When Michael Swell came South, he got in the habit of telling people he was from the midwest. It was a natural enough mistake. It seemed important to those he worked for that he come from someplace relatively harmless. The East was out of the question, and the West. . .well, the West, admit it, is nowhere.
Saying he was from the midwest, with a small “m,” was not really a lie. He knew enough about it to call it home, whatever that means, he thought. He had a quiet, flat, unaccented voice and a way of showing deference to nearly everyone. He was just unSouthern enough in speech and manner to be halfway intriguing without being too visible. He wondered who they thought he was.
His family was not large and was spread out in several states, which coincidentally all had towns called Springfield. Every couple of years or so they would find themselves together, miserably trying to talk to one another. They were just separated enough by ages and different mothers and several homes to wonder how they were all related. Yet they all had the same father, and whenever they were together their father pretended as though he had lived his life according to some personal code of conduct handed down to him by the forefathers. Their father was the one who pointed out that they had all ended up living in states with Springfields, and so he began calling them “the Springfield clan.” Actually, Michael, his youngest, was the only one who lived in a Springfield proper, but that didn’t seem to matter. Their father started going around slapping his children on the back, not at all like him, and calling their pathetic get-togethers family reunions. If he wasn’t mocking them, as they wanted to believe he was, then he was really getting embarrassing to be around. It was clear to all of them that their father was beginning to regret his life—his idealism, as he called it. Michael wasn’t sure he could feel sorry for his father, yet he kept believing that he was sensible enough not to make his life a mess because of him. Unlike one half-sister who insisted she was born again and a much older brother who converted to pills and alcohol too long ago to remember, Michael was completely conscious of all the fatal turns his life could make. He was very careful, even about his lies. The midwest was as much home as anywhere else he had lived, he thought.
When he had been in Springfield a few months, he began to suspect that people had an idea of what he thought or thought he thought. Maybe not; maybe because he wasn’t from the South, it didn’t really matter where he came from. Maybe anyone from the outside was an easy target.
He had met some Southerners who, if they weren’t determined to remain blind about the rest of the country, were happily oblivious to it. The rest of the world didn’t seem nearly as important to them as a few personal concerns which were so private, they said, that Michael couldn’t begin to understand them. He appreciated their reserve; at the same time he was slightly annoyed at the distances they kept. He felt they saw him as a generality, and he wondered if he was supposed to see them that way, too.
Occasionally, no matter how innocuous he thought he was being, a mother of one of the girls he tutored would remind him of how different he was. “You’re not from down here, are you?” she would say sweetly. They were always so polite. He would wonder what he had said or done to earn their amusement. It was as if he had crossed into another country, a parallel world, he thought. He hadn’t pretended something he wasn’t. The mothers were all aware of his foreign status, he thought, although no one ever came out and admitted such a ridiculous term to him. The midwest wasn’t Latvia, was it? It wasn’t even New Jersey.
For some reason, he suspected, he had been hired as a tutor because of his differences. He brought another kind of perspective to the education of their daughters, he imagined. Not anything radical—English papers were English papers, weren’t they?—but perhaps because he was an outsider the mothers needed constant reassurance. In any other place—in the midwest, for example—he might have taken that gentle reminder as a sort of mockery of him. But down here the women he met were so blithe and charming and schooled in employee relations that he took the remark at face value. No, he wasn’t from down here, not at all, he confirmed. They enjoyed his bluntness, he thought.
Not being from down here seemed at first like a decided advantage to him. He did not have to pretend he belonged here, as he sometimes had done in other places. It didn’t seem to matter as much in other places. He would never belong down here though, he understood. He could go about his business with the intrepid unreality of a stranger. That was the advantage of being from somewhere else: his views were just his own down here, whereas the girls he tutored, for example, could not speak or act without impinging upon their family connections. They were all too Southern. But of course to Michael Swell, who located his tenuous roots in the amorphous midwest, there was no such thing, he understood, as being too Southern. If they were from the South, any kind of exaggeration made sense, the more extreme and violent the better.
