Authors: Carol Goodman
One day at the end of the semester I walked to the campus. It was only June but the temperature was already in the eighties. I could have taken the shuttle, but I’d grown a little alarmed at how much weight I’d gained with the pregnancy, so I thought I could use the exercise. I was dropping off a paper at the Classics Department—it was on the lawsuit waged by a Roman slave named Petronia Iusta to regain her freedom, a paper on which I got an A+ and later formed the basis of my thesis—and then I thought I’d surprise Ely at the library. I had just gotten my check for my teaching assistantship and figured we could splurge on lunch out at Les Amis.
The library was blessedly cool after my long walk in the heat. It was built of the same limestone as most buildings on the campus, the thick yellow walls imprinted with the fossils of ancient seashells, and kept dim to protect the valuable manuscripts and photographs in the collection. Ely was lucky to have gotten the job here, I thought as I took the elevator up to the fourth floor, it was the kind of plum university clerical post that Austin slackers kept for decades. Not that he’d need it for that long. I was sure he’d get into the graduate program here at the university and be offered a teaching assistantship, but it was a good job to have in the meantime and in a way I envied him. There had been many days this spring, standing in front of a poorly air-conditioned classroom full of first-year Latin students, that I would have preferred being immured within the library’s calcareous carapace.
It was so chilly, in fact, that the receptionist on the fourth floor was wearing a cardigan and drinking a mug of hot tea. It was like I had wandered into the Cotswolds.
“Hey,” I said, “Noreen, isn’t it? Is Ely in the stacks?”
“Ely gave up his Wednesday hours a month ago,” she said, blowing on her tea and looking embarrassed.
I pretended that I’d gotten the wrong day. Then I pretended that he’d told me about the change of schedule but it had slipped my mind.
“Pregnancy hormones,” I told Noreen, and then asked to use the bathroom.
I threw up for the first time since my first trimester. The only explanation I could imagine for Ely changing his schedule without telling me was that he was sleeping with someone else. I rifled through the people we knew—the Classics and Math students, neighbors and shopkeepers—and my brain latched on to the checker at our food co-op. I’d noticed lately that she always bagged our groceries when Ely was there—and Wheatsville was a strictly bag-your-own establishment. She never bagged
groceries when I went in alone. She also worked at Starwoman. Maybe she was the reason Ely was always lingering there on his way home. In fact, I’d seen her coming and going from an apartment near Ely’s shuttle stop on Speedway. It would have been easy for Ely to stop at her place on his way home.
I left the HRC without saying good-bye to the receptionist and without stopping for a sip of water at the cooler even though my mouth was as dry as dust. Outside the day had grown sultry and humid. A green pall hung over the live oak and pecan trees and the air smelled like grackle droppings and sulfur. I got on a shuttle but its swaying made me feel sick so I got off at the first stop and set off walking north at a quick clip. I remembered that Ely had taken his bicycle with him today instead of riding the shuttle. Would he be careless enough to leave it outside the girl’s apartment? And if he had would I have the courage to knock on her door? I imagined myself standing there, big-bellied and sweating, and realized what a spectacle I was making of myself. But I couldn’t stop. I walked faster and faster, ignoring the first drops of rain and the wind that picked up the fluffy white spores from the cottonwood trees and set them flying around me like snowflakes.
I don’t know what kind of scene I would have made at the checker’s apartment if I hadn’t seen Ely’s bicycle leaning against the side of the triangle house first. As on the night Ely first pointed out the place to me, the house was surrounded by cars and half a dozen bikes besides Ely’s. The windows were shuttered and lightless even though the storm had now made the air as greenly murky as Texas lake water.
I’m not sure how long I stood there. Long enough to get soaked through to the skin. At one point I thought I could hear a low humming coming from the house, although I didn’t so much hear it as feel it, a vibration that needled my skin like an electric current. Its pulsing rhythm was familiar. It had the same cadence as the humming I’d heard coming from behind Ely’s study door.
I waited until the service—if that’s what they called it—ended and people started to come out. I noticed how quiet they were as a crowd, smiling at one another but not speaking, and how diverse. There were middle-aged housewives who looked as if they belonged over at Hyde Park Baptist, purple-haired teenagers, clean-cut college kids fresh out of towns like Lubbock and Sweetwater, and a couple of elderly black people. And then there was Ely, almost last, his head bowed as he left the building.
