I grew up on the river. Our small, shingled house was part of Bow Terrace, where the back yards sloped down to the river. The houses across the street, like the one where Norma Zielek lived with her old mother Dolly, were two-storied and had porches and garages. We had a narrow dock and a rowboat. My father painted them gray every spring. My mother tried to teach me to swim by lowering me off the dock one day and letting go, but I clung instead to the piling, then followed the rope to the boat, with my water-soft body stiff with fear, and with my eyes shut as tight as a blind girl’s. When I pulled a chair to the foot of my bed, and climbed on it and jumped on the mattress, I tried to imagine what buoyancy is. But I always just lay there and felt leaden, and thought it must be something you’re born with. I had tried out twice for the girls’ swim team, the Minnows. I hadn’t made it, and I wasn’t going back.
A boy was missing. Suddenly a cry went up from the public beach, and people ran about in all directions. My mother flew out of the house with Norma behind her. At the shore they joined the two teenage lifeguards and a few other grownups. They waded out with their arms across each other’s shoulders; farther out they took turns diving. The police came. An ambulance came. The world stopped turning for a while, then the girls who belonged to the Minnows, who wore goggles that said “Minnows” over and over on the straps, fanned out and made chirpy noises and called, “Derek, Derek,” as if the boy who was missing was hiding under a rock. When everyone came out of the water, they stood in the sand with bloodshot eyes. My father made supper that night, but no one ate much. After supper we went out to the yard, and Norma and Dolly came over.
We sat in a ring of lawn chairs. The river was dark and serene, but I moved my chair next to Dolly’s so we could touch. Dolly Zielek was 72 and had arthritis. The grainy wide spread of her legs was like the trunks of the old silver beeches in the park, enormous and still and immutable. No matter what time of year it was, her thin skin was always cool.
Norma was big and careless. She smoked cigarettes down to the filters, and dropped ash all over herself, and kept brushing it off. When she bumped into something, which was often, as she only wore her glasses at work, she turned around and kicked it. She laughed loudly, with her teeth all showing and her head flung back. She had big loose bones that seemed to roll around inside her. My father called her Norma the Man. She was nighttime plant supervisor at the cereal mill, A.O.K.Grain and Breakfast, where my father worked days. My mother used to work at the bowling alley, but it closed ten years ago. Norma was talking about a comedian she had heard that morning on a radio talk show she and my mother listened faithfully to.”I laughed so hard, I think I split a gut,” she was saying.
“My favorite was the one about the chicken,” said my mother. In the twilight, in the yellow light of the mosquito candle on the picnic table at her back, she looked out at the water and laughed too. Under her house dress she still wore her bathing suit. It was alarming to me how pretty she was.
Norma said, “The one that goes, you take the chicken, and I’ll take the eggs, and the first one in the frying pan gets the dinner?”
“What’s the rest of it,” said my father. “I mean, was it alive, or what? You should cheer us all up. Right, Dolly?”
“They put too much static in their ears,” said Dolly.
My mother reached for Norma’s ear. She turned it like a knob, and said, “This is a test. This is a test.” When Norma started screeching through her teeth, her voice really sounded like a radio.
I said, “I hate.” But I didn’t know what it was I hated—the sound of the water sucking up to the sand, the boy’s eyes in the river, which were sure to be open, the weeds I was sure were in his mouth.”You,” I said, to my mother.”And I’m not learning how to swim anymore. I don’t care what you do to me.”
Too late I saw her raised hand. It surprised me because she never hit me in front of anyone. It was a sharp, quick slap, and I took it on the side of my neck. I said to myself, “Missing.” I imagined a boy my age at the bottom of the river with his feet in the mud, swaying this way and that, but never falling over. He was just like a statue down there.
My mother turned and ran into the house. My father sighed and blew out the mosquito candle, and Norma said to me, “I hope you’re happy.” Between us, my father and I walked Dolly home, and I lay down next to her on the couch. My father went into their kitchen to get a beer.
“The river is worse than a toilet,” Dolly said.
“Tell me how you knew me before I was born,” I said. I was trying to press myself against her so closely, I’d be nothing but an extra knot of Dolly’s flesh.
Dolly held up a finger and crooked it. “I knew you when you were less than this big. When you were less than the size of this fingernail. You were a ghost in the trees, when I knew you.”
We lay there a while and my father stood near us in the doorway and drank Norma’s beer. Suddenly we heard the back door flung open. Norma called out, “Eddie?” She had a wild look.”Go home, Eddie, and leave Maddy here. Loretta’s back in the water and she thinks she found something.”
The gray summer darkness rose up with the smell of the water. The old woman talked to me in a mixture of Polish and English. I didn’t know what she was saying. It was nothing; it was the sound of an old woman crooning.
