Nelle Fenton was in Florida visiting John, the oldest of her seven sons, when she received the terrible news that her youngest boy, Dudley, had eloped with Nelle’s housekeeper. The woman, Mildred Murphy, was low class, in Nelle’s opinion, and she was more than twenty years older than Dudley: seventy-three or four to Dudley’s fifty. The elopement was only technical. They had not run away. After a visit to the Justice of the Peace at the county courthouse, they had returned to Nelle’s Virginia farmhouse, where Dudley lived also.
It was New Year’s Day when Dudley called to tell her about this marriage.
“Take that woman and go,” Nelle ordered Dudley, while John and his wife Harriet paced nearby, extracting the news from Nelle’s side of the conversation. “I don’t want either of you there when I get back.”
Nelle handed the receiver to John and went outside to the half-dozen citrus trees that John and Harriet called the grove: two each of lemon, orange, and lime. Dudley had said, “I have some news, Mother, good news,” yet he must have known she would be outraged. Nelle reached up and touched the hanging fruits. They were never as brilliantly colored as they should be. She tore a lime from a branch and held it to her nose. The skin was not green, but a leathery yellow, and it smelled harsh. Nelle had been in Lake Worth for only a few days, yet already Christmas in Virginia seemed long ago. Her daughters-in-law had assembled Christmas dinner, for Mildred Murphy had declared she didn’t feel well and had taken to her bed. Now, Nelle saw that for the ploy it was. She remembered Dudley hovering furtively in the hallway near Mildred’s room. Oh, she’d known about their doings. She’d planned to fire Mildred as soon as she could find somebody else. It wasn’t easy hiring a housekeeper. That slattern was worse than nobody, though. On the job two months. On the make with Dudley.
Nelle’s mouth was completely dry, her heart wild.
She squeezed the lime until it burst between her fingers. Harriet came out of the house and said, “Oh, Mother F.! Here, let’s go inside,” as if it were cold, as if they were in a Virginia snowfall instead of this strange place with its sultry sun. Through the glass patio doors, Nelle saw John hang up the phone. She threw the mutilated lime to the ground and allowed Harriet to escort her back into the house. Harriet always dressed coquettishly, in tight dresses and high heels, unless she were flying, co-piloting the Cessna with John, in which case she became Amelia Earhart, in slacks, goggles, and scarves. They were childless, Harriet and John.
Nelle recalled that Mildred Murphy had offspring from some earlier marriage or liaison. Such women always did, and grandchildren too, garrulous, pitiful, threatening creatures who would slobber over Dudley, demanding money from him the rest of their lives. Nelle would ban them all from her house. She would get another dog. Yes, a ferocious one to live on the porch. Her poodles were for indoors, though they were not exactly friendly to strangers.
And Dudley was her favorite son. Had been. Until now.
“Let’s sit down and have some orange juice,” Harriet said. She took a carton from the refrigerator and poured juice into small glasses. John pulled out a chair for Nelle—a tiny, silly chair made of metal, with a red plastic seat—and she sat down. Their furniture belonged in a garden or an ice cream parlor, though John had retired a wealthy man from his airplane hangar business. He and Harriet put their money into cars, a new Cadillac for each. They took the house and the tiny citrus grove and themselves very seriously. Nelle didn’t think Harriet was sorry there were no children. John, maybe. He would have been a good father, never mind that he was twice divorced, Harriet his third wife.
“Mother F., what will you do?” Harriet said.
“Dudley said he doesn’t want you to feel bad,” said John. “Said they’ll live with one of her daughters until they can find a place of their own.”
They drank the juice. Nelle’s hands stank of the lime she had mangled. Mildred Murphy’s image came to her—greasy hair, glazed gaze. “She has cataracts,” Nelle announced.
“To think,” Harriet sputtered, “that they would do this, and behind your back.” Harriet was delighted by the chance to prove her allegiance to Nelle. Rivalry among daughters-in-law was normally something Nelle relished, but she could take no pleasure in Harriet’s show of loyalty.
