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To Be of Use


ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

“That was the most terrible winter of my life,” Mary tells Andrew. “It rained the whole month of December, the rain line kept sneaking down from Oregon. There’d be these downpours, and a huge chunk of road would collapse. You couldn’t go anywhere. I got so claustrophobic. I was twelve years old and I thought about killing myself every night lying there, listening to the rain beating on tin. We had to postpone Christmas till the end of January.”

Andrew is Scots. He is driving Mary back to the school on the North Shore of Massachusetts where she teaches beginning French to his oldest son, Duncan, and eleven other 15-year-olds. She is resident proctor as well. Andrew teaches there, too. As a diversion, he has developed a college-style seminar in European history which is open only to approved seniors. This is a private school of the second rank. Students do not often graduate from it into Princeton or Yale or Harvard.

“The reason Amelia is so moody today,” Andrew tells Mary, who already knows why, “is she didn’t sleep two winks last night. She’s still worrying about her orals next week, she can’t start on her dissertation until she passes her orals.” They both know she will pass.

“Anyway, she kept coming out of her room and pacing the hall and then the dogs would get up from my bed and go out of my room and start pacing with her. I could hear their toenails clicking up and down.”

Andrew is a big man, with cheeks as uncommonly ruddy as if they have been freshly slapped, and his wife Amelia is an American automobile heiress. Amelia is an inch taller even than he. She is fine-boned and stoop-shouldered from a lifetime of slouching, before she met Andrew, so as to diminish herself.

The marriage took them both by storm and they were happy, with matching eccentricities. For a long time, Andrew rode horses recklessly, skied the steepest slopes, hurled himself with ropes and pitons up the rocky sides of mountains. Amelia stayed home to paint great geometric canvases in acrylics. They were rhapsodies that celebrated trapeziums and rhomboids and scalene triangles, and they hang everywhere in the restored farmhouse, even in the bathrooms.

Now the house is full of children. Andrew’s and Amelia’s styles have changed. Because they keep separate hours, they have separate rooms.”With equal visitation rights,” Andrew is fond of saying.

In seven years, four sons were born. They are a race of giants, all growing tall and thin as stalks of ripe timothy. The boys are near-sighted in gradations of severity, beginning with Duncan, the oldest and most afflicted. Perhaps the genes have relented as Andrew and Amelia coupled; lan’s glasses are less thick than Duncan’s, Quentin’s prescription is even milder, and the baby, Douglas, needs his glasses only for archery and baseball.

Once Douglas was firmly established in the first grade, Amelia went back to graduate school. She is getting her degree in Public Health. Hospital economics, a language peppered with graphs and equations, is her particular focus. Her professors are cordial and sympathetic; they dote on Amelia, who is a straight A student.

At home, this pale woman with soap-colored eyes has a cool, equable way among her sons that just suits them. Those who wish to bake cakes in the afternoon are encouraged to do so. Those who prefer to roar around the property on two unregistered Harley Davidsons are permitted to do so. Personal matters seldom come up for discussion. Hygiene is referred to vaguely from time to time; religion, never. All information is imparted in a hearty and detached manner.

Since earning a living is a matter of no concern, Andrew has taken to raising Highland cattle and black sheep, only partly out of nostalgia for the misty, harsh terrain of his origins. More out of chic, Mary thinks. The Alpha Romeo sports car he drives—a gift from Amelia, who frequently dispenses new cars for Christmas—is chic, too. He drives negligently, steering with one hand and waving a lighted cigarette with the other. He puts the cigarette to his lips when it is time to shift and stabs the air with it for punctuation the rest of the time. “Life is dumb luck,” he tells Mary. “Blind chance.”

She agrees. She knows what he is going to say next, and then he says it; “I’m just a sheepherder’s son. A shepherd boy.” Always with the same intonation.

Here is the rest of it: “But I was tagged by the system. I was a British subject and the Queen rescued me.” What he means is that he took the standard competitive exams at age eleven and was singled out for a classical education. He went up the ladder in the approved fashion clear through the University of Edinburgh, thence to London to graduate school.

“And then what luck to meet the robber baron’s daughter,” he says to Mary, refurbishing the story of how he and Amelia collided in the corridor, both hurrying to a lecture by Bevan. He because attendance was required; she because it was something to do.”I knocked her flat and then I picked her up and destiny took us both in her arms.”

The tails of Andrew’s lambs are not docked in the old-fashioned way Mary remembers. In California each spring, her father took down from its peg in the barn the stained pine board with a semicircle cut from one side. Held on its back too long, a sheep will suffocate. The weight of its thorax is too heavy for it to breathe against, or so she has been told. Over and over it went like this: Two seconds to throw the lamb, two more to adjust the cutting board. The knife, the cautery to control bleeding. Dazed, trembling, bleating nonstop, the little thing was up and racing away in less than ten seconds. Occasionally, though, one failed to rise, stunned by the shock.

