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The Mineral Palaceby Heidi Julavits
excerpt: The Mineral Palace, Chapter One
Chapter One: THE STOLEN PILLBOX
As soon as the Ford Touring Car crossed the St. Paul city limits on April 20, 1934 ("You Are Leaving St. Paul, Minn., Home of the Inlagd Sill Herring Festival, Please Visit Us Again"), and passed into the great, square-upon-square expanse of the surrounding farmland, Bena jotted down the odometer reading with the golf pencil she kept in the ashtray: 5,434.
She did this cautiously, steering with her left hand. She wrote it on the cover of Lectures on Surgical Pathology, the first in a stack of medical journals that rested between her and Ted. She wanted to record the mileage, because it would provide a way to appreciate the distance they were about to create between their old existence and their new one. As the city receded in the rearview mirror, so, she fervently believed, did their life up to that moment.
Ted glared at her scribblings. No doubt he wanted to scold her for defacing his reading materials. But he held his tongue. Bena knew he considered himself fortunate that his wife was an inquisitive woman, not bound by the usual female fears and preoccupations, such as ringworm, rabies, cold cream, colic. Besides, she imagined, it would be entertaining, when his interest in, say, "Synovial Cysts of the Choroid Plexus" lagged, to try to break the code of numbers jotted in the empty margins. A string of 22s, 23s, and 24s that he might attribute to the daily high temperatures one week in March could actually be a tally of the birds that visited the feeder outside their kitchen window. Bena was comforted by numbers, and found a sense of assuredness and direction through her constant accounting of them. While there existed numbers that were to her undeniably dark (8, for example, because her brother drowned on the eighth day of August), certain possessed the glow of fortune, like the number of her father's favorite golf club (9-iron), the number of unloneliness (2), any number of her birthday (7/13), the street number of her childhood house in St. Paul (45), and others simply because they appeared round and portentous (33, 64, 89) and full of a substance one might easily interpret as luck.
The odometer reading appeared a good omen to Bena, since the sum of the four digits (5 + 4 + 3 + 4) was the number of her father's college football jersey (16), a grass-stained crimson shirt that hung, still, in the basement next to his rifles and his fishing rods. The patterns of his sweat had burned his body into the fabric. The shirt was a relic to her, for it preserved the outlined shape of her father when he was a happier man. As a vital boy growing up near Council Bluffs, Iowa, Charles "Chickie" Duse had snapped the necks of chickens and even small, lame calves with his bare hands-apt and brutal preparations for his future career as president of the St. Paul Savings and Trust. Chickie was the one who discovered his outwardly high-spirited wife dead of arsenic poisoning after the birth of their second child, Bena Ingrid Duse (labor complications, the obituary read), and had endured his son's drowning at the summer lake house he had struggled to afford in order to prove, beyond a doubt, that he was no one's farmhand.
As the landscape frayed into the dizzying warp and weft of ankle-high cornstalks, their discouraged tendrils already a drab beige from the scarcity of rain, Ted began reading aloud from a large maroon medical text, The Journal of Immunology, alerting Bena to diseases relevant to their new home.
This was another aspect of herself she knew he appreciated: her fascination with his work. He'd told her how he'd been struck by this on their first date, sitting in a booth at Kaap's Soda Fountain in St. Paul, sipping on a malted through a pair of white paper straws.
He'd talked to her about his passion for fishing, because women, as he told her later, were frequently bored by medicine and bodies. To women in the past, he'd talked about the heart. He'd described the way the blood was pushed and pumped, he'd drawn diagrams on a paper napkin with his fountain pen. But these women always looked at him differently when they knew he'd held a dead heart in his hands; they'd gazed distastefully upon his fingers as if a bit of death were still caught under the nails.
Fishing didn't interest Bena Duse. Neither did Ted's sister's wedding, his cousin's new baby, his mother's recent commission to have a well-known landscape painter sit in a rowboat half a mile offshore in Lake Michigan to do a portrait of their summer property in Door County, Wisconsin.
Out of sheer desperation, then, he'd talked to her about the heart.
