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The Uses of Enchantment: A Novelby Heidi Julavits
What Might Have Happened
NOVEMBER 7, 1985
The following might have happened on a late-fall afternoon in the Boston suburb of West Salem. The afternoon in question was biting enough to suggest the early possibility of snow. The cloud cover made it seem later than the actual time of 3:35 p.m.
The girl was one of many girls in field hockey skirts, sweatpants, and ski shells, huddled together in the green lean-to emblazoned with Semmering Academy's scripted S. It had rained all morning and all afternoon; though the rain had temporarily ceased, the playing field remained a patchwork of brown grass and mud bordered by a rain-swept chalk line. Last month a Semmering wing had torn an ankle tendon in similarly poor conditions, but the referee refused to call the game until 4 p.m. because the preparatory school extracurricular activities rules and regulations handbook stipulated that "sporting events shall not be canceled due to weather until one hour past the official start time."
At 3:37, the rain recommenced. The girls whined and shivered while Coach Betsy glowered beneath the brim of her umass crew baseball cap. These girls were not tough girls and they had little incentive, given their eight-game losing streak, to endure a rainy November afternoon.
At 3:42, the girl asked Coach Betsy if she could be excused to the field house. The girl did not say, but she implied that she had her period. Coach Betsy nodded her reluctant permission. The girl departed from the lean-to, unnoticed by her teammates.
Rain pattered over the grass as the girl traversed the empty field, her cleats suctioning in and out of the mud. She did not hurry. The man, she knew, would wait for her. Every afternoon the man parked across the street from the cemetery where she and her friends escaped after lunch to smoke cigarettes. At first they thought he was an undercover cop or a truant officer, someone hired by their headmaster Miss Pym to keep tabs on their forbidden roaming during school hours. But the man's car, a 1975 gray Mercedes, rendered this suspicion unlikely. He'd since been downgraded to probable pervert and treated by the girls as their mascot, rallying proof of their irresistibility. The girl made sure to pause each day in his line of vision to adjust her knee sock, or swing her Semmering-issue skirt around so that the rear knife pleats snapped back and forth like a school of fish when she walked. She had noticed that, as the weeks of fall progressed, as the trees became more and more naked and the humid tropical haze over the cemetery thinned to an astringent veneer, the man stopped watching in his non-watching way the anonymous passing of girls and focused on one girl in particular.
This should have been thrill enough.
The girl entered the new field house. She meandered down the empty halls with their long fluorescent tube lighting and glassed-in trophy cases, she pushed through the swinging olive-green door into the olive-green locker room with the olive-green tiles and the pervasive smell of pink hand soap. She stood in front of the mirror. She applied some lip balm but otherwise did nothing to improve her appearance. She was wet, she was bedraggled, and like all teenagers after a halfhearted day of French, trigonometry, study hall, drama, field hockey, she was in desperate need of a ride and a greasy meal, two very innocent things to want, even from a stranger.
She spun her locker combination, she propped her field hockey stick inside her locker and removed her book bag. Then she changed her mind, replacing her book bag, removing her stick. On her way toward the front doors of the field house, she stopped in front of the thirty-foot-long mural dominating the lobby. Miss Pym and the Semmering trustees, after securing the funds for the new field house, had announced a mural contest in which "entries should illustrate, with reference to our area's rich past, the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of New England women." The winning mural depicted women being chased by tomahawk-wielding Indians and women tied to stakes, their skirt hems blotted by flames fanning upward from crudely rendered piles of logs. The clouds above the heads of the soon-to-be-scalped-or-burned women transformed, with a little squinting and very little imagination, into faces that surveyed the scene with expressions commonly interpreted as enthusiasm. To the handful of actively feminist teachers at Semmering, these possibly enthusiastic clouds were read as a perverse endorsement of injustice against women by the school's trustees, who "noted" their complaint as a way to actively ignore it. The mural's official title--The Disappearing Women--was all but unknown among the student body, who referred to the thirty-foot wall painting as The Grin-and-Bear-It Mural; to them it aptly summed up the way they had been taught to approach the world by parents and teachers: to keep their sadness to themselves even as they were materially spoiled in this suburban enclave with its lurid history of torment.
The girl walked past The Grin-and-Bear-It Mural, heart beating at an average pace, the disappearing women gazing down at her with their irisless eyes. She exited the field house and walked three blocks north to the cemetery. She saw the man's gray Mercedes parked near the stone archway, the engine running, windshield wipers chick-chocking back and forth. The rain had increased its intensity, the patter giving way to pelting drops that formed puddles and then rivers as the water slooshed toward the leaf-clogged drains. The girl took her time. Water dripped from her nose and her chin and the hem of her skirt, soaking a perfect dark line across the thighs of her sweatpants. Her cleats made squinching noises as she walked. So little light seeped through the clouds at 3:59 p.m. that the streetlamps buzzed and ignited.
