graduated. Because of a medical conference in Duluth, Ted was on duty alone that day. The woman didn't have a name, the woman wasn't wearing anything under her green coat, Ted reported at the clinic inquiry. (Later, explaining to Bena with his hair brushed back from his face so that she could be assured he was being truthful, Ted said the woman looked like a parrot-green coat, blue hat, blue bruises on her legs, her breast.) She was hopped up and delirious, he said. She wanted morphine to stop the pain of her bruises, and he refused. The woman said that no one ever refused her. She was out of her head when she started shrieking in the examination room, when she grabbed her green coat and ran, naked, through the hallways with one cloth slipper and a bare foot, when she accused him of touching her and hitting her after she denied him access to her withered body. A pair of nurses restrained her and clucked as she spat on herself, clearly embarrassed that poor, new Dr. Jonssen had to witness such a loose, afflicted variety of female nature.
The next morning, Ted learned that the woman's father was the mayor of Rochester, a beefy-minded man who had been trying to close the clinic for months to accommodate his plans for a new highway to be named after him. Although the woman had been in and out of Black Wing Sanitarium for years, Ted was asked to resign his post in order to avoid unnecessary trouble. The woman with the green coat was apparently a fixture around the clinic, one the other doctors readily supplied with morphine to keep happy and quiet. That Ted had refused to abide by the unspoken rules was viewed by his colleagues as an act of extreme hubris. His uncle promised he'd help him relocate to another clinic, yet the false word had spread, and Ted couldn't get another job, not in Minnesota, or Illinois, or Wisconsin. While Bena believed her husband was not only innocent but also ethically advanced, she couldn't help thinking that he had somehow deserved this unjust banishment for all the just ways in which he could have had his roaming hands slapped. It didn't occur to her until they were boxing up their apartment that she, too, was moving to Colorado, that she, too, was being banished.
"Not much to Colorado, really," the woman told her. "Space. More space. Nothing to be done with it, being it's all mountains or desert. Sort of like a rich widow in her mansion. Thousands of rooms to rattle around in, but no use to make of them." She said this in a nostalgic way, enjoying the image of so much grandeur, no matter how vacant and dusty. Thousands of rooms.
"How about yourself?" Bena asked. "Are you on vacation?"
"Vacation!" The woman shot a quick, bitter laugh through her fine nose. It was the only fine feature she possessed; the rest were thick and sprawling, as if she'd been hit a few too many times. "We're on a business trip."
"You and your husband?"
She smiled. "Sure."
"What's he do, your husband?"
The woman stared off at the horizon to indicate, perhaps, that the answer to this question was too dreary to be answered in all its particulars. "Finance."
"My father's the president of the St. Paul Savings and Trust. Perhaps your husband knows of him."
"I'm sure he will, if he doesn't already," the woman replied. She tossed her half-smoked cigarette to the dirt and ground it flat with the toe of a black crocodile pump that wiggled on her foot. "So few of them left these days."
The woman watched nonplussed as the dog carrying the prosthetic arm reappeared and circled the parking lot. She pulled a tube of lipstick from her clutch and looked at the worn nub, weighing the color like a shopper at a cosmetics counter. She searched for her reflection in the Ford's window and pressed the lipstick so hard against her lips that it created a wave of flesh preceding its travels.
"Well," she said, clicking her bag shut. "I thank you for the cigarette."
"And I thank you." Bena glanced down at her sleeping son.
"Need to do one good deed a day so that I can go to bed even." The woman started to leave, but then turned back. "Say, you wouldn't have any aspirin, would you? My husband's not feeling well." She made a great show of checking her watch, which was, in fact, a gold bracelet. It was too tight and cut into the flesh of her wrist.
Bena dislodged her purse from beneath the seat. She handed the woman a mother- of-pearl pillbox. "Take however many you need."
The woman accepted the pillbox, giving it the briefest once-over.
"What's the little one's name?" She reached a hand into the car and rubbed Little Ted's cheek with a gloved finger. It was obvious babies made her uneasy. Bena figured she was grateful for the aspirin and felt she should show some forced interest.
"Ted Junior. Little Ted for now."
"Well, they're lucky boys, the both of them. Say, reach out your hand." She held her closed fist upside down. "Go on."
Bena offered her palm. The woman pressed something into it and folded Bena's fingers into a fist.
"For good luck," she said.
Bena opened her hand. In it was a silver charm, a water tower with "Dodge" stamped across its barrel middle. It was dust-caked and banged up, trampled underfoot by all 115 townspeople.
"I found it while I was looking for the bank. I noticed you had a charm bracelet, I thought you'd have better use for it than me." She swatted a fly from Little Ted's forehead.
"Thanks," Bena said.
"I never wanted kids." The woman sounded wistful. "You?"
Bena squinted at her. It was an odd question to ask a woman with a baby.
