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She Hates Numbers

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Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

And so, since there were no detailed official maps, he named small lakes after himself, solitary hills, even shy, dusty lanes marked only by the great thumping hooves of his horse — a patient, taciturn beast, dun-colored, remarkable mainly for the seven white spots on its flank, arranged like the constellation Ursa Major.

Back then, a hundred years ago, electrical-survey men like him sweated gracefully during summer, their cheeks burnt into dark Scotch grain, their hairlines preserved white as milk under the dimpled felt of U.S.-issue hats. Though he was the youngest of the crew, his moustache grew enviably broad and full, waxed close at the tips, bowed under his classical nose like the extended wings of a pigeon.

Reining to a stop, as he slid down, he pulled from the saddle-bags yet another wooden stake flagged with a length of wrinkled red muslin, kneeling to pound it into the rocky Vermont ground, leaving it there for eternity.

As he rode on farther north — past the tall flowering weeds around Lovell Pond, the drunken bees bouncing off his boots — continuing along the route he’d laid out for the electric poles to follow, he thought of his mother: the way her fierce blue eyes glittered on foggy mornings, the way his father caressed her wrist at the dinner table, and, above all, how skillfully she ironed, gripping the rag-wrapped handle, fluttering the heavy, blunt-nosed tool over the damp white cotton of his shirts in rhythms as comforting and certain and lovely as the slow tick of a butterfly’s wings as it feeds from the bright center of a blossom.

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martha’s china, a short story

illustration martha's china

Martha’s China

“I’ve met a nice girl,” Martha’s divorced son, Paul, had announced one Sunday. “Her name’s Lidia. I want you to meet her sometime.”

“Well, why don’t you bring her to dinner with you next week?” she said. As she put her coffee cup down into the saucer, her wrist twisted suddenly and she nearly dropped it, making a terrible chipping sound. Holding her breath, she ran her hand over the bottom of the cup but found it unharmed. She smiled at Paul and touched her necklace. “Call me by Wednesday to let me know for sure.” Then she decided she’d sit and sip coffee and smile at her son; she was entitled. Paul looked just like his father only better, his shoulders wider, his hair thicker, his teeth larger, his eyes a purer blue.


This year, in honor of Thanksgiving, Martha’s second daughter-in-law, Lidia, wore a white jumpsuit, gold belt and shoes, and a great deal of white plastic jewelry. A long bead necklace was wrapped twice and knotted around her neck, bangle bracelets in random widths jangled everywhere, too-heavy earrings sagged the little holes in her lobes. There was a brooch too, some sort of spidery circle with a gold anchor dangling in its center.

Unfortunately, the white Thanksgiving jumpsuit was tight everywhere that Lidia wasn’t. Martha breathed deep and smiled anyway, gripping the hot solid hand firmly, glad to be helped up the front stoop even by a woman like this. Well, at least she’s got him going to church again, Martha thought — we’ll just see how long that lasts. Before his and Lidia’s wedding day, Paul hadn’t set foot in a church of any kind for twenty-five years, not since the last day he hung up his altar boy outfit. He’d had a civil ceremony with his first wife. Maybe that was her fault too — hell, everything seemed to be the mother’s fault, these days.

Martha should have known from the beginning how this second marriage would turn out. Lidia had no hesitation in her voice. Brassy. From the very beginning, she just blared right out with everything. “Hello, Mom,” she’d say to Martha, her cheeks round and orange with too much makeup, front teeth stretching her upper lip, keeping it from ever completely closing, making the words come out slippery-sounding: too loud, too bright. Not a lisp, but damned close. All she needed was a fluffy tail to snap behind her, Martha thought — it would go right with the rest of her chittering.

Not like Neal’s mother, Paul’s first wife, Joanne. Martha sighed, remembering Joanne as she sat down on the too-soft living room sofa, some rattan thing covered with the kind of material she would have expected to see worn by a belly dancer. Why, for all her problems, Joanne had been a lady. Martha had told her son that when he’d brought Joanne home for dinner for the very first time. “This girl’s too good for you,” she had said, right at the table in front of everybody. Damned if her conscience wasn’t clear on that one. Poor Joanne hadn’t known what she was getting into — none of them had. Not that Paul was a monster, just lazy. Almost spineless except when it came to his expensive toys. Those damned boats. Martha couldn’t stand it, but what could she do?