John’s face went slack, his lower lip pendulous. Had he had a stroke? This was how horrors happened, not one at a time but in swift succession. John’s hand trembled. Then he reached for the carton and poured another glass of juice, and Nelle breathed again. Her oldest boy was just getting old.
John said, “He must have been drinking. I didn’t ask him. I didn’t have to.”
“Mildred is rather dreadful,” said Harriet.
How like Harriet to point out the obvious. Nelle’s thoughts were moving ahead of them to a point of resolve. She was in a war that she hadn’t seen coming, and everything she said and did, at this critical time, would be reported by John and Harriet to her other sons and their wives.
“I need to get back home,” she said.
John nodded. “We’ll go as soon as you’re ready.” He would have the Cessna prepared, would hand Nelle’s bags up to Harriet, see that they were settled, and bend to the controls of the plane with a mind that Nelle knew to be blank except for the necessities of flying. The thought of that blankness comforted her. It had always been airplanes and women for John, and cars.
Suddenly, Nelle couldn’t wait to get home, no matter that it would be icy and bleak all through January. It would still be beautiful, with deep snow around the fences and cedars, the air cold and silent and smelling of woodsmoke.
She could figure this out, about Dudley and this woman.
John and Harriet waited. They could tell there was something else. Nelle reached for her cane, rolling her palm over it as she sat there in her silly chair, almost ninety years old, a thousand miles from her house. Even now, the woman and Dudley were defying her. They might go back to bed, in Dudley’s room, knowing it would be at least tomorrow before Nelle could return. Or maybe Nelle’s own bed—but Dudley wouldn’t, even drunk, no matter what the old broad might say, wheedling, opening her dress.
On Christmas Day, when Mildred had stayed abed, Nelle had ordered her to call someone to come for her if she were ill, and the woman replied, “All their phone’s are cut off.” Planning it then, with Dudley stealthy in the hall. Folly, to leave them together, though the woman had lied that she’d be going to a daughter’s house the day Nelle departed.
“Mother F.,” said Harriet, “shall I help you pack?” Harriet’s face was so strained, Nelle was tempted to say, “Oh, go on and cry,” for Harriet was prim and dramatic. John would be busy the rest of the day, tending his mother and his wife.
Nelle decided she wouldn’t need any tending. She rapped her cane on the floor. “I will outlive her,” she said, and their heads snapped up.
“Well. Gee,” said Davy Dalton.
We had a deal. I wrote his papers for him; he listened to my stories. Since my own life was boring, I resorted to episodes from my grandmother’s past. She was the most dashing person I knew. The words, the feeling for her adventures, which I’d heard more from other family members than from my grandmother herself, would bubble up in my soul, only to come clunking out of my mouth like pieces of chalk. My grandmother and Dudley and Mildred lived eighty miles to the west in farm country which seemed farther away than it really was.
I had begged Davy for this arrangement: “Just give me a chance.” To make him love me, I meant. I had loved him for so long, ever since he moved to Glen Allen in the third grade.
Recently, there had been assignments on heraldry and foreign currency. I’d written terrific papers for him on those topics. This one, for our eighth-grade Health class, was on head lice. He got B+’s on the forged papers. He would never get A’s, simply because the papers said Davy Dalton at the top.
I copied the final draft onto clean paper, slanting my writing so it resembled his backhand. “Now ask,” I said. He was required to ask three questions about each of my tales.
Davy sighed. We sat at his kitchen table, which bore scabs of dried scrambled eggs. To kiss him, I would have to back him into a corner. There were too many doors in his kitchen. At any minute, his sister or brother or parents might burst in. Even in a corner, it wouldn’t be safe to kiss, and he’d never seemed to want to kiss me.
“Okay,” Davy said. “What’s a Cessna? A plane?”
“Yes, a little bitty one. My uncle John likes to fly it. Aunt Harriet can fly, too.”
Davy yawned. Wouldn’t my sophistication win him? Did he understand this scandal for what it was? The charwoman, my mother called Mildred.
“So did she outlive that other lady?”
“My grandmother’s fine. Mildred is still around, but she’s sick a lot. My grandmother forgave my uncle Dudley, but she still won’t let Mildred in the house.”
Davy reached for the essay, saying, “Lemme write my name on it.”