She sidled next to the Mercedes. By the car's interior light she could see the man's head bent over his newspaper. His hair fell longer than the collar of his scruffy trench coat and this slight unkemptness suggested that he was not indispensable to any job or anyone. The girl had decided that he was a banker or possibly a doctor but an undedicated one; she'd decided that he had enough family money that his profession was simply a decent way to keep his days occupied. There were plenty of men like this in her town; he was an identifiable and harmless type.
The girl paused in the ambient light shining through the Mercedes's window, illuminated, she imagined, like a beguiling specter.
The man pretended not to see her. How coy, she thought. It increased her fondness for him, the fact that he was treating this abduction like a formal courtship. Using the upturned goose head of her field hockey stick, she tapped on the glass.
The man stared at her. He reached over his newspaper to roll down the window.
The girl leaned into the car. She smelled old cigarette smoke and damp carpets. Close up, the man appeared more tired, more old, more possibly crazy.
She coughed, momentarily unsettled by the fact that this man might not be who she'd imagined him to be. She clamped her neck with the U formed by her thumb and forefinger the way her mother did when talking to someone she disliked at a cocktail party, squeezing her fingers tightly around her own throat.
The girl asked if he had a dime.
For the pay phone, she explained. Her ride had left without her, and home was too far a walk in the rain.
He responded with cautious politeness, which she read as bewildered gratitude to some unspecified higher power that this girl should walk into a trap he had yet to even set.
I'll drive you home, he said.
He unlocked the passenger-side door, sprung the latch.
The girl scurried through his headlights. She paused on the curb as the opposing team's athletic bus drove by--it was 4:05 by Semmering's steeple clock and the game had finally been postponed--to ensure that somebody might witness her getting into the car. Just in case, she dropped her field hockey stick into the gutter where it would be recovered and remarked upon by journalists and police, family, friends, teachers. She grasped the door handle and experienced a fleeting sensation of fear, an electrical charge that caused her fingers to retract into a self-protective claw. She imagined, because she was dramatically inclined, that the handle was burning hot; that her body was on fire; that she was immolating from within and her cells were being set individually ablaze because she, too, fancied herself to be a disappearing woman, her eyes a blank white stare.
NOVEMBER 8, 1999
Once again, Mary Veal found herself the aggressively unnoticed guest at a tense social gathering at the house on Rumney Marsh. Once again, she wore a hand-me-down wool dress that itched horribly and smelled like a closet; her father was nowhere to be seen; the punch bowl provided the conversational focal point. Once again, her sisters were snubbing her. Once again, the hors d'oeuvres were lame.
Mum's funeral notwithstanding, she reflected, it felt just like old times.
From behind her plaid wingback redoubt, she watched as her older sister, Regina, ruddy hair yanked flat by a headband and thinner than her usual thin, listlessly orbited the downstairs. Her younger sister, Gaby, hunched on the piano bench, wearing a tight navy pantsuit that made her look like a down-and-out real estate agent. Gaby picked vacantly at her paper plate of grapes and salmon mousse Triscuits. She appeared, Mary thought, in need of an awkward social encounter with an estranged family member.
A wary Gaby clocked Mary's approach with her green-brown Mum eyes.
"Nice suit," Mary offered.
"Mum's," Gaby said through a mouthful of grape.
"It fits you," Mary said. She fingered the empty candy dish atop the piano, its circumference encircled by a green ribbon.
This elicited no response from Gaby.
"Except for the pants. And the jacket."
"Hmmppphh," said Gaby.
"It fits nicely around the wrists," Mary said.
The two of them wordlessly observed the arriving guests clot into special-interest groups around the punch bowl: Mum's sister, Helen, and their handful of local cousins; Mum's historical society co-workers; Mum's Wellesley College Alumnae Association friends; Mum's former Semmering Academy PTA colleagues. The wake felt uncomfortably overseen from the mantel by Mum herself, her ashes stowed in a Laotian dung vase forced upon them by Aunt Helen and flanked by two florist arrangements of pussy willows and weedy-looking filler plants.
Regina completed one last enervated rotation and dropped onto the piano bench beside Gaby. She folded her legs and coiled her left foot around her right ankle, a holdover gesture from adolescence; she'd claimed once to Mary that this tourniquet pose helped to stave off weight gain, at least in the leg area, which seemed about as reasonable as believing in the slimming powers of the electric massage belt.
