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Joyce Carol Oates

Death, Etc.

You carry your parents inside you, seeded.

So they say. I have one parent living, one dead. The task, as I see it, is to keep the living from joining the dead.

It's my second morning at home. My old girlhood room. I wake to a sense of something terrible, but it is only the wintery sunshine filtering through the muslin curtain. Canada geese passing overhead, those high thin cries, repeated endlessly. I wake touching my breasts, the small hard nipples, are they sore? sensitive? swollen? Does this sense of dread and exultation mean anything? Fatigue washes over me--two days ago I drove nearly five hundred miles to my mother's house--but I know from past experience that as the day opens out my strength will return: I'm a strong woman.

I'm also an angry woman. My skin gives off an almost palpable heat. My eyes sometimes show white above the rims of the iris. Why are you so angry, Ursula, one of my lovers asked, and I laughed and told him I didn't know. "I'm waiting to find out," I said.

It's Thursday, one of Ruth's clinic days. By accident--I'm sure it is accident--I break a small hand mirror in the upstairs bathroom, the damn thing slips from my fingers and shatters on the floor. I begin the day crouching awkwardly, picking up slivers of glass, swearing under my breath. Downstairs Ruth is preparing breakfast for both of us. It was one of her bad nights I'm sure, a few hours' druggy sleep, but she gets up at seven, has rarely been able to sleep beyond seven--as if there were virtue in that. She is fifty-six years old and has been sick now for three years, "sick" being my term and not hers. If she has any term for her state of being I don't know what it is. She is wearing a red turtleneck sweater, black wool jacket, black slacks that fit her loosely--dressed for the doctor. Pale silvery-brown hair dry and synthetic-looking as a cheap wig, fluffed out in a style devised by a local beautician to disguise its growing thinness. A trace of lipstick; eyebrows darkened with Maybelline pencil from the dime store. Good morning! Isn't it a good morning! Her mood is determinedly cheery, sunny, evasive. She asks did I hear the Canada geese flying overhead?--there must have been two or three hundred. And there was a small herd of deer down by the pond a few minutes ago, just before I came downstairs: browsing in the rye my father planted years ago, trying to drink from the frozen pond--"How can animals find water to drink when everything is frozen?" Ruth asks. She is breathing hard, staring out the window with widened damp eyes as if her question is of crucial significance. Isn't every question of crucial significance! We can discuss it for five, ten minutes, standing side by side and staring down toward the pond where the ice lies in dull-gleaming sheets, lightly dusted with snow....

I study my mother covertly, as if memorizing her face. Her eyes, dark brown like mine, large and deep-socketed like mine, are nearly lashless now, and, as a consequence, seem stark and exposed as eyes shouldn't be, slightly protuberant. She was always--had always been--a big-boned gregarious woman, not plump but solid, even muscular, with a rich ruddy healthy skin, homely-handsome features, a mobile mouth. Now, thirty pounds lighter, she carries her weight with less confidence than she did; her voice, too, seems to have thinned; her skin has acquired a yellowish metallic cast as if it would be smooth, dry, chill to the touch.

"What would you like for breakfast?" Ruth asks. I've been standing here staring and smiling--there's something about my mother's kitchen and my mother's mood that excludes me. Radio music, popular music, sunshine streaming over the Swedish ivy and aloe vera plants on the windowsills; Ruth's longhaired cat Sheba nudging against her legs. Ruth repeats her question and though I don't really want anything--I never eat breakfast, as Ruth well knows--I say, smiling, "Whatever you're having, Ruth," which is the answer she wants to hear.

Would you know the woman is dying?--her smile so wide and white.

My mother is a strong woman too, a tough woman--that's part of the game.

Not long ago a man said to me, Why not try to look at cancer as the life force gone crazy--the cells desperate to live their own kind of life, which they can't comprehend interferes with ours?--he thought he was being philosophical, "poetic" maybe, he thought it would impress me.

I said nothing. When he touched me, he could feel the rage trembling inside me, and he drew his hand away as if he'd been burnt.

I am an artist, a sculptor--twenty-nine years old--I have had what might be called an early, gratifying, and very likely misleading success--but I am an artist, for life.

Except I am not an artist of my own life.