I jerked it away from him, holding it high. “You have to ask one more question.”
Again he sighed, and I knew a fear that other men would sigh and want me to leave.
“So is everybody in your family like, really old? How come your grandmother is ninety-something? My grammaw’s not nearly that old.”
“I’m proud she’s old. People can have babies when they’re in their forties. Anyway, that’s not a good question. Don’t you see,” I said. “It was all about sex. Seduction.”
I threw the paper on the table. Davy smiled. “That’s a right good story, Edie.”
“You could ask a thousand questions about that story, if you bothered to be curious. As a matter of fact, I think my uncle’s pretty happy with Mildred.”
Davy blinked. He had his mother’s eyes, capable of great grief. I feared his mother. She worked at the post office, and during her breaks, she stood outside in the parking lot, smoking hard. Davy said, “I bet you’re gonna be a teacher. You act like one.”
I played my ace. My grandmother had raised horses until she grew too old to ride, and I knew a little of the lore. “Do you know what to do if you’re riding a horse and it bolts?”
“You mean, like this?” Davy slapped his palms together in a sliding motion.
“You ride in a spiral, in littler circles till you get to the middle, and then it’ll stop.”
“Okay,” Davy said. He laughed at me.
I tried to slam the door as I went out, but it was a humid October night, and the swollen door stuck in its frame. In the Daltons’ dark backyard, a mosquito shrilled. Being at their house was a great risk. I had told my mother I would be at Cathy Collier’s house, when in fact Cathy Collier and I hadn’t been friends since the fifth grade. I went home.
“Don’t think of her as some grand, romantic figure,” my mother once said to me about my grandmother, her mother-in-law. “She exaggerates everything. She’s very selfish.”
And gets away with it, I could have said, as I intended to get away with it.
Years went by. Davy Dalton’s mother, Janice, was still working at the post office. There she’d be in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes on her breaks. By then, I was seventeen, and I knew my life would be better than Janice’s, that my face wouldn’t look as if I’d always been crying. Davy was still in school, but he took dummy math and dummy English, the kind kids took when they had no plans for college. He’d had many girlfriends. His steady was a pretty pop-eyed blonde whose family attended the same church mine did. Her daddy owned a car dealership.
Davy was a commotion in the hallway, a topic of gossip, his name a whoop on girls’ lips. He even broke the hearts of girls who had graduated and were working as cashiers and bank tellers, grownups who should have known better than to mess with him.
One day, I went to the post office to mail a letter, on foot, though I had my driver’s license by then. Sometimes it was easier to walk rather than to argue with my mother that I was a safe driver. I dropped the letter in the box—it was a birthday card for my grandmother. As the metal box clacked, Janice looked up and called to me.
“Edie! I remember you. You used to help Davy,” she said, “with his papers.”
“Oh, he didn’t need much help,” I said, my old loyalty surging back.
I realized Janice knew I wrote the papers myself. “Come see us,” she said.
It was a raw day, getting on to darkness. She was younger than I am now, yet she seemed old and finished, the way I was too old by then for Davy, and through with him.
Except I wasn’t. Davy’s scarred boots clattering down the high school steps, the back of his curly head glimpsed through the door of the shop studio—thoughts of him came to me one morning soon after I’d seen his mother. There had been a heavy snow, and school was closed. For one day, time would stand still.
I went to the Daltons’ house, praying Davy was there by himself, counting on that, for I was on a mission—to lose my virginity. When he answered the door, he grinned, deep and sly. He needed to shave, but I didn’t care. My mission took only fifteen minutes in Davy’s room, his bed. Davy was so accustomed to sex. Already, he had his own patterns, which he explained as we proceeded: “Now you do this, and I’ll go like this.” His voice was matter-of-fact.
Afterwards, we watched TV in the den. Then, with a great bumbling and clatter at the door, his father came home sick from his job at a cabinet factory, acting not the least bit surprised to find me there—a girl unknown to him. “Could you fix me some tea?” he said, sneezing. I did, and he accepted a mug from my hand as if he’d done that a million times.