"Did you know," he'd inquired, seeming to detect the initial signs of intrigue in this private girl who was smart around the mouth, "that a normal heart beats seventy-two times a minute?"
She had raised a pale eyebrow. She was quite pretty, he later told her he'd thought that day, pretty in a way that sneaks up on you.
"At this rate," he'd continued, "the heart contracts 4,320 times in an hour, 103,680 times in a day, 37,843,200 times in a year, and 2,649,024,000 times in an average lifetime." Or consider the common shrew, he added, whose heart beats one thousand times a minute.
Bena had held out her wrist to him, and he, intuiting what she wanted, unhooked her silver charm bracelet and placed the fingers of her other hand over that bare place. He pressed his cold palm over her knuckles. She smiled at him when she located the beating of her own pulse. They held hands and stared at the second hand of the pink-lit clock over the cash register.
"Seventy-eight," she said.
"Well," she had replied, "you're the doctor."
"'The causative agent of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Dermaceniroxenus rickettsi, is transmitted and perpetuated by the tick Dermacentorivenustus,'" Ted informed her now. ""It is a minute intracellular organism found in cells lining the intestinal canal of the tick, in the salivary glands, the ovaries, and in the eggs, and in an infected animal.'"
"I thought Pueblo was in the plains." Bena jerked the steering wheel to avoid what was once a rabbit, now stretched to the size of a welcome mat across the asphalt. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure the baby was still sleeping soundly. He was. They had laid him in the top drawer of an old dresser, padded with a wool hunting blanket folded in eighths. The blanket was dotted with deer blood and gun oil. Bena had covered it with a clean kitchen apron, whose faint recollections of roast beef and molasses seemed homey imperfections more suitable for an infant.
Theodore Gaspar Jonssen, Jr., six pounds, two ounces, had been born six and a half weeks earlier, on March 5. His birth was a bloody, prolonged affair, and exquisitely painful, as Theodore Gaspar Jonssen, Jr., saw fit to enter the world as one might enter a forbiddingly cold body of water, toes first. At the last minute he made a wrenching somersault, pulled and prodded by the obstetrician's thick gloved fingers. For a long moment he was silent. Bena had watched the doctor's face harden as he slapped her gray baby with a flat rubber hand. Then the baby coughed and rasped and breathed with his seaweed lungs, and the blood rushed to color his skin, and the face of the doctor softened at the slender thrill of new life.
"It's called the Front Range. Not Rockies, exactly, but nothing to turn your nose up at." Ted pulled a map from the glove box and unfolded it in his lap.
"Pueblo is here, see," he said, his finger hovering over the map and punching it whenever the Ford took a bump. "And the Range is here." His finger made a crater in the paper where the mountains were supposed to be. Bena saw a small black dot and the name of a town. Rye.
Ted pulled a paper clip off the cover of The Journal of Immunology and unfolded it. He slid one end carefully under the white bandage that covered his head.
He growled, seeking out the prickly stitches with the tip of the paper clip. As a doctor (and one who had recently been forced to leave a job at a reputable clinic), he was a predictably reluctant patient. Had he not been so reluctant, the mastoid infection that had grown, hot and irritated, behind his right ear, might not have required an operation to drain the abscess just as his wife was experiencing the first vise-grip clenches of labor. He and Bena were hospitalized at the same time, she on the fourth floor, he on the second. In the violent delirium of her delivery room, Bena predicted to the nurse who sponged her brow with a damp chamois that her husband would birth a child as well, just as Zeus's skull had cleaved to release a fearsome daughter. While Bena's labors yielded a clay-streaked and pleated baby boy, Ted produced nothing more remarkable than a beakerful of brownish pus.
A car passed them going the other direction. Bena noticed a woman's head turn back to look at them through the dust.
"Are the lights on?" Ted asked.
Bena fiddled with the dashboard. "I don't think so."
Of the next few cars that passed, two slowed and one honked its horn, flushing a family of pheasants that clattered over the Ford, assaulting the car with a quick rain of small stones and dirt. It wasn't until an empty farm truck nearly drove off the road as the driver turned to catch a glimpse of their retreating vehicle that Ted asked Bena to pull over.