“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom,” Lidia said, plopping herself down next to Martha. “I hope you brought your appetite.”

Martha smiled. “Thank you, dear,” she said, patting her daughter-in-law’s hand lightly.


Martha’s china was Limoges. There was a border of tiny flowers, handpainted pink and green and a broad line of gold around the edges, the coffee and demitasse cups so thin you could see through them when you held them up to the light, like eggshells. Martha had inherited it from her mother and father when she was eight.

The accident that killed them had involved electricity. Whether it had been lightning or wiring, she never knew. In any case, she tried to imagine their final moments based on what she knew of electricity from watching movies and reading the encyclopedia. Waking early in the mornings, she would throw off the covers and lie there in the pearly dark, stretching her arms and legs out, stiff, at right angles. She would open her mouth until she heard her jaw pop. Her body would tremble, her lips sting. When she finally let herself go limp it was a relief to be back.

Martha was sent away to boarding school the following year; her parents’ money was managed by some cousins of her father’s. During her senior year, she was called in to the headmistress’ office and informed: fiduciary malfeasance. Of course she would receive her degree with the rest of her class. The words “charity case” were never used. Much later, memory and resentment molded the set of her mouth, pinching her lips with sharp lines: by the time she was fifty, no one guessed she had once been smoothly, delicately beautiful, the kind of looker other women couldn’t even bring themselves to dislike, although their first impulse was always to try.


“Where’s Paul?” Martha asked.

“Oh, he had to run out to the store,” Lidia said. “I forgot the cranberry sauce.” She chuckled, shaking her head. A small fleck of saliva flew from her lips as her teeth drew back. “Brain like a sieve sometimes. He’ll be back any minute now.” She stood up and walked over to the door leading to the T.V. room. “Neal! Eddie! Get off that Nintendo and come say hello to Grandma Bergen.”

Their boys had been five when Lidia and Paul married. It hadn’t bothered Martha at the time that they wanted Lidia’s boy, Eddie, to call her Grandma, too.

“Hi Grandma,” said Neal. “Happy Thanksgiving.” He bent and kissed her shyly and she felt a slight prickling fuzz tickle her face with the kiss. He was so white-blonde it wasn’t something she would have noticed from a distance. He was growing up, that was clear. He had a small pimple on his chin.

“Grandma, how’s it going?” Eddie said, and he stuck out his hand. She shook it, his hand warm and heavy like Lidia’s.

“Very well, Eddie,” she said. “Thank you.”


In the end, “fiduciary malfeasance” notwithstanding, young Martha had been able to keep the china and the silver, and her father’s monogrammed, twelve-piece dresser set. There was a little cash left over. She managed to graduate from Boston University by wearing the same dresses all four years and waitressing at Woolworth’s, not precisely what she would have chosen, but good enough for a Massachusetts teaching certificate. She interviewed at high schools all over but ended up teaching back in Brookline, where she had been born. Wanting to keep her figure, she joined the municipal tennis league. They played tournaments once a month. It seemed like a good way to meet people, better than church, which is what the other teachers did. Using God as a dating service was hardly a ticket to heaven.


“Can I get you anything, Mom?” Lidia asked her. “Some iced tea or a Coke?” Paul and Lidia were born-again Baptists now: no alcohol, even on holidays.

Martha smiled slightly as she remembered the old joke: What’s a Methodist? A Baptist who can read. “Iced tea sounds nice,” Martha said. She heard the gravel in the driveway crunching and the dogs started to bark. “That must be Paul. Go tell him his mother’s here.”

“Oh, he probably saw your car already,” Lidia said. “I’ll be right back with the tea.”


Martha’s ex-husband, Fred Bergen, had been a handsome young man, five years older than Martha. He was well over six feet, blue-eyed and blonde, with smooth Scandinavian skin that turned a dark, clear brown every summer. Martha was dark, eyes and hair, except for her skin, which was thin and light, looking almost transparent in the sun, a raised mole in the inside crook of her elbow the only mark on her. Next to him she looked like a foreigner, but her ancestry was English on both sides. He had gone off to Dartmouth to study Engineering but came home to Brookline to be a gentleman.