Which means: I am not interested in cultivating its surfaces, working to refine and clarify my relationships with people; even my ongoing relationship with myself. Don't misunderstand when I say that I am not interested in myself--but life to me is what must take care of itself.

Life is what is left over after art's energies have been drained.

So I tell myself.

So I have always told myself.

Like my mother I am a tall woman, five foot ten, though narrow-shouldered and -hipped, my body rather flat, my face oval in shape, something covert and belligerent about it. My hair is long, dark, slightly coarse, inclined to oiliness unless I wash it frequently, which I don't. My skin, too, is inclined to coarseness. Even in repose (I've been told) I look truculent. I have never worked at being what's called attractive, because I don't value attractiveness: it's always seemed too easy. Whom do I care to attract?

I suppose, though I like some people very much, and become, from time to time, involved with certain individuals to the point of obsession, I don't really trust people. I don't trust happiness. No one in my family has understood this, thinking it a comment of a kind--which it isn't--on them. On their "values." While my mother and father were both involved in local civic life--my mother was even an officer on the county school board, while I was in high school--my father was active as a fund-raiser for one or another charitable organization--I take no interest in such things, in what's called "community." I could live anywhere, I could live any life, as long as I'm free to do my work.

Selfish, Ruth thinks.

And she's right.

When Ruth wanted a daughter, those many years, I eluded her. So maybe it's right for her to elude me now.

Ruth drives the station wagon six miles to town, I ride beside her in the passenger's seat. Mornings are her strongest times; it's usually mid-afternoon when the fatigue hits her, and she has to lie down. "Nice to have you along," Ruth says, and maybe means it. I would not want to say so but the house is too empty with her gone even for a few hours--though once I'd loved being home alone, walking through the rooms as if I'd owned them, talking to myself, singing at the top of my lungs, looking out the windows of my parents' bedroom just to see what the world looked like from those particular windows.

I have a sense of what the house must be, now, to my mother. Since my father has been dead three and a half years, she has lived alone all that time.

Ruth has insisted that she drive; if she's feeling weak after her therapy I can drive us back home. She handles the big car with her usual competence, keeping up a steady stream of bright innocuous chatter. News of relatives, neighbors, local politics. More scandal. Have I heard--? Did I know--? The highway into town is busier than I've ever seen it on a weekday morning at this time. Yet the talk continues, I hear my voice responding, we're even laughing together as if something is amusing.... When I telephone home to ask Ruth how she is, she invariably says, "Fine, Ursula--and you?" in a bright perfunctory voice. As if she were speaking over the telephone for one of her charities, canvassing the neighborhood. Fine, Ursula. Just fine. And you? Until I want to scream at her: Tell me the truth. Until I want to scream.

Father died of cancer three summers ago, Mother developed symptoms of her own the following winter. As if on schedule. As if in homage. She told no one--not even her sisters--about the symptoms, or about her increasing fatigue, her loss of appetite, weight; denied that anything was wrong though her family and friends knew that something was very wrong, and insisted she see a doctor. Two operations followed, one a hysterectomy. And now she is in that twilit state, neither sick nor well, suspended in a sense, waiting, undergoing radiation therapy and--if the radiation doesn't do the trick, as her doctor says--she will be prescribed for chemotherapy in a few months. Don't listen to what people try to tell you about chemotherapy, her doctor says. Don't let them scare you: it won't do any good.

We're a mile from the clinic when I say, as if I'd just thought of it, that I'd like to come in and talk with Dr. Wier after he's finished with the examination. It won't, I tell her quickly, be like the last time--when I got angry and walked out of his office. "I just want to ask him a few questions," I say. "I won't lose control."

Ruth says at once, "No. No thank you."

"Look--I won't argue with him. I'll talk quietly."

"No."

"Ruth--for Christ's sake."

Ruth grips the steering wheel tight; won't look at me. There's a nerve twitching in her cheek. "Ursula, please. Don't. Not now. They'll be taking a blood pressure reading on me in a few minutes."

I make an effort to sit still, to sit silent, swallowing down my anger. Staring at the traffic, the landscape. Damn. Shit. Fuck it. It isn't just that I question the man's professional qualifications, it's the way he treats my mother that upsets me--the condescending way he's said to treat his women patients. (Or is it all women?--and my mother simply happens to be his patient?) He's a doctor with a "good" reputation locally; a small-town success. Ruth was referred to him by our family doctor and has never considered anyone else. I've begged her to let me make an appointment for her with a specialist in another city--I've tried to interest her in participation in an experimental therapy program. If it's a matter of money, we could mortgage the house couldn't we--or even sell it? Borrow from relatives? "At least get a second opinion," I've said. "Is there any harm in that?"