Wayne Booth was 20. He was a machinist’s apprentice at the plastics factory where I’d gotten a job the summer I turned 16.
It was a high brick building with long, dirty windows. The walls were thick with ivy that stayed brown all year. Soot came steadily down from the chimneys, and up from the basement exhausts, and out from the engines of the big machines like pulverized spit or sweat.
I was a packer, seven a. m. to three thirty. There was a low cement wall in the back between the yard and the river, and though it seethed with heat all summer I sat there with the girls from my line. We ate our lunches quickly and piggily, and hardly noticed what we ate, because after a few days in the factory, everything tasted the same. Then we leaned back on our elbows. We rolled up the legs of our pants and went to work on our tans. When the whistle blew we went back inside slowly, always the last ones in.
The noise turned our ears to stone. The silver blades of the ceiling fans made the hot air hotter. Someone slipped off to the Coke machines every half hour or so, and we scooped the ice from the cups and rubbed our cheeks with it. The moisture ran down our faces and went into the boxes we packed. The routine went like this: boxing and packing and sealing, and heaving it onto the belt, a new one every six minutes for me, although several older girls were much faster. Sometimes when the foreman wasn’t looking, someone jammed the gears of the conveyor with a small bit of cardboard, and shut things down so we could breathe. I felt that no one owned me. I was learning how to walk a new way and talk out the sides of my mouth like I was hard.
At the end of the day it was a miracle. We were flooded with life again; we were the first ones down the stairs to the time clock. We jostled for our cards and pressed our hipbones against each other. I loved the way the girls from my line rolled their eyes and said, “Whoa,” when the machinists came out with their lunch pails. I stood off to the side and looked for Wayne.
“See you, Maddy,” said the dumpy girls from other lines. They shuffled in the lobby; they would go home all their lives to nothing but a bag of potato chips. The married girls never talked to us and were icy. The secretaries in their highheeled sandals and painted toenails and halter tops only talked to each other, and when they paused on the steps with their compacts and put lipstick on, they made it look like they really had somewhere worth hurrying to.
I left slowly, although I only had to walk around the back to get home. I watched for one thing: for Wayne Booth in his dark green Dodge, with his arm out the window. When I thought about how it would feel to grow up and be a woman and have someone love me, I thought it would feel like a doorway, in the inner part of your mind, and part of the doorway is dark. The other part, where your husband is, is filled with light.
One afternoon on the line I held up my hand and waved for our foreman.”Bathroom,” I said.
Tooley O’Toole was a short, lazy-looking man with stubby blond hair. His upper arms were wide and fleshy; he wore the sleeves of his T-shirt rolled up. He came up to me the way he always came up to our line, with one hand in the air as if he’d smack us. Then he sighed and thumped the edge of the belt.”You just got back from lunch,” he said.
“I’ve got a rag on,” I said in my hard new way.
I went downstairs to the first floor molding machines and found Wayne. I wasn’t sure if any words would come out when I spoke to him; that’s how noisy it was. He was reaching up into the panels of a large machine, and the bottom of his shirt had slid out of his jeans. I saw the white line where his suntan ended and the rest of his skin began. I wanted to put my mouth there.”Something’s wrong with the machine on line eight,” I said.
He bounced back down on his feet and dropped the wrench he’d been using into the toolbox beside me on the floor. He had two long sideburns that reached to his jaw. “What’s the matter with it?” he said.
“It squeaks,” I said. “It sounds like it’s about to completely break down. Tooley always waits till the last minute before he calls someone, then we’re the ones who get killed.”
I liked how it felt when he looked at me. “I guess I better go up there,” he said.
“Thanks!” I said. When he leaned against the machine his body was the shape of a three-quarter S.He took a blue and white bandana out of the pocket of his shirt and wiped some sweat off his forehead. He folded it carefully and put it back. Do that to me, I was thinking.
Nights, I slept across the street. Norma could have afforded a nurse for Dolly, but I went over there gladly. Dolly was 86, and she was losing her mind.
It was small things at first. Dolly talked out loud to people no one else ever heard of. When Norma turned on the washing machine, she tipped her head back startled, and demanded to be told what it was. Shapes around her began shifting and changing. It was too hard for Norma to get her up and down the stairs anymore, so she had turned their dining room to her old mother’s sickroom.
In the evening before Norma left for work, my parents came over. Norma had moved the television set to the foot of Dolly’s bed. My father pulled up a chair and kept a narration going, into Dolly’s ear, about what was happening on the screen. Dolly couldn’t see much, just movement, just shadows.”Efram Zimbalist Junior’s got his gun out, Dolly. He’s closing in, here we go, you bastards.” She enjoyed it when he took the straw from her water glass, dipped it into his beer, and passed it to her to suck on.
