Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Profiles in String 21

Some of these sections should go other places in the story, but I'm not going to revise it now or I'll lose momentum.  35800 words out of 50000; five days to go. I'm about 8000 words shy of where I should be today, but I've been closing the gap.


   Emma had always been an odd mixture of extravagance and frugality, glamor and grit. Her strength had been her unwavering self-confidence, the assurance that whatever she was doing at the moment was the right thing. She was not given to doubt or fear; her mind, when made up, was set, and once changed, was completely changed. She never did anything by halves. She was sharp and witty and could comfort and flick on the raw with equal facility. 
   Many times, even before the onset of Alzheimers, I had heard stories of Emma and her sister Francine and their exploits around their native farming community. These days were vivid to Emma, and she told of them often. Theirs had been a hardscrabble upbringing, especially during the tight years of rationing during World War II. Emma had turned ten in 1943. She remembered her mother’s cuffless sleeves and two-inch hems and precious nylons; the four-gallon-a-week gas ration; the rubber drives; the stamps removed from her family’s ration books because they had more than the regulation amount of sugar in the house during canning season. Her sister Francine’s treasured shoes had been bought mail-order from Sears, Roebuck and Co. with War Ration Stamp No. 17. Their mother had studied the newspaper charts to determine how many cans of vegetables or pounds of butter or cuts of meat could be purchased with the 48 points a month alloted each person. This wartime thrift had become ingrained in Emma, even as later in life she could afford the luxuries she had dreamed of in those harder times.
   She would drift in a twilight of memory, reliving childhood games and obscure family quarrels. Usually the stream of the past cooled and revived her, and she would chat at length about Francine or of her own college days (she had been the first member of her family to go on to college and her pride in this accomplishment was palpable). It was in these moments of nostalgia that I was able to piece together bits of information about her relationship with Howard. 
   Martin had become intrigued with the character of Howard and was always trying to learn more about him, so I began to write down the tidbits of information I was able to glean from Emma and we would pore over them in the evenings when he would call.
   “What’s the Howard score today?” he would ask. 
   “Well, he was older than she was. He was quite a man of the world, apparently, and a fairly smooth operator. He would bring her presents or take her to glamorous parties.”
   “Was he trying to seduce her?”
   “It sounds like it. Emma was very beautiful and very clever.  I doubt he succeeded, though. She’s always been a woman of unbending principles, and she never seemed to have much truck with the weakness of men. What are you laughing about?”
   “Was I laughing? That just sounds very much like Emma, is all. How did they meet?”
   “She mentioned that the other day,” I said, shuffling through my notes. “She was a buyer for a department store, and he was a salesman. They both traveled around a great deal. I remember she said he bought China Court for her when he was in New York on business.”
When I talked to my father, I would press him for details about Emma’s marriage.
   “I don’t know that much about it,” he said ruefully. “Emma got divorced around the time I was born. She dropped out of touch with the rest of the family for a few years, That was when we lived out of state.  Mom was so busy raising us boys that she didn’t really bother to keep up with Emma if Emma didn’t initiate the contact, and she never really talked about it.”
   I reflected, a bit bleakly, that if Stacy and Brad were to get divorced, I wouldn’t have the least idea of what was going on if Stacy didn’t choose to tell me anything.
   “She seems to have the idea that he had been stealing her books.”
   “I take it that Howard wasn’t very good with money,” Dad mused. “Emma made more than he did, and perhaps that grated on him. She was always very generous, though, and I’m sure she would have taken care of any financial crisis he fell into.”
   “What did he do after the divorce?”
   “I never heard. When I was a teenager, I remember there being talk that Howard had died. Strangely enough, Emma was very broken up over it. I don’t know why; it seemed like she couldn’t stand any mention of him.”

