Well, how's the whole crooked family?The Test
-- Thornton Wilder,
The Skin of Our Teeth, Act I
The couch in the den was the color the crayon people called Flesh even though it resembled no human or animal flesh on Planet Earth, and the couch fabric was nubbled in a pattern of diamonds. It was best to prevent the nubbles from coming into direct contact with one's real Flesh, so there was usually a blanket or a towel or clothing spread out as a buffer. Also no one wanted to pick up the blanket, the towel, and the clothing and fold them. Or even pick them up. So it was a fine arrangement.
She had a lamp, a small end table so covered with things -- layer upon layer -- that the stuff at the bottom was from a different decade than the stuff in the middle. She had a cardboard box in which she kept books from the bookmobile; her favorite afghan for emergency napping; a notebook and pen. There had been years with no telephone but mostly the telephone worked and was often near Mother's head -- often enough, in fact, that Dad referred to it as her Siamese twin. The television was only a few feet away, and there were always animals for company. Five steps in one direction was the kitchen; four steps in the other was the bathroom. In winter the den was the only room in the house with heat, so we all lived there. In summer it was so hot I feared spontaneous combustion, which Dr. Demento reported was happening to Canadian priests with regularity. I popped in and out of the den, I was a very busy person and my responsibilities were numerous which Mother understood. Dad came and went -- he also had engagements far and wide and we had long since ceased asking what they were. A man had to protect his mysteries; it was one of the primary Liberties of Manhood in our home. There were many others. My older brother, Dan, was gone to his grown-up life; my sister, Melinda, was on her way, at seventeen.
All my life there had been certain constants, facts so steady I assumed they were like trees or mountains, things you could trust to stay where you left them because they were mountains and yes the Bible says faith can move one but the Bible also says a whole lot of stuff that if you tried to make it true you'd end up in the Epileptic Village. My constants were the same as everyone else's: a house with quite a few rooms and utilities that came and went. Church three times a week. Church so frequently and which I so much couldn't get out of I considered ripping off my own fingernails in protest, or better yet someone else's fingernails. My family. And no one as dependable as my mom, burrowed into the corner of that sprung sofa cushion, reading and eating crunchy foods, the television on, the telephone ringing. We'd never said a whole lot to each other, given that I was a citizen of the world and was generally on my way out the door. But she always smiled when I passed her, gave me a wave. And when I got home, there she was.
Something had been on the rise with Mom for a few months. There were many tearful meetings of her prayer cell, and at least half a dozen thrown-down fleeces (bargains made with God) and phone calls and arrangements. One of her fleeces involved a television commercial of Abraham Lincoln in a classroom. He was standing at a podium saying if I was thinking of going back to college, did I know that I could test out of some required courses by signing up for the CLEP Test, which stood for College-Level Examination Program. This was all news to me. I heard Mom talk to her women at church about that commercial, and an agreement was reached: if she saw it on the following Friday, anytime before 6:00 p.m., she would call the number on the screen.
On that Friday, although I didn't know why we were waiting for it or what it would mean if she called, I spent the whole afternoon nervously watching TV with Mom. Dad was gone, so it was just the two of us. Three o'clock came and went, and then four, and five, and Mom sank deeper and deeper into a heavy silence punctuated with heartbroken little sighs, because a fleece thrown down is an unbreakable contract. At 5:55 she got up and went into the kitchen and stood holding on to the sink, as if she might throw up. At 5:57, she bowed her head. At 5:58 she looked up; I thought she had come to a decision, or was constructing a new shelter made of resignation. At 5:59 I felt my own throat swell with empathy, and at 5:59 and 30 seconds, Abraham Lincoln walked across the classroom that would become my mother's life, and when I looked up at her, she was staring at the television screen with her eyes wide and her mouth open and I knew that what I was witnessing was no less than a miracle.
We had only one vehicle, Dad's truck, and Dad didn't plan to be home on the Saturday Mom needed to be in Muncie, thirty miles away, to register for the test. He wasn't mean about it, but he wasn't exactly flexible, either.