As soon as he stepped outside, though, he looked up as though I’d called his name and saw me. I saw then in his face, which had been so radiant and peaceful a moment before, what a fright I must have looked. Other people were staring at me, too: a pregnant woman, standing bareheaded in the rain, soaked to the skin. Looking down at my arms, I saw that my skin was plastered with the cottonwood fluff as though I had grown feathers. At that moment I felt like some hideous monster, a girl transformed by her jealousy into a harpy.
Ely called my name but I turned away and started walking back to our house as fast as I could. I heard him behind me and I broke into a run. I could feel my abdominal muscles contracting to keep the baby from jostling inside me, the ligaments pulling, but I couldn’t stop.
Of course, in my condition I couldn’t go very fast, either.
Ely caught up with me on the corner of 42nd and Avenue B, only a block from our house. He grabbed my arm from behind. Because the street was wet and because being pregnant had thrown off my balance, I slipped when he grabbed me. He might have been able to hold me up, but my skin was slick with cottonwood spores. I went down hard on my belly, the pavement sending a shock through my body that felt like a wave hitting me and sucking out my breath as it withdrew. Ely was crouched beside me, his lips moving, but I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. My ears roared with the sound of the retreating surf. As he helped me to my feet, I felt water splash against my legs. I remember thinking that we were caught in a rip tide; it was pulling us out to sea and would drown us both.
Then the cramps started.
Perhaps it’s the watery gurgle of the pump draining fluids from my chest that’s reminded me of that moment, or perhaps it’s being back in the same hospital where our baby—a girl we named Cory—was born and lived her brief life. Her lungs hadn’t had a chance to develop and on her third day she stopped breathing. The NICU nurses tried to resuscitate her, but her little heart wasn’t strong enough. The neonatologist who gave us the news said that it might be for the best. She was born so early that she would have had a multitude of developmental and health issues.
A multitude, he said. I remember thinking that a multitude of anything was better than this nothing. I also remember thinking that even my flaky, scatterbrained mother had done a better job bringing a child into the world.
The hollowness I feel in my chest now feels like the hollowness I felt then. Surely this was the answer to the first Pythagorean question. Waking in the strange half-light of my hospital room I say aloud to the walls, “Haven’t I gone far enough back now?”
“It’s not the direction you should be going in at all,” a voice responds.
I turn my head toward the door and there’s Odette sailing into my room, borne through the air like Cleopatra on her perfumed barge. Instead of cupids, she’s attended by one tall seraphim disguised as a young man in a navy blue suit who must be her son and who steers her wheelchair to my bedside. She’s wearing a fuzzy purple bathrobe embroidered with coffee cups and muffins.
“Honey, I hear you’re not making your best effort to get well,” she says, leaning over me. The coffee cups on her robe are topped with squiggly lines denoting rising steam.
“I should have warned you about Dale Henry,” I say.
“Honey, no one could have known what that poor sick boy was gonna do until he walked into that room with a gun in his hand, and by then any fool could have known what was going to happen next.”
“So why’d you have to put yourself between that crazy man and that fool teacher, Mama?” Odette’s son asks her.
“Because your mama’s a bigger fool than any of us suspected, James. There, I’ve said it. Happy now?”
The tall young man—he’s so tall that it makes me dizzy to look up at him, and when I do his features are blurry in the gloom—looks anything but happy.
“The doctor said not to let you work yourself up—”
“As if you could control what someone else was feeling. That’s what I come here to tell this girl,” she says, turning from her son to me. “I know you, Sophie Chase. You’re lying here brooding on what you could have done different. Well, that and a quarter will get you a ride on a bus to Nowhere. You grabbed that boy’s leg so he wouldn’t shoot Agnes, didn’t you? How were you to know he’d already put that gun in his mouth? At least you tried to do something.”
“How did you know I grabbed his leg? You’d been shot—”
“Mama, the doctor said only five minutes—”
“I’m almost done, James. Why don’t you go see if you can find me some decent coffee? I’m sick of the swill in this place.”
When James has gone, Odette nudges her chair closer to my bed and takes my hand in hers. She leans in close enough so that I can smell the gingery pomade she uses in her hair and whispers something—only the suck and gurgle of the whirlpool beneath my bed make it almost impossible to understand her. It sounds as if she’s just said, “Many are the narthex bearers, but few are the Bacchoi.”
