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Authors: Barbara Gowdy

We So Seldom Look on Love

BOOK: We So Seldom Look on Love
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Barbara Gowdy

We So Seldom
Look on Love

To my sister,
Beth

Well,
   it is better
     that
        S O M E O N E
              love them
and we
               so seldom look on love
                                 that it seems heinous

—”Ode on Necrophilia,” Frank O’Hara

Body and Soul
for Annie Dillard and Marius von Senden

I
n the apartment building across from theirs, six storeys above the ground, a cat walks along a balcony railing.

“Cat,” Julie announces, then stretches open her mouth in a pantomime of her mother screaming when there was a cat in their toilet.

“What colour is it?” Terry asks.

“Black and white.”

“Oh, black and
white.”
Terry’s disdain is her second foster mother’s disdain for black-and-white movies.

“Black and white and black and white and black and white,” Julie shouts, hitting her doll on the window-ledge.

“I heard you,” Terry says primly. As she turns from the window there is a sound from outside like a siren starting up. She is about to ask, “What was that?” but instead she screams, “Aunt Bea!” because Julie has begun to make the sink-draining noise in her throat. “Aunt Bea!”

“I’m coming,” Aunt Bea says, her sandals clicking into the room. Terry is bumped aside by her big hip, while Julie, who isn’t having an epileptic seizure, pushes away Aunt Bea’s arm.

“Now,” Aunt Bea chides, but Julie slaps the pencil out of Aunt Bea’s hand, then abruptly shuts up, providing a moment of dreamlike silence that signals to Aunt Bea the presence of the Lord. She feels her blood pressure draining from her temples like mercury down a thermometer. She smiles into Julie’s pearl-coloured eyes and says, “I guess we had a false alarm.”

Julie’s features contort into an expression of ugly, inconsolable, private and measureless grief.

“You’re all right now?” Aunt Bea says. She can never be sure, but she assumes that Julie is smiling back at her.

“Penny—” Julie points her doll at the window.

“Yes?” Terry says. “Penny” is what Julie calls Terry, nobody knows why.

Julie forgets what she was going to say. She begins hitting her doll on the window-pane.

“Hold your horses, I’m looking,” Aunt Bea says, inserting her hand between Julie’s doll and the window. She clutches the knob of the doll’s head. “Good heavens,” she says.

“What?” Terry cries.

Aunt Bea dips her chin to see out the top of her bifocals. “Well,” she says, “there seems to be a cat lying out there in the parking lot.”

“Fell,” Julie says in an anguished voice.

“Oh, did it,” Aunt Bea says. “Oh, dear.”

“Dead,” Julie says.

“No, no, I don’t think so,” Aunt Bea says, although from the pool of blood and unnatural angle of the cat’s head she’s thinking, Dead as a doornail.

“Is it bleeding?” Terry cries.

Aunt Bea hears, “Is it
breathing?”
and her heart constricts. It never fails to constrict Aunt Bea’s heart how eagle-eyed this little blind girl imagines everybody is. “Yes,” she says slowly, as if she is scrutinizing, “yes, you know, I think its chest is moving up and down.”

“Is it
bleeding?”
Terry repeats. She holds her hand out.

“It is
not
moving up and down,” Julie says in a severely reproachful voice.

Aunt Bea would swear that the only time Julie speaks in complete sentences is to catch her in a lie. “It’s hard to tell, of course,” she says.

“But is it
bleeding?”
Terry cries. The faint emanation of heat that she senses in her extended hand is Aunt Bea’s blood pressure going back up.

“Nobody seems to be coming down,” Aunt Bea observes to change the subject.

“You better phone the Humane Society,” Terry cries.

“I guess so,” Aunt Bea says. She snatches Terry’s hand and squeezes it to calm the child. “All right, I’ll go call them,” she says, and leaves the room.

“Is it bleeding?” Terry asks Julie. Blood concerns Terry. Eyes, she was disturbed to learn, can bleed.

“Dead,” Julie says.

“But is it bleeding, I asked.”
Terry is on the verge of tears. She wants an answer to this question even though she never relies on what Julie says. Whenever Julie answers the phone and it’s a woman, she always says, “It’s my mother.”

“Black and white and black and white,” Julie says.

Terry sighs. “I know
that,”
she says, giving up.

Julie, however, is referring to the checkered dress of a woman who has run across the parking lot and is now kneeling over the cat. Mommy! Julie thinks, ecstatic, and then she knows that it is not her mother, and she chews thoughtfully on her doll’s foot.

“Bleeding doesn’t mean you die, though,” Terry says, making her way over to her dresser. With the palm of her hand she taps the bristles of her hairbrush for the tingling sensation that reminds her of drinking Coke. Terry believes that Coke
looks
bristly. Milk, being smooth, she thinks of as round. The only thing she cannot imagine, the only thing she is prepared to be surprised by, is colour.

Terry was born nine years ago to an eighteen-year-old migrant corn detassler who left the abortion too late, mostly out of
curiosity as to who the father might be. By the colour of the baby’s hair, she’d know. But Terry came into the world bald and blind and with a birthmark covering most of the left side of her face, and Terry’s mother walked out of the hospital that same evening. To the nurse who tried to stop her, she hollered, “I coulda had her at home and thrown her in a dumpster, ya know!”