"It's just never interested me much," the woman explained offhandedly. She seemed impressed with herself and her distinctive, unmaterial brand of femininity, as if instead of motherhood she'd just turned down a closetful of new dresses or a house by the sea.
Without saying good-bye, she walked off across the parking lot. She raised a hand over her head and let it spiral there, waving, or maybe catching a bit of the breeze in her gloved palm. The crisp sound of her crinoline grew fainter and fainter until it was the sound of the empty wind, whisking seedpods and gravel around the vacant, unpaved streets of Dodge.
Bena fiddled with her bracelet, biting the water tower's ring closed. The charm hung crookedly, between a silver herring Ted had bought her at the Inlagd Sill festival in St. Paul and a fountain pen she'd received for winning the Lester B. Hawks Prize for Daily Journalism in college. She often thought about detaching the pen, because it seemed a fatuous memento to carry about, a quaint reminder of the path she hadn't followed.
As the woman disappeared between two brick buildings, Bena was struck with a yawning desolation above her ribs. Somewhere a church bell sounded twelve lazy gongs. She looked at the expanse of white sky and white earth that stretched away to nothing and made her dizzy. She remembered reading in the St. Paul Dispatch about a man piloting a plane in the Antarctic on a sparkling clear day, and how he flew directly into the side of a snowy mountain because everything looked the same down there at noon, when there were no shadows to distinguish mountain, plains, sky, water. So it was in Dodge. And probably in Pueblo.
Little Ted let out a few faint bird chirps. Bena unbuttoned her dress. His first few sucks took the breath out of her, his powerful mouth working away at her chapped skin.
She was about to surrender to a bout of tired sobs welling up from that hole above her ribs, when the dog with the prosthetic arm lumbered in front of the windshield. The arm still jiggled, but less enthusiastically this time. The dog traced a slow circle around the parking lot before a second dog hopped into view. This dog was missing one of its front legs. It chased after the dog with the prosthetic arm. Every time it came close, the first dog would deftly pick up the pace, leaving its pursuer lunging at nothing but a rising cloud of dust.
Bena started to laugh. She laughed until the crying from that desolate place came up anyway. By the time she saw Ted ambling back with two paper bags, she had forgotten her unhappiness and had even come to see this new white world as capable of unexpected occurrences that were poetic and grotesque, pitiful and funny, all at once.
Ted slid into the passenger seat, balancing a ceramic mug full of coffee. Bena was relieved to note that his color had returned. Perhaps they wouldn't be spending the night in Dodge.
"I smuggled it out," he said, handing her the mug. He noticed her red eyes and running nose. "Is something wrong?"
Ted stared at her, mystified, until she pointed out the dogs. The three-legged one had finally caught up to its tormentor, and they were playing tug-of-war with the prosthetic arm, their back haunches strained and lowered, their nails skitching through the gravel.
"Jesus," Ted said in amazement. He passed Bena a sandwich. "Ham."
She unwrapped the sandwich and checked under the wet corners of the bread for ants or flies or God knew what. She heard a police siren. It grew and grew, bloomed next to them and moved past, fading quickly.
"Sorry I was gone so long," Ted began.
Bena took a tentative bite of her sandwich. She rolled the rubbery, salty ham around in her mouth before forcing it down with a swig of lukewarm coffee. 'There was a grease fire at the diner this morning. It took forever to get some service."
Bena tossed the rest of the sandwich out the car window. It was instantly descended on by a pair of crows. They knocked the crusts around, held the flaps of ham in their beaks and shook them silly.
Ted unwrapped his sandwich and pulled a long, dark hair from between the bread. He grimaced and held it out for the wind to take. He stared through the window crossly and put a hand against his gauzy head. "Where's that aspirin?"
Bena reached for her purse. She paused. "I gave it to somebody."
Ted gazed doubtfully at the deserted streets.
"A woman. She was here with her husband. On a business trip."
"You gave her all of it?"
Annoyed, Ted changed the subject. He pulled a folded newspaper out of one of the diner bags and pointed to an article on the front page. "This may explain our strange reception on the roads this morning."
Bena propped the paper on the steering wheel. Her fingertips smudged the edges and came away greasy with newsprint. "Barrow Injured in Culver Shoot-out," the headline read.
Culver, Iowa, a small town of 200 residents, missed the chance to earn a permanent place on the map yesterday when a deputy sheriff's bullet grazed the head of bank robber Clyde Barrow, injuring but not killing the infamous road gangster.
"He was bleeding over the right ear," testified Ryan McGivern, deputy sheriff and vice president of the Culver VFD. Barrow and his accomplice Bonnie Parker escaped in a stolen black Ford Touring Car belonging to Culver church warden Gladys Lipsky. "They won't get far," Mrs. Lipsky insisted. "Not with God's will, and not in that car."