He walked around the car, checking the tires, the lights, looking under the carriage to see if they were dragging a rope or the meaty remains of a small animal. Nothing.
Bena stepped out and stretched tentatively. She was still stitched and sore herself from giving birth, but Ted had been offered the job in Pueblo contingent on his arriving no later than May 1. Unfortunately, his infection had worsened after the first operation and he had, just the past week, required a second. As he was too dizzy and she was merely sore, Bena had agreed to do the driving. She'd stacked a pair of couch pillows beneath her to cushion her torn parts from the whimsies of the potted road. The trip promised to be even more excruciating and slow, given that they had to pull over every two hours to let the baby feed. But it would allow Bena to understand better the distance they were covering, and their dubious good fortune. Instead of watching the quick-passing grim and tawdry towns from the safety of the windows, she would be forced to stand in their midst, to smell the smoke of failing industry and hear the woody, uneven clopping of half-shodhorses. She would be forced to appreciate, each time they stopped, the fact that her husband's only job prospect hadn't been in Sibley, Iowa, or Popejoy, or Latimer.
"Damned if I know." Ted folded his long legs back into the car.
They proceeded tentatively, Bena speeding up whenever a car approached. As they whipped past a grain truck just outside of Mandelia, they struck a crow picking at a pudding of hot innards on the road.
There was a snap of cartilage, of glass. The crow hung for a second, pressed against the windshield by the car's momentum, then tumbled over the roof and onto the road. Bena watched in the rearview mirror as it spun into the dry irrigation ditch that hugged the highway.
"That's a fine omen," she said.
Bena caught her husband rolling his eyes. According to her, it would be a bad day if there was a misprint on the front page of the St. Paul Dispatch, if the milk had spoiled overnight, if a robin broke its neck against their bedroom window, if she passed an amputee on the sidewalk before noon when the day was still impressionable.
Little Ted started crying from his dresser drawer. He didn't so much cry at this young age as cough, as if he were still part fish and clearing his lungs of water.
Bena stiffened. Before the baby she'd been a slow girl, the world coming to her through a watery layer of her own unsorted thinking. Now she'd turned wolfish, her nose and ears alerted by the slightest noise or scent. Her mind, no longer flabby and dreamy, was sinuous and lean and almost nervous. It made her life simpler, though she could understand how it might eat at her, if she wasn't careful to cultivate her own needs from time to time.
Ted reached over the seat and pulled Little Ted from the drawer. He thrust an arm through the baby's bowed legs and tucked his head into the crook of his elbow. Despite the fact that he was a doctor and no stranger to bodies, he had been rather awkward and stymied around the baby. Ted watched him with fierce interest and affection as he slept, but shied away from the crying, pissing, waking calamity of him.
Bena stole quick looks at her husband and son together, the one with his bottom wrapped in a white diaper, the other with his head wrapped in a white bandage. And there the similarities ended. There was no evidence of her husband's dark blue eyes that pushed out at the world, no evidence of his vivid, earnest, greedy face. Her husband appeared far younger than his own son, a prunish little wise man with a fish cough and pale, pale eyes that stared with a premature discernment at the bleary world around him.
"Keep talking about bad luck and you'll bring it upon us." Ted jounced his arm until the baby's crying stopped.
"Luck isn't something you court," Bena corrected. She reached out to touch her baby's forearm, so soft it eluded perception by her more callused digits, her thumbs, for example. She had a new favorite part of his body every few days. At first it was the arch of his foot, then the back of his knee, his walnut ears. She didn't feel capable of loving the entirety of him, so instead she loved him, manageably, in pieces. "It's something you observe."
She saw Ted struggling to contain his irritation.
"So stop being so damned observant." He smiled and pinched her forearm. He felt comfortable causing her pain if it seemed he was joking.
Ted returned to his medical texts while Bena stared ahead at the road, counting the rows of fledgling cornstalks that passed the car at the same thump-thump-thump pace of her pulse.
--From The Mineral Palace by Heidi Julavits (c) August 2001, Berkley Pub Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, used by permission.
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