He was an ace tennis player; she was ready to get married. Her china saw frequent use. The teaching certificate moved into her scarf drawer. They had one child, a boy, named Paul, after her father.

The first few years after Paul was born, they lived just outside Concord, on the farm her husband Fred had inherited from his family. The three of them rode through the woods almost every Sunday, Paul on his Shetland pony, the reins tied to the side loop of her saddle. She especially loved the fall woods, the bare trees making everything look so clean. Everything was gray, but there were no real shadows.


“Well, hello there!” Paul said, pulling his satin baseball jacket off as he stood in the living room doorway. Throwing it over a chair, he sat down across from her. His smile was broad, his square white teeth perfect. The skin around his eyes wrinkled heavily as he smiled, pulled up into bags thrown into even harsher relief by the lenses of his glasses, something that still surprised her. If her son was getting old, she wondered, what was she?

“Hello there, yourself,” she said. She held one arm out to him, summoning. Heaving himself up out of the chair, he bent for a kiss. She smelled shaving lotion and dandruff shampoo; he fumbled at her cheek. She took one of his hands in hers, feeling the hard, dry skin of his fingers, squeezing it twice. Sitting down next to her this time, his breath whooshed out as if he had been holding it.

“How’s your father?” she asked. Their divorce had come years ago, when, of course, she was considered too old for it. Separated for a long time already, she nonetheless wanted the formality of the piece of paper. She took her own Social Security, not Fred’s, so it didn’t really change anything in a practical sense. It had been the kind of case the judge laughed at right in court. That irked her more than any of the rest.

Family holidays, of course, nothing had to change.


Martha had blamed herself the second time the money went. Not as much as she blamed Fred, of course. But she, of all people, should have seen it coming. The gin games at the country club were no surprise, but as for the horse races — she had had no idea. They sold the farm to pay off his gambling debts, land that had been owned by the Bergens for three hundred years. Neither of them had ever lived anywhere but Massachusetts. It was Fred who promoted Florida. He’d heard there were still bargains to be had in Miami.

They bought three lots with the money they had left, building an apartment building on the water in Coral Gables. Fred’s tan became year-round. He had started to put on weight, but it came off now that he was busy with the yard work and repairs around the building — five units — wearing swim trunks and sandals, beachcomber style. Martha packed her wool suits away in a trunk under the stairs. They both looked ten years younger, so maybe it was for the best.

Paul started first grade, then second, then third. When she found him rummaging through the old trunk full of woolens for a Halloween costume, she realized it was finally time to clean house. She got rid of all that heavy winter clothing, except for one pair of jodhpurs, sort of a souvenir, not having any use for them anymore but afraid she’d be sorry later.

She used the Limoges every Thanksgiving and Christmas, but then the company finally discontinued the old pattern, and she was afraid of ruining the set. Counting the different pieces, she wrote the numbers down on a 3×5 card taped to the inside of the china closet’s door. She’d dust the outside of the closet, telling Paul — someday, when you get married, this will be yours. Okay, he’d say, nodding. Is it all right if I go fishing with Gary this afternoon after school? She’d tell him yes, then watch him run out the door, worrying he’d never know what he had really come from.

But had knowing where she, herself, “came from” ever done her any good, she wondered?


“Oh, Dad’s the same as ever,” Paul said to Martha, rolling his eyes. “He ought to be here soon. I called Yellow Cab this morning. They were supposed to pick him up at one-thirty.”

Fred’s eyes were shot, but it was really the drinking that kept him from behind the wheel: the way his hands shook.

“Now, why did you go and do that?” Martha said. “I could have picked him up on my way.”

“I knew you’d say that,” Paul said. Then he chuckled. “I figured the cab deal was easier for everybody. If you really want to, you could drive him home, I guess.”

“I was only married to the man for forty-five years,” Martha said. “I can put up with him for one more hour in the car. Besides, then he won’t be able to stop and get loaded.”

Paul snorted, a half-laugh. “I don’t worry about it. I’ve already told him if he wants to kill himself he should go ahead.”


When Paul flunked out of the University of Miami his junior year, he had two options: the Coast Guard or Vietnam. It wasn’t really much of a choice. He spent the first eighteen months in Greece, working on Radio Free Europe. His letters home were short. The girls are beautiful here, he wrote. Martha was relieved when he was sent back to the States and stationed in Key West — no Greek wife, and that was fine. Every week or so he’d drive up for dinner.