Mary remained determined to forge an emotional connection with her sisters.
"How about that sermon?" Mary said, referring to Reverend Whittemore's selection from the New Testament--For one believes he can eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables--offered, she suspected, as biblical proof that their mother's subsistence diet of white wine and pickles had been a more decisive element in her demise than the melanoma.
"He reads that sermon at every funeral," Regina said. "Once he called the dead person, who was a man, 'Beloved Phyllis.' "
"Do you remember in junior choir how Reverend Whittemore smelled like embalming fluid?" Regina said. "The old perv was always hugging me after we sang 'Praise Him! Praise Him!' saying, 'How the heavens applaud you my dear!' "
"Blick," Gaby said through shards of Triscuit.
"At least Aunt Helen almost made it through her poem without crying," Mary said. She didn't mention Regina's poem, written specifically for Mum's funeral. The most truthful response she could muster, as she and Regina and Gaby waited for Dad to bring the car around after the service, had been: "It was so brave of you to read that."
"Or plugging her herbal grief tea," Regina said.
"I thought Healthy Acceptance filed for bankruptcy," Mary said.
"Dad bailed her out, which is why we have seventeen cases of grief tea in the attic," Regina said. "Where have you been? Oh right. You were out West."
"When Aunt Helen cries," Mary said, ignoring the dig, "I wonder how anyone could ever appear convincingly sad."
"Which I guess explains why you didn't even bother to try," Regina said. "Gaby, where did you get that awful suit?"
"Mum's closet," Gaby said. "Is grief tea supposed to make you feel grief or make you not feel it?"
"Not feel grief," Mary said dully. "I think."
"That's not Mum's suit," Regina said. "Mum hated navy."
Gaby turned her suit coat inside out to reveal a green ribbon tied to the dry clean only tag. Their father had donated the house's contents to the historical society for auctioning and an overly apologetic volunteer had come around the previous day to tag the desirable items with ribbons. To be safe, the volunteer had overdone the job, or maybe, given she knew the wake was to be held at 34 Rumney Marsh, she saw herself doubling as decorator for the occasion. All four legs of the couch were adorned with ribbon, both andirons, both candlesticks, the lamp bases and the lamp shades and even the spare box of light bulbs, every individual kitchen item (eggbeater, potato masher, potato peeler, wine key), the collection of circa 1979-1983 Association of Descendants of the American Witch newsletters stacked beneath the rattan coffee table.
"So," Regina said, "speaking of not feeling grief, has anyone checked on Dad recently?"
"I'll go," Mary offered, relieved to escape the hostile tedium of her sisters' company; it depressed her too intensely and made her feel abrased by an all-body loneliness. In the three years since Mary and Regina and Gaby had been together in the same room, nothing had changed. She tried to rekindle the heart-wrenching warmth she'd imagined feeling toward her sisters as she walked down the airplane exit ramp to their teary reunion, but instead found herself irked by Regina's self-centered prickliness and Gaby's wrathful apathy. Despite how she'd envisioned this homecoming--horribly sad, yes, stilted, yes, but glinting with the potential for everyone to recast themselves as expansively generous and affectionate people--the remaining Veal family members, herself included, hadn't really shown themselves capable of improvement.
Mary passed through the living room, her mobile presence registered only by the way the guests she neared strived to move actively ignore her. She split the curtains behind the punch table expecting to see her father, Clyde Veal, still stationed on the front lawn directing parking, but he'd abandoned his post; since his departure, guests had parked along the north side of the street, ignoring the fliers he'd taped to the streetlamps in order to avoid the territorial wrath of the neighbor Mum had christened Ye Olde Bastard. Eventually she found him, fingers pittering against his key-filled pockets, waiting in the foyer to receive coats, even though people had long since stopped arriving.
Dad, she started to say. But the two of them had pointedly arranged never to be alone without a chaperone since her arrival so, in fairness to him, she chose to "check on Dad" from behind the broken grandfather clock. He opened the door and peered down the street as if expecting a calvacade of mourners to turn onto Rumney Marsh and invade the house in desperate need of a coat-check attendant. Her father hadn't invited any of his work acquaintances from St. Hugh's today, nor any of his golf cronies from the public golf range, a nonselective, dress-code-free club overlooking a swamp that boasted, among its members, a gay couple and an acquitted child abuser. Her father maintained his connection with the local working-class community while respecting Mum's unspoken hope that these people never be invited to their house. So it was in deference to Mum, she assumed, that he'd failed to invite his friends. Or it was for some more complicated, self-defeating reason.
Mary knew without ever needing to be told: her father was a self-made lonely man.
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