One of his students happened to be a distant relation. Well, not actually a relation, properly speaking. Southerners have their own definitions of relations. Michael only admitted to that vague possibility in an attempt to overcome a kind of playful resistance in the girl. At times it wasn’t so playful, it seemed (ask her mother), but it would take a psychiatrist, he thought, to justify the girl’s arbitrary nature. Yet he realized he began to enjoy their little tutoring sessions more than he let on. It was hard to say why exactly, although part of it certainly was the determined way the girl had of taking everything he said personally. If the truth were known, he thought, it was the girl who had unsettled Mr. Mike—her name for him—into thinking about a distant relationship between them, as implausible as it was. An uncle on her father’s side—she was very certain about this, she said—had raised a family in the midwest. There was probably still kin up around there, she said. She made the midwest sound like a specific locality. Her innocence amused him. She battered at him with questions about his past and then remembered every unspecific thing he said. Her memory of him, even as a general myth he created about himself, seemed more accurate than his own, which is not at all unusual if you think about it. Most of us anymore don’t really see ourselves all that clearly until someone else remembers us to ourselves. Then it’s like facing a familiar stranger we are a little uncomfortable being with.
“Did I say that?” was one of Michael Swell’s frequent responses to the girl. He found himself listening to her with a wry, amused look—midwestern bemusement, he told himself. It wasn’t midwestern exactly. That was what he thought she was thinking. Actually, it was the Swell look, that maddening way his family had of listening to one another as though they were measuring each other for the coffin. He hated to think he had carried away from his family the one protection they all used to insure their rigid privacy from each other. The girl didn’t seem to mind, though. In fact she seemed to thrive on his amusement with her, first looking shy and embarrassed under it and then suddenly dropping down into a conspiratorial smirk that was almost too wise for her years.
Not long after they began meeting regularly at her house, she had asked him if he would help her with a journal she had to keep for her English class. Since he had never kept a journal himself, and would not have known what to put in one if he had, he came prepared with a number of anecdotal stories he had collected, all illustrating in various ways familiar, unambiguous virtues like honesty and perseverance and selflessness, traits that high schoolers anywhere could opinionate upon without much thought, he believed. After all, the girl wasn’t being asked to write anything too personal, was she? She just needed to fill up a notebook for a grade. But it seemed she had already filled one notebook—two, to be exact—a fact she had carefully forgotten to mention to him earlier. Her teacher had refused to give her a grade for them and had sent her home to write 20 fresh pages of simple observation, one of the most difficult assignments in the world for her, he suddenly realized, especially the way she was told to do it. She wasn’t to include a single line expressing how she thought she felt.
“I don’t get it,” she fumed. “Simple observation. What is this crap supposed to be then?” She shook both notebooks at him.
So he had to read them. He read them at the dining room table while she waited, watching him with feigned disinterest and trying to gauge which parts he had reached by the way his face registered an emotion. He must have shown some expression other than amusement, he thought, because suddenly she grabbed them up from in front of him and began marking the pages with big Xs.
“Now don’t do that, please,” he grinned.
“Listen,” she said coldly, “I don’t know who y’all are or where mommy dearest found you, but let me give you some advice right off. My Daddy didn’t raise no fool.”
He was shocked at her personal vehemence towards him. He thought they had been getting along. Suddenly he found his grin freezing into a constipated glare of embarrassment. He began stuttering idiotically. It had nothing to do with just having read page after page of scrawled denunciations, culminating in a sex romp between her mother and the President of the United States. No, that was all amusing as far as it went. She had a talent for exaggeration which could turn any reader into a mild voyeur, he believed. No, what caused him to react so foolishly now, to lose his careful equilibrium with her, was her ability to involve him personally in a quarrel with herself which he really had no interest in, he thought.
“Just don’t try to make me into something I’m not,” she warned him now.
He had no intention of doing that. He wondered how she could even think that. Tutoring wasn’t personal. He had done nothing, he told himself, nothing at all. After he had struggled for an hour with her over what he imagined her teacher meant by simple observation, finally convincing himself it was nearly impossible for anyone to do, she suddenly and shyly apologized to him for her outburst.
“You don’t hate me now, do you, Mr. Mike?” she said.
No, of course, he didn’t hate her, he tried to say while blushing. She unburdened him as easily as she had unsettled him in the first place. He almost felt he owed her an apology.
At times like that she seemed far too old to be just 17. At other times her own peevish amusement with him nearly distracted him to the point of amnesia. Then he couldn’t think what came next.