“Where’s the old lady locked up?” She always asked this question. It didn’t matter what the show was, there was always an old lady who couldn’t speak English correctly, locked up somewhere.
My mother never went closer than the doorway. She couldn’t. If Dolly sensed her presence she cried out to her something like, “I see you, Reva Spolnik.”
“It’s Loretta Foss, Mama,” Norma said.
“Ha!” cried Dolly. “Go tell her uncle, he better not come fishing for me, because I still have some breath left.”
One morning Norma came home from work and found Dolly on her hands and knees in front of their sofa, slicing the upholstery with a paring knife.”Quick. Help me get my money out,” said Dolly in Polish. She had removed a lot of the stuffing. She had shredded some up. She had hidden some inside her slippers and in the pockets of her robe. When Norma took out her dentures, she found some there as well, all gummy and wadded.
Norma had the couch fixed. That’s where I slept. As soon as Dolly heard Norma’s car leave the driveway, she called to me, “Maddy, Maddy,” like an old woman softly calling her cat.
In the stillness of those nights she turned her head on the pillow and looked at me. Who could know what she saw? She reached for the kleenex box on her bedside table. She took out some tissues and placed them in my hand for airfare.
I was never out with Wayne for more than two or three hours. When I returned, I told Dolly I had landed in Polish woods like a bird. I had seen Polish darkness where it seeped into houses, into bricks and wooden slats. I’d heard wind in Polish trees like wind in bony antlers. I hummed songs to her that I’d heard on the radio in Wayne’s car. Her skin was as dry as a shoe. Sometimes, she tried to hum with me, and her old voice was groggy and harsh, like a crow who is trying to whistle. But I think she felt lifted and airy, to where voices aren’t voices anymore; they’re just flight. And she imagined that her body was as supple and light as a girl’s.
I left the factory in September for my last year of high school. A few times a week after school I went secretly to meet Wayne as he came off his shift. I’d go home and tell my parents I was out with my girl friends; I’d been studying; I’d been all afternoon at the library. I planned to keep Wayne secret, and conjure phantom girl friends, until I was finally through with being young. We drove around, leaving town for the back roads, each with one hand between the thighs of the other person. We stopped often for beer, or Wayne already had some in a cooler in his trunk. We went to Cumberland Farms for cheese sandwiches and Slim Jims. When we stopped at red lights, we kissed. I took off my shoes and put my feet on his dashboard. I kept switching the radio so nothing ever played but good songs.”Mine,” I said to myself.
He took me home to meet his parents. He lived alone with them. His sister had finished school last year and moved out and was already married.
First we shared a beer. Wayne threw the empty bottle harder than usual down an embankment, so it crashed on a tree, and we slowed down to watch it. He took a bottle of Listerine out of the glove compartment and poured some into his hands and dabbed it on his face like after shave, and sprinkled some on his hair and clothes.”The beer they’re used to. This gets out the smell of plastics,” he said.”Don’t let them know where I met you because it pisses them off where I work. And if they ask, you’re 19.
Both his parents had worked at the textile mill, which was nearly closed down. They lived in the mill’s tract-housing development. The rowhouses were A-frame, and narrow and shabby, but the front doors had been painted long ago some unexpected bright color, and the paint hadn’t all the way faded—they were green or yellow or aqua or pinkish-red, like a watermelon. On the stoop of Wayne’s house there was a stone urn for plants as high as my hip, but it was empty. There was an old brass nameplate by the door.”Don’t look at that thing,” he said, so I went up to see it more closely.
Across the bottom it was engraved with what appeared to be cracks, but they were part of a drawing. It was some kind of spaceship. Reedy-looking legs came out of it. The ship itself was part of the word “Booth.” It went in and out of the letters.”It’s a flying saucer?” I asked.
“It’s the Enterprise,” said Wayne. “I was eight when I did it. I used a couple of needles. I keep meaning to take it off.”
“Can I have it?” I said.
“It’s just a piece of shit,” said Wayne.
He opened the door and we went inside. The hall was dark and musty and hot. To our right was a narrow staircase.”No one ever comes in this way,” he said.”Wait. I want to show you something.”
My eyes became used to the darkness. Orange electrical extension wire twirled around the bannister up the stairs, thick strands of it braided together. On the wall at the top of the stairs, where more wires converged, it looked like there was nothing but a boarded up window.
Wayne flicked a light switch at the bottom of the stairs. The single bulb in the hall light socket came on, and a moment later, the window upstairs lit up too, in huge letters of wires, of Christmas tree bulbs, different sizes and different colors, and follicles of light were leaping there. They blinked on and off a few times, and when they settled into their shapes, they spelled out, “WHO GOES HERE FUCK YOU.”
“I did it when I was like a junior or something,” Wayne said.
He switched it off. In the darkness I took hold of his hand and squeezed it.”Oh, God. Do you love me?” I said.