I had to be home by the time the streetlights came on in the evening, and that spring I spent more than one twilight tearing down the street toward home as if the Devil were on my case, trying to beat the specific light that shone on the corner of Charles and Broad. I had taken to spending all my time out of school away from home, because there were changes afoot that couldn't be named or even described. Walking into my house felt like hitting water belly first; it looked like one thing, but it felt like glass. My dad still sat in his chair and smoked, watching Westerns and drinking whiskey, and my mom still read and talked on the phone and would scratch my back if I asked her. But there was a strange resistance in her, some stubbornness that made her unreachable, and the way Dad kept his jaw set was a fence around him. My older sister, Melinda, Queen of the Fair and all-around pinching machine, still lived at home but barely.
So in the evenings I went to my friend Rose's house, where all manner of wonder prevailed. For one thing, they had a mint-green kitchen, and they kept Velveeta cheese in their refrigerator, along with fresh milk from actual cows and sometimes Joyce skimmed the cream off the top and let us have some. It was horrible, and an experience I had repeated many times. When Joyce baked a chicken she let me have the skin.
"You can have some of the meat, you crazy kid," she'd say.
Joyce made Autumn Soup, which was some very reliable form of soup with vegetables and hamburger in it, and Rose's sister Maggie and I had to peel the potatoes, because Rose had some skin disease on her hands and peeling potatoes made them break out in a rash, which seemed like a convenient time for lunatic itching, but it worked. And Rose's little brother Patrick would sit on a box for hours if you told him to wait there for the bus. He'd sit there till Joyce found him, anyway, and then she'd threaten to start smacking, and maybe at that point I'd have to go home, because Joyce was not above smacking -- she was a Catholic -- but I was a Quaker and smacking wasn't part of our religion.
But the most interesting thing Rose had was a persimmon tree, another Catholic delicacy. It grew between her house and the house that served as a parsonage for the North Christian Church, and sometimes it was the cause of feuding. Almost invariably after the persimmons got ripe a big windstorm came up and caused them to fly through the air and splatter on the parsonage like little balloons filled with orange paint. The North Christians were against it, and sometimes threatened William and Joyce with the Law. But William and Joyce just went merrily on their way, eating steaks, drinking cocktails, and smoking cigarettes.
Just a glance at persimmons reveals them to be suspicious fruits and yet we ate them constantly. Joyce put them in jams and pies, she even made something with the word "pudding" in the title although of course it was not real pudding because it wasn't chocolate and it hadn't come from a box. I was too polite to point the truth out.
When we weren't eating persimmons we were finding other uses for them. One day that spring Rose and I were sitting under the persimmon tree just as it was blooming. Rose picked one of the blossoms off and held it on the tip of her finger. At the center was a seed and all around the edges were white petals. I looked at it.
"Do you know what you do with one of these?" Rose asked me.
I shook my head.
"You put it in your nose like this," she said, placing the seed part just inside her nostril so that the petals flared out around her nose. It was beautiful, like nostril jewelry.
"Give me one," I said, picking a little blossom off the tree.
Rose added another to her own face and then she really looked like a flower garden. I was adjusting mine when I forgot what I was doing and inhaled. Up! went the little seed. Up! went the lovely little petals.
"Jeez O Flip!" I shouted. The little seed was all the way up in my brain part.
Rose leapt to her feet. "Okay, look, we've got to get that out and don't tell my mom. Or else let's just leave it in there." She looked around, furtive as one of the dope fiends on Dragnet. "How does it feel, can you breathe?"
I studied her as I felt around along the side of my nose for the location of the seed. "You shammed me," I said. I'd always counted on Rose to be a straight-up, good-grades, book-reading kind of girl, and here she was getting frisky. The little flower had been dusty with pollen. I sneezed.
"I didn't exactly sham you," Rose said as I walked out of her yard.
I sneezed again. "Oh, yeah? Then why do I have a persimmon up my nose?" I shouted back. I sneezed again. The whole thing was becoming uncomfortable, and I could hardly get any air up my left nose hole.
On the walk home I sneezed twelve more times. I had read in the Guinness Book of World Records, which had become my favorite book, that a man had spent the last few years of his life sneezing and then his heart wore out. I stopped in front of the Marathon and felt my heart. I sneezed again.
When I walked in the house, Mom covered the mouthpiece of the telephone. "God bless you," she said.
