My mother's ankles curve from the hem of a white suit as if the bones were water. Under the cloth her body in its olive skin unfolds. The black hair, the porcelain neck, the red mouth that barely shows its teeth. My mother's eyes are round and wide as a light behind her skin burns them to coals. Her heart makes a sound that no one hears. The sound says each fetus floats, an island in the womb.
My father stands beside her in his brown suit and two-tone shoes. He stands also by the plane in New Guinea in 1944. On its side there is a girl on a swing wearing spike heels and short shorts. Her breasts balloon; the sky opens inside them. Yellow hair smooth as a cat's, she is swinging out to him. He glimmers, blinded by the light. Now his big fingers curl inward. He is trying to hold something.
In her hands the snowy Bible hums, nuns swarming a honeyed cell. The husband is an afterthought. Five years since the high school lover crumpled on the bathroom floor, his sweet heart raw. She's twenty-three, her mother's sick, it's time. My father's heart pounds, a bell in a wrestler's chest. He is almost forty and the lilies are trumpeting. Rising from his shoulders, the cross grows pale and loses its arms in their heads.
I'm afraid Walter Cronkite has had it, says Mom. Roger Mudd always does the news now--how would you like to have a name like that? Walter used to do the conventions and a football game now and then. I mean he would sort of appear, on the sidelines. Didn't he? But you never see him anymore. Lord. Something is going on.
Mom, I say. Maybe he's just resting. He must have made a lot of money by now. Maybe he's tired of talking about elections and mine disasters and the collapse of the franc. Maybe he's in love with a young girl.
He's not the type, says my mother. You can tell that much. No, she says, I'm afraid it's cancer.
My mother has her suspicions. She ponders. I have been home with her for two months. I ran out of money and I wasn't in love, so I have come home to my mother. She is an educational administrator. All winter long after work she watches television and knits afghans.
Come home, she said. Save money.
I can't possibly do it, I said. Jesus, I'm twenty-three years old.
Don't be silly, she said. And don't use profanity.
She arranged a job for me in the school system. All day, I tutor children in remedial reading. Sometimes I am so discouraged that I lie on the couch all evening and watch television with her. The shows are all alike. Their laugh tracks are conspicuously similar; I think I recognize a repetition of certain professional laughters. This laughter marks off the half hours.
Finally I make a rule: I won't watch television at night. I will watch only the news, which ends at 7:30. Then I will go to my room and do God knows what. But I feel sad that she sits there alone, knitting by the lamp. She seldom looks up.
Why don't you ever read anything? I ask.
I do, she says. I read books in my field. I read all day at work, writing those damn proposals. When I come home I want to relax.
Then let's go to the movies.
I don't want to go to the movies. Why should I pay money to be upset or frightened?
But feeling something can teach you. Don't you want to learn anything?
I'm learning all the time, she says.
She keeps knitting. She folds yarn the color of cream, the color of snow. She works it with her long blue needles, piercing, returning, winding. Yarn cascades from her hands in long panels. A pattern appears and disappears. She stops and counts; so many stitches across, so many down. Yes, she is on the right track.
Occasionally I offer to buy my mother a subscription to something mildly informative: Ms., Rolling Stone, Scientific American.
I don't want to read that stuff, she says. Just save your money. Did you hear Cronkite last night? Everyone's going to need all they can get.
Often, I need to look at my mother's old photographs. I see her sitting in knee-high grass with a white gardenia in her hair. I see her dressed up as the groom in a mock wedding at a sorority party, her black hair pulled back tight. I see her formally posed in her cadet nurse's uniform. The photographer has painted her lashes too lushly, too long; but her deep red mouth is correct.
The war ended too soon. She didn't finish her training. She came home to nurse only her mother and to meet my father at a dance. She married him in two weeks. It took twenty years to divorce him.
When we traveled to a neighboring town to buy my high school clothes, my mother and I would pass a certain road that turned off the highway and wound to a place I never saw.
There it is, my mother would say. The road to Wonder Bar. That's where I met my Waterloo. I walked in and he said, 'There she is. I'm going to marry that girl.' Ha. He sure saw me coming.
Well, I asked, Why did you marry him?
He was older, she said. He had a job and a car. And Mother was so sick.
My mother doesn't forget her mother.
Never one bedsore, she says. I turned her every fifteen minutes. I kept her skin soft and kept her clean, even to the end.
I imagine my mother at twenty-three; her black hair, her dark eyes, her olive skin and that red lipstick. She is growing lines of tension in her mouth. Her teeth press into her lower lip as she lifts the woman in the bed. The woman weighs no more than a child. She has a smell. My mother fights it continually; bathing her, changing her sheets, carrying her to the bathroom so the smell can be contained and flushed away. My mother will try to protect them both. At night she sleeps in the room on a cot. She struggles awake feeling something press down on her and suck her breath: the smell. When my grandmother can no longer move, my mother fights it alone.
I did all I could, she sighs. And I was glad to do it. I'm glad I don't have to feel guilty.
No one has to feel guilty, I tell her.
And why not? says my mother. There's nothing wrong with guilt. If you are guilty, you should feel guilty.
My mother has often told me that I will be sorry when she is gone.
I think. And read alone at night in my room. I read those books I never read, the old classics, and detective stories. I can get them in the library here. There is only one bookstore; it sells mostly newspapers and True Confessions oracles. At Kroger's by the checkout counter I buy a few paperbacks, bestsellers, but they are usually bad.
The television drones on downstairs.
I wonder about Walter Cronkite.
When was the last time I saw him? It's true his face was pouchy, his hair thinning. Perhaps he is only cutting it shorter. But he had that look about the eyes--
He was there when they stepped on the moon. He forgot he was on the air and he shouted, 'There . . . there . . . now--We have Contact!' Contact. For those who tuned in late, for the periodic watchers, he repeated: 'One small step . . .'