“I’ll tell you later.”
I followed him down the hall. He opened a door on the left and whispered, “Get ready.”
The only sound was from the air conditioner, which was set at its highest speed. It was cool in here and very dry. The room was a combination living and dining room, but there wasn’t much furniture: a table, chairs, a television set, a faded rug of knitted wool. On the gray panels of the walls were the kinds of posters you see in travel agents’ windows. They were cities—Paris, New York, London, Rome. The seats and backs of the chairs had been replaced with canvas. The canvas was the tan and green camouflage of the Army. The textile mill had done a lot of work for the base outside town, before the base closed some five or six years ago.
At the table sat Wayne’s father, eating an early supper. His thick hair was white. He held up his fork in his hand and looked at me and Wayne without any change at all in his expression, so that, for a moment, I thought he was blind, I thought his blindness was one more thing Wayne was trying to tell me.
But he blinked like a seer, looked at his napkin and picked it up, and wiped the edges of his mouth.”Hi, Dad,” said Wayne.
Wayne’s father said, “Darling?” His mother came in from the kitchen. She was younger than his father by ten or 15 years. She wore a loose broadcloth apron with pockets filled with sewing things: scissors and loose bits of material and spools. There were threads all over her with a static-like cling. She wore her hair pulled back in an elastic, but lifted her hand to her face, as if brushing back the veil of a hat. “Tell him to cut it out, Ma,” Wayne said.
Wayne’s mother looked at her husband and said, “I’m almost through with the sleeves. Why don’t you come into the kitchen and try it on?”
“I could have sworn I heard something in the hall,” said Wayne’s father.
Then slowly, in small, exaggerated steps, with her finger to her lips, Wayne’s mother came toward the doorway. She came just a few inches short of us. We could have been two coat racks. She peered at us and past us, like someone in a cartoon who’s looking this way and that for robbers.
“All clear, darling,” said Wayne’s mother.
“You want to come up and see my room?” said Wayne in a loud, rough voice. He held my arm below my elbow and his fingers closed hard, and when he took it away I had marks there.
“I have to get home,” I said.
We went out to the hall. “I told you they’re really mad at me,” said Wayne. He laughed and I said, “I’m freezing.” We held hands on the way to the car. When he started to turn on the ignition, I grabbed his arm and then we kissed. It was a hard kiss, and our teeth touched, and I thought we’d have some blood on our lips. But I looked at him, and I looked at myself in the mirror, and we didn’t.
It was going to snow soon. Cold wind was in the trees as if they were already covered with ice. I went down to the end of our dock. I took off my shoes and socks and put my feet in the water to have something on my skin, at the same time burning and icy. I had gathered a pile of brown leaves and twigs. I dropped them in the river one at a time and watched them float away. Norma came out to our yard. She said, “If you saw me for the first time right now, and you didn’t know me, would you say I looked prosperous?” I looked at her. She was wearing a wool skirt and a new white blouse with a frilly collar. Her neck was all red.”Your mother smells bad and she talks funny,” I said.”The nursing home might not want her.” “They will. I can pay,” Norma said. I hated her. I had the feeling that all I had to do to live the rest of my life now was reach into myself, just reach in past my skin and bones, and pluck out “love” in its warty dryness, and flick it off with my thumb into the current.
In one of the cabinets in our kitchen my mother kept a box of what she called her decorating things, for the addition she and my father had planned to build on our house—an enclosed porch looking out on the water, with clean windows and white straw furniture. Here we would sit the year round, heated and enfolded, and people would wave to us as they went by in boats.
She set the box on the table. Inside were the faded pencil sketches my father had drawn. There were articles from ladies’ magazines and old brochures from furniture stores, and wallpaper swatches and paint samples on cardboard charts. All these things were older than I was. Years ago they had bought some lattices to frame the porch’s bottom; those thin sheets of wood were propped at the side of our house like something washed up from the river.”I’m going to have a baby,” I said. She’d been picking out wallpaper swatches, which she made into a fan. She held it up and waved it and laughed and looked scared, the way she looked when my father tiptoed behind her and spooked her. “Maddy! Don’t scare me like that!”
The job she’d had at the bowling alley was running the shoe counter. It was just an empty lot now; it had burned to the ground.
My father bowled alone in one of the outside lanes. One night, after he’d come in every Friday for several months, a lace broke as he put his rented shoes on. He went to my mother for a new one. He looked at the name tag on her blouse.”What a beautiful name you have, Roletta,” he said.
“It’s Loretta,” she told him. “Not Roe. Lor.”
“Lor,” he said. He blushed and became shy. “You probably think I have a speech impediment or something.”
I was 12 or 13 when my mother told me this story. I said, when she reached the last line, which went, “And then we got married,” “Did you rip the shoelace on purpose?” I imagined she must have shredded it with a nail file, or perhaps with scissors. She had hit me; she thought I was mocking her. Snap! went the lace in his hand, and I thought, that was the moment I began. I am Maddy.
She put the swatches down. She picked up a dish towel and wiped her hands. She opened a cabinet over the stove and put the towel in there on top of a cereal box. She went over to the sink. It was after supper and I had already done the dishes. She sprinkled some Ajax in the sink and rubbed it with a sponge and ran the water. She rinsed her hands and looked around for the towel and couldn’t find it and opened a drawer near the sink and took out another one. In one second she spun around and was on me. My head went back when she pulled my hair. Holding me by my hair she struck my face. I think it surprised her that she hit me with her fist; she’d meant to slap me. Everything teetered. I grabbed hold of the edge of the counter.
“I’m only kidding,” I said. I went into the bathroom. I took out the razor I shaved my legs with. I took the blade out. I cut myself about a quarter of an inch on the inside part of my leg just over my ankle. I took out a Kotex and stopped the blood with it. I let it really soak in. Then I placed the Kotex inside my underpants. I put a band-aid on the cut and pulled up my sock. A few drops of blood had fallen on the toilet seat and I left them there. There was a part of me that wished that, when she hit me, she’d done it even harder. I wished that the edge of the blackness that I had seen when I held onto the counter had given way to its center, and then I would have reeled off somewhere, spinning and spinning, as if I’d spun off from the end of a spool.
It hadn’t been cold enough to freeze the river. The streetlights came on, and the lights of the houses came on, and the dark, hard surface of the water filled and spread with reflections. The trees by the banks plunged deeply, like shadows sweeping down through a canyon, in dark clouds of branches, as if the river were empty and airy. Our dock lay dusted with snow. The prow of our boat stuck out next to it like a lip. In three days, I would run away with Wayne and marry him. When I thought about the future, I thought about myself in Wayne’s car, driving away with the radio on, with Wayne’s smell all around me and with the feel of someone next to me for all the rest of my life. I kept whispering the word “husband.” I believed that starting soon I would be happy.
They were calling me. My mother called, “Maddy, come on. We’re leaving now.”
It’s funny what you don’t see coming. I heard the doorbell ring and I thought, it’s Norma. I heard the sound of my father’s voice. He had spent the afternoon repairing the plaster in the wall above the radiator in our front hall and painting the wall to cover the water stains. The pipes there had leaked a long time ago. I began to follow in my mind how he’d show this to Norma, and Norma would find something wrong with it, and tell him how she could have done it better, and he would say to her, Norma, take a piss. Then depending on how she felt at the moment my mother would take one of their sides.
I went into the kitchen. On a tray on the table there were two bowls of peanuts, a bowl of corn chips, a bowl of Lipton Onion Soup dip. There were small paper plates and some napkins. What had I thought these things were for? To take to the nursing home for Dolly, like a portable tea party? My mother looked at herself in the chrome of the stove. She had just put on lipstick. In the hall, my father was saying, “Well, I see that you’re here. Come on in.” Then Wayne walked into our house with his mother and father and his married sister, whom I’d never seen before.
Wayne wore a new button down striped shirt with creases still in it from the package.”This is my sister Monica,” he said to me. Our mothers eyed each other warily. They looked like two women about to kiss the air near each other’s cheeks, but they stopped just short, self-consciously. Mrs. Booth said, “It’s a nice little place you’ve got here. Must be nice, so close to the water.”
“Oh, but it’s damp, and in the summer it’s very noisy,” said my mother. I could smell Wayne’s English Leather and also some kind of booze. I did not understand how this was happening. He didn’t come over and stand next to me. I looked at him. I ain’t all here, Maddy, he was telling me.
My father called out from the living room, “I’ve turned up the thermostat, Loretta.”
“We thought we’d be more comfortable in the front room,” said my mother. She went to pick up the tray.”Hey, let me,” said Wayne’s father. She said, “Thanks, Mr. Booth.” He said, “Please. It’s Frank.” He took the tray and Monica said, “Careful, Dad.” To my mother she said, “You wouldn’t believe what a klutz he is.”
That’s when everyone turned and looked at me. Maybe they couldn’t help it, but their eyes just looked at my belly. I was two and a half months pregnant, but I pushed back my shoulders and poked myself out, as if I had suddenly started to show. I kicked the side of the sink. I said to my mother, “I thought we were going out to visit Dolly.”
“Where’s the front room?” Mr. Booth said.
“In here!” called my father.
“Maybe we ought to give her a second to get used to all this,” said Mrs. Booth.