The man’s exhaustion registered on me. I saw that this was an ordinary day to him, that in a few weeks or months, he would not remember coming home early. That was how it would be with a husband—a man coming home, expecting to find you in his house where you belonged, not even looking up as he took a mug of tea from your hand.
“That mug is chipped,” I said, trying to make him glance at me. “Don’t cut your mouth.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” he said.
“Do you want sugar? Or honey? That’s good for a cold.”
“No, that’s okay,” he said.
Davy’s little brother and sister came home from playing in the snow, cheeks red, asking for lunch. Before I knew it, I was heating up canned ravioli and dishing the food out to them on the only plates I could find, paper ones creased and linty from the drawer where Janice kept kitchen towels and packets of ketchup. Davy took the pot off the stove and went to eat the rest of the ravioli in front of the TV. There wasn’t any left for me.
Davy’s little brother asked me to mend his shirt. It was too thin, but it was the brightest color I’d seen all winter. He had ravioli on his chin. I found a needle and thread and patched the shirt. These people would keep me busy for the rest of my life. Janice didn’t get home from the post office until after dark. She looked lively, as if whatever sorrow had assailed her in the parking lot was gone.
“You and Davy doing homework?” she asked with a tight smile. She knew about the sex. “Stay for supper,” she said.
I did stay. Called my mother, again with my alibi of being at Cathy Collier’s house, though Cathy Collier had long since moved away. During a meal of Spaghettios and raisin bread, Davy’s little brother fell asleep, his sister tried to paint my fingernails, Davy wouldn’t look me in the eye, and his mother talked about shutters. Davy’s father didn’t eat with us. He was somewhere in the back of the house, coughing.
That cough worried me. It was deep and harsh.
“Green,” Janice was saying. “Green shutters, because this house is red. Don’t you think so, Edie?”
I said, “I think your husband might be really sick. He’s gotten worse, just since I’ve been here. He ought to go to the doctor.”
Janice looked up sharply, as if accused. “He’s fine.” She paused. “You’re the only girl at the school named Edith,” she said, light as a slap.
“It’s a family name,” I said. Her husband coughed again, and a voice in my head said, Get out. Get out before you catch it, too.
Janice stared at me, her face a dare: You’re in our midst. Explain yourself.
I told Janice that green shutters would be nice. Before I went home, I washed all of the dishes. Nobody thanked me or said goodbye when I let myself out the door. I knew I was not pregnant. It had felt good, what Davy and I had done together—the embraces, the clumsy connecting—good enough that I wanted to repeat it, though the wish wasn’t urgent.
Overnight, the snow melted. I escaped Mr. Dalton’s illness. But something had started in me, a welter of concern not for Davy but for his father, whose feverish fingers had brushed mine as I handed him the chipped mug of tea. I couldn’t remember his face except for the dull fear in his eyes, the look people have when they know they’re getting sick.
Davy wasn’t at school the morning after the snow day. At lunch time, I called his house, using the pay phone at school. Davy answered. “Yello?” he said, and I knew he’d picked that up from his mother, that Janice would be a yello person too.
“It’s Edie,” I said. “I wanted to know if…” and my voice trailed off. I didn’t know how to say it, this worry about his father.
“If we can do it again?” Davy asked. “Sometime, sure. I’m busy today. My dad’s sick, remember, and Mom made me stay home with him.” In the background, I heard the TV.
“Could I talk to him?” I asked.
Davy was silent for a long time. “You’re crazy,” he said. “That’s what my mom said.” He hung up.
Mr. Dalton had severe bronchitis, I learned from the school grapevine. So I took food to their house and left it on the back porch, food I bought with my allowance or fixed when my mother wasn’t home, so that she wouldn’t know I’d made a double batch of stew or brownies, serving half to our family and toting the rest to the Daltons. My obsession grew, never mind that Mr. Dalton was forty-eight and I was seventeen. I stood outside the Daltons’ house at night, in the dark, until Janice called my parents to come get me. Mr. Dalton never came out of his house, all those evenings when I stood across the street and stared up at the windows or crouched in the backyard, my chin resting on my knees. It wasn’t a crush. I was afraid he would die. I was the only one who could save him, and I did it by watching over him, in the long spring of senior year. There were conferences at school, involving my parents and the principal, and on those evenings, I stayed home and worked on college applications. I wrote about helping a family get rid of head lice, about leaving food for them anonymously. The essay worked: I got into William and Mary.
But it wasn’t Mr. Dalton who died. By graduation day, he was recovered, hale and hearty, and I could relax about him. A few days later, Davy was playing in a softball game at my church. He ran backwards, reaching for a pop fly, showing off for the big-eyed blonde, who by then was known to be pregnant with his baby and who sat on the top row of the bleachers, shielding her eyes against the hard white sky that foretold a thunderstorm. A lightning bolt flashed so close I blinked, and thunder sounded deep as the peal of a giant bell.
Davy crumpled onto the grass. He’d been struck by lightning.
While people raced toward him, his girlfriend stayed on the bleachers. Then some realization hit her, and she crawled down the risers. Rain started, heavy and drenching.
Later, as my mother iced a cake for the Dalton family, I said, “Davy doesn’t even go to our church. He was there because of his girlfriend.”
My mother had used a mix for the cake, though she disparaged mixes. A mix meant the Daltons were beneath her. “Here, take this over to them.”
“I can’t.” I could never take food to the Daltons again.
The lightning storm that had killed Davy had ushered in a cold front, so my mother put on her coat before she went out, her eyes meeting mine in the hall mirror. The cake’s almond flavored icing, at least, was made from scratch. Once I was alone, I would lick the bowl.
Rumors were flying, and it seemed that they reached me even as I sat in the kitchen, eating the sweet white icing: Davy’s girlfriend lost the baby. Davy predicted his own death that very morning, in a joke. Four out of five people struck by lightning were potheads, because pot attracted electricity. Davy was a pothead; that was the only part that was true.
Davy’s girlfriend gave birth to a daughter. Now that the daughter is grown, people ask them, “Are y’all sisters?” and the identical blondes smile, their eyes blue globes. They run the car dealership together. Sales are in the millions, the gazillions. You’ll glimpse the yellow heads out on the car lot in all weather, see the sapphire eyes streak by on test drives. I’ve heard the daughter laugh, and it’s Davy’s chuckle coming out of her mouth. I’ve seen her run backwards to catch a set of car keys her mother throws her, just a step or two, but I know where the girl got that heedless reverse sprint. She wears high scarred boots when the weather turns cold: Davy’s, though I can’t be sure.
My grandmother died just before I left for college, and her house and land and all her prized barns were amicably sold by my father and his brothers. My uncle Dudley took her dogs home with him, the single surviving poodle and a mastiff that had shown up on the property one day and for which my grandmother had real affection. “I need company,” Dudley said as he led the dogs away.
By senior year at William and Mary, I was engaged to a boy so rich his parents were building him his own clinic, where presumably he would join his father in practice as soon as he finished med school. First, of course, he had to get in to medical school. That was his worry, not mine. I hardly thought about Chuck except on Friday nights, when he’d pull up behind my sorority house in his new sports car, ready for me to go to a motel with him. I’d be waiting, my suitcase packed, a hard-sided Samsonite of my mother’s. A pocket in the suitcase was stained with dried red nail enamel, my mother’s, from some excursion she had taken during World War II. I pointed it out to Chuck, hoping he’d ask for the story, but he just shrugged.
My sorority took up lots and lots of my time.
During Rush Week, in September, I invented a skit: I was a surgeon, with a flashlight tied to my head, saying to rushees: “If you want to join any sorority but this one, you ought to have your brain examined,” at which point my roommate, lying on her bed, would roll her eyes and flop out her tongue. I reached under her pillow and lifted up a handful of raw ground beef. Rushees screamed. We got the best pledge class in history.
Chuck was short and fat. By spring, I’d had all the candlelight ceremonies that Chi Omega could give me—one for getting pinned, one for getting lavaliered, another for getting engaged. Spring already, yet the only med school that had accepted Chuck was one on a Caribbean island, for frauds, for quacks, people too dumb to get into a real medical school. Chuck did not despair. His parents would build the clinic no matter what, and a string would be pulled on his behalf, some string he didn’t have to concern himself with.
