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Authors: Nancy Rue

Tags: #Fiction, #Religious, #Contemporary Women, #Religion, #Christian Life, #Inspirational

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BOOK: Pascal's Wager
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I made myself go into the entrance hall to look at the black-oak grandfather clock that kept stern tabs on the comings and goings of the McGavock house. The pendulum hung motionless behind the glass door. It wasn't like Mother to let it run down. By now, I strongly suspected she'd stopped it on purpose.

I got back to the kitchen just in time to hear Liz say, “I do
not
have time for this. Under no shircumshtances are you to call here again!” She then yanked the phone set off the wall and dumped it into the trash can.

“I need a cup of tea,” she said to me. “Fix me a cup while you're doing yours, would you?”

“Sure,” I said. “I'll put a kettle on the stove.”

When I turned on the faucet, I saw my hand shaking.

I spent the rest of the day over there. Mother went back to bed after she took two sips of the tea. I didn't comment that it was only 10:00
A.M.
I just did the dishes, made some sandwiches for lunch out of what wasn't moldy or shriveled in the refrigerator, and did my own search for telltale signs of alcoholism—or even drug abuse. It never seemed to occur to my mother that it was unusual for me to hang around her house like that. In fact, half the time, I wasn't sure she was even aware I was there.

But I was aware of her. How could I not be?

Saturday afternoon, she kept asking me what time it was, even though she was wearing a watch and there were three clocks in the kitchen alone.

Saturday night, she rambled on about campus politics—something she'd claimed that morning to care nothing about. She went nonstop for forty-five minutes without once looking at me.

The next morning, I called to tell her I'd be there at noon so we could go to lunch. When I got there, she'd already eaten and was napping on the living room couch. I put on a CD of Bach
fugues and she came up off the sofa shrieking, “Turn that off! I can't stand that noise!”

Yet there were stretches of time when she seemed normal. She talked about a new resident at the lab who didn't seem entirely committed to his work, something she abhorred. I was relieved to see her straighten the CD cases because she was always a control freak about tidiness. In the midst of one rambling monologue she said, “I am quite happy with my current state of affairs, and if anyone has a problem with who I am that is unfortunate, because I have no intention of changing.” I was sure then that the whole idea of her somehow losing it had been a figment of my imagination, if not a total hallucination.

But then she would abruptly get up and go to the refrigerator and stare into it, or wander off to take her fourth nap of the day. I was left wondering,
Who is this erratic woman, and what has she done with my mother?

The most telling thing of all was that not once during the entire weekend did she ever say a word about me. There wasn't a single attempt to exert control or even question my most recent moves, decisions, or choice of lip gloss.

I knew it was time to find out what was going on.

FOUR

I
stayed up half the night Sunday, surfing the Net. No, actually, I was ransacking it. If I didn't find some kind of answer by morning, I was going to be bald.

I bit the bullet and started with Alzheimer's. The minute it crossed my mind I went into major denial, but it was the only thing I could think of that might even remotely explain the changes in my mother's behavior. After scanning one Web site, I was sure I was on the wrong track.

Alzheimer's involves a loss of memory. Mother was losing words and being somewhat absentminded, but she didn't seem completely forgetful. The things she was doing were deliberate—like not using the microwave because she couldn't stand the noise and being outright rude to people on the phone instead of just coldly brusque. And there was nothing under Alzheimer's disease about slurring words—or showing up at the front door in your underwear and casually exposing yourself to the neighborhood. This whole thing with Mother was about language and behavior—and just plain judgment.

I hate to admit it
, I thought,
but maybe Max is right. Maybe it is a bad case of depression
.

There was a vague sense of relief, but even as I tried to get a few hours' sleep and then attempted to move into my dissertation compartment for a possible meeting with Nigel, I couldn't shake the nagging thought that there was something more fundamentally wrong with my mother than the blues.

My biggest clue was the abyss that had formed itself between
us. I'd always complained about the distance she kept from me emotionally. We'd never been affectionate with each other—I couldn't imagine anything more phony. And we'd certainly never “bonded”—a word I disdained anyway. But in the past when we'd been together, she had always focused her attention on me. Sure, she was usually critical, but at least she
saw
me. There had been a connection, even if it made me want to scream.

Right now there was no connection at all. Throughout my hike from Escondido Village to Sloan Monday morning, I couldn't fix Nigel and the new thesis proposal in my head. All I could picture was the look on my mother's face when I left the night before. She was sitting in her study reading when I finished the supper dishes and went in to say good-bye. She looked up at me from the book in her lap, and I fought not to gasp. For a moment, the vibrant intelligence that had always given her eyes life was gone. Her face looked absolutely flat.

The moment had passed then, but it wouldn't leave me alone now. And it had to. I had Nigel's face to worry about.

He wasn't in his office yet when I got there, so I put my new proposal in his box and tried to jam myself into the teaching-class compartment. Nothing doing. Tabitha showed up about five minutes after I got back to my desk. There was evidence in the puffed-up slits that she'd been bawling her eyes out. However, crying hadn't slowed down her speech patterns any.

“Hi, Ms. McGavock,” she said. “I know I don't have an appointment, so if you have other stuff you have to do right now I can come back later, but I thought I'd try to catch you before you got too busy because I really need to talk to you.”

“Sure,” I said, giving the stack of yet-to-be-looked-at homework papers only one pointed glance. “What's up?”

“I'm just—” The gangly arms flapped as if the poor kid were trying to take flight. I motioned toward the chair.

“The tutoring's not helping?” I said as she skated her way over.

“Oh, no, I think it is. You've been so supportive and everything
and I think I'm getting the problems better—but I thought if I could just, like, talk to you about this other thing, it might help me concentrate better because I'm just
really
freaked out.”

“I can see that,” I said dryly.

I opened a drawer and pulled out a purse-size package of Kleenex, which she accepted gratefully. She managed to get a tissue out and blew her nose.

What am I now, a guidance counselor?
I thought.
Don't they have people with master's degrees to handle this kind of stuff?

“Did you try what I suggested?” I said. “Did you find a study carrel in the library?”

She nodded, fingers still pinching the Kleenex over her nostrils.

“Didn't help, huh?”

“Oh, yeah, it did! Like I said, you're so good at all this. That's not the problem. The problem is, I'm
so
homesick!”

I groaned inwardly. Maybe if I looked at my watch about twenty times she'd get the hint that I did not want to play Mommy this morning. I restrained myself and nodded. Active listening, my mother had always called it.

“I knew I'd be a little bit homesick. You know, miss my parents and my brother and my dog and all my friends and some of my teachers—”

“Uh-huh.”

“But I thought I'd make friends here and be over it by now. I mean, it's, like, October.”

“It
is
October,” I said.

“But there's nobody here like me. I'm not expecting people to be my clones or anything, but everybody here is so into dating and partying and competing for grades, and I'm not—so—”

In my experience those had been the usual reasons for going to college, but I kept nodding. If I said anything else, the girl was likely to get hysterical.

“So, like, this whole weekend, I studied in my room and I ate
all my meals by myself and everybody else was out doing—well, I don't know what they were doing—and then yesterday in church I was praying about it and suddenly I just started crying and I couldn't stop. I haven't stopped since. I slept in the lounge last night so my roommate wouldn't hear me.”

“Don't you have an R.A.?” I said.

“It's a guy. I don't think I can talk to him.”

I could see her point. No guy would have sat through this much without telling the kid to get a life. That, of course, wasn't an option for me. We were supposed to “be there” for our students.

“I just thought maybe if I got it all out to somebody, I'd feel better, you know?”

“And do you?” I said hopefully.

“Kinda, yeah. I don't know. Maybe I just wasn't cut out for a major university. I probably should have stayed home and gone to community college.”

“No, I taught at a community college. They're nothing but high schools with ashtrays. Look, this is a big adjustment—”

“Did you have a big adjustment when you went off to college?”

“Well, I was—”

“Where did you go?”

“Princeton.”

Her gray eyes widened. “Wow. You must have been nervous.”

“No more nervous than somebody coming here. This is a high-pressure place, too. But you're smart—you'll adjust.”

“You really think so? You don't think I should just quit now and save my parents a lot of money?”

The word
quit
was not in my vocabulary growing up. I couldn't help making a face.

“Quitting is not an option,” I said. “Look, the thing is that you've got to sort out your life.”

“What do you mean? Like into piles?”

“Yeah, piles. You've got your classes pile, your social pile, your whatever-else pile—”

“God pile.”

“Okay, whatever. And then you prioritize your piles and you deal with the most important things before you worry about the rest. You're still struggling with the academic adjustment, so just don't worry about the social thing. Trust me, it isn't what it's cracked up to be anyway.”

She looked at me wistfully. “I bet you have a great social life. I mean, you're, like, so gorgeous.”

“The best relationship I have is with my laptop,” I said. “I'm focusing on getting my degree…which isn't going to happen if I don't get to work.”

She sagged a little, but I didn't have time to pump her back up. I'd already spent ten minutes more than I had to spare. Besides, I'd run out of advice.

“I'm sorry,” she said, jumping up with arms askew. “I didn't mean to take up your whole morning, but, gee, thanks, you really helped me. I feel like I could maybe get through the day without bursting out crying in the middle of a class.”

She stuck out the Kleenex package, but I shook my head.

“Keep them,” I said. If she had an attack during
my
class, I wanted her equipped.