   Emma herself was hard to pin down. Martin would try to charm her into revelations, but she was cagey.
    “Aunt Emma, I bet you were a sweet thing in your day,” he cajoled, handing her her mug of coffee and snuggling up to her on the couch as she basked in the cozy light of the lamp beside her. “Howard must have found you irresistible.”
Emma, instead of slapping him as he deserved, played right along. “Oh, Howard! He knew his way around the ladies, all right. Always trying to press me into a corner or take long walks at night in dark places.”
   “You must have had to beat him off with a stick,” I said from my corner of the couch.
Emma’s eye grew keen. “Not a stick. In those days, I used to smoke a lot. That way, I always had something to keep between me and the men when they tried to get fresh.”
   Martin was completely bewitched. “Aunt Emma, I swear to you that if you were just a little bit younger, even a cigarette wouldn’t keep you safe from me.”
   “You go on,” she objected, as pleased as could be. “Isn’t he a one?” She got up and pottered into the kitchen with her mug. 
   “You are without shame or principle,” I told Martin, severely. “This kind of coercion is entirely unethical.”
   “And you, my sweet,” he said, invading my side of the couch and draping his arm behind me, “are too rigid.”
   “I am not,” I said, stung. “I maintain standards of behavior, is all.”
   “So you’re implying that I don’t?”
   “How can I ever tell? Is it fair of you to try and seduce Aunt Emma into giving up her history?”
   “Am I hurting Emma if flatter her a bit?” he asked, searching my face. “If I tell her she’s enchanting, do I necessarily have to be lying? 
   “I don’t think you’d care to have someone throw herself at you in an attempt to ferret out details about your past.”
    “I certainly don’t live in any fear of being seduced by you, Emma,” he said tightly, with a half-mocking twist of his mouth, “only of being eviscerated the moment my guard slips.” 
   “You push and push,” I cried out in frustration, jumping to my knees on the couch cushion, “and I can’t tell when you’re being serious and when you’re being manipulative. What exactly is it you’re trying to achieve? Why is it so important for you to know about Emma and Howard? And why do you keep coming around if you find me so vicious?”
   “I care about Emma and Howard’s story because I’m interested in what makes or breaks a relationship,” he said passionately. “And I don’t know why I keep coming over as my presence seems so loathsome to you. I don’t think you’ve once been as eager to see me as I have been to see you.”
We confronted at one another in the low light of the lamp. 
   “You’re so relentless cocky.” I spoke in a husky voice, choosing my words with deliberation lest I give way to my urge to pound on his chest and then cry on it. “You hold all the advantages: you’re older and more experienced; you hold a good job and make a lot of money; you get out and see people all day. I may be a leech on my family, with no job and no prospects, and the only person I see most days is Emma, and my life may have been dull and rigid, as you say, but I will not be made a fool of. Do you understand me?”
   “Emma,” he said incredulously, taking me by my shoulders, “Does money or age or experience matter that much to you? You think it puts you at a disadvantage to have no stains on your past? You think that makes you the lesser party in this situation?” He shook me ever so slightly. ”Because it’s your strength.  It seems to me that you hold all the cards.” His face was so close to mine that if I turned ever so slightly...
   From the kitchen came the sound of crockery shattering, and Aunt Emma exclaiming, “Oh, that damn coffee!”
   I startled and pulled out of his grasp. “If I had a cigarette,” I breathed, “I’d jab it in your eye.”
   We mopped up the coffee and swept up the sharp shards of the mug in a strained silence unrelieved by Emma’s running commentary. 
   “I’m putting Emma to bed,” I stated as I brushed the last needles of glass into the trash. “Do you intend to leave?”
   “Are you telling me to go?” he inquired. “Because otherwise I intend to sit on the couch and wait for you and have this out.”
   “I’m happy to have an adult conversation with you. But I warn you I will be bringing my cigarette.”
   “Shall I fetch it for you?” he offered with an elaborate politeness. “Because I don’t think you smoke, and I may have one or two ancient ones still sitting around in my glove compartment.”
   I exited with dignity.

No comments: