Authors: Judith Rossner
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For Eva Harrison
had enough irony to nourish an entire block of underprivileged children; on herself it had a less than helpful effect since she generally used it to saw at her own head instead of at the bars surrounding her life.
Her mother, a violent soul in a gentle body, had committed suicide in April, having spent the previous ten years withdrawing from life to a point where she could fail to notice that this was the incorrect season for despair. It was, as they say in another not entirely unrelated context, a long hot summer, the fact being that summers not spent at the seashore are invariably both,
and they didn't go to the seashore that year because the house at the seashore had always been haunted anyway, not an object in it unworthy of three flashbacks, and of all the events that can give ghosts dominance in one's life, the death of one's mother is probably the most effective. So they stayed home in the three-year-old raised ranch that didn't remind anyone of anything except maybe the future. This put her husband, who had proposed to her during their first visit to the house at the seashore, into a semi-permanent fury in spite of the fact that it was he who had chosen that very raised ranch in that very suburb on the theory that in such dull surroundings one or the other of his arts must flourish. A philosophy since somewhat tarnished in her eyes by the fact that on the day they'd moved, film making had joined the long list of things like painting and shaving that he didn't do any more.
All that summer and into the early fall she couldn't sleep unless the bedroom door was open in addition to the windows, which of course made it impossible to use the air conditioning. This was all right with her since the one night that summer they'd turned it on she had become convinced that the room had detached itself from the rest of the house, including both bathrooms, and was flying through space with an insufficient oxygen supply.
She was pregnant, due to have her babyâor babies, as the doctor ascertained in Julyâon October thirty-first. In August the cat, having been romping in a patch of poison ivy, went to sleep against her back as she lay on her side in bed. For several days she scratched what she took to be a particularly loathsome mosquito bite and a week later most of the visible parts of her body and one or two invisible ones as well were covered with the maddening rash. She could not be given a shot of cortisone because she was pregnant. She could not take oral medication because, her mother having orally medicated herself out of existence, she had a tendency to become hysterical at the suggestion
that she take so much as an aspirin into her mouth. On the rare occasion when she fell asleep for a few minutes, she invariably dreamed that her mother was scratching her back and then she would wake up crying.
She weighed, at this juncture, two hundred and fifty pounds, having gained an even seventy-five pounds in the first seven months of her pregnancy. Since she was just an inch under six feet tall she cut a fairly impressive figure but it was hard for her to find clothes. She made herself two dresses out of tablecloths while she could get just close enough to the sewing machine to see the stitches but this still left her with a wardrobe problem in the hot weather, a problem she finally solved by spending all her time at home and naked. Something about her shape made her appear to be sitting down even when she was walking.
At the end of September her husband went on a camping trip with some old school ties. A sudden end to Indian summer brought them back to the house, where Margaret was preparing for winter by digging up from the garden and potting every plant that any expert in the history of flower encyclopedias had claimed could survive if it wintered indoors. When they entered she was hanging a wax begonia in a rope basket on a hook in the window wall. She was naked. A few dried remnants of the poison ivy rash still clung to her giant, provolone-like breasts and her massive stomach, giving her something of the look of a relief map. Her husband's friends stared at her, their jaws slack, their eyes glazed, for so long that she finally let the basket and pot drop to the floor to break their collective trance. What was perhaps most disturbing was that Roger's expression wasn't different from his friends'. If he had shown no sexual interest in her since the time when she had begun to swell, he had at least taken her for granted, never looking at her as though she were part of a freak show. She went into the bedroom and closed the door behind her and stayed that way through the night, not
realizing until the following morning that the very fact of the closed door was a small milestone. In the morning she put on one of her tablecloths, stepped carefully over the various sleeping bodies that littered the living-room rug, took Roger's motorcycle key from his pocket without disturbing him and, with her pocketbook and the key in hand, left home.
people in her condition would have been disconcerted by the difficulty of a long ride on such a small and bumpy vehicle but Margaret had a very high threshold of pain everywhere except in her brain. An unforeseen result of the upbringing which had instilled in her the idea that females didn't actually exist below the neck except as an appendage for the hands, which were to be kept busy at all times. (One of her cousins had been more disastrously affected by this same philosophy and was given to rushing off to doctors with equal concern for hangnails, splinters or large lumps in the breast, being willing when she got to their offices only to say that something was hurting somewhere down there.)
Margaret had no clear idea of where she would go. She had little cash but she did have her checkbook and an indecent or decent, depending on one's point of view, supply of credit cards. She stopped for gas and to cash a check at the gas station in the village, where she picked up also a supply of road maps which she put in her bike bag and never looked at again. Her idea was just to get
. On the first night she slept in the woods off a highway in Dutchess County, eating wild berries when she got hungry. Unfortunately the berries were mildly poisonous so that by the following morning she had an acute case of diarrhea, a disease which would have been almost welcome were she at home, relieving as it did the constipation which was the normal iron cross of pregnancy. At this time, however, it had the effect of making her think in terms of destination.
There wasn't really anyplace she wanted to go. Except that in the months following her mother's death she'd thought for the first time since leaving it about the house and the street where she'd grown up. Of course she'd been back occasionally to visit her parents but it was the kind of place that didn't stay in your mind once your body was removed from it. A dull brownstone in a dim street of like houses, it had been little more than a spot to set out from to explore interesting places. Like the Back Bay mansion that had been her mother's childhood home and which her family had been forced to give up after losing its department store during the Depression. But that wasn't her own personal memory place to visit, really; the memory belonged to her mother.
Margaret's mother had been sixteen at the time of the Great Crash and seventeen when she met Margaret's father, a twenty-eight-year-old Boston Irish traffic cop who had prevented her from absentmindedly stepping in front of a large truck, thus setting up a symbolic foundation for the fantasy of salvation which would enable her to deceive herself for long enough to marry him, if not for many weeks longer.
Some families have a way of adjusting history so that they seem to have been more intimately involved in the great events of the day than they in fact were, the news stories of a period becoming the reasons for personal actions when in point of fact their relation was no closer than the morning papers. Even when there is a legitimate cause and effect sequence, the two on occasion become reversed. And so it was that in the minds of Margaret's mother's parents the two major crushing blows of an era were not only seen to be related but were somewhat strangely reversed, and years later a stranger listening to Margaret's grandmother discussing that period might get the impression that it was some great floodgate Margaret's mother had opened when she married a Papist that had made it possible for the Crash to occur.
After their marriage Margaret's mother and father had moved to the ground-floor apartment on Beacon Street where they'd remained through Margaret's growing up and through her mother's suicide, and where her father still lived, able to sleep in the bed where he'd found his wife's body only because he was as much a stranger to his own feelings as he'd ever been to hers.
She'd been to Boston only once since her mother's death, and not inside the house at all, but it had occurred to her once in a while that she would like to see it again. Maybe to see if it looked any different, now that her mother was dead. Prettier or uglier. Bigger or smaller. Dead or alive. That was all. Curiosity.
The house at the Cape was different. It had been given to Margaret's mother's aunt as a wedding present some years before the Crash and was untouched when the rest of the family's possessions were lost. Margaret's happiest childhood memories were of summers at the beach with her cousins. She and her mother went for the season, the illnesses that had dogged Margaret's mother from the time she'd given birth always mysteriously leaving her for the duration; her father would join them toward the end of August, his arrival in that pristine Wasps' nest always somehow as spectacular as if a particularly monstrous tuna head had been washed up on the beach. Everyone else drew back into their skins just a little, and on the rare occasions when they were invited to tea there was a strange hesitation in the air, as though the hostess suspected it would be politic to offer him something stronger.