I was in high school and he was there with the body count. But he said it in such a way that you knew he wanted the war to end. He looked directly at you and said the numbers quietly. Shame, yes, but sorrowful patience, as if all things had passed before his eyes. And he understood that here at home, as well as in starving India, we would pass our next lives as meager cows.
My mother gets Reader's Digest. I come home from work, have a cup of coffee, and read it. I keep it beside my bed. I read it when I am too tired to read anything else. I read about Joe's kidney and Humor in Uniform. Always, there are human interest stories in which someone survives an ordeal of primal terror. Tonight it is Grizzly! Two teen-agers camping in the mountains are attacked by a bear. Sharon is dragged over a mile, unconscious. She is a good student loved by her parents, an honest girl loved by her boyfriend. Perhaps she is not a virgin; but in her heart, she is virginal. And she lies now in the furred arms of a beast. The grizzly drags her quietly, quietly. He will care for her all the days of his life . . . Sharon, his rose.
But alas. Already, rescuers have organized. Mercifully, her boyfriend is not among them. He is sleeping en route to the nearest hospital; his broken legs have excused him. In a few days, Sharon will bring him his food on a tray. She is spared. She is not demure. He gazes on her face, untouched but for a long thin scar near her mouth. Sharon says she remembers nothing of the bear. She only knows the tent was ripped open, that its heavy canvas fell across her face.
I turn out my light when I know my mother is sleeping. By then my eyes hurt and the streets of the town are deserted.
My father comes to me in a dream. He kneels beside me, touches my mouth. He turns my face gently toward him.
Let me see, he says. Let me see it.
He is looking for a scar, a sign. He wears only a towel around his waist. He presses himself against my thigh, pretending solicitude. But I know what he is doing; I turn my head in repulsion and stiffen. He smells of a sour musk and his forearms are black with hair. I think to myself, It's been years since he's had an erection--
Finally he stands. Cover yourself, I tell him.
I can't, he says, I'm hard.
On Saturdays I go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars rummage sales. They are held in the drafty basement of a church, rows of collapsible tables piled with objects. Sometimes I think I recognize the possessions of old friends: a class ring, yearbooks, football sweaters with our high school insignia. Would this one have fit Jason?
He used to spread it on the seat of the car on winter nights when we parked by country churches and graveyards. There seemed to be no ground, just water, a rolling, turning, building to a dull pain between my legs.
What's wrong? he said, What is it?
Jason, I can't . . . This pain--
It's only because you're afraid. If you'd let me go ahead--
I'm not afraid of you, I'd do anything for you. But Jason, why does it hurt like this?
We would try. But I couldn't. We made love with our hands. Our bodies were white. Out the window of the car, snow rose up in mounds across the fields. Afterward, he looked at me peacefully, sadly.
I held him and whispered, Soon, soon . . . we'll go away to school.
His sweater. He wore it that night we drove back from the football awards banquet. Jason made All-State but he hated football.
I hate it, he said. So what? he said, that I'm out there puking in the heat? Screaming 'Kill' at a sandbag?
I held his award in my lap, a gold man frozen in midleap. Don't play in college, I said. Refuse the money.
He was driving very slowly.
I can't see, he said, I can't see the edges of the road . . . Tell me if I start to fall off.
Jason, what do you mean?
He insisted I roll down the window and watch the edge. The banks of the road were gradual, sloping off into brush and trees on either side. White lines at the edge glowed up in dips and turns.
We're going to crash, he said.
No, Jason. You've driven this road before. We won't crash.
We're crashing, I know it, he said. Tell me, tell me I'm OK--
Here on the rummage sale table, there are three football sweaters. I see they are all too small to have belonged to Jason. So I buy an old soundtrack, The Sound of Music. Air, Austrian mountains. And an old robe to wear in the mornings. It upsets my mother to see me naked; she looks at me so curiously, as though she didn't recognize my body.
I pay for my purchases at the cash register. Behind the desk I glimpse stacks of Reader's Digests. The Ladies Auxiliary turns them inside out, stiffens and shellacs them. They make wastebaskets out of them.
I give my mother the record. She is pleased. She hugs me.
Oh, she says, I used to love the musicals. They made me happy. Then she stops and looks at me.
Didn't you do this? she says. Didn't you do this in high school?
Your class, she says. You did The Sound of Music.
Yes, I guess we did.
What a joke. I was the beautiful countess meant to marry Captain von Trapp before innocent Maria stole his heart. Jason was a threatening Nazi colonel with a bit part. He should have sung the lead but sports practices interfered with rehearsals. Tall, blond, aged in makeup under the lights, he encouraged sympathy for the bad guys and overshadowed the star. He appeared just often enough to make the play ridiculous.
My mother sits in the blue chair my father used for years.
Come quick, she says. Look--
She points to the television. Flickerings of Senate chambers, men in conservative suits. A commentator drones on about tax rebates.
There, says my mother. Hubert Humphrey. Look at him.
It's true. Humphrey is different, changed from his former toady self to a desiccated old man, not unlike the discarded shell of a locust. Now he rasps into the microphone about the people of these great states.
Old Hubert's had it, says my mother. He's a death mask.
That's what he gets for sucking blood for thirty years.
No, she says. No, he's got it too. Look at him! Cancer. Oh.
For God's sake, will you think of something else for once?
I don't know what you mean, she says. She goes on knitting.
All Hubert needs, I tell her, is a good roll in the hay.
You think that's what everyone needs.
Everyone does need it.
They do not. People aren't dogs. I seem to manage perfectly well without it, don't I?
Copyright © 2001 by Jayne Anne Phillips. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.