She was Evelyn, a wistful sort of name he enjoyed addressing her by but which she thought was silly and fatuous, “like someone’s dead aunt in crenoline petticoats,” she said. She preferred being called Eyn, pronounced like a boy’s name. Everyone called her that, except her parents, she insisted. They had paid for her name and therefore had to get their money’s worth out of it, she said, whether they liked calling her that or not. It was cute how she mocked them, he thought, while appearing to be totally serious. He had smiled stupidly when she said this, and she had slapped his arm lightly. “Stop that,” she said, trying to conceal her own vague smile. She knew how foolish she wanted to sound, he had thought.
She permitted him to call her Evelyn though, because he made it sound different, she said, “the way it must have sounded when it was new.” It was for that reason that he suddenly stopped calling her Evelyn and started addressing her as Eyn. She didn’t seem to mind all that much, he thought. He realized what might be happening with the girl without her understanding it entirely. She might be falling for him, he thought. He had to be careful. He didn’t want that land of complication. He didn’t want any kind of complication. He liked the smooth way things were going down here. He felt he was just getting started with his own life again.
Then one day after he had worked with the girl about a month, her mother, Mrs. Mabus, came in on them. They were sitting at the big family dining table, side by side, yet perfectly proper, reviewing for a test. “Now Eyn,” he said, “pay attention.” He must have said her name four or five times in the span of a few minutes, while her mother was going through the sideboard, or pretending to. He was aware he was overly demonstrating the role he had been hired to perform. Mrs. Mabus didn’t say a word at the time, but when the hour was up and he was about to leave, she asked Michael if she could have a word with him in the kitchen.
“Goodbye, Eyn,” he said. “See you next week.” He honestly hadn’t suspected a thing.
“Bye, Mr. Mike,” she grinned.
It was silly to be so formal about names, he thought, although he still preferred the formality of being called Michael by his students. After all, it was his real name. He let Mr. Mike slide by in this instance. It had a safe, impersonal quality, he thought, no matter who said it. Being called Mr. Swell was not out of the question, but Dr. Swell which some of the mothers used automatically, Mrs. Mabus included, seemed always a way of forcing a false respectability on him which he felt he did not deserve. They tried to raise him up—a small-time tutor, for Christ’s sake—into a fraudulent symbol of their status. They insisted he was something he wasn’t; but it didn’t matter as long as he remembered who he was, he thought. Down here he was just a cheap domestic cologne with a French label, he joked to himself. He didn’t argue with them, though. If they wanted to keep up this illusion, if that’s what they were really paying for, he saw no reason to insist on accuracy. He would still do his job no matter what he was called. The whole issue of how he was to be addressed in Springfield was outside of him in that mysterious realm of local relations, he believed. The illusion of him was far more public and substantial than his own private reservations about himself and what he wanted to be called. Dr. Swell—he could get used to the ring of it.
In the kitchen Mrs. Mabus was busy instructing her black maid. Michael didn’t know the maid’s name. She always seemed to hover invisibly in other rooms at the edge of his attention. He forgot she was even around most of the time.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, Dr. Swell,” Mrs. Mabus said pointedly.
He watched her count out on her fingers the specific duties she wanted the maid to perform. The maid was wearing her white uniform with a little crum hat, and Michael assured himself he would probably mistake her for a nurse if he saw her on a street up north. That’s what he would assume naturally, a registered nurse on the way to the emergency room of a big hospital. Or the nurse in the pediatric ward responsible for a dozen terminally ill children. My family, she would call them.
He realized he was being slightly perverse, but it seemed the proper thing to be down here. The maid was anything but the beetle-browed domestic having to repeat her duties back to Mrs. Mabus before she could be released from her. He had ceased feeling uncomfortable, he thought, by the sight of old black men working in the lawns of houses where he tutored. It wasn’t a surprise to him any longer. It was more like a dull, familiar vision which had taken on a kind of impersonal anonymity, like watching reruns of reruns of Mary Tyler Moore and wondering how it was you couldn’t remember the lines although you had heard them a dozen times; you wondered how it could have ever been as funny as you thought it had been when you were living at home. How could people have been so amused once by such ridiculous characters?
It probably had something to do with making adjustments down here. He no longer struggled to make sense of what he saw around him, the differences which were so normal. Struggle was the wrong word anyway; it was too excessive to describe his curiosity now. What he saw seemed to be part of the scenery, jokes that were no longer really jokes, although they still occasionally called up a sort of automatic grimace, like a vestigial and gratuitous response. He was beginning to feel at home here, he thought.