“You told?” I said to Wayne. He shrugged. He was a long way from being fall-down drunk, and it wasn’t something you’d notice in his eyes unless you knew him. I had known him best in the dark; but I knew him. I didn’t get, for a moment, why I suddenly felt relieved, as if I’d been groping for something; but then I realized, as Wayne looked down at the floor, I had thought it was Norma, and I was setting up my heart to hate her more. I thought about what it used to feel like to go over there, and climb up on the couch, on top of Dolly’s fleshy body, and lie there with my arms and legs dangling, and paddle slowly at the air like a turtle.
That night I had this dream. Slouching and dragging her feet, Norma came over to the table and lit a cigarette. At the table were my father and Dolly.
“Dolly and I are going to cream you,” my father said.
My mother found a comb somewhere and combed her hair and went over and sat down. The game they were playing was six-card partners pitch, which is also called factory poker. Already on the table was a pile of dollar bills. My mother cut the cards slowly. My father and Dolly were partners, and she had Norma. It took her a long time to deal. I scooped up the money and gave it to Norma and said, “Here. Go to the Booths in the textile mill and use this gun to kill Wayne, and if the others wake up, kill them also.”
“Sure, Maddy,” said Norma. They didn’t notice that Norma left the table and I took her place. Dolly cried out, “I’m bidding every single bid there ever was! I’m wiping you off the face of the earth with this bid!” No one saw Norma slip away with the gun, down the yard to the dock. No one, not even me in the dream, heard the oars as she quickly rowed away.
Norma said, “You want me to give you a what?” She had switched to the day shift. She had a new office behind the assembly room on the first floor of the Grains.
Most of the sorting was done at long conveyors that ran from one end of the enormous room to the other. There were cereal boxes everywhere in great stacks, and cardboard drums of corn, wheat, and oat flakes. Fans moved overhead. The blades were coated with grit, and around them were tan clouds of grain dust. The sorters, all women, wore hairnets, and some wore floppy paper caps like chefs’ hats. They wore loose white dresses that looked like surgical clothes. Norma had been promoted to assistant plant general supervisor. I wanted her to give me a job.
“I’m not getting married,” I said.
“Loretta called me not even ten minutes ago,” she said. “She is very upset. And I’m not putting you on my line. No way.”
I rolled up the sleeves of my sweater and showed Norma my arms. They were mostly pinch marks. There were also some welts where my mother had struck me with what she happened to have in her hands, which had been this time the pole of our carpet sweeper.
“I look like a junkie,” I said.
“She doesn’t mean bad by you,” said Norma. “People get nuts sometimes, they strike out.”
“If you don’t find me something in here, I’m going back to the plastics factory.”
“Great. Soak up more toxins, why don’t you? Have a baby with no arms.”
“Are you going to help me?”
She looked away. The job she finally gave me was at the back of the plant, where I sat at a small table in a tiny room transcribing figures from a green ledger into a brown one. The company was switching to computers, Norma told me; the brown ledger was a database. At the end of my shift a woman who never talked to me, who hardly looked at me, came down from the accounting office and took them away. She was sour looking and wore jewelled pins of insects such as butterflies and ladybugs at the bosom of her blouses. When she stood there and checked over my work, she sighed with disappointment and seemed to hope I’d leave inky smears on the pages, so she could fire me. I didn’t use a punch card, and came and went through the back of the mill. I bought a small braided rug for under my table and a plant. Then Norma told me it bothered everyone that I brought my plant to the bubbler in the cafeteria to water it. They said my dirt was clogging their drain.”They’re just sticking up for my dad,” I said. It was the packagers upstairs where my father worked who had complained, not the sorters. Norma told me that if I didn’t know by now that life in a mill was like war, I was crazy.
“But I have to water my plant,” I said.
“Take a goddam glass down there! And stay out of the way with that belly! For Christ sake!” I saw the gleam in Norma’s eyes when she talked to me like this. Her face would be lit with passion, as if she were happy in here, as if she liked it.
I rang the bell at Mrs. Volk’s that said “Manager.” It was an old white house, flat-roofed and shabby. The faded pink trim around the windows was like a sunburn. Yes, a room was for rent, said the girl who came to the door. She was ten or eleven. She wore a sweatshirt inside out that went to her knees. She was Mrs. Volk’s daughter. The room was called a studio because it came with a kitchenette. I said, “Norma Zielek told me to come over. She’s my boss. I work at A.O.K. Grain.”
“Oh,” said the girl. “Ma’s gone out.” She squinted in the porch light at me, frowning and scowling, with an expression that said, I hate this porch, I hate this town, I hate everything, and if you don’t go away, I will hate you too. I said, “What’s your name?”
“The room furnished?”
“I guess so, if you want to call that stuff furniture. Sixty bucks a week.”
“Norma told me 50.”
“It went up.”
I had my winter coat on. As I talked to her I let it open. “Are you having a baby?” the girl asked.
I nodded. “You got a husband?”