"Thanks." I headed straight upstairs. I was afraid for Mom to discover the truth, because she only had three rules in the entire world, which doesn't amount to many, and thus it was improbably rude that I'd broken one in public.
- There's no such thing as a free lunch. (This was patently untrue, since about half my elementary school was on the Free Lunch program.)
- Don't give advice to God. (Secretly I did nothing else, but I didn't figure Mom needed to know it. I said to God: Find my house slippers. Close school tomorrow. Feed the dogs. Give my mom a car so she can go to the CLEP thing.)
- Don't stick anything up your nose.
I tried to poke at the seed with a pencil, but it seemed I just pushed it up farther. Disaster loomed. I finally figured out what I needed to do. I fetched the vacuum cleaner out of Mom and Dad's closet, and disconnected the tube part from the big flat part. I didn't have much experience with vacuum cleaners, but I had plenty with Taking Apart. I held the tube up to my left nose hole and turned the sweeper on with my foot. There was all manner of dust and cat hair in the tube, and the combination of the dust and the noise the machine made caused me to jump backward and lose control of the hose, which jumped around on the floor. I began sneezing in earnest. No way would my heart survive this one. I gave one big final sneeze and the flower came out, just as Mom turned the corner into her bedroom. I speedy quick put my hand down and let the vacuum cleaner suck up the seed.
"What are you doing?" Mom asked, truly bewildered.
"Sweepin'," I answered, pointing to the vacuum cleaner.
"You're sitting on the floor. What are you sweeping? What's all over your nose?" She leaned over, licked her thumb, and threatened me with a spit bath. "Were you vacuuming your face?"
"Ha! Wouldn't that be ridiculous." I pulled my T-shirt up and scrubbed hard at my nose, destroying the evidence. "I must have just gotten dusty playing at Rose's. Whew! That's a dusty place."
Mom looked at me for a minute. "Put the sweeper away, please," she said as she turned back toward the den.
"Okay! Not a problem!"
I looked out the window. There was still an hour or so of daylight left. I left the vacuum cleaner lying in pieces on the floor and ran outside.
Mom should have been upset about missing her chance to take the CLEP test, but she wasn't, and for a while I couldn't figure out why. Then one night, weeks after we saw Abraham Lincoln, I was sitting on the couch with her and coloring in my coloring book, listening to her talk on the phone. She often tucked the phone against her shoulder while she talked, and in that way could continue knitting or reading. I'd never seen a person do so many things at once. And her voice was just a steady murmur, like a voice I sometimes heard as I was falling asleep.
She was talking to one of her women friends; I couldn't tell who. I heard her say, "I have to be there by ten this Saturday to register. No, it's okay, it's all taken care of." Then she changed the subject, and in a few minutes she hung up. The phone rang a little later and she said the same thing to that friend, and by the time I'd finished coloring Snow White in Her Glass Casket, she'd said it to four or five different people. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, her head tucked down, her knitting needles ticking together in a rhythmic, hypnotic sway. All those years I had thought she was just sitting there, but it turned out she'd been quietly amassing an army, and now they were coming to take her home.
On Saturday morning, Dad didn't go anywhere. He puttered in his toolshed; he took a little constitutional around town. He drank coffee and whistled, and in his whistle was something to be devoutly avoided. I stayed around the house. We were all waiting on something. A little after nine a car pulled up behind Dad's truck. It was Mom's friend Carol, who was one of my favorites. Carol had peachy-colored skin and wore her hair wrapped around the top of her head like a sticky bun. She had a beautiful smile, and when she had laundry to do she said she had to get to her warshing. Her Wiener Dog had been the first dog to ever bite me, but I didn't hold it against either of them.
"Hey, kiddo!" Carol said when she saw me. She had a big voice.
"Hi, Carol! Mom's inside!" I had a big voice, too, when Carol was around.
We walked in the front door. Mom looked at us. She stood up.
They left without saying anything to Dad. He came down to the sidewalk and stood with me as we watched them drive away.
"Time was, a woman wouldn't have gotten in a man's marriage that way," Dad said.
I wasn't sure what he expected me to say. Times change? Or did he want me to remember one of Mom's handy mottoes, like We must live while it is day? I looked up at him. He wasn't really talking to me.