“Isn’t that Plato?” I ask her, “from the
But then James is back, bearing a cup of coffee in a blue paper cup emblazoned with the white columns of the Parthenon. The question of where he found a Greek diner in Austin mingles with the wonder of Odette quoting Plato, but then Odette wafts the cup under my nose and the scent wipes out everything. The coffee smells heavenly. A mixture of cocoa and cinnamon. When I open my eyes, James is wheeling Odette out of the room. I have time only to see the back of her robe, which is embroidered with something written in fancy script. Sure that the words will give a clue to the mystery of her last statement I study them hard.
“Sometimes I wake up grumpy,” I read. “And sometimes I let her sleep in.”
I wake up the next morning clearheaded and alert. It’s as if the whiff of coffee Odette shared with me the night before had finally woken me up. I manage solid food for the first time and the nurses tell me that the tubes can come out of my chest. Even the pain of that procedure feels almost good. Like being alive again. I turn down the offer of painkillers that afternoon. I want to be able to think clearly when I talk to Odette again. It’s impossible, I realize, that she was quoting Plato. I must have misheard her. Still, I feel sure that if I can just talk to her again I’ll be sorted out.
It’s M’Lou, though, who shows up in my room that afternoon bearing flowers and cards from my students and colleagues at the university. She beams when she sees me sitting up with a tray of Jell-O and hard-boiled eggs. “Thank God,” she says. “You look a hundred times better. I was afraid…well, you seemed like you’d gotten a wee bit lost.”
“I think I was,” I say, taking a spoon of the ersatz Jell-O (
Ely called it when I was here last). “But Odette knocked some sense into me. Do you think I’m well enough to go visit her? Is she on this floor?”
M’Lou drops the cards to the floor and kneels to pick them up. She spends a long time shuffling them. When she finally looks up, I see tears in her eyes.
“No,” I say, “she can’t be. She looked fine last night.”
M’Lou lets the cards drop to the floor again and takes my hand. “Sweetheart, Dale Henry shot Odette at point-blank range straight in the heart. She never had a chance. She was declared dead on arrival seven days ago.”
nly three weeks have passed since the morning of the shooting to this bright afternoon when M’Lou drives me home from the hospital, but it feels like a lifetime. My unmown lawn of wildflowers has turned sere and brown. The coral vine, in which I have always suspected a Julio-Claudian lust for world domination, has sent out feelers that have attached themselves like tiny reptilian feet to the front-door screen.
“I kept meaning to come by,” M’Lou says from behind me on the porch, “but I hated to leave you, and then the hospital had me on double shifts.”
“It’s all right.” I brush away the vine, which springs back, smacks me across the face, and then slithers off into the dark rafters. “It’s just a house, not a live thing that needs looking after.”
When I open the door, though, the house chuffs three weeks worth of stale Texas heat into our faces and moans like a trapped animal. The heavy canvas Roman shades, which I’d drawn against the heat three weeks ago, lift on the outgoing air and then slap back against the windowpanes as the house sucks in new air. The rattle of loose panes sounds like the gurgle the pumps had made sucking fluid out of my chest in the hospital.
“Do you feel any pain there?” M’Lou touches my hand which I’m holding against my chest.
“No, just a little shortness of breath sometimes.”
“Well, that’s to be expected after losing half your left lung.” She walks past me and pulls up a shade. “There’s a rehab center out on Bee Caves Road for patients who’ve had lung surgery. It’s called the Oxygym. I’d be happy to take you.”
“Sure,” I say to M’Lou’s retreating back. “Once I’m settled.” I’m glad to see that M’Lou’s back in brisk, efficient mode. I hear the refrigerator door open and a series of tongue clucks and then the sound of clumpy liquids gurgling down the drain and the snap of a plastic garbage bag being inflated.
The house is being resuscitated while I remain becalmed at its center, unable to move past the living room. I glance at the little desk I still keep in the alcove by the front door for bill-paying and see my desk calendar spread open to May. I’ve always kept it by the front door to double check appointments on my way out and now I step toward it as though it could tell me what to do next in my own house.