I said I didn’t. “That could go either way with Ma,” she said.”My father divorced her two years ago. Can I touch it?”
It wasn’t kicking, but I told Francine I thought it was. She put her hands on my belly. It felt good to have someone touch me.”What are you going to name it?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said.
“I have to go in now. Come back tomorrow night, I’ll make it O.K.with Ma.” She turned to go in, then called over her shoulder, “Don’t name it Francine or anything. Francine sucks.”
Norma came with me when I returned. She was in a terrible mood. She found fault with everything she saw, and flicked ash from her cigarette in Mrs. Volk’s sink.”You want a beer, Norma?” said Mrs. Volk. Norma said she couldn’t, she was rushing, she had to get to the nursing home before they locked the doors.
Betty Volk was a dry looking woman who kept the heat on high and went around in sleeveless dresses. There was white powder at her underarms where her deodorant caked. She had a way of thrusting out her hips when she walked, and tipping back her head, like a model on a runway.”You should be glad you can afford a fancy place for your mother, Norma,” she said.”Times are so hard. Textiles are going under for good, I hear.”
When Mrs. Volk said “textiles,” Norma gave me a look. She didn’t trust me, and thought I’d go back to Wayne. She didn’t understand that I knew, when someone doesn’t stand next to you, they’re dead to you, their whole family is dead. I had gotten this letter:
“By the time you read this I’ll be in Denver, Colorado. Stevie Hamilton is fixing me up in an electronics place. He works the sales end but thinks he can get me in the plant. I sold my car. I got an incredible deal on it. I’m looking for a Jeep. I’ll have to rack up a few paychecks first. I’ll send you some money. How are you? I hear you’re doing great. Wayne.”
“My mother isn’t doing so good,” said Norma. “It wouldn’t even matter if I’d put her in the cheapest place there is. She’s not getting better, and she’s not getting worse.
“It’s the Polish in her,” said Mrs. Volk. “She’ll hang on.”
Francine showed me the room. She said on the way, “My mom used to work in the Grains. Norma was O.K.to her.”
“Norma’s just an old cow,” I said.
The room had a sink, small stove, small refrigerator, some chairs, a table, a double bed, two bureaus. It smelled strongly of Lysol. The house was near the park, and through the dirty windows I saw the beech trees, silver and solid, in the yellow-white glow of spring moonlight.
Thomas Mason wasn’t our family’s doctor. He was someone Norma found for me through the Grains. He was a short, lean, almost elderly man with thinning hair, partly brown and partly gray, and small light gray eyes and a kind expression. His shoulders were stooped. All his movements were slow, unhurried. He’d lapse off from what he was doing to some thought he’d had and then lose it and look back at me sitting there and say sadly, “Oh, sorry.” I didn’t lie to him when he asked how old I was. He said, “Making a baby’s easy as falling off a log. But raising one? Raising one is like trying to put the tree back. You don’t have to go all the way through with this, you know.”
“I know about abortions,” I said. “A girl in the plastics factory where I worked had one.”
“She told you about it?” I liked the way he stood there and talked to me. I had never had a conversation with a man before who wanted to know about what it’s like to be a girl. Like he knew stuff, too.
“She was a girl on my line. She went to a clinic in Boston.
People started screaming and jumping out at her so she could hardly even walk in. They had Polaroid cameras and took her picture, and told her they were sending it to her parents.”
He said, “How could they possibly send a photo, when they’ve no way of knowing where she’s from?”
“They acted like they did,” I said. “And you know what she told me? She’s kind of religious. She said all she could think of, when everyone was screaming, was Jesus, when they were going, give us Barabbas.”
“Lie back now,” he said. His face had a funny look. It was evening and his secretary had gone home. I’d been in there for what seemed a long time, and I wondered, if he turned out to be weird, if he’d been nice to me as only a front, could I signal to Norma somehow, who was waiting outside in her car?
He placed the end of the stethoscope at my belly and listened. He smiled.”I think I’ve got something for you,” he said. He took the stethoscope from his ears and gave it to me. After a while I heard a low, very faint sound, like drumming.
“What’s that?” I said. I said it stupidly, and he laughed.
“Give it a minute. It’ll come to you.”
I heard it steadily beating. My body had another pulse. It was a faraway sound of tapping, like two stones clapped together under water. It kept moving out of range, and I quickly got the feel of how to track it, moving the disc of the stethoscope this way and that. It was as strange to my ears as the first sound anyone ever heard.
So it had me. All the pulls of my body were different. I’d thought pregnancy was like wearing something heavy on your belly, like a strapped-on extra weight. But it was something else too, as if you don’t understand what gravity is, until it’s gotten inside you, and keeps pulling you down closer to the earth.