She loosened up a little about the china. What’s the point in having something you don’t use? She would ask herself. She felt relatively safe using it for coffee and dessert since there were fourteen each of the small plates, cups and saucers. She could break two and still have a set of twelve.


Paul pressed his lips together and twisted them to one side. “Besides, as long as it’s not in my house, I really don’t care how much he drinks. It’s not my problem anymore.” He shook his head as if trying to convince himself.

Lidia came back in, holding a glass of tea in one hand and a magazine in the other. The ice tinkled as she walked. “Mom,” she said, “this is something we’re really proud of.” She handed the magazine to Martha, putting the tea on the coffee table. “It’s on the last page,” she said.

Martha opened her purse for her reading glasses: frosted blue frames with half lenses, on a silver chain. She held them to her nose, the chain rattling against her string of amber beads as she fiddled with the magazine. It was last month’s copy of Florida Sportsman — on the last page was a photograph of Paul on the deck of his boat, holding up a very large and very dead bull dolphin, his fingers hooked in the poor creature’s gill covers. “My, my,” she said, looking up from the magazine and raising her eyebrows. “Isn’t that something!”

“The fish was forty-nine pounds, even,” Paul said. “Half a pound over the local record.”

Martha smiled, peering at her son over her glasses. He wasn’t a outright gambler, that was true, but in a hundred other ways he was exactly like his father. This fishing obsession: did he really think it was enough? A person she raised from a baby — living his adult life primarily through jerkings and spinnings felt from the end of a pole.

“Congratulations,” Martha said, removing her glasses and folding them carefully, setting them on the coffee table in front of her. “I hope you’re having the fish mounted.”

“Of course,” Lidia said, leaning over the back of Paul’s chair, her solid brown arms wrapped around his neck and her chin resting lightly on the top of his head. “The boys and I are giving it to him for an early Christmas present.” Paul twisted his head and smiled up at her.

The dogs barked again. A cab pulled into the driveway. The noise of the idling engine echoed against the stuccoed concrete block of the house. Fred climbed awkwardly out of the back seat, wearing an old plaid patchwork sport-coat and thin wire-rimmed glasses, his wispy gray hair blowing crazily in the breeze. Martha heard him call toward the open living room windows.

“Hello!” he said, his voice strained. His hand trembled as he futilely tried to smooth his hair. Finally he put both hands to the sides of his head, cupped behind his ears, calling again. “Somebody come out here and help me, would you? I’ve got some pies to bring in.”

Paul looked at Lidia and then back over at Martha, rolling his eyes. “The mincemeat,” he said. “I told him we already had dessert this year. Oh, well.” He got up and went out to help his father.


Martha had cooked a leg of lamb in honor of meeting Joanne. Putting real butter out for the mashed potatoes, she even brought out the big serving platter and the covered vegetable dishes from the Limoges. The dessert plates and coffee cups were on the table too, as usual.

Joanne was a nice girl, Martha saw that immediately. She wore a green linen suit and matching pumps; her hair was long, just past her shoulders, with square bangs, a white headband holding it back neatly. Her hand was small and cool in Martha’s own as she said hello. “It’s so nice to meet you, Mrs. Bergen,” she said.

“Oh, please call me Martha.”

“All right,” Joanne said, smiling. Her teeth were as glossy and prettily shaped as kernels of white corn. “Your home is lovely. It seems so nice and cool on the water.”

“Yes, we enjoy it,” Martha said. “Are you a native of Miami?”

“Not quite,” said Joanne. “I was born in Delaware. But we moved here when I was three, so I really have no memory of the cold.”

“We moved down from Boston when Paul was just a little older than that,” Martha said. “I don’t think I could survive a New England winter now.”

Joanne admired the table. “It’s so beautiful!” She touched the covered tureen in front of her. “Is this Rosenthal?”

“No, Limoges,” said Martha. “It belonged to my parents. The pattern is discontinued, you know, so I don’t use it very often. But this is a special occasion.” She looked over at Paul and smiled.

She gave Joanne and Paul the Limoges as a wedding gift.


“Fred’s always loved mincemeat pie,” Martha said. “It’s the only thing he ever learned how to cook himself. The man eats out of a can, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“It’s cute,” Lidia said. “My father couldn’t boil water without instructions. I like a man who cooks, even if it’s only one thing.”