The pressing appointments that I find here have already passed. Final exams, term paper due dates, grade deadlines—all scrawled in emphatic red ink, circled, and appended with exclamation points asserting their importance and urgency—have slipped under the encroaching tide of time without a ripple. My very efficient teaching assistant rooted through my old test files and proctored the exams. She was able to calculate grades for my undergraduate Latin sections and my graduate students were given incompletes. I imagine most of them were happy to get the extra time to finish their papers. My chair called me at the hospital to tell me not to worry about getting in the grades until the fall. He even offered me an extra teaching assistant if I needed one and the fall semester off. The university would of course pay for any medical bills my insurance hadn’t covered—rehab and counseling, too. By the end of the conversation I had the impression I could have asked for an all-expenses-paid spa vacation and an in-home Jacuzzi, anything to keep me from suing the university. It was then that I learned that Dale Henry had been seeing a counselor at the Student Health Center in the fall who had responded to his increasingly unhealthy obsession with Agnes with a bizarre cocktail of Ritalin and Prozac. Barry Biddle’s parents were already suing. Odette’s son—who looked nothing like the tall seraphim who’d appeared in my posthumous vision of Odette—told me that they weren’t because “Mama would have hated that.”
As for me, I had no intention of suing anyone. I felt at least as responsible for what happened as that counselor.
I turn the calendar page from May to June and find a grid of boxes empty except for one word written across the whole month. VACATION! Although it’s my handwriting, I can’t, no matter how long I stare at it, evoke the sentiment with which it was written: the delight in freedom from obligation and responsibility I’d clearly been longing for. All it feels like now is emptiness.
M’Lou bustles by me swinging two bulging garbage bags. Did I really have that much rotting food? It’s true my refrigerator tended to fill up with cartons of half-eaten take-out toward the end of term, but even so…
“I’m going to Whole Foods to get you some supplies. It’s important you eat a lot of protein—you’re building new tissue. Do you want to go? Or maybe you should stay and rest? Unless you don’t want to be alone—”
“I’m fine, M’Lou. Go ahead, but save the receipt and let me pay you back.”
M’Lou walks to the curb and tosses the two heavy garbage bags into the back of her turquoise pickup truck as effortlessly as if they were filled with Styrofoam. You wouldn’t guess from her thin freckled arms and tiny frame, but M’Lou has a bodybuilder’s strength, honed by years of riding the quarter horses she breeds on the ranch in Pflugerville that she inherited from my grandparents. I used to think that if I tried hard enough—ate practically nothing, worked out every day, wore the same brand of jeans—-I could attain M’Lou’s lean, rangy look. When she realized what I was after, sometime in tenth grade when she caught me trying to fit into her jeans, she sat me down on the edge of her bed and took a picture of my mother out of the night-table drawer. It was a picture I hadn’t seen before of the two sisters in front of the ranch, my mother in a checked yellow dress, her hair long and loose around her shoulders, her arm draped indolently over M’Lou’s shoulder, one hip playfully bumping against her older sister’s. Her eyes looked black in the picture, but I knew that close up they contained sparks of green, just like mine. M’Lou, though, stood ramrod straight, like a pencil next to my mother’s soft curves.
“I swear, Lizzy had curves when she was just a baby and she was soft, like a ragdoll. When you picked her up she just molded to your body. I wasted a lot of years wishing I looked like her. Don’t you make the same mistake, Sophie. You’re beautiful just how you are.”
I’ve made a modicum of peace with my figure since then, but I’ve never quite gotten over looking for my mother in M’Lou. I realize that even now, watching her climb into her pickup and wave to me, I’m looking for something that isn’t there. This leaves me feeling not only empty, but ungrateful: no one could have loved me more or done more for me than M’Lou has. For years she made the long commute from Pflugerville into her nursing job in Austin so that I wouldn’t have to absorb the brunt of my grandparents’ expectations and regrets alone.
I close the door and quickly cross the living room so I don’t get stuck again. The rooms in my house are laid out one after another—a shotgun house, some people call it because you could shoot a gun straight down the middle and it would go out the back door without hitting a wall. I shudder at the image and feel a phantom pain on the left side of my ribs where the lower part of my left lung used to be. When I described the pain to the pulmonologist he said that it was probably an air pocket that had gotten into my chest cavity during surgery and he showed me my chest X-ray. “See,” he’d said, pointing to the ghostly white shape lurking beneath my rib cage, “your left lung is stretching to fill the chest cavity. In a month, if you keep doing the breathing exercises I prescribe, it will look nearly the same size as the right one.” While I liked the idea that my body was laboring to make itself whole again, I still can’t help feeling that there will always be this empty ache there.