Ruth admits that she doesn't much like Wier, but she respects him. And she's afraid that, if he learns she's considering another kind of treatment, he will drop her. He's an old-fashioned doctor with old-fashioned principles.

"He's a self-righteous, self-important son of a bitch," I said.

Ruth laughed. Then told an old joke of my father's: "A man goes to the doctor complaining of aches and pains in his joints, and the doctor says, `You have arthritis.' `Arthritis!' the man protests. `I want a second opinion!' So the doctor looks at him and says, `You want a second opinion? All right--you're homely, too.'"

And she laughed at the joke as if it was new, and funny.

It's best not to confront her directly. I have to be cautious. Telling her casually about some of the reading I've been doing in medical journals, inquiries I've made to the Public Health Service; sending her material published by the Biological Therapy Foundation in Washington--successful experiments on cancer patients involving the use of the biological agent interleukin-2 to activate immune cells.

(Ruth never comments on the material except to say that her medical insurance will cover only standard treatment.)

Now she is saying, "Ursula, I just don't want your God-damned interference."

We're sitting in the idling car, in the parking lot. I can't face her. I can't look at her. I'm staring out at the asphalt pavement, the rows of meek parked cars, it's one of those blowy blustery overcast days when the air is alive with bits of grit, flying in all directions. You can't tell if it's morning or late afternoon. Across Route 1 there's a neon-lit car wash, a hundred yards away there's a Big Boy restaurant, slow streams of traffic are passing sluggishly behind us. I'm sick with rage, the knowledge that a life--my mother's life!--can wind down in such a dismal setting. That there's nothing I can do to prevent it.

Ruth is about to slide out from behind the wheel. I say to her, "You know what I think the real problem is?"

"What?"

"You."

***

Climbing the outside, uncovered, rickety wooden stairs to his apartment above the hardware store on South Main Street, it must be past midnight, my drinking companion Mitch is drunken and buoyant and eager to share some of his "first-class grass" with me as he has promised; and I'm primed to cooperate. I knew Mitch years ago when I was still in high school--not well--he'd graduated, or dropped out, a few years ahead of me--and what his life was then or has been in the intervening years, I don't know. I ran into him in a bar earlier tonight, got to talking, the two of us hit it off the way it sometimes happens when nothing much is at stake. "C'mon, watch out, it's icy," Mitch says, taking my hand. I lost my gloves somewhere tonight, my hands are cold. I like it that he's holding my hand and holding it tight.

There's a winter moon glaring like white neon, strong enough to hurt your eyes.

Inside there's a narrow room, a single room crammed with furniture, kitchen alcove, splotched linoleum floor, a bare light bulb burning above the sink. You laugh or cry waking in such a place so why not laugh? I don't even have my coat off, and he's got hold of me, his fingers spread tight against my ribs, inside the coat, I'm a tall woman, but I have to rise to my toes to meet him. His lower face is rough, unshaven, our breaths smell of beer and smoke. We're laughing, kissing, trying to kiss. Trying to keep it going.

Afterward he puts on another light, a child's lamp it looks like, crooked shade, tassels, stiff with dirt. The light makes the room look warmer. But I'm wrapped in a blanket, can't stop shivering. Mitch locates his cache in a small plastic bag, great stuff he says, but his fingers are clumsy, I'll have to roll the joint myself. My fingers are clumsy, too; stiff with cold. "Good girl," Mitch says, swallowing down a belch. He looks older than a man in his early thirties. Flaccid flesh at his waist, skin pasty-pale, a wheezing breath. His chest hair is damp and curly, the nipples dark as my own, little sightless eyes. I'm thinking suddenly that I might already be pregnant: I wouldn't have needed to come here.

That sensation in the pit of my stomach--not nausea but the idea of nausea.

We share the joint, we share a bottle of cheap red wine, he wants to make love again, but it doesn't quite work out. For which no one is to blame.

Honey, he calls me.