One day, in my seventh month, Dr. Mason left the examining room where I lay on the table with my feet in the stirrups. He returned with a lightweight mirror, about two feet square. He stepped up on the stool and held it above me.
“There’ll be a mirror like this in the delivery room,” he said. “I’m going to give you a pain block. You’ll feel it but you’ll be glad to have it. It’s a needle in the base of the spine.”
I said, “Are you kidding? My spine?”
“That’s the thing about a baby. It goes in a lot easier than it comes out. Look up here so we can go through this. When I get you in there, I don’t want any surprises.”
He kept holding up the mirror. He started telling me about a baby moving down the birth canal to be born, but saw I wasn’t paying attention. He got down and put the mirror against the wall and sighed.”What’s the matter?”
“I’m not having any shot in my spine,” I said.
“O. K. ,” he said. “Go downstairs and ask Mrs. Fleury what it feels like to have a baby.”
Edna Fleury was his secretary. She was 50 or 60. I said, “Mrs. Fleury hates me, she never talks to me.”
He picked up his phone and buzzed downstairs. Edna’s voice said, “What!”
“Miss Madeline Foss wants to know how it feels to have a baby.”
“Tell her for me, it felt like shitting a pumpkin.”
“Oh, great,” I said. But I hadn’t thought about that part yet. The idea that what was inside me was going to come out, to actually come out, was something I hadn’t yet gotten to.
I was having a baby. I picked up the phone and called Norma.”I’m all wet and it won’t stop,” I said.
Dr. Mason smelled like sweat. It was his gym morning. His legs were thin, white, and hairy below his hospital gown. He wore an old pair of Keds Pro white sneakers.
The room where they’d put me had gray walls. There were long yellow drapes, the color of mustard, hanging on the windows and between the cots. Dr. Mason had a surgical mask on, but hadn’t tied it on his mouth, and it hung down the side of his neck like an extra flap of skin.”You said there wasn’t a separate labor ward if you’re not married,” I said.
“Maddy. This is the regular ward, I swear.”
“Please get Norma. She’s waiting in the hall.”
The pain came in punches, and kept spreading. The labor room nurse went away but didn’t come back with Norma. She had a Tupperware container of cottage cheese, which she set on the table next to me. She said to Dr. Mason, “I’m on Weight Watchers again. Can you believe it?” Mixed in with the cottage cheese were bits of pineapple and sliced apples with the skin on. Buried inside was a wedge of chocolate cake. Some of the frosting had melted.
“If you go get the person who brought me in, I won’t tell anyone about your cake,” I said.
The pain changed shape and reared up, kind of bucking. I said, “If you let me go home now, I will give you my baby for free.”
Then they swung me up to the light. I could see the silver white light of the river in winter. I heard the whoosh of the water, as if I was having my baby on the dock.
“I have to go now,” I said. I had decided that I would slide out from under my belly and leave it. I’d go over to the other side of the room and watch it crack open like a duck’s egg.
“Maddy,” someone said. “Maddy, Maddy.”
I couldn’t answer because a tree had gotten into my room. There were sticks and leaves all over Mrs. Volk’s carpet. As soon as I cleaned up one batch, another fell.
“You put me to sleep. You bastard,” I said.
“You’re a mother,” said Dr. Mason. “You’ve got a girl. Do you want to see her? Or should I put her in my coat and bring her to Edna?”
The trunk of the tree opened. A woman stepped out of it. She was old. She had a gray lab coat on. Her skin was the same as gray bark. She had a pin on her chest that said “I Love Preemies.” Behind her was a crib, and in the crib was my baby.
She was already clean. Some other tongue had licked her. She was small. Her skin was mottled red here and there and lightly bristled with hair. Her eyes were shut tight. Her nose was a replica of a nose on the flat side, as if it hadn’t poked all the way through yet. In her backbone were bones that were smaller than marbles. Her mouth was pursed. Whiteblonde hair stood on end on a tiny round perfect pink head.
“I’ll be taking her to Preemies for a time,” the old nurse said.
“I want to kiss her,” I said.
But the old gray nurse leaned over the crib, with her bulky body all around it. She looked like a crow, when it’s sitting in a tree watching all that goes on with greedy eyes. If I could have gotten nearer, I thought, I would kick her or I would bite her.
I said to Dr. Mason, “I’m sorry I called you a bastard.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I’m sorry I told you I’d bring your baby to Edna.”
“In your coat,” I said.
“Get some sleep,” he said.
But I had been inching myself up, and now I gave myself a heave, as if I’d roll off the bed like a sack of potatoes. Dr. Mason came over and put his hand on my shoulder and said, “O.K.” Then he reached in the crib and picked up my baby. He carried her over to where I was slowly and carefully, as if his hands carried water. He held her up to my mouth, and I could hear myself how her heart ticked, and the very light sound of her breathing.