Martha stared at her. “Pie crust is quite an accomplishment, when you think about it that way,” she said, nodding her head and smiling. “I suppose I could break down and have a piece this year. The heck with watching my weight on Thanksgiving.”

Fred puffed his way into the living room, wiping his glasses. His eyes looked small and defenseless, his face flushed even more than usual. “Well, that was a rare event,” he said. “An American cabdriver, white to boot. I asked the guy what he was doing driving a cab.” Shaking his head, he put his glasses back on, then took out a hard rubber comb and swiped at his hair. “He must be a real loser.” He lowered himself into the armchair next to the sofa. She caught a whiff of him: dry, musty. His pants were creased smartly but there was a faded grease stain on the knee. Turning to Martha, he held out his hand to her, which trembled although she knew he strained to hold it firm, and she felt a piercing of loss for him. I suppose in his own way, he pities me too, she thought. She must appear just as sad to him, even without a tremble.

“Hello, my dear,” he said, and he kissed her hand, his lips warm and slightly moist.


Poor Joanne hadn’t wanted to quit her job at the bank, but Paul insisted after Neal was born. “No son of mine is going to be raised by a babysitter,” he said. Martha felt he had a point — but what good was it if Joanne was miserable at home? She herself had missed teaching, although she’d never seriously considered going back to work until Paul was in high school. But she certainly wasn’t going to come between husband and wife. Her two cents, she kept to herself. Then Paul told her Joanne was having a problem with her drinking. He’d seen enough of that with his own father, he said, to last a lifetime. After he filed for divorce and custody of Neal, she didn’t mention anything to anybody, just decided to reclaim all she had left of her barely-remembered parents.

“Well, hi,” Paul said, when he opened the door and saw her, unannounced. His eyebrows were raised, but he didn’t ask. “Joanne’s with Neal down the street at the Gallagher’s. Kids’ birthday party.”

“That’s no problem. I’m here to get the china,” she said. Paul stared at her. He didn’t seem to understand. “The Limoges.”

“Oh, that,” he said, moving back out of her way as if he were afraid, and an odd memory of him at two years old flew by her, making her weak, making her want to squeeze him. They hadn’t hugged in years: they weren’t the huggy type, like some. Still, she had some idea what she was missing.

“Let me think a minute where we keep it,” he continued, taking his glasses off and rubbing one eye slowly. It reddened and he put his glasses back on. “That cabinet over there, maybe?” he said. “Underneath?”

“I know where it is,” she said. Joanne would never forgive her, but it couldn’t be helped. She packed the china in the special boxes she’d bought on her way over; Paul carried the boxes to the car for her.

Before the divorce was final, she called Joanne to explain. She realized Joanne knew her history, but still, she was ready to apologize — but Joanne hung up on her in the middle of it.


“Well, it’s about time we sat down at the table,” said Lidia. “Neal! Eddie! Turkey time!”

Martha hauled herself up, out of the overstuffed sofa. She held her arm out to Fred, still struggling in his armchair like a snail trying to flip its shell. “Let me help you,” she said.

“It’s a nice chair, but it’s hell to get out of,” Fred said. His touch was strangely comforting, and she held his hand firmly even after he was up out of the chair. They had the past in common if not the future. At my age, that’s about all you can ask for, she thought.

She led Fred into the dining room and they sat down opposite the boys. “What a beautiful turkey!” Martha said. And what an ugly serving platter, she thought.

She had given the old Limoges set back to Paul on his and Linda’s fifth anniversary, hoping to see it on the table on holidays, hoping Paul knew what t meant to her. But this platter was a cheap ceramic. I don’t know why I ever imagined Lidia would appreciate my Limoges, she thought. It looks like she picked this piece of junk up for a buck ninety-eight at K-mart — worse yet, at a church rummage sale. You’d think Paul would say something, though.

“This is an interesting platter,” Martha said to no one in particular after she sat down, putting her fingers out and stroking the edge. The feel of it was clumsy, the overglaze too shiny, far too thick: like somebody brushed it on with a pair of old socks. “Such bright colors.”