I don't call him anything at all. I may have forgotten his name is Mitch.

And I'm not staying the night as I'd thought I would. Suddenly my plans are changed. He's in the bathroom, and I slip the plastic bag, what remains of the marijuana, into my purse, and when he comes out yawning and stretching, the toilet flushing loud behind him I'm dressed, I'm stamping on my boots, I say, "I'm leaving," and he stares at me and says, "What? Why?" "I'm going home," I say. And because he stares at me so stupidly I repeat, "--I'm going home."

He's hurt, baffled, as if I'd slapped him across the face.

"I thought we were getting along," he says.

"What happened?" he says.

He's so surprised he isn't even angry, that will come later. Should I feel sorry for him? My face is hot; eyes glassy-bright. Smoking dope is good for me, I should do more of it.

"Nothing happened," I tell him. "That's the problem."

He isn't going to try to stop me. Won't even touch me though he outweighs me by fifty pounds.

I'm buttoning my coat going down the stairs, pulling my long limp greasy hair off my collar, I almost slip on the ice but not quite!--then I'm on the ground and safe. He's up there in the doorway framed by the light, just gaping after me, waiting maybe for me to explain, waiting for me to say, Hey, look it's just a joke, you know I'm crazy about you, wouldn't any woman be crazy about you? but I just walk away. My boot heels breaking through the snow's hard crust.

I toss the plastic bag away in a trash bin up the street.

And afterward wonder why: for the hell of it?

For sheer meanness?

Gordon's Distilled Dry London Gin: it was my father's favorite, too.

Falls cascade around me in my sleep. Slivers of light, dazzling water. Broken glass mirroring my own broken face. Is someone going to hurt me? I can hear strangers talking together--murmuring, laughing--something sinister about what they are saying are they talking about me?--pregnant, and not knowing who the father is?--is the father Death?--but when I wake I'm in my old bed in my old room, and it's the sound of marsh grasses down by the pond, stiff with ice, rubbing against one another in the wind. Not people, not voices, only marsh grass. Coated with ice.

It's January. The dead of winter. Sun-glaring days and very dark nights. Deer wander close by houses, even near town, ravenously hungry; eating shrubs, evergreens, the remains of rose bushes. Thorns and all, Ruth says, sighing. Poor beasts.... One afternoon near dusk, I see a splendid young buck, antlered, ribs showing only slightly, stepping warily through the snow behind the house. He stares at me with pale yellow eyes, tawny, golden, burning (it seems) with recognition.

I am going to be hurt. But I can't gauge when.

Ruth forgives me for the outburst, we're both under a strain after all. But I notice she doesn't hug me. Doesn't kiss my cheek. She keeps her distance fearing (wisely?) that others don't want her too near. That queer metallic cast of her skin, that was once so healthy; that faint almost imperceptible odor of....

And Mitch, too, has forgiven me. Evidently. Or he has decided it isn't worth it, to come after me; even to telephone. He'll tell his buddies about me if he has buddies. D'you know Ursula Schott? D'you remember her? Some kind of an artist now, and she was back home visiting, and I ran into her the other night at--And she'd been drinking and came back with me to my place and--And then --Crazy!

Crazy bitch!

I'd keep my distance from her if I was you.

Memory collects in pools.

When someone told her, after the second operation--some young intern, male, she didn't remember the name afterward, just a kid meaning to show off his knowledge she said--she'd have "anywhere from ten months to two or three years" (!) to live, "depending upon how the disease responded to radiation therapy" (!)--what did she do but keep the information to herself, and when she got home, when she was in the proper frame of mind, she took Father's calculator and figured it out. Minimum: 300 days. Maximum: 1095 days. In hours: 7200; 26,280. In minutes: 432,000; 1,576,800.

Though afterward the speculation was amended; dismissed. It didn't apply to a new set of "variables."

Still, Ruth said it seemed like more than enough time. At the time. Even with each minute ticking away. Even when she couldn't seem to get the calculator to work right and had to begin again.

"--what you really worry about," she says, "--is getting through the next hour."

***

One day when Ruth is having her afternoon nap, two young Mormons show up, ring the doorbell in blue gabardine suits, white starchy shirts, polished shoes. Faces smooth as ping-pong balls.