I handed back first exams that day in Math 19, which meant the rest of the day was tied up with students coming in to complain, negotiate, and make appointments for help when I refused to participate in either the complaining or the negotiating.

“It's the freshman freak-out,” Jacoboni said when one of them was barely out of earshot. “They were all valedictorians in their podunk high schools, then they come here and freak out when they find out they have to, oh, I don't know,
open a book.”

“They can't freak out in here more than three hours a week,” I said, “because I have other things to do.”

“Like what?” Jacoboni said. He was obviously up for a protracted conversation.

I could have kissed my cell phone for ringing just then. I
didn't even mind that it was Max.

“How was Liz?” he said when we'd gotten the helios out of the way. “When you didn't call me—”

“It was interesting.”

“Did she talk to you? Did you find out—”

“No, I'm still clueless.”

I could hear him sigh heavily into the phone. “What are we going to do, Jill? I'm out of my mind here. I lie awake all night—”

“Relax, Max,” I said. “I'm working on it.”

When I hung up, Jacoboni looked up ultracasually from his computer monitor and said, “Max, huh?”

“Yes, Jacoboni, Max. He's my mother's significant other, but he and I get together and make mad passionate whoopee whenever possible. Right now we're planning a tryst in the Caribbean over Thanksgiving break. Any more questions?”

If there were, I didn't give him a chance to ask them. I left the office in search of Nigel.

Dr. Frost wasn't available the rest of the day, so I had a head full of stuff from other compartments when I set out on the Loop that evening. The air was nippy and the wind was stronger than usual, so I wore sweats. By the time I got up the first hill, I stopped to strip them off. The harder I thought, the harder I ran, and the perspiration was out of control.

I was trying to maneuver the ankle elastic over my Nikes when I heard somebody talking. Why couldn't people just put on a Walkman and shut up while they were jogging? Some of us were trying to concentrate up here.

“It's Jill, isn't it?”

My head jerked up, and I had to hop on one foot to stay upright while I attempted to extract my foot from the other pant leg. I thrust out an arm for balance and nearly popped Sam Whatever-His-Name-Was in the jaw.

“Do I know you?” I said.

He grinned. “I can see I made a heck of an impression. Sam
Bakalis. Do you need a hand?”

“No,” I said, though I now had my foot completely caught in the elastic. I gave it a yank and pitched forward, headed straight for the ground. Sam grabbed my elbow.

“That's funny,” he said. “I could have sworn you were about to fall on your face.”

He let go of my arm immediately, before I could even have the satisfaction of glaring at him.

“Thank you,” I said and turned my attention to tying the sweats around my waist.

“So, what's new in vector bundles?” he said.

I couldn't help looking surprised. “You were paying attention.

“You were compelling.”

Now
there
was a line I hadn't heard before.

“The vector bundles are fine,” I said.

“You aren't going to ask me about Pascal?” he said. “I mean, since we're making small talk.”

“Who?”

He grinned yet again. “I guess I wasn't as compelling.”

No, pal
, I wanted to say.
As a matter of fact, you were downright disappointing. If I recall correctly, you were trying to convert me over the carrot cake
.

“Right,” he said. “Well, nice to see you again. Have a good run.

He adjusted his glasses and deftly sprang over the fence and loped off the path, right past the sign that read Please Remain on the Paved Pathways. For a guy in his mid-thirties he still looked lanky—yet comfortable in his own body. With those narrow shoulders he was no Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he was lean, sinewy, in a John Cusack kind of way.

I nearly slapped myself. Time to slip back into the proper compartment.

Which turned out to be my mother. By the time I finished
the run, I was so frustrated with thinking about her that I called her up and asked her to meet me for lunch again the next day. It was time to confront her, explosion or no explosion, so I could get on with my own problems. Remembering how late she'd been last time, I told her I'd pick her up at her office.

“You can meet me there,” she said. “But we'll take my car. I need a chiropractor every time I get into that thing you drive.”

The
one
time you ever rode in it
, I thought. But it felt rather good to be irritated by her instead of dumbfounded the way I'd been recently. It was a more familiar sensation.

Just as I was leaving my office the next day at 11:50, Nigel appeared.

“Do you have a moment, Jill?” he said. He was the only person I knew who talked more properly than my mother—used to.

“Sure,” I said. “I'm meeting my mother for lunch, but I can be a minute or two late.”

“No, you absolutely cannot be late for lunch with your mother,” he said. “Just see me this afternoon.”

He turned and proceeded back down the hall, pace conspicuously unhurried amid the manic movements of the freshmen who'd just bolted from Deb Kent's tutorial. I almost ripped through them to catch up with him and find out what was going on with my thesis. But if I didn't get this taken care of with my mother, I was never going to be able to concentrate anyway.

BOOK: Pascal's Wager
8.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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