In spring semester, I developed a habit of detaining people on the graceful staircase inside the Chi O house. I, who had always been quiet, changed into somebody who was adept at not letting people go. I told myself that I would talk just until time for class, would give myself a few minutes to rush to the lecture hall, yet with an audience caught in my snare—a pledge, a cleaning lady, a friend ready to renounce me for my capacity to block and bore—I went on and on. My diamond engagement ring was so heavy I could hardly lift my hand from the banister. Girls couldn’t resist the ring, were stranded, blinded by it, while my monologue made them late for class, dates, club meetings, job interviews. I knew I was becoming a joke, that girls commiserated about me.
Yet as long as I was on the steps, stalling, it couldn’t be Friday evening with Chuck waiting; it had to be a weekday, a weeknight, with time standing still. I told again the stories of my grandmother, and more of them came back to me. She had been bitten by a copperhead in her garden, had raised her arm with the snake still hanging. Her doctor was summoned. He ordered her to drink coffee and walk up and down her yard, so as not to fall asleep. Sleep after a snakebite would be deadly.
I shook my arm, invisible snake attached, and girls covered their mouths in horror. I told about my uncle Dudley and his elopement, and the long war that played out in the midst of the family.
And Davy Dalton and the papers I wrote for him: I explained how I made conversation with his mother about shutters. I was clever enough to ask my listeners an occasional question: have you ever seen a person get hit by lightning? That story made impatient listeners become, for a moment, rapt. None of them had gone to the high school Davy and I had attended. His unusual demise, though word of it had probably appeared in newspapers all across Virginia, was not anything they remembered.
To speak of my grandmother’s troubles or my uncle’s choice of a wife or Davy’s death was to trespass on graves, yet I told myself that what I felt was daring, not shame.
Being engaged to Chuck meant spending a lot of time with his mother, she of a Cape Buffalo hairdo and expensive clothing, every garment lined with silk or satin, a genteel armor. She took me to brunch, just the two of us, at the Cascades or the Williamsburg Inn, and wrote out for me Chuck’s favorite recipe: a dip made with cream cheese, dried beef, green pepper, and curry, which you wouldn’t think would be good but was, in fact, delicious. She took me shopping in Richmond, at Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimer’s, set up a bank account for me with a monthly allowance, and confided in me about interviewing potential secretaries for her husband, the challenges of choosing the ugliest one who was nonetheless competent. “It does no good,” she declared, hunched over the wheel of her Mercedes. “He could fall in love with a toad.”
I lined up six girls to serve as my bridesmaids. Chuck’s family, not mine, was paying for the wedding, at his mother’s insistence. Twice, I got out of the motel weekends by pleading early morning fittings for my wedding gown.
My arms were longer than Chuck’s. That bothered me. Yet the sex was at least as good as my initiation had been, with Davy Dalton a million years earlier. And I loved the continental breakfasts at the motels where we stayed—free doughnuts and coffee. Sometimes, there were iced pastries every bit as good as the dessert table at the Cascades brunch. Chuck gained weight. He would have his tux let out, he announced.
I despaired. The Chi Omegas had given me all they could. There were no more candlelights that I qualified for. There was nothing to do but join his mother’s garden club and start drinking. Spring Break came and went. Still, it was only March, the balmy Tidewater spring that lured girls to the roofs of dorms and sorority houses to start their tans. Only March: it was weeks, months even, until graduation and my June wedding. I cut class to go shopping, writing checks on Chuck’s mother’s money for silver bracelets and fresh fudge. Chuck’s mother took me to her dermatologist, who got rid of my freckles once and for all.
Meanwhile, my roommate fell in love with a man who came to fix our ceiling fan. She moved out and married him. By then, it was April, but there were still faculty teas to go to, the Pan-Hellenic Easter egg hunt, and the annual Spring Fling that required the mixing of gallons of alcoholic punch in new plastic garbage cans. As long as there were events, rituals, I was safe. I had time. Chuck buzzed around me lackadaisically, a slow, fat fly that wouldn’t mind being swatted. I said so to my sorority sisters. Suddenly, I was funny. That was Chuck’s gift to me, others’ laughter. I confessed that during the ceremonies for lavaliered, engaged, I’d wondered if Chuck would let me squeeze the blackheads on his nose. The girls howled. And did he? they asked. “Yes,” I said, “he’s like an old pet.” Even as I made fun, I could have wept for how short his forearms were, how childlike his cries during nightmares. He dreamed about leaving things inside patients after surgery: a towel, a pair of scissors.