After the maid left, Mrs. Mabus, who seemed deflated with exhaustion, flexing her counting fingers in the air over the chopping block and smiling tiredly, let out an exasperated and rueful sigh. She didn’t have to explain herself to him, he understood, any more than the maid did. The maid had ignored his presence in the kitchen as though he were a harmless apparition, a familiar ghost from the past. Michael felt Mrs. Mabus was being sincere, as far as it went. Instructing the help was a tiring duty which few understood or appreciated. He had seen nothing between Mrs. Mabus and the maid which was not completely out in the open. That he was in the kitchen witnessing their exchange was a sign to him that he had become a sort of communal fixture in Springfield, a member of a local family, so to speak, albeit an idiot relation to some degree, he imagined, a stepchild who took guidance now and then just to show he was polite.
“Well now, how are you two getting along, Dr. Swell?” she asked him. There was nothing but measured kindness in her voice, a warm politeness without any unnecessary posturing.
“Just fine,” he said. “Eyn’s an interesting girl, Mrs. Mabus. Very alert and natural. A little independent, too.” He smiled. It was the kind of thing mothers liked to hear. It was the sort of generality that indicated breeding rather than improvement.
They had had a couple of assessment talks like this before. Evelyn had a study problem, as her mother phrased it when he was hired. Mrs. Mabus was careful not to define the problem too rigidly, he thought, and put up a set of fences no tutor could look over without going blind. She preferred him to be blind and deaf to start with, he suspected, then he would come to his own incriminating conclusions independently.
Her conclusions about her daughter, he already understood from listening to Evelyn—Eyn—carry on about her parents, were either wistful delusions or brutal truths. There was no in-between. Mrs. Mabus and her daughter were at war with one another, and while he didn’t know-—didn’t want to know—the conditions of their quarrel, he knew he had to be extra careful. He was in a very awkward position, halfway in the middle. He could show neither favoritism nor too much understanding. He had to appear as an impersonal foil to each of them, always balancing one off against the other, making innocuous judgments about the both of them. To Eyn he tried to cast her mother in the favorable light of parental concern (she had hired him, hadn’t she?), and to Mrs. Mabus he portrayed her daughter as just a younger confused version of herself. He was sure both saw through him and appreciated his tact. He didn’t want to share their secrets from each other. He would remain perfectly open and above board with them.
After he had explained again his obvious procedures for dealing with Eyn’s study problem—he suspected her mother thought she had a faulty attention span—Mrs. Mabus, who was less interested than she let on, he felt, asked him how he was liking Springfield.
“It’s not for everyone,” she said. “I can imagine how different we seem to you down here. It takes some getting used to, but once you’re comfortable you can begin to enjoy the differences, I would think. We’re not all ogres down here, as I expect you’ve discovered by now. We’re just ordinary people with our own problems which none of us asked for necessarily.”
Michael resisted making a comment which would have confirmed his differences. Mrs. Mabus already knew what he was thinking, he thought, whether he was thinking that or not. He couldn’t say anything to unnerve her. He wasn’t supposed to be honest, just careful.
“It’s not as different, Mrs. Mabus, as you might think it is. I mean it is different, isn’t it?” he smiled knowingly. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. But there’s not a huge difference as far as I can see.”
“Yes,” she said vaguely, staring at him for a moment. “The South is not even the South any more.”
“It’s still pretty close, though, isn’t it?” he managed to say. He felt he had made a small inside joke, worthy of the time he had spent in Springfield. There was so much he wasn’t meant to understand, he thought, that it felt good to pretend he had a general understanding. Even Mrs. Mabus was smiling a little now as she picked at something in the grouting between the tiles around the sink.
He thought she was about to use that familiar old saw on him, that sweet condescension he had heard before to show him his place, “You’re not from down here, are you?” He had earned it this time, he hoped.
He hadn’t intended to make his living doing this sort of hired work anyway. It only looked that way from the outside, he thought. He had made himself available for this role as a way of temporarily making ends meet. Suddenly, it seemed, there was a steady demand for his service from a certain kind of privileged family, which could afford having maids and ancient gardeners and, yes, even tutors who were total strangers. Mothers he had never met came up to him in the grocery store, as though he had just founded a new school of thought about children. It was the strangest thing to him. Amusing. He was a total stranger, and yet they acknowledged his presence as if he was the most familiar rumor in Springfield. And he felt he knew these women, too, in some fundamental way—the way you might know a relative without knowing them, like seeing an old family snapshot taken before you were born.