Out of fake-leather briefcases all sorts of spiritual sustenance--I'm given pamphlets, printouts, a quite nice brochure titled The Church of the Latter Day Saints and You. Yes, I say, smiling Ruth's wide white terrible smile, yes thank you, yes. I will give it all serious consideration.

Quickly wearying of the game and wishing Ruth would come downstairs to see who our visitors are. Staring at them without hearing a word.

Long-legged in my dirty blue jeans, bare feet despite the cold--it's about ten degrees outside--an oversized sloppy shirt and my hair tied back in a loose knot. And then Ruth appears finally--finally!--and yes it's worth it, almost: whooping with laughter afterward saying, "Wish I could have taken a Polaroid shot of you--the expression on your face!"

I'm loud, a little high. Ruth shakes her head in disapproval, laughing, puzzled, it's like the old days isn't it--sort of--one or another of the family playing a prank of some kind--"There's a cruel streak in you, Ursula," she says, "--taking advantage of those sweet simpleminded boys."

"They weren't all that simpleminded," I say. "Probably they weren't sweet either."

Later Ruth says, "I hardly ever answer the doorbell anymore, living out here alone--unless I know who it is." She says, "Too much happening lately--break-ins, women assaulted. Have you heard?"

I'm glancing through Mormon literature, preparatory to throwing it out with the evening paper. Studying the illustrations. Angels, bearded men. A diagram of the next life with tiers of the "saved."

"I wish I could believe in something," I say, "--no matter how silly."

"Splitting": a psychological phenomenon in borderline personalities. Said to be pre-oedipal in origin. The loving nurturing "good" mother is not fused by the infant with the denying disciplining "bad" mother, consequently the borderline person "splits" the world into good and bad.

Swings from one extreme to another. Always at the mercy of moods, whims, mercurial shifts of weather.

That's not me!--surely. I have long ago fused my "good" mother and my "bad" mother. I know they are identical--which is the problem.

I dream of Mother folding me in her arms. A coppery cast to her skin--chemotherapy? Head bald as a doll's. I don't want to be embraced, but I want to be embraced. Pushing her away. No don't touch me--touch me--I hate you--why don't you let me love you?--love me.

I wish you were--.

Her life, a subterranean stream. Rarely surfacing but feeling the soil. Dark, rich, fertile soil. You don't have to see it to know it's there. You don't have to taste it to acknowledge it.

Reading in the local newspaper about an incident in the next county. A forty-eight year old man, a farmer, walks into a loan company office and starts shooting--.12-gauge shotgun. Takes time to reload. Kills one man, wounds others, tries to turn the shotgun on himself, but he's apprehended. Ruth doesn't want to read the article it's too depressing she says, happening too often--that sort of thing. I tell her, "But haven't you ever wanted to do something like that sometime in your life--something terrible and irrevocable? Just do it! Get it done!" and she turns away from me, won't speak. It's a terrible moment, and I wonder if I have gone too far, but I can't, I don't give a damn, I'm saying, shaking with rage, "Just do it! Get it done! I'd like to take a gun myself and drive out somewhere--Your precious Dr. Wier for instance--And--"

"And what would that accomplish?" Ruth asks.

"Not a God-damned thing," I say. Then, thinking it over: "Everything."

***

My last full day at home, I'm taking Ruth out to lunch at a new downtown restaurant, the two of us dressed for town, Ruth with her hair fluffed out, a dab of lipstick, a different turtleneck sweater--yellow--with her black outfit, and she's looking all right: not her old self (that self is gone forever) but all right. A woman acquaintance from church stops us on the sidewalk to tell Ruth how well she looks how really well she looks, smiling and blinking and tugging at Ruth's arm, ignorant old bitch I'm thinking, mind your own God-damned business I'm thinking, standing there smiling politely like my mother. And afterward we walk away in silence not daring to glance at each other for fear we'll burst into raucous laughter.

Ruth says, "Sometimes they duck around corners to avoid me, like I have the plague. Either way, I've gotten used to it."

The restaurant, on the site of an old, locally famous tearoom, is attractive, airy, all ferns and hanging plants, white wicker, a bare polished floor, a ceiling of hammered tin painted stark chic white. There is even a slow turning old-fashioned fan with blades like an airplane propeller: "Where do you suppose they got them?" Ruth asks. "It certainly wasn't here before." The place is popular, trendy, affably noisy; a place, like Sweet's Tearoom had been, for women shoppers.