“Do you like it?” Lidia asked, smiling. “Paul picked that out just last week. It’s from Italy. Really perks up the bird, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” Martha said. She looked around the table. Surely there was something? But it was all the same. Thick peasant pottery — vegetable dishes, gravy boat. It was everywhere. “I suppose it is nice to have a change of scene at the table once in a while.” She unrolled her silverware and placed her napkin in her lap, smoothing it down over her knees.

They were slicing the mincemeat pie when she asked for coffee. “Mom, I’m sorry, I didn’t brew any,” Lidia said, frowning. “We’ve gotten out of the habit now that you’re the only person who drinks it. I’ve got some instant, is that all right?”

“Of course,” Martha said. “As long as you’re going out to the kitchen for it, would you mind putting it in one of the old cups for me? They’re so nice and thin it makes the coffee wonderful.”

Lidia turned and looked at Paul, although it seemed she still spoke to Martha. “The old cups?” she said. “You mean from the set you gave us?”

“Yes,” Martha said, nodding, adjusting her plate of mincemeat with two fingers. She turned to Paul expectantly as well.

“Paul,” Lidia said finally, when he said nothing. “Didn’t you talk to her about that?”

He looked up at the ceiling and forced air out of his closed lips, a burbling inter-spousal sigh. “Oh, boy,” he said. “Here we go again. I told you it was okay to donate it. We’ve used that stuff maybe five times in five years.” Looking back down from the ceiling, he turned to face Lidia. His face wavered, an uncertainty seeped in around the corners. “Actually, I don’t think I did mention it to her.” Turning to his mother, his head moved slowly, as if he had slept on his neck wrong and had a terrible crick. “You didn’t want it back again, did you, Mom? I don’t think they’ve had the sale yet. All the stuff is just sitting in the vestry meeting room.”

Martha sat perfectly still, taking in the light as it reflected off his face, which suddenly seemed ten, no twenty, years younger. Her breath held fast, but not trusting herself to let it out, she drew her napkin from her lap. Stalling, she used the napkin to clean her glasses, now hanging around her neck on their beaded chain. The thick polyester was wrinkle-proof but hardly absorbent, so all she managed to do with it was smear the lenses, making them worse than before. Dust and grease wouldn’t leave. “What sale?”

Lidia answered. “The annual white elephant sale. We sent over the china as a donation.”

“Oh,” Martha said. She picked up her fork and nipped the point off her piece of pie, scraping the tines harshly along the pottery surface as she scooped up the mincemeat. “If it’s not too much trouble I would like you to get the china back.” She looked across the table at Paul as if they were the only two in the room. “Don’t you think you should have asked me first?”

“I didn’t realize it was still your property,” Paul said, his face reddening. “It seems to me when you give somebody something that ought to be the end of it.” He stood up and leaned over the table, balanced on his fingertips. “I’ll get the china back, don’t worry. And then I never want to see it again.”

“I’m sorry,” Martha said. What’s wrong with me that I didn’t see this coming? she wondered. C-plus motherhood, is that what I’m left with?

“She’s been nuts over that china since I met her,” Fred said, shaking his head. “I’ve tried to tell her she shouldn’t let something like that get such a hold over her. It’s not healthy.”

Martha grabbed his arm, hard, and Fred turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise. She shook his arm a little as she spoke. “You keep out of it. It’s nothing to do with you.”

“You see what I mean?” he said, winking in Lidia’s direction.

“I’ll go get your coffee, Mom,” Lidia said.


After finishing her pie and a cup of microwaved instant, she had Neal walk her out to the car. Paul would have to call Fred a cab after all. “My back’s bothering me,” she explained. “I want to get home and right into a hot tub.”

“Grandma,” Neal said, holding her arm as she walked slowly down the slippery gravel drive. “Don’t take it personal. The china, I mean. They don’t have anything old in the house. They aren’t into antique stuff.”

She felt as lightheaded as when she awoke in the middle of the night, fighting to remember some crazy dream. There’s no panic like the panic of an old woman, she thought — though we’re supposed to have wisdom. The panic ebbed a little as she exhaled, and she sighed. “I wanted them to save it for you, Neal. For when you get married.”

Neal shook his head. “That’s a long way off, Grandma.” He laughed shortly, running his fingers through his long bangs. “Maybe never, who knows? Anyway, it’s better if you keep the china at your house. It takes up so much room.”