It wasn’t so much his expertise they wanted, he realized, yet he couldn’t say what it was. At first he had tried to convince these women that he was qualified to handle their children, but in the end it wasn’t necessary. It only confused the obvious. He didn’t lie about himself exactly. He had thought about finishing college one day, and he still might if nothing else worked out. He wasn’t like a redneck, he thought, who didn’t value a useless education. Most of the mothers weren’t as interested in his meager credentials as they were in him, Dr. Swell, as if he belonged to a bigger enterprise, something far less expendable than he was himself. Perhaps they knew something about him that he didn’t know himself, he mused. It was the sort of joke on himself that kept him going, kept him grateful for whatever he got.
Mrs. Mabus was just keeping a check on him, he understood, the way Eyn sometimes did. They had to confirm where he stood at all times. They wanted to make sure he wasn’t hiding any secrets from them. A lot of what went on around him, he thought—the unspoken mystery of closing ranks, for example—still didn’t make complete sense to him, but as an outsider the great shadow of a familiar past he could never share began to seem like a comforting illusion of certainty.
At times Michael Swell believed that if he had come from down here, no matter what his personal past was, he would not have to be so concerned with being agreeable. He would not look at the life around him with such wry detachment. That was the disadvantage of not belonging down here, he thought. Everything appeared as a kind of shallow joke. Did Southerners see themselves as jokes? Yes, that was the frustrating thing about it. Most of them that he met were as amused with their manners as he was. But they were exclusive manners, they told themselves, and well-heeled Southerners were expected to laugh at the way they lived while still being loyal to it. It fit into his own notion of them: they were ashamed but got more mileage out of admitting their inferiority than any other people he had been around. Now when he smiled, he thought, he did so with a certain required guilt, as though he had nothing to back him up but his own smirking invisibility.
Just when it looked as if Mrs. Mabus was satisfied that he was still harmless and could be dismissed, the maid reappeared in the doorway. Once again she ignored Michael Swell as if he weren’t there. Once again Mrs. Mabus came to life, excusing herself to Dr. Swell and openly involving Michael in their discussion. Not that they were talking about him or inviting his attention, but he felt their conversation was partially intended for his ears. It could have been done privately, he thought, but, then again, perhaps it was private or meant to be and he just happened to be overhearing them. He self-consciously looked out the window over the sink so as not to make the maid feel uncomfortable while Mrs. Mabus hammered out more specific instructions for her to follow. It was only a courtesy, he understood. He felt the maid was incapable of being made uncomfortable by his presence. He was the one who was uncomfortable. He was looking away and pretending he was elsewhere.
Outside on the lawn an old black man was gathering up twigs in a long overcoat, although it was a pleasantly warm day. How strange these people were. The old man was moving in a mime of slow motion, and Michael once again found himself misrepresenting the gardener, just as he had misrepresented the maid earlier. He imagined him as a self-possessed professional of some sort, a journalist perhaps, harboring his secrets from everyone, hiding a wise eloquence behind a mask of servile geniality and passing Michael on the street in complete anonymity. There was still that hope of difference down here, of seeing how it was meant to be elsewhere, at some other time. The old man could have been attending to his own affairs, if Michael had not known where they were, if they both were not so grateful to Mrs. Mabus.
When he turned back, the maid had disappeared and Mrs. Mabus was saying, “Now where were we, Dr. Swell? We were discussing my independent daughter, weren’t we?”
He felt a curious pressure, as though the old man on the lawn had looked up now and was watching him through the window when he couldn’t look back. “I didn’t mean independent in a disrespectful way,” he heard himself say. He felt disconnected suddenly as if he were caught between two competing worlds simultaneously. He could only answer to one now.
“Oh, I understand you perfectly, Dr. Swell,” Mrs. Mabus said. “I understand Evelyn a little better than you do, don’t you think?”
He nodded carefully. He was still slipping a little, he felt, while he regained his balance.
“I apologize for her, Dr. Swell. You really can’t be expected to understand how Evelyn’s mind works. I think she genuinely believes she likes you to a degree, although liking you shouldn’t have anything to do with the job you were hired to do.”