"Do you miss Sweet's?" I ask Ruth. It was a place I had particularly disliked as a teenager.

"Certainly not," Ruth says. "They didn't serve wine, for one thing."

There's some difficulty getting the table I want, a quiet table up front by a window. The hostess tells us it's reserved. I ask for another, a table against the wall, again I'm told the table is reserved. "Then how about that one?" I ask, pointing to another, and the hostess hesitates, frowning--and I feel a tinge of sheer panic, that this final day with my mother will be poisoned by trivia, that I'll lose my temper and shame us both--it has happened, after all, in the past.

The hostess says, "It hasn't been cleared. If you don't mind waiting--"

"We don't mind waiting," Ruth says quickly.

And so we wait. Nearly ten minutes. Ruth says, looking around in approval, "You can see why it's such a popular place--it is attractive."

Then we're seated, and our waitress is friendly, and things seem to be going well. I order a carafe of dry white wine. There's a vase of tiny red carnations on our table. "Almost fresh!" Ruth says, examining them. She sits back and relaxes, a minor crisis is past, poor woman is she frightened of me? of her daughter? fierce glowering Ursula so assured in her art and so clumsy in her life? There's grief like bile rising in my throat, I drink my first glass of wine down quickly.

"It's delicious, isn't it?" Ruth says. "The wine."

We're talking of casual things, we take pleasure in ordering our lunches, we laugh together, even when we fall silent we aren't--too obviously--under some strain. It's mysterious, not to be named. I don't think of how, once, many months ago, Ruth happened to mention to me that during one of her routine examinations at the clinic, Dr. Wier had discovered a number of small tumors in her thighs, lumps of flesh she'd unaccountably missed. But they were, she said, harmless--"the kind that come and go."

I was so upset I couldn't speak at the time--couldn't trust my voice. That such things were part of my mother's life now--

Because there's no covering on the floor, we can hear snatches of conversations from nearby tables but not, from time to time, each other. And in the distance music is being piped in: Muzak: sweet innocuous hypnotic noise. I'm jealous of my mother's drifting attention. She has always been the kind of person--good-natured in her inquisitiveness, frankly nosy she'd say--who enjoys eavesdropping on strangers' conversations. Whereas I find the experience embarrassing--since I value my own privacy so much, shouldn't I value it in others? In a raised voice, smiling, earnest, I tell Ruth about my part-time job in Boston, teaching in an art school, how much I like working with young artists and how curious a relationship teaching has with my "real" life--I've had a half-dozen similar jobs in the past several years, and though I've been happy enough with each of them, I've always been ready to move on.

As with the men I've loved. The men I've lived with. About whom Ruth knew little more than their names, so that she could ask me what happened when it was all over, and I'd say, Nothing happened. I'd say, Nothing happened, nothing was expected to happen.

Why not? Ruth would ask, puzzled. That look on her face as if she was hurt by certain queer things her daughter said.

I hadn't been very close to my father, and I hadn't believed Ruth was close to him either. Then he died, and people were saying they'd been married thirty years, and it struck me hard--Thirty years. Older than my age. On his deathbed, it was said, he'd sat up and whispered, "Listen!"--but there was nothing to hear. I wondered how it was for Ruth: after the hospital, the death, the funeral, the busyness, how did real life define itself? A day when the house stops, and you hear clocks ticking; the furnace, the refrigerator, cars on the road; airplanes flying overhead. The sudden loneliness, like standing at the edge of a precipice, looking over.

We're talking companionably, mother and daughter talk of a harmless kind. I love her, I must love her, otherwise why am I so angry?--it's the woman's equanimity that infuriates me. The yellow sweater, the lipstick. The bright emphatic voice. She is thanking me another time for lunch--the wine is delicious and the food is delicious and the restaurant is lovely and she much, much prefers it to Sweet's--that stuffy old place with the white linen tablecloths, the solemn waitresses.

I order a second carafe of wine though Ruth doesn't want any more. She's afraid of drinking too much at this time of day, she says. If she once got in the habit--

At a table close by, three women of plump middle age are talking so loudly it's impossible not to overhear. One named Molly in a bright green pants suit is complaining of her diet; a real diet, a doctor's diet. She has been on it for five weeks and can't lose weight, she says. In fact--believe it or not--she has gained weight.