“Is that what Lidia says?” she asked him, but he only shrugged. The boy had learned something she hadn’t, she realized. “Oh, never mind,” she said, suddenly limp. She opened the car door and sat down heavily. “Bend down and let me give you a kiss.”

“Goodbye, Grandma,” Neal said. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

As she looked in her rear view mirror, driving off, she could see him standing out in the middle of the street, waving to her. Well, what did I expect, anyway? she thought bitterly. A memory pricked her suddenly, making her eyes water, partly from tears gathering but partly from the glare off the road and the way her thoughts shifted her eyes’ focus from the road itself to something impossibly far-off — a forced gaze she found difficult to wrench out of. She idled for a long time at the first stop sign out of sight of Paul and Lidia’s. Years ago — her mother’s hand, stroking her hair, leaning over the edge of the bed in the darkness. A firm touch, though it tickled and made her shiver just a little. For the life of her, though, she couldn’t recall the sound of her mother’s voice. Just one word, she thought. Just one. She waited to hear.

A horn sounded behind her and she jumped, startled so brilliantly it hurt to breathe for a moment. “All right, all right, what’s the rush, buddy?” she said, jerking her gaze back to business, blinking as her eyes finally overflowed, fat round drops. But the fabric of her black skirt instantly absorbed the tears, and so, looking down at her lap for confirmation, before she pressed the gas pedal, she saw only the faintest of shadows staining the darkness of the fine wool.

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Filed under short stories

Walking Tour, a short story

illustration walking tour

Walking Tour

Kate — though she wished Hal wouldn’t work so hard — knew he wasn’t as bad as some; not like the ones who crashed on the couch in the lounge at 4 a.m., crawling home at seven to shower and change and get back in time to teach at eight. No, she and Hal had some social life; they were close to several of the other young married professors — they took turns hosting dinner parties, and sometimes on Fridays they all met for a few beers downtown. And, of course, she and Hal had always talked about taking real advantage of his academic calendar — short vacations during midterm breaks, escaping New Jersey for Maine or Vermont in the summer — though they hadn’t managed anything like that yet. They’d been married for four and a half years — their daughter, Rebecca, was two — but so far the only real vacation they’d ever had together was their honeymoon.

That was why, to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in July, Hal suggested they take a car trip through New England — just the two of them. Kate agreed to the idea, and her mother was willing to come up from Washington to stay with Rebecca — but, as the date of the trip got closer and closer, Hal became frustrated, even irritable, when Kate was unable, or unwilling, to make the smallest of decisions concerning the trip.

He brought home plenty of maps and guidebooks for them to go over together — but Kate found when she tried to read through the material, she got floaty and detached, incapable of linear thought. Hal would stare at her, his eyebrows raised in mild interrogation. “Sure, that sounds good,” she’d say, nodding in desperate agreement with whatever he had suggested.

Hal had always been the more methodical planner. Perhaps that was what was holding her back.

“Do you want to go on this trip, or not?” he asked her, at one point, sounding exasperated.

“Yes, yes, of course.” She looked up at a large cobweb draped over the window molding. One loose corner of the web waved in the air currents like a miniature flag. Damn this house, she thought. “You’ve read all the books. I’m sure whatever you decide on will be great.”

“Then I don’t want to hear any complaints,” Hal said.

“You won’t,” she said. “I have faith in your judgment.”

As it was, she could barely manage to pack. Her wardrobe was entirely inappropriate, she thought: her suits left over from work were too formal, but her everyday clothes made her look like just another suburban hausfrau.

The morning of the first day, as Hal backed out of the driveway, Kate’s mother held baby Rebecca up, flapping her tiny arm for her in a mock goodbye, the child herself oblivious to their departure. Kate waved goodbye back more vigorously than she had intended.

“She’ll be fine,” Hal said, smiling at her and patting her hand.

“Oh, I know,” Kate replied, shrugging. She hated to seem like a stereotypical mother, but she felt both annoyed and vaguely panicky.

The drive was easy, the traffic light. Kate worked on a piece of needlepoint she’d started while pregnant with Rebecca. The first scheduled stop was halfway through Connecticut — a small, formerly decaying town, adjacent to the state university, located in the middle of vast, uncultivated pasture. The house they were to sleep in was centuries old, though it, like the rest of the recently renovated buildings, looked brand new. Kate tried to imagine what this place had been like back when the house was built. Nothing much came to her — images of women in long, scratchy wool dresses, perhaps, similarly clothed children covered with prickly heat.