“I haven’t given her any reason for—”
“No, of course not, Dr. Swell. I never thought differently. You couldn’t possibly foresee her intentions. I’m not even sure she does.”
“Intentions, Mrs. Mabus?” he asked vaguely.
“It’s not important for you to know, Dr. Swell. Believe me. It can only complicate matters.”
“Know what, Mrs. Mabus? I’m a little confused.” He tried to smile to counteract Mrs. Mabus’ tired smile.
“Of course you are, of course you are,” she said. “I wish we could all go over to the park and have a nice picnic, but it’s impossible now. We used to do that, you know. On the spur of the moment, without giving it a second thought. Call up our friends and neighbors, people who were loyal to us. Mr. Mabus would bring a pony over from the stable for the children. You know what? I don’t even think that stable is there anymore. . . . Well, enough of that,” she said, waving her hand in the air. “You see what I have to do now. It’s constant. Maids, the hired help. It’s constant, all the time. It’s as though they’ve been given a set of keys without knowing how to drive. And who’s going to teach them? Who has the time anymore?”
“Was . . . was there something I did, Mrs. Mabus? Something that Eyn. . .something she might have said I did?” He was tittering as though he were guilty of some inattention he was unaware of yet.
“You, Dr. Swell?” Mrs. Mabus asked, looking at him with amusing puzzlement. “What could you do? Please don’t flatter yourself unduly on my account. It’s not like you, really it isn’t.”
“Yes, all right,” he said slowly. He had seen Eyn’s personal journal, but she had given it to him to read. He never took it seriously. When was something not a secret?
“You’re a nice boy, Dr. Swell. You work hard, as far as I can see. You seem to know what you’re doing, as far as it goes. You don’t spread rumors that aren’t your concern or talk out of house.”
“Thank you,” he heard himself mumble.
“You’ve been raised properly, I can tell. All your families down here say the same thing. You know when not to say things out of turn, no matter how difficult the temptation must be. We’re all easy targets anymore.”
“It’s not difficult, Mrs. Mabus.”
“Oh well, my mistake then, Dr. Swell. I assumed you were still feeling a little out of sorts down here. It’s not your fault entirely, of course.”
“Pardon me, Mrs. Mabus, but I seem to be missing something here,” he laughed.
Mrs. Mabus looked at him, not severely but questioningly, as though she were being entirely open with him and he was just pretending to be arbitrarily slow-witted.
“Really, Dr. Swell,” she finally said, “you surprise me.”
He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He wondered if he could trust himself to say what he meant. He did ask why she was surprised with him, but it sounded foolish even to him.
“Maybe we’ve overestimated you,” Mrs. Mabus said.
For a moment Michael Swell thought he had walked onto an elaborate stage. The play going on around him was one of those claustrophic family tragedies, he imagined, in which what was being worked out had already happened years before any of the characters were born, and he happened to be playing some walk-on part. What walk-on part? The stupid house guest from Denmark, of course, the one the real characters were wising up for no other reason than he happened to be present among them. He had a dreadful accent, but it didn’t seem to matter that he was a fake. Some place ahead, in the last act, he would spill out his own secret—one that he hadn’t known was a secret—and the whole kit and caboodle would fall in on itself. The image of himself exiting the ruins of Magnolia House, or whatever name they gave this place, was so false and clear at the same time that he suddenly had an extreme reaction to his own overworked imagination. He started hiccupping idiotically right in the Mabus’s kitchen.
Even Mrs. Mabus was startled at its frequency. “Why, you poor soul,” she said, reaching out and touching his hand. She instructed him to hold up his arms and went to the sink for a glass of water. When she came back, she told him to bend over at the waist, touch his foot with one hand while holding his breath, and drink the water from the other. He dutifully followed her directions. He never felt more stupid in his life. There he was, bent double in the middle of the kitchen with Mrs. Mabus patting his back, when Eyn walked in on them.
“Mother,” she gasped, “what are you doing with my tutor?”
As soon as he heard her voice, Michael sprang up flushed and dizzy. Eyn had changed outfits and was eyeing him with a triumphant look as though she had finally succeeded in dislodging a stubborn toad from a gutter pipe. She was stunning to look at. She wasn’t exactly prettier than when he had seen her a few minutes before with her hair up, sprawled out at the table in her cut-offs and Rebel sweatshirt, he thought, but against the backdrop of her mother and all that he hadn’t been meant to understand in their conversation, she reminded him of an uncirculated penny. She was in a sleeveless sundress and heeled sandals, and her tanned arms and legs looked as if they had been newly varnished. He felt a pang of sudden, futile longing, knowing that he was always going to be someone to her for whom there was no reprieve, no hope of change. Then it passed, as it would have anyway, he told himself, and he went back to seeing her as her mother always insisted she be seen, as the girl with the study problem.