Occasionally some of the docked stubs became infected and required daily care.

“And now look what’s happening all over California,” Mary says. She is from Eureka.”The worst drought of the century. They’ve cut my Dad back to 40 gallons a day. He can’t keep his sheep on 40 gallons a day, he’s going to have sell off two-thirds of his flock.”

Mary has a mother as well, and a married sister, but all Andrew ever hears about is her Dad. He understands that she is fixated on her father, he even understands what Freud meant when he made that remark about four people in every bed. Or eight, for all he cares. Mary is good for him. She has animal tact, she can get along with anything on four feet.

Andrew’s lambs wear heavy-duty rubber bands on their tails. Deprived of its blood supply, the appendage withers and eventually falls off. Today there are a dozen suckling lambs to catch and band. Amelia is indifferent to this other world of Andrew’s, and he does not ever ask her to help. The boys are always elsewhere when he needs them. Usually, Andrew performs this task himself, holding the wriggling lamb between his legs and folding his long frame down almost to the ground so that he can spread the elastic on the four-pronged pliers and snap it around the tail. It is a clumsy one-man operation. But with Mary to imprison the creature, holding it tight in her arms rather like a large two-year-old child in the midst of a tantrum, the job goes easily.

“God, he weighs a ton!” Mary says when Andrew hands her the last and largest of the lambs. He is three weeks older than the others.”Really! Hurry up, he’s a monster.” Andrew admires the way she presses her back against the barn wall and hangs on. The little bugger thrashes wildly in her arms. She clamps her chin into the fleece of his neck to help steady him.

“Now we both deserve a cup of tea,” he says when they are done. They take the smell of the sheep indoors with them, but instead of tea, Andrew mixes martinis.

Even though gin gives her a fearful headache, Mary drinks hers. Andrew has animal magnetism.

On the other hand, she is 28 years old and has no steady lover.

“What would I do with one?” she asks Andrew, who points out this lack.

“Adjust.” Is he getting tired of her? At least, he is tired of bullying her, she is too easy to bully. “I don’t want to adjust.” “Don’t you want to lead a more interesting life?”

“Not particularly.” She can feel the headache beginning. She hates these interrogations. She doesn’t need Andrew to tell her she is out of the main stream. She should be living in Cambridge, meeting people, answering ads in The Real Paper. Or running one of her own. WF 28, intelligent, fluent in Fr., into sheep, seeks approp. M for companionship outdoors & in. It isn’t that she longs to continue the family tradition. She doesn’t expect to raise sheep all her life. It’s just something she knows, the way other women know the Goldberg Variations, or how to fire a kiln or tell a real antique from a copy.

Andrew’s lambs are castrated with elastics, too. The thought of all those miniature testes falling off like abandoned eggs somewhere in the pasture makes Mary’s flesh creep. She isn’t sure why. Does it seem medieval, crueler, this slow, supposedly more humane procedure, than the bloody ritual full of terror that she remembers? Afterwards, the lambs sprawl on the earth and bite at the elastic, but they do not bleat and bleed and run in crazed circles.

The shepherds of his childhood, Andrew tells her, Andrew delights in telling her, castrated their ram lambs by biting off the scrotal sac and sealing the cut with their own tobaccochewing saliva as antiseptic. Somehow, although grotesque, this is an act in nature she can accept. More than once she had been assigned to catch a ewe’s urine in a jar, then liberally sprinkle a newborn triplet with the rank, yellow dribble so that the poor shut-out lamb would smell like its foster mother and be allowed to suck.

Sheep are dim, everyone agrees on this point. Yet they knew the slaughterer’s truck before it turned into her father’s lane. They seemed to have a sixth sense for the culling of the flock just as they had for a weather front brewing, and they rushed about blindly forming their football huddles in corner after corner.

Unlucky enough to be born white in Andrew’s domain consigns a lamb to be eaten. The barren ewes are likewise dispatched. But for the stalwart black ram and the complaisant Cheviot ewes upon whom he begets generations of black lambs, there are safety, hay and grain, and warm winter quarters.

Now it is dark. Andrew and Mary fly over back roads to the Rendham School. Somewhere in this last five miles Andrew will pull off the road and press the button that puts up the top of his spiffy, hand-finished car, and there in the cramped dark he will exact from Mary his reward: for what? Release from the boredom of a boarding-school Sunday. Dinner, fragmented and jazzy under the cobwebbed chandelier—the house goes scandalously undusted—where Amelia frowns and appears to be memorizing logarithms as Andrew carves the roast. Embarrassment as the stair-step boys, smelling faintly of sheep dung and last week’s underwear despite their putative Sunday baths, giggle and punch one another in the secret ceremonies of all brothers.