Gained weight! her friends exclaim. How is that possible, if she's on a diet?

In an aggrieved voice Molly says that it's true, she went to the doctor just yesterday, and her weight has gone up six pounds--from 165 to 171! "Isn't it crazy?" she says. "My scales at home said I'd lost two pounds, but at the doctor's, his scales said I'd gained six."

Molly's friends commiserate with her. They're baffled, sympathetic. "But are you really following the diet, Molly?" one asks.

"Yes I am," Molly says, incensed. She's a short, pudgy, flush-faced woman in her mid- or late fifties. A tight perm, red-rinsed hair. "What am I supposed to do, give up eating?"

Molly's predicament annoys and distracts me, but Ruth signals for us to be still, to listen. She's vastly amused.

The discussion continues for many more minutes. One of Molly's friends lights up a cigarette and asks if Molly couldn't eat less--maybe that would help?--a little less of everything on her plate? And poor Molly cries "You saw what I had for lunch! Almost nothing!" In a small bitter voice she adds, "But the doctor's scales don't show it."

"It should show it, if you aren't eating."

"You're telling me!"

"You look good, doesn't she?"

"You look good."

"People say I look like I've lost weight, and I can feel it in my clothes," Molly says, "--but--"

"But--?"

"But he says, `My scales are accurate.'"

"Isn't that just like a man!"

"You can't tell them anything!"

Ruth catches my eye and winks. There's a dangerous moment when the two of us might burst into peals of laughter, like school girls.

I sit there grinning. Until my mouth aches. Wasn't there something I meant to tell Ruth, before it's too late?

"You know--dear--I don't mind."

Over coffee, her voice dipping almost in embarrassment. She says, "I wish you'd understand that."

"Understand what?" I ask.

I can barely hear her over the restaurant noise.

"Just that I don't mind it--any of it, really," she says.

She makes a helpless, inarticulate gesture--glances down at herself. I realize with horror what she means: her body, her body. Her life.

"You'd mind if you had a reason to mind," I say quickly, hatefully. "If I was pregnant you'd mind, right now, you'd mind. God damn it, you would."

"Are you--?" Ruth asks, astonished.

"I don't know."

"Don't know?"

"No. I don't know."

"And who the father is?--I don't suppose you'd know that either?" she says sharply.

The buzzing in the restaurant seems to have turned inside-out; to have become a kind of silence. I can hear it, but at a distance. A thrumming like something inside my head.

"No," I tell her, "I don't know who the father is. He could be--one of two or three men. If, that is, I'm pregnant."

We fall silent. My eyes are filling with tears, they're as shiny and glassy as Ruth's. I want to shout at her, Don't you believe me? Don't you believe me?

In a gesture I don't expect, and can't elude, Ruth takes my hands in hers; both my hands in hers. She draws my fingers out as if examining them. They're long graceless fingers, strong, with uneven nails, dirt-edged. Accustomed to working with clay, working quickly and deftly and impatiently, blindly. Ruth's own hands are small for a woman of her size, the fingers rather stubby. Her nails are clean and evenly filed, coated with the colorless nail polish she's worn for years. She says, pleading, "I told you I don't mind, Ursula. But I need your help. Please."

No. I can't answer.

I won't.

I hear myself saying faintly, "All right."

"Ursula--?"

"All right."

And there it rests.

Driving back East, miles and hours, long hypnotic stretches of snowy interstate highways. I am seeing the pond behind the house, the pond I'd loved as a child, trees surrounding it that flame up in autumn then die down in winter. Their skeletal shapes exposed. On clear days the sky reflects in the pond, deep cobalt-blue in sheets of water, the surface always lightly quivering, rippling. And in the winter when the pond is frozen, the sky is reflected sheerly in light--always changing, shifting. It's frozen solid in January, ice thick as rock. Kick your heels against it and nothing is dislodged. Nothing moves.

Ruth is emptying a teapot at the sink saying matter-of-factly, not bitterly, "It's going to roll away one day and leave me."

I don't quite hear, do I? I ask her, What did you say? and she turns to look at me, startled.

She hadn't said a word, evidently.

"--I thought you'd said something, Ursula," she says.

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