“I have the hiccups,” he apologized, staunching his breath and blushing.
They all waited a moment in bemused silence. The hiccups seemed to have disappeared as suddenly as they began.
“My husband’s brother used to get them incessantly,” Mrs. Mabus said. “They took him to one specialist after another, all the way up North, as I recall. They each had a different useless theory for why it happened. Some of the cures were quite painful for him, as I remember.”
“Tell him the truth, mother,” Eyn said. “He was the pain. He was so embarrassing to the family they would lock him in his closet.”
“That’s absolutely not true, Evelyn,” Mrs. Mabus said, smiling over at Michael. “They seemed to think it was related to stuttering in the old days.”
“Oh brother,” Evelyn said, rolling her eyes at Michael.
“I didn’t say it, young lady,” Mrs. Mabus said. “The outside specialists did.”
“But you went along with them, didn’t you, Mother? You wanted to believe it.”
“I had nothing whatsoever to do with it. It was a problem in your father’s family. I just happened to be aware of it. His condition wasn’t a secret to anyone in Springfield.”
“Then why did they try to hide him? Out of sight, out of mind—is that it, mother?”
“What in the world are you talking about, Evelyn Elizabeth?” Mrs. Mabus looked at Michael. “I apologize. It’s quite beside the point, isn’t it?”
“Did he recover?” Michael asked quickly. It was an innocent question, yet he found himself asking it out of irritation with Mrs. Mabus. He wondered what the point was.
“Well, Mother, did he?” Eyn asked.
“Well, of course he did,” she said. “He’s perfectly normal today.”
“Yeah, he hates his whole family down here,” Eyn grinned. “I wrote him a letter, you know. He lives up where you’re from,” she said to Michael.
“You did what, young lady?” Mrs. Mabus said quietly.
“I wrote him a letter. Daddy saw it. It was for school. We had to write somebody we didn’t get along with. Or somebody who didn’t get along with us.”
“What in the world for?” her mother said.
“It’s Christianity, mother.”
Michael began to smile. Mrs. Mabus looked over at him.
“I know about Christianity, young lady,” she said. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with sending letters to your Uncle Sidney. Why didn’t you come to me?”
“See, I used to get along with everybody,” Eyn said, ignoring her mother and talking to Michael. “So I couldn’t think of anyone to write a letter to. I mean there were kids who weren’t really my friends, but it wasn’t because I hated them or anything. Or they hated me. I mean that’s what a lot of lads ended up doing anyway. They sent letters to each other. It was stupid. Some even wrote letters to me and pretended like we didn’t get along. But it wasn’t that we didn’t get along. Do you see what I mean? We got along fine. We just weren’t friends. So I didn’t have anybody to write to. Then I talked to Daddy and he sort of started going on about Uncle Sidney’s old problem. I think he thought of writing him a letter once.”
“Why didn’t your father say something to me?” Mrs. Mabus asked.
“Because, Mother, you wouldn’t have let me write a letter. You would have got Daddy on your side.”
“I wouldn’t have stopped you if you wanted to write to one of your little friends,” Mrs. Mabus said.
“See what I mean, Mr. Mike?” Eyn said. “It’s hopeless.”
“But just to write to a total stranger. . .,” Mrs. Mabus said. She rubbed her thumb against her index finger and studied her daughter.
“Uncle Sidney’s not a total stranger, Mother. He’s still family, whether you like it or not.”
“But you’ve never seen him, my dear. He’s been gone from before you were born.”
“That doesn’t matter, Mother, does it? He hates me too.”
“He doesn’t hate you at all. The very idea your father would suggest that.”
“He didn’t suggest it, Mother,” Eyn said. “He suggested I should write a letter to you.”
