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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Profiles in String 18

After Mass we emerged from a press of people in the back of church, but this time there was no rush. We let the crowds disperse around us as we stood on the steps to bask in the rays of the imminent dawn. The purity of the radiant morning light cast a prelapsarian glow over the frosty grass and icy branches, reflecting off Martin’s glasses and turning his hair a deep shade of gold. The tension in his jaw had melted away, and I contemplated the easy curve of his lower lip.
“What?” he asked, catching me watching him.
“Nothing. You look younger in the morning.”
“I feel younger in the morning. How old do you think I am?”
“Under thirty?” I hazarded.
“Twenty-eight, although I guess that’s antiquated to you.”
“You still have your life ahead of you.”
“I wish I had breakfast in front of me. What does your aunt keep to eat?”
My mental survey of the refrigerator was interrupted by a vibration in my pocket. Automatically I pulled out the phone and glanced at the screen. “Why is a Grace calling me at 8 am on Christmas morning?”
Martin silently took his phone from my hand and considered it for a moment as it buzzed at him several times. Then, turning slightly away from me, he answered and said in an absurdly bright voice, “Hey, baby, Merry Christmas.”
I stood very still watching the sun break over the trees. The cold stabbed at me, cutting through my coat and scarf, and I jammed my hands deep in my coat pockets. Then, having no desire to appear to be eavesdropping, I made my way down the steps and meandered with elaborate casualness to my car. The congregation had melted away, at first in great rushes and then in smaller streams of two or three cars at a time, and now the parking lot stood mostly barren, except for several scattered vehicles and a little knot near the back wall where Martin’s silver car still blocked my green Toyota. I took refuge in my driver’s seat and cranked up the heater.
In my rear-view mirror I could see Martin walking slowly toward the cars, hunched against the cold. Fatigue had settled on him again. He unlocked his car and got in, starting the ignition. Then, after a pause, he got out again and came to lean over my window with his elbows on the roof. After another pause, I rolled it down.
“Thanks for your help with Aunt Emma last night,” I said with finality. “I’m sure it was a great inconvenience to you.”
“Grace is my daughter,” he answered.

I adopted a facade of careful neutrality, a second too late.
“She’s four,” he pressed on. “She stays with her grandparents, her mother’s parents, most of the time. That was the most stable environment for her when I was traveling so much.”
“Is that why you’re cutting back on business trips?”
“So you’re divorced?”
“No. Her mother and I were never married.”
“Where is her mother, then, if Grace stays with her grandparents?”
“I don’t know.” His eyes glinted green. “Probably in jail.”
I was silent. To ask more personal questions would be to betray an unseemly interest in the subject. He straightened up and put his hands in his pockets.
“I’m picking up Grace to bring her to Peggy’s for dinner,” he said. “Will you be there?”
I refused to commit myself. “I don’t know if Aunt Emma will be feeling up to going out today, and after last night I don’t think I should leave her alone.”
He forbore from pointing out my contradiction. Instead he shrugged and, to my surprise, flashed me a grin.
“Well, I’m off,” he declared. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other sometime.” And with that he hopped in his car. I gaped as he tore out of the parking lot with inexplicable haste, and then slammed the steering wheel and shouted,“Arrogant bastard!” as I realized that he’d just driven off with my phone in his pocket.

My driving as I returned to Emma’s house was far more measured. Pulling around back to the garage, I parked very precisely. I lingered in the breezeway between the garage and the back door. The terror I had felt last night at her disappearance was still palpable, and yet the prospect of spending this glorious day cooped up with a fretful and bedridden Emma was arduous.  I leaned my head on the frame of the screen door,  and counted up ten louvered glass panels before turning the door knob.
The spicy aromas of cinnamon and coffee  wafted through the house and pulled me into the kitchen. There was Peggy, straightening up from the oven with a pan of rolls in her hand. Seeing me, she called a greeting as she placed the pan on the stove top.
“I didn’t know if you and Martin were planning to grab breakfast out somewhere,” she explained, pulling off her oven mitts, “but there didn’t seem to be much in the refrigerator for Emma, so I had John run me over a few supplies.”
“Martin had to go pick up his daughter from her grandparents’ house,” I said, leaning into the closet to hang up my coat. “He said he’d see you at dinnertime.”
“Oh, you’ll meet Grace then!” Peggy was in constant motion,  rattling dishes, clanking mugs, pouring coffee. “She’s such a sweet girl, though she can be a bit of a handful at times. Still, Mr. and Mrs. Landry and Martin have really done the best they can with no mother to help out. Kristy is always in and out of rehab and halfway houses and even jail, I think; if she cares about that poor baby at all it’s only in her capacity as gateway to Martin’s checkbook. “ She pressed a mug upon me, and I sipped obediently. “But he’s too smart to fall for that, and her parents had to cut her off a while ago. ‘Tough love’, I think that’s called.” Peggy dramatically swirled white glaze over the tops of the rolls, as if to whet my already keen appetite. “Martin was always such a young Turk, but since Grace came along he seems to understand that responsibility isn’t just a workplace virtue.”
“But he never married her mother?”
“No. I think he would have married Kristy then, but she was still working and making money at the time and didn’t want to be tied down. It was as much as he could do to persuade her to keep the baby.” She carried plates of rolls over to the yellow Formica table and slid one across to me, with a fork. As I cut into my roll, she leaned over her coffee mug with a confidential air. “I don’t think she’d mind having the financial support of a husband, but she’s not really a safe person to live with anymore, and as for having her around Grace...” She shook her head expressively.
“She must not have always been so repulsive,” I protested, feeling a strange urge to defend this woman who seemed to have no supporters. “It sounds like Martin liked her just fine at one time.”
“She seemed like a nice enough girl,” Peggy allowed. “Maybe a little wild.  And Martin was nice enough too: maybe a little too nice. And they behaved the same way lots of other nice kids did, and there were consequences.”
“What did they expect?” I cried. “Everything has consequences.”
“Yes,” said Peggy shrewdly. “And when those consequences come, you can accept them and mature, or run away and hide. You seem like the sort of girl who always keeps consequences in mind; perhaps that’s why you’re so trustworthy.”
“I’ve done a few stupid things in my time,” I replied, pushing away my plate. “But you’re right: that’s not the kind of mistake I’d make in the first place.”