The nurses adored Terry. She hardly ever cried; in fact, she smiled most of the time. (Some of the nurses held this up as proof that a baby’s smile indicated gas; others said it proved that smiling was innate and not learned.) During the day they kept her in a bassinet at their station, on a table next to the photocopier, where it was discovered that the rhythm of the cartridge moving back and forth sent her to sleep. When she was teething, the head nurse left written orders that the copier was to be kept going for as long as Terry fretted. The head nurse, a collector and exhibitor of ethnically dressed dolls, made outfits for Terry in her spare time. Crocheted gowns, elaborately frilled, embroidered and aproned dresses, matching bows backed with tape so they could be stuck to her bald head. The other nurses bought her toys and sleepers. If an adoption agency was coming by to take her picture, they dressed her up and dabbed make-up on her birthmark to give her a fighting chance.

No couples wanted her, though. It took two years for Children’s Aid to come through with just a foster mother, and even
she
was obviously reluctant. Her name was Mrs. Stubbs. “Terry won’t be getting any special treatment,” she informed the nurses. “My own son’s asthmatic, and I treat him exactly like my daughter.” She refused to take the dresses because they had to be washed by hand and ironed. “I’ve got better things to do than that,” she said.

Such as housecleaning. In Mrs. Stubbs’s house the plastic was still on the lampshades, and Terry was taught to eat cookies with a hand cupped under her chin to catch the crumbs.
There were two other children—the woman’s daughter, who eloped when Terry was six, and the asthmatic son, who was devoted to goldfish. Once he let Terry put her hand in the tank to feel fish swim by. She was startled by how soft and slimy they were; she had expected the cold hardness of her foster mother’s wedding band. Her foster mother admired the glass-cleaning snails but was disgusted by the goldfish going to the bathroom in the very water that passed through their gills. The bathroom in her house smelled like pine cones. Terry was slapped for leaving the top off the toothpaste, for wearing her shoes in the house, for spilling anything—those were the worst offences. Living with this foster mother, she became a high-strung child with fingers like antennae. She could extend her hand and sense if another person was in the room. By the air currents passing through her fingers, she could tell if somebody was breathing in her direction.

Terry cried her heart out when she had to leave that home for a home closer to the school for the blind, but within a few days she loved her second foster mother to death. They spent most of their time together on the couch in front of the tv, one of the foster mother’s arms around Terry, the other holding the channel changer, which she used every two minutes because she wouldn’t watch commercials and because “Andy of Mayberry” was the only program that didn’t drive her crazy.

“Oh, right, give us a break,” she’d say to the newscaster, then eliminate him. “Christ,” she’d say, tapping her long nails on the wooden armrest next to Terry, “who comes
up
with this shit?”

Terry squirmed at the bad language, but the “us” flattered and enthralled her.

Her second foster mother’s husband was a jolly, longdistance truck driver. He came home once a week, then left early the next morning before Terry woke up. Terry’s foster mother groaned at the sound of his rig pulling into the driveway. She
made him pork and beans and sat smoking and sighing at the dinner table while he relayed with his mouth full the hilarious things that he and his buddies had said to each other over their shortwave radios. Terry rarely understood the joke, but she laughed because of his infectious laugh, and then he would mess her hair and say, “You liked that, eh, Orphan Annie?” When he stopped coming home at all, she wasn’t surprised. If he’d been a man on their
TV
, he wouldn’t have lasted five seconds.

But she
was
surprised—and so distressed she began pulling out her baby-fine hair in her sleep; nests of it in her clenched fist every morning— when she learned that his disappearance meant she would have to leave.

Her third foster mother lived two blocks away. In a voice very familiar to Terry she said, “Mrs. Brodie is too formal. I don’t want you calling me that. How about if you just call me Aunt Joyce.”

“How about if I call you Aunt Bea?” Terry said.

“Aunt Bea?” Mrs. Brodie’s dead sister was named Bea, so she was taken aback.

“From ‘Andy of Mayberry.’ “

Mrs. Brodie smiled. “Well, you know, I have to admit there’s a resemblance. She’s got a bun, though, as I recall. And I’ve got glasses, which I don’t think she has. Plus I’m about fifty pounds fatter. But our faces are kind of the same, you know, kind of …” She touched her face.

“Old,” Terry offered. She took it for granted that everybody had the same face.

“Old!” Mrs. Brodie laughed. “That’s right! Old! How would you like to help me bake a pie?”

The only bad thing about living with Aunt Bea was when her granddaughter, Marcy, came to visit. The first time she came
she didn’t speak until she and Terry were outside in the playground, and then she said, “Everybody hates you” and pinched Terry’s arm.

Until then Terry had thought Marcy was a mute. There was a mute who used to play with her first foster mother’s son. Despite the fact that Marcy’s breath hit Terry at face level, Terry had pictured a soft, little mute you could hold in your hand. The pinch burst Marcy into the spiky shape of a scream. “Go home!” Terry cried.

“She’s
my
grandmother!” Marcy shouted. “You’re the one that better go home before I kill you!”

Terry began to run. But since she had a poor sense of direction and no concept of space, “far away” meaning simply that it took longer to get there than “nearby” did, she ran in a large circle and didn’t realize until a split second before Marcy shrieked in her ear that she had ended up back where she started.

BOOK: We So Seldom Look on Love
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