Beach Week: Chuck was out of town, interviewing at a med school where his parents had pulled a string. Five girls piled into my Pinto and headed for Virginia Beach, where we shared a room at the Mar-Jac. I stayed out all night dancing with sailors from the Navy base, got back to the room at dawn, and lay down on the only available space on the floor. The carpet smelled of old socks. Outside, waves heaved on the sand. Only a final wine and cheese party stood between me and Commencement, after which there would be a decorous reception at the sorority house for parents, grandparents, and siblings, and then my life would be over.
My married, pregnant, former roommate graduated with honors, striding across the stage beaming, rumored to be naked beneath her black crepe gown. Back at the house, during that decorous reception, I locked myself in my room and turned on the TV. A hurricane was brewing in the Atlantic. I lay back on my bed with the windows open, the hot, still air all around me. My wedding gown was waiting at the best bridal shop in Norfolk, enough tulle and lace to clothe a parade of fairy queens. I turned down the sound on the TV and watched a diagram of the hurricane swirl silently across the screen: my wedding dress, white and spinning. The storm would hit the coast that very night, flattening the new clinic Chuck’s parents were building for him.
By day’s end, my parents had packed my things into my Pinto and their Pontiac. We would caravan. They were outside the sorority house, waiting for me. The house was empty except for Chuck and me. We sat on the sofa in the living room, which looked so small, I couldn’t imagine how the entire sorority had ever held meetings there, much less the candlelight ceremonies at which I was the star. “I just don’t love you,” Chuck said. I took off the ring and handed it to him, heavy as a lock. Outside, my father honked the horn. Chuck stood up and walked out the door. I had ridden my runaway horse in a spiral, making the circles tighter and tighter, until it stopped dead center. Daddy was honking the horn, and time had run out.
My parents announced they were hungry, so we would go out to eat. Every restaurant around Williamsburg overflowed with graduates and their families—the fancy sit-down places, the cafeterias, the seafood shacks, the hamburger stands—so we drove all the way to Richmond and stopped at a new eatery decorated to look like a barn, the walls festooned with hoes and scythes and lanterns. The waiters and waitresses wore denim overalls, calico shirts, and straw hats. “Old MacDonald” played on loudspeakers. We sipped ice water from Mason jars.
“This is silly,” my father said.
My mother sometimes answered him in bird calls. That day, she was a cardinal. “Cee-dric, ceedric, ceedric,” she caroled and ordered roast beef from the startled waiter. We all did: roast beef with mashed potatoes.
My mother was convinced that the food we were served, which took so long to arrive, was not roast beef but horse meat.
She would fuss about horse meat for that entire summer, when I felt my life was over, because I was still living at home with my parents and the only job I could find was selling shoes at the department store where Chuck’s mother had canceled my charge account.
“Horse meat,” my mother said that evening at the barn-style restaurant, her face white as she poked at the food on her plate. “This gravy doesn’t fool me.” She cast a furious eye at the washboards and feed buckets suspended from the walls and ceiling. I told my parents about the broken engagement. My mother said, “You didn’t love Chuck, so you haven’t lost anything.”
My father said, “Jean, that’s not true. She did lose something.” To me, he said, “Your mother and I are getting a divorce. We wanted you to get through exams before we told you.”
“Oh,” I said, my stomach numb. Divorce.
“What’ll you do next?” my father asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
My mother said, “You’ll dream the dream everybody has after they graduate, about being late for a test.”
She was right, of course. In that dream, I wander lost in the Sunken Garden, the emerald-green expanse in the center of campus. I tell my mother about that dream, now that I’m forty-five and she’s almost eighty, and she says, “You can’t get lost in the Sunken Garden. It’s just a great big rectangle of grass, with trees around it.”