There was a pause, and Michael cringed inwardly. He wondered if he should excuse himself. Mrs. Mabus would be grateful to him for that, he thought. But he also felt that Evelyn—Eyn—relied on him now. She was directing her remarks to her mother through him, and he felt a warm suffusion of necessary belonging, as though he were a representation of Uncle Sidney’s invisible presence, that hiccuping boy who was rumored to be kept in a closet until he grew to hate his family. Michael felt perversely justified, then, in being here. He didn’t feel he should leave, yet. It was all slightly curious to him, as if some veil were being lifted. He almost felt he deserved to know who these people were. They had kept him in the dark all this time.
“You were going to write me the letter?” Mrs. Mabus finally said. “Your own mother?” Her voice was reasonable, as though she had practiced her aggrieved response a thousand times over the years.
“Don’t have a cow, Mother,” Eyn said. “I didn’t write you the letter, did I? Your secrets are still safe with me.”
“We’ll talk about this when your father gets home,” her mother said.
Eyn was grinning then and she turned to Michael. “First, I wrote Uncle Sidney the letter and showed Daddy, but he wouldn’t let me send it.”
“Good for him,” Mrs. Mabus said.
“I think he was afraid Uncle Sidney would write back and say bad things about him,” Eyn continued, “like how Daddy had treated him, his own brother, and never apologized. Daddy would hate for me to know who he really is, wouldn’t he, Mother?”
“Evelyn,” Mrs. Mabus announced calmly, “you’re going to cry wolf once too often one of these days, young lady.” She looked at Michael. “Some people don’t know when to believe you.”
“Oh right, Mother,” Eyn said. “Anyway, then I got this great idea, Mr. Mike. I wrote Daddy the letter and pretended I was Uncle Sidney. Isn’t that great? I went on and on about this neat family I had and how happy we all were. I waited until the end, and then I said, “Oh by the way, I forgive you for locking me up in the closet.” When Daddy realized who wrote it, he was furious with me,” Eyn grinned.
“How clever of you, Evelyn,” Mrs. Mabus said. “Isn’t she clever, Dr. Swell? And it’s just like her. She can write a letter from anyone but herself. Why do you suppose that is, dear?” Evelyn was grinning openly. “Perhaps our Dr. Swell has an opinion. Eyn, isn’t that what she has you call her?”
“Oh, Mother,” Evelyn groaned, “why do you have to stick your nose in everything. Really.” She flounced over to the refrigerator and opened it. She bent over and stuck her head inside.
“You do understand of course, don’t you, Dr. Swell, that she made up that ridiculous name for your benefit just so she can say you call her that,” Mrs. Mabus said.
“Mother”—Evelyn’s voice was muffled—”give Mr. Mike some credit at least. After all, he works for us.”
“That’s right, dear, he does. You’re perfectly right.” Mrs. Mabus was smiling now. She hadn’t really not been smiling, Michael realized. “She’s Evelyn or Miss Evelyn to everyone. I know you will remember that in the future, Dr. Swell. You’re a nice boy. We’re happy you chose to live in Springfield, aren’t we, Evelyn?”
“There’s not an ounce of ice tea anywhere, Mother,” Evelyn whined.
Mrs. Mabus had the courtesy to turn away from him now. She went to the doorway. “Vessie,” she said. It was nearly a whisper. “Miss Vessie, stop everything you’re doing right now and come here.”
Michael Swell stood in the middle of the kitchen, not able to stop grinning. Mr. Mike and Dr. Swell, he thought. He wanted to enjoy all the idiotic versions of himself. He had been tripping over himself so often he had stopped paying attention. He was an amusing person down here, like a missing character in a story. Dr. Swell, I presume. So this is really home, isn’t it? he mused. He felt he was standing there on the edge of a daze. He was surprised at himself. He wasn’t feeling as uncomfortable as he expected. Home: the spot in the world from which you never escape. It was laughable. He had been so careful, only to end up here, in a place he couldn’t avoid if he had wanted to. There was a certain cleverness to his thoughts now which he wasn’t smart enough yet to figure out. Now he could say he understood the people down here. They were like him in some peculiar way. They got in each other’s way. Yet, unlike him, they preferred that to the alternative. Hadn’t everything seemed more clear to him before he arrived in Springfield? Clarity, he realized now, wasn’t necessarily the best thing, was it? Clarity hadn’t made him happy. Not at all. Being too careful was a constant aggravation. Now there wasn’t any reason to clear things up. How many Springfields were there? How many could you call home?
Miss Vessie stood in the doorway now. Her eyes met his. She smiled.