My brother's big green Plymouth was still sitting where he'd parked it when he left for Fort Polk, Louisiana. It hadn't started in three weeks and the windshield wipers didn't work. Dad complained once a day that he'd lost the key, and so in addition to having it towed down to the mechanic who worked at the old gas station on the south end of town, he was going to have to have a key made before Dan came home from boot camp.
The CLEP test was scheduled for a Wednesday, and on Monday afternoon as I walked home from school I saw the most amazing thing. Mom was sitting in Dan's car, trying to start it. In my entire life I'd never seen my mother sit in the driver's seat of anything. I walked up and tapped on the window. She was staring straight ahead, and appeared for a moment not to see me. I tapped again. Mom's shoulders rose and fell in a sigh as she opened the door. I watched her slip the lost key into the pocket of her housedress, then she climbed out of the car and kissed me on the top of my head and started toward the house. I closed the car door. No one ever precisely asked me to, but good Lord if I'd only had a nickel for every secret I was obliged to keep.
On Wednesday, Lindy and I stayed home from school. Rain was coming down in sheets, hard enough and fast enough that I feared for the little May flowers. Melinda asked Mom what she was going to wear, and Mom produced an enormous orange dress from the back of her closet.
"Mom Mary lent it to me," Mom said, holding it up for inspection.
Melinda swallowed. "What size is it?"
"It's a 24. That should be just about right."
Lindy and I didn't look at each other.
After we got Mom in the dress, she put on the shoes Mom Mary had given her to go with the dress. "Oh no! They're too big and I'm running out of time!"
"Okay, okay. Don't panic. Sweetheart," Melinda said, turning to me, "go get today's newspaper."
I ran in the den and grabbed the Courier-Times. Lindy tore the front page in half, wadded it up and stuffed it in the toes of the orange high heels. "Try this."
Mom had put her hair, which was thin and baby-fine, in a bun, and when she leaned over to put the shoes on a second time, some of it slid out of the pins and fell around her face. She walked a bit unsteadily into the bathroom and looked in the mirror.
"Dear God. I look like a drunken school bus."
When Mom picked up her purse and headed for the door, I knew she was going to try Danny's car again, and I felt Dad's voice well up in my throat: You'll never make it. You don't know how to drive, and that car's got no windshield wipers. Would you trade your life for this? But I didn't say anything and neither did Melinda. Mom kissed me on the cheek and hugged Lindy, and the two of us girls went to the picture window in the living room and watched her.
She walked down the steps and out onto the sidewalk, the rain pummeling her plastic rain hat and the old plaid coat she was wearing. She took the key out of her coat pocket and got in the car, then put her head down on the steering wheel, and as she sat that way the rain gradually began to ease, and then she sat up and tried the ignition, and the car started and the rain stopped all at the same time.
"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," I said, flabbergasted.
Mom turned and waved at us. Danny's car lurched into Charles Street; stopped; lurched again, and Mom figured out what she was doing and drove straight on down the street.
We watched her until she turned onto Broad Street and out of sight. Melinda straightened up. "She didn't ask for much in the past twenty-seven years."
"I guess she didn't."
"She's got eighty-six cents in her purse, nothing else. I don't know what will happen to her if the car won't start when it's time to come home."
I knew I should still be worried, but I suddenly felt that anything was possible, and that most things, though certainly not all, would turn out okay.
A few weeks later, an envelope came from Ball State. Mom opened it like it was the Academy Awards, and sat for a few minutes studying the results.
"What's it say? How'd you do? Did you get a A plus?" I asked, trying to peer over her shoulders.
"I tested out of forty hours," Mom said, flipping through a catalog that had come with the letter.
I counted. Forty hours was not quite two days. But two days out of school was better than nothing.
"Sorry about that, Mom," I said. I thought I might ride down to Rose's house and tell her Mom passed.
"That's a whole year, sweetheart," she said as I headed toward the door. I stopped.
"A whole year?"
Mom nodded. And then I saw on her face that she was as shocked as I was; she didn't know any better than I did what to make of the news. For a few more seconds we were just frozen, and then she shrugged her shoulders -- What can you do? -- and reached over and picked up the phone.
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