“It’s a dream,” I say.
Sometimes, she still responds in bird calls, and now I can’t tell if it’s her illness or the sense of humor that was always sharper and more oblique than anybody else’s, as keen as her sense of grievance. “Pee-wee,” she says.
“Mama,” I say, “you know I love you.”
My tiny poison heart has opened up, and my mother is there in the center of it, she and my father.
That night at the barn restaurant, she said to my father and me, “Eat this meat at your own peril.”
My father signaled the waiter, who wiped his hands nervously on his overalls as he approached our table. “My wife wants to send her food back to the kitchen,” my father said. “She thinks it’s horse meat.”
The waiter’s mouth fell open. He sputtered, “Oh, no sir, no ma’am, it’s prime beef.”
“Never mind,” my mother said, pushing her plate away. “You can dump this out the back door for varmints to eat. I don’t care. But I would like some dessert.”
“It’s on the house.” The waiter’s scared little smile made me want to hug him.
“Bring me some pie,” my mother said, in a voice that indicated many things—decent pie was probably not available in this establishment; pie was something you could reach for when you had been persecuted and duped. The waiter brought a slice of butterscotch pie for each of us. My mother pronounced it gelatinous and set down her fork, but my father and I ate all of ours.
My mother would tell the story of the horse meat a hundred times in the years to come, her indignation flourishing. That meal was every injustice ever done to her. The ornamental washboards and feed buckets found their place in her tales, and the waiter who wiped his hands on his overalls. “Those filthy jeans,” she said.
She and my father stayed together. After the horse meat episode, divorce was never mentioned again. What saved that marriage? At thirteen, writing essays for Davy Dalton, I could have figured it out. At twenty-one, with class starting in seven minutes, I could have explained it to my restless audience, some sweet-natured girl from Poquoson or Wytheville, or a sophisticate from Alexandria or Arlington, before my captive broke free and dashed out the door.
Girls must have groaned with relief, escaping me, heaving great exhalations as they crossed Richmond Road, then bee-lining toward the Sunken Garden, long as a football field, smelling of crape myrtle and boxwood. You looked up through the trees on its embankments and glimpsed people rushing by, while the garden was hushed, its thick turf muffling sounds. Maybe my sorority sisters lingered there, seizing a long afternoon.
I’m not like that any more. I’d rather do anything than delay somebody. You have to work, now, to make me say more than a few words. That’s what happens: you grow older, and your brain feels like a lump of ground beef lifted from your pillow. For a long time, my sorority sisters and I would call each other up and say, “I don’t know what to do with myself.” What we meant was, My husband’s having an affair, or I’m pregnant again, or I just can’t stand it anymore, and a rescue plan would be figured out: lunch and shopping. Or we’d go over to St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry made his speech, and we’d knock back a sherry and do gravestone rubbings, calling out, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Then we’d head back to the Fan District or Windsor Farms and get out the Jack Daniels, never mind that it was five o’clock in the afternoon, with husbands and families needing our attention. Always five o’clock at a beautiful house, and heat lightning in the sky and rain on dark streets by the time I got in my car to go home.
It was way too close to the life Chuck’s mother had planned for me. All that was missing was Chuck, who skipped med school, went into politics, and is now a big-time legislator, so neutral on issues that he’s re-elected time and again. “Aren’t you sorry, Edie?” the girls used to ask me, only half teasing. “Sorry you let him go?”
That was our twenties, our thirties, and then I dropped out.
So I tend to my mother. I’m about half the age my grandmother was when she started on the great war of her life. I have no children. Won’t ever get a call from a son saying, “I have some news, Mother. Good news.”
“I knew all along she would win,” I used to tell my sorority sisters, there on the steps. I hoped they would ask: How long did her hands smell of that lime she squeezed? Did she get a dog for her porch? What kind? That war with her daughter-in-law, did it mean as much to her by the time she won it?
Now I could answer them. Her hands smelled like lime forever. The gray mastiff limped up her long driveway and decided he was home, and she loved him so much, it changed her heart. And the war, well, for all I know, in her last days, she called it off.