Mary does what is expected of her because Andrew makes her homesick. And because she is convinced that she and Andrew are second-raters. He has had the wit to marry above himself. She, by her own bootstraps, has come out of northern California, through the state university system, to support herself. She taught first in a school in Michigan. After two snowbound winters on the Upper Peninsula, she arrived in this place. Which is, after all, an Eastern boarding school of some repute. She is the envy of her sister, the cynosure of her entire family. She has been teaching all year at Rendham and going home for Sunday dinners with Andrew since February.

“It’s not going to work out,” she told him, that first time, but he paid no attention to her.

“I’m not clear what’s happening to us,” she ventured later, although by then she was buttoning her blouse.

“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked. “Are you sorry?” and there was no answer to that. She thought at first he was too upper-class, too imperious, also too offhand to bear. But when she heard his humble sheep-herder’s story, when she saw him standing among his lambs, the bantam hens pecking at his shoetops and the wonderful mournful Highland cattle watching him from a distance, her attitude toward him shifted and swelled.

Sometimes when she catches sight of herself sideways in the mirror, then turns to confront her bones, the outline of her skull conveys the message of her death. Sometimes she broods that life has cheated her, that it has withheld much from her. But then, she reasons, she has not really met it halfway. She has gone only as far as she wanted. Although she longs for a child let down to her from Heaven in a cloud, or washed up on this river bank, she is not discontent with things as they are. It is a long way back to the arid, marginal land of her childhood, to the house of no books and few words.

The Highland steers, with their remarkable sheepdog faces and flat horns that stick out like immense misplaced mustaches, looked especially melancholy this evening on the hill against the setting sun. Mary thinks determinedly about the animals. What Andrew is doing, the way he gasps puts her in mind, again! of the sheep thrown on their backs by her Dad. And her struggling to clap the board in place. No wonder she invokes an image of the placid cattle while she strokes Andrew’s damp back.

Duncan conjugates venir. He stumbles on je viendrai. Mary discusses the forms venant and venu. Revenant and devenu. Half the class dozes amiably in the overheated room. Even with the windows flung wide the air grows stale. The oxygen is used up, the radiators knock enthusiastically, everything drowses. The heating plant takes two days every spring to shut down. In autumn the process was reversed; everyone shivered hunched in multiple sweaters until the heating plant could catch up. Mary wonders if the school engineers ever plan ahead, ever listen to the long-range weather forecasts. Meanwhile, another drought-stricken summer is expected in Eureka. She is trying to avoid that last refuge on earth.

Que deviendra-d-elle? What will become of her? she teaches her students.C’est à devenir foul It’s enough to drive one mad! She has them recite.

When the term ends, Andrew and Amelia will be off to Bar Harbor to take up residence in their other home. The ancestral estate, Andrew calls it mockingly. “A castle?”

“It’s a bloody shoe factory, your cossill, four stories high and with all those square windows. Fit for the workers to look out of, big banks of windows, ugly as maggots under the tail.” But it stands on the second cliff above the main peninsula. There are 14 bedrooms, enough for all the assorted relations and house guests.

“And the caretaker, he’s the son of the son of the son who’s looked after the place since 1902, when the great-great-grand squire built it. I tell you, Mary. It’s a blessing and a curse to marry into the robber baron’s family.”

Mary visualizes the departure. They will travel by caravan, four sons, two Corgis, two cats, rotating so that everyone gets to ride part of the way beside Andrew in the sports car. The rest of them will be wreaking havoc in the Travelvan which Amelia will drive furiously and well with both her indoorpale hands held high on the wheel.

Andrew and the boys will sail among the islands off the rocky Maine coast, taking all sorts of risks in bad weather and bragging about them afterwards. Andrew and the boys will picnic and frolic in the sun while Amelia makes notes in the margin of the first draft of her dissertation. And Andrew and Amelia from time to time will give vast cocktail parties on the sand at the foot of their cliff, for which quantities of Polish vodka will have to be imported from Boston and conveyed down the steep slope on Andrew’s and Duncan’s and perhaps this year even lan’s shoulders.

Shortly before Labor Day, Andrew and Amelia will fly off to Cannes or Copenhagen or Capri. In these surroundings Amelia shades herself from the sun while Andrew’s flushed face with his hectic cheeks turns frenetically toward this group and that, the insatiable party seeker.