Officials have advised travelers to remain on the lookout for a black Ford Touring Car, driven by either a man with a head bandage or a woman with blond hair. Last eyewitness reports indicate the couple to be headed south.
"Amazing we didn't get shot by some Johnny-do-good farmer," he said.
Bena turned to him, visions of that other white, bobbing head obscuring her actual husband from view. The sirens had ceased. She saw a patrol car pull over near the Coca-Cola sign, to expel a pair of policemen who pulled their pants up by the belt and shook their heads.
"You weren't sick over there?"
Bewildered, Ted followed her eyes to the empty alley at the end of the parking lot.
Bena turned and tucked Little Ted into his padded dresser drawer. She started the Ford and skidded out of the parking lot.
"Bena, the way out of town is..."
"'I'm not looking for the way out of town."
She took a left into a driveway that led them around behind the Dodge Apothecary, and pulled up beside a black Ford Touring Car just like their own. Ted regarded her, astonished that his wife's superstitious decoding of the world might on occasion yield a surprising knowledge.
Bena got out of the car and walked around the hood of the identical black Ford. Her sweat-damp dress stuck to the upholstery as she slid behind the steering wheel. She placed her hands where she imagined Bonnie had placed hers. She could smell her man's soap.
In the glove box she found a Culver Baptist Choir songlist, with a note in the margin: "Oil-Tea-Ginger-Cream." The silver lighter on the floor didn't work. A blank postcard from Lola's Lunch in Dawsonville, Iowa, was imprinted with the dirty texture of a shoe sole.
Bena looked at the odometer; it read 5,434, exactly the same as theirs when they had left the St. Paul city limits in a wake of dust and exhaust.
There were no maps.
The gas tank was empty.
Bena stepped out of the car and eased herself onto the hood. Her dress was still unbuttoned and the lace of her ivory slip was visible to anyone who cared to see it. She kicked her shoes off and rested her feet on the warm chrome bumper. She held the Lola's Lunch postcard over her eyes to shade them from the sun.
The parking lot was on the outskirts of town. From this vantage point she could see over the low roof of a sinking garage, out to the endless sweep of dry grasses and the single, unwavering strip of asphalt, a beaten gray vein of pavement that seemed antiquated, like a relic from another century.
Ted's door slammed. He walked with his hands shoved in the pockets of his khakis and rattling the change there. Rather than the horizon, he stared at the ground, at his boots pulling clipped young afternoon shadows across the lot. He peered inside the car, then opened the trunk.
She heard him whistle.
"This the lady to whom you gave our aspirin?"
He walked toward her carrying the broken stock of a rifle and a dirty brassiere.
Bena took the brassiere from between his fingers. It made her angry that he felt he could wave a strange woman's brassiere about so cavalierly. One of the straps was torn. She lifted it high, until the wind filled the cups. She let it go, watched it tumble over the gravel.
"Aiding and abetting criminals. It's not like you, sweetheart." Ted stood in front of her and placed both hands on her thighs. His hands were hot and thick-skinned through her dress.
"You had a close call," he said, pushing up her dress and urging the straps of her slip farther down her shoulders. It appeared that her brush with death or fame made him want to see her naked. He rested his bandaged head against her breasts; his wet breath filtered through the fabric. She put a hand on his neck and found a little curl of hair peeping out from below the bandage that she could wind around her finger.
Bena played with his lock of hair. The water-tower charm on her bracelet jangled against the silver herring from the Inlagd Sill festival. She felt her heart strain against the head of her husband to rush out into the dry, white horizon. Considering the expanse of empty land, she imagined every person to be a vector moving through space. Sometimes you intersected with one particular person and he or she changed your path dramatically. Other times, you just hummed along on what you assumed to be your own happy, straight line.
As Ted ran his hands over her body she noticed a faded sign painted on the brick wall of the apothecary. 'Tiny Ted's Famous Hand Cream,' it read. Below was painted a child's hand emerging from a pond of water. Or sinking. A hand sinking into water.
Bena shivered, even though she was sweating where her husband's hands pressed against her. She didn't like the fact that "Tiny Ted" sounded so much like "Little Ted," and that the address, 88 Main, was the exact date (8/8) of her brother's death by drowning. She wanted to tell Ted, to show him this potential omen, because sometimes, when he was patient enough, he could point out how her interpretations were flawed. He'd point out to her that 8 + 8 = 16, which was the number of her father's football jersey, for example, and she'd feel better for a moment. But she couldn't help suspecting that for all the ways in which she saw more than was there, for looking too closely, he added and subtracted from the basic truth of things, and missed what was most important about the predictions contained within the plain language of coincidence.
What People are Saying About This
(Melanie Rae Thon)
(Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland)
Meet the Author
Heidi Julavits has published short fiction in Esquire; her nonfiction has been published in Poets & Writers and Time Out New York. A 1990 graduate of Dartmouth, she has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is at work on her second novel.
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