I hold my hand over that spot as I cross through the kitchen, which smells like sour milk and bleach, into my bedroom, and stop at the closed door to my study. It’s the only room that breaks out of the straight plan—an add-on some earlier tenant built that had been my roommate Clare’s room, then Ely’s study, and now my study. I know it’s this room that I’m dreading. I can feel it crouching like an evil toad at the end of the house and that until I go into it I’ll go on feeling like a stranger in my own home.
It’s because of that other homecoming when I came back from the hospital after losing the baby. M’Lou had brought me home then, too, because Ely was supposedly taking a final. (I later found out that he’d already dropped out and he was at a meeting instead.) I’d developed an infection after giving birth and stayed in the hospital for two more weeks, so I’d felt that same strangeness coming back to the house after a long absence. I’d shaken it off and set about tidying up, sure that Ely would have let things go while I was away, but he hadn’t. The house was spotless. Finally I’d stood at the closed door to his study, like Bluebeard’s bride, making excuses for going inside. He’d probably accumulated all his mess in there, I figured. A sickly sweet odor seemed to emanate from the closed door. I pictured rotting food piled up inside. Ely had been so strange since the baby died, hardly talking when he came to the hospital, his eyes bloodshot. At first I’d thought he’d been crying, but I never saw him cry, and then I realized from the dark bruises under his eyes that he’d stopped sleeping. Had he stopped eating, too? He’d tried to explain some complicated dietary laws that the Tetraktys demanded of initiates, but I hadn’t wanted to listen to anything about the Tetraktys. As I stood outside that door I began to wonder if the group he’d joined demanded some kind of animal sacrifice.
I opened the door half expecting to find a bloodstained altar, but what I found was somehow more upsetting. The room was completely black. It took me a moment to realize that the walls had been painted black and the one window was covered with a blackout shade, its edges sealed to the window frame with black electrical tape. It was like being inside a cave. When I found the wall switch the bare bulb in the ceiling turned the black into a deep purple. And then, out of that ghostly twilight, silvery images had emerged, as stars appear in the sky at dusk, only this was a sky filled with a thousand stars all bound together by intersecting lines and great arcing ellipses. Looking down I saw that I was standing on a silver triangle painted on the floor. Like a launching pad. I knew at that moment that Ely wasn’t off taking his final exams and that I had already lost him to the Tetraktys. For all I knew, I’d already lost him to the reaches of outer space.
Now when I open the study door I half fear that I’ll find that black room again. It took five coats of heavy white latex enamel to cover the walls and still when the moonlight comes into this room I can make out the glimmer of stars and planets revolving in their orbits. I see a flash of them now, as if my absence had drawn them out again, as I switch on the overhead light, but then they vanish. Instead I see my mission library table standing under the window, warm sunlight turning the cloth shade gold and striping the Navajo rug with long slanted bars. On the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves my Loeb Classics in their green-and-red bindings, the reassuringly thick spines of lexicons and dictionaries, the leatherbound set of Gibbons’s
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
that M’Lou gave me when I got my Ph.D., and even the brightly colored modern paperbacks are all arrayed like sentinels against the dark.
I sit down at my desk and touch the pile of printed pages stacked to the left of my laptop and the sheets of handwritten notebook paper pinned beneath a chunk of fossiliferous limestone on the right. I’ve been writing a book on a first-century woman slave slowly, but steadily, these past five years. Perhaps I’ll just do a few pages now, I think, to calm myself and get me into the rhythm of being home. I lean across the desk to draw the shade up—a ritual that starts my workday every morning—but when I look out the window I’m confronted by my overgrown lawn. I can’t possibly do any work with that lawn reproaching me. I go back to my bedroom, change into a T-shirt and shorts, and go outside to mow.
I have the feeling right away that this isn’t what the pulmonologist meant by light activity. I’m drenched in sweat within minutes and my arms and back feel as if I’m pushing Sisyphus’s rock and not a ten-pound manual-reel mower. Still, it feels amazingly good to be doing something physical and to see the results in each freshly mown path I clear. For the first time in weeks—since the sky exploded over my head in the conference room—I feel firmly tethered to the earth. Each time I reach the edge of the lawn and turn I can see where I’ve been and I know what to do next. It’s only when I’ve finished and put the mower back in the shed and set the sprinkler on that my spirits sag. My lawn is a field of scorched stubble, like the fields of Carthage, which the Romans sowed with salt so that nothing would grow there for a hundred years. Watering it is little more than anointing the dead.