When a poor boy marries well, he is the tail that wags the dog, the polestar to set sail by. For Amelia is a daughter of privilege. She stints at nothing. She does not shop in supermarkets or buy her clothes at discount houses in anonymous malls. She is never overlooked at parties, she never needs to balance her checkbook or even accommodate Andrew’s desires. Amelia is toadied to wherever she goes; and although the knowledge of this does not make her miserable, it intensifies her natural reticence.

Mary does not even dislike Amelia. The two women are shy together. When Andrew is out of the room, they do not speak; they avoid eye contact. They tend to hum, pretending total absorption in whatever small task.

One day Amelia is restless. She has passed her orals as predicted; the dissertation looms. They talk about graduate school, a painful process for both. The difficulty is an equalizer.

Mary describes her terror of the language lab at night. Going down that corridor in a dank wooden building that had once been an army barrack.

“It creaked. Whether or not to footsteps. The only good thing about the headphones was, with them on you couldn’t hear any background noise. But I was too terrified to put them on for days.” “And too terrified not to,” Amelia adds.

“Yes. And two years of that, parroting the exact sounds, struggling to develop a decent accent on tape. God, my throat used to ache every night before I went to sleep, from rolling my r’s.”

And Mary describes her solitary six weeks in France, touring by bicycle, staying in youth hostels. She leaves out the small humiliations: the Italian man in her room in Marseilles, the bedbugs in Aix.

“I’m just a botch at languages,” Amelia says. They are going to be friends shortly.

“It’s like a musical ear,” Mary says, mortified. “Everybody has something. I can’t conceptualize at all in three dimensions.”

They have tea together, Twining’s Jasmine in fine porcelain cups that are in Amelia’s family. It has a smoky aftertaste. Probably, Mary thinks, we will grow into one of those lateVictorian triangles, the middle-aged wife and mistress serving the separate needs of the gentleman-farmer-scholar.

The final week of school a crisis develops. The theology student and his wife who were to have looked after the livestock while Andrew and Amelia and the boys were away suddenly announce that they are separating. She is going back to her family in upstate New York. He is going to Mississippi to work in a clinic.

Mary, who has long thought she is waiting to meet her match, her ideal one, and has instead been locked into the daily grind of prep school life with the occasional visitor merely a perplexed father, sides with the wife.

Andrew, who loves peril and tests his whole lank strength against asphalt or ice, sides with the almost-minister.

Amelia, for whom men are nearly always treacherous, keeps her own counsel, but it is her idea to ask Mary to stay in place of the warring couple. “I want this to be your real home, all summer,” she says.

“—And have your friends over,” Andrew says with an expansive wave of his hand that dismisses the nonexistence of friends.”Give a barbecue, have a house party, have an orgy.”

The departure is much as Mary has expected except that they leave her the Corgis for company. She examines the two parental bedrooms, then chooses to sleep in Andrew’s great soft featherbed. It is a nest, however lumpy. The dogs flop about on it, tongues lolling. No one comes to call except for United Parcel and a colleague of Amelia’s who has misunderstood her departure date.

It is true that Mary has no friends; she has chosen not to cultivate any. Nevertheless, her life is full. Mornings, she translates some of the French poems Andrew has ferreted out for her from contemporary journals. Perhaps she can assemble a book this summer. Afternoons she wanders around the hundred-odd acres checking fences, looking for puffballs, and admiring the boundary oaks.

Once out in the pasture there is the contracted, baked smell of sun on earth, dry and cracked, where the passage of many feet has eroded the grass. At the bottom of the pasture runs a wide brook she longs to stand in, a brook wide enough to leave unfenced on the far side. Here and there the sheep have worn shallow gullies down to the water. Every so often an adventurous lamb roots out a place it seems safe to cross. If one wanders off or is swept downstream, another may follow. Andrew has warned her to watch for strays lest the neighbors’ dogs get them.

She is to be on the lookout for lambs’ testicles and tails. Best to pick them up and bury them in the lime pit Andrew has prepared behind the barn. Otherwise the rats get them and are emboldened to try for more. Rats can drag down a banty hen, even though the bantams are good fliers. Mary, who wants no deaths during her tenure, scrupulously polices the pasture each day.

And if the years pass this way and she has this small hold on Andrew, nothing more? If she is to teach the conjugations of arriver and venir, of oiler and voir to lan and Quentin in their turn, even to Douglas, and nothing more?

She will be like the all-black Dorset ram whose curled horns always put her in mind of the braids her mother used to wear, long ago, wound over her ears. The ram running free with the flock all summer, waiting for the ewes’ estrus to come. Waiting for fall, to be of use.

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