Emma was still sleeping. Her body was warm under the covers and her breathing was deep and regular, but even after many hours of rest her haggard face still bore the stamp of last night’s exertions.
“I’ll take her to Mass if she wakes up in time,” I told Peggy as we looked down at Emma’s huddled form, “but I don’t think I’m going to bring her over to your house today.”
“No, you’re right,” she agreed. “Maybe someone can come over later to sit with her so you can come get some food?”
“After last night, I think I should stay here with her myself.” I planted myself in the cozy chair. “Today of all days, I can’t leave her.”
As Peggy patted my shoulder on her way out the door, I had the uncomfortable sensation of having been rendered completely transparent before the maternal eye. After she left, I sat diligently by Emma’s side for a while, fingering the green beads of her rosary which resided on her bedside table. The virtuous glow of keeping watch could only be sustained for so long, though. As Emma showed no signs of stirring awake, I took to pottering around the house, trying to revive some Christmas cheer -- for Emma’s sake, I told myself. The last of the decorations had been hung on the tree yesterday, so now I rummaged around in her record cabinet and came out with Holiday Sing-Along with Mitch by Mitch Miller and the Gang. I knew the phonograph still worked, and I drew on my childhood memories of Emma showing me how to lay the needle carefully on the  record on the spindle. As the strains of Santa Claus is Coming to Town echoed from the old speakers, I set myself to my most aspirational holiday task: getting a fire going.
Readers such as myself are fonts of academic knowledge. We can describe how to sew a dress from a curtain or how to trim a sail or how to make head cheese. We may be masters of no trade, but we are jacks of many. And although I had never physically carried out such an action, it was no matter; I had read To Build a Fire.
On top, tangled in the underbrush about the trunks of several small spruce trees, was a high-water deposit of dry fire-wood—sticks and twigs, principally, but also larger portions of seasoned branches and fine, dry, last-year's grasses. He threw down several large pieces on top of the snow. This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he got by touching a match to a small shred of birch-bark that he took from his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it.
I had collected branches and twigs and bark a few nights ago in the greenbelt behind the house, and had acquired a bundle of firewood at the grocery store. Emma had matches already, in a dusty book on the mantel. I laid my foundation of thick logs and spread the branches evenly across the top. Then I scattered the twigs and bark over that. Beside the fireplace was a pile of newspapers; I sat and twisted screw after screw of paper and stuck them into the pile. People in novels always spoke of screws of paper in connection with building fires.  
The fire went up in a blaze of glory when touched by a match, and I observed my handiwork with satisfaction for a moment. But there was one last element of Christmas observance to be assembled. The reading list had not been compiled.
In the library I found what I was seeking: The Vulgate, A Christmas Carol, a selection of O. Henry stories, Little Women, and The Story of Holly and Ivy. I carried my stack to the table in front of the couch and turned to discover that my fire had extinguished itself. People in novels were always poking fires. First I nudged the recalcitrant pile around with a stick, then inserted more paper screws, getting ash all over my hands in the process. Again the fire flared merrily in answer to the urging of the match, and I went off to wash my hands before settling down with the books. The last of Peggy’s coffee was still mostly warm in the pot, so I poured myself a cup and leaned on the kitchen windowsill to watch the bustle of activity on display through the Harriman windows. The view through the large picture window was partially obscured by an immense illuminated evergreen, but as I drank my coffee I strained to see the lively movements behind the tree, as children rolled around and shook presents and tugged at their parents’ shirts. To my chagrin I noticed smoke drifting up from the fireplace, and Martin’s silver car in the driveway. I dumped the brackish coffee in the sink and stalked back to the living room where the fire lay emitting sullen wisps of smoke from blackened branches. The paper was consumed; the logs were untouched.
I paced the living room with devolving holiday cheer. I started The Gift of the Magi and then irritably pushed the book away; it had fit with my scheme of Christmas reading, but I couldn’t actually bring myself to like a story in which everyone behaved like a fool. I poked the fire once more, and it crumbled at me. Finally I seized Emma’s telephone and dialed my cell. After four rings, a confident, laughing voice said, “Emma’s phone.”
“Dammit, Martin, I want my phone back.”
“You had only to ask,” he replied with mock solemnity. “Will you come fetch it, or shall we deliver it to you?”
“You can throw it across the yard for all I care!” I yelled, but he had already hung up.

1 comment:

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I knew it would be his daughter!

But whew! I was afraid he might be divorced.