The owners of the bed-and-breakfast were pleasant enough. Husband and wife, gourmet vegetarians — new-age bodies thin and neat; limbs long and slow-moving; dark, bowl-shaped haircuts giving them an ascetic-Oriental look.

Even before the walking began, Kate was exhausted. Oh, she’d been low-energy for as long as she could remember, starting around puberty — but she’d been even more that way after the birth of their daughter. She craved feeling zippy, peppy, and enthusiastic as others craved chocolate, champagne, sex. She’d discovered, however, that the more she slept, the drabber and more leaden she became.

Kate had very little to say to Hal over dinner. At the historic tavern restaurant he’d chosen from the guidebooks, she looked enviously at the surrounding couples — coveting what seemed an easier and more satisfying intimacy than their own. The food was good, the ingredients fresh and dramatically prepared, but she wondered why he had picked this town. Their room at the bed-and-breakfast was clean and lovingly decorated — but something seemed to be missing. Of course she couldn’t possibly say anything to Hal. She had let him plan everything.

Moreover, she had the horrible sinking feeling, that she would never be any good at vacations. In her family, the appearance of tourism had always been something to be strictly avoided.

Vacationers, her parents said, always seemed such bores. Hal, on the other hand, seemed at ease in his role as traveler. She tried to relax, to copy his behavior, to see everything through his eyes, but it seemed an arduous task, barely worth the effort. Enjoying this sort of travel must be a genetic trait — in which case she was doomed.

The second day, they drove on to Boston. In the car, Kate began to feel so alienated from Hal — from even their physical surroundings — that she was frightened. Without the baby, she felt light as helium, and dizzy with unaccustomed altitude. Yet she was also glad to be rid of the child. At every opportunity, she looked into Hal’s eyes over and over again, waiting for him to reassure her, waiting for the comforting rush of affection to take hold and be returned. Upon checking in at the famous, 100-year-old hotel Hal had selected, they discovered in their room incongruous sixties shag carpet, faintly damp, faded bedspreads, and chipped Formica furniture. Only the bathroom was authentic, with its small, hexagonal white tiles, massive, pull-chain toilet, and stubby porcelain faucet-handles.

Again, she could reveal none of her discomfort to Hal. There were no excuses for her. It was true that, ever since she’d quit her job to stay home full-time with Rebecca, her wants and desires seemed less and less clear, less discernible — even to herself. Thus, she often found herself waiting for things to happen around her, griping when events didn’t happen at the right time or in the right sequence to suit her. Had she always been this way, she wondered? She fell asleep that night as abruptly and uneasily as though knocked over the head with a large hammer.

The next day — at least for the first hour or two — the walking tour of old Boston was successful. Kate loved the feel of the tidy old churches: the bare, wide-board floors, the quaint boxed-in pews, the high pulpits covered by conical sounding boards. She and Hal hiked all the way from their downtown hotel to the watery edge of the city. But the day grew sunnier and sunnier, hotter and hotter, until, after lunch, all she wanted to do was sleep.
“I’m getting tired,” she said. “How about going back to the hotel for a nap?”

“You can nap when we get home,” said Hal. “Napping wasn’t in my plan.” He smiled unforgivingly. “Next on our itinerary is the Battle of Bunker Hill memorial.”

“Oh,” she said, nodding her head resignedly.

They got lost on the way over, both of them confused by the number of bridges and interchanges, though Hal refused to pull into a gas station for directions. The neighborhoods they passed through grew more and more ominous-looking. Then Kate spotted the monument’s tower, which could be seen over the rooftops from several blocks away.

Standing in the small museum built next to the monument, Kate listened carefully to the guide’s lecture. Jostled by the other visitors, she nonetheless peered through dusty glass at a miniaturized tableau of the battle. She couldn’t believe it, but she even got choked up, reminded anew of the preposterous bravery of the untrained American farmers taking on the redcoats. Why, she hadn’t gotten emotional about that sort of thing since high school! Hoping no one saw, she wiped her teary eyes and felt like an imbecile.

Inside the darkness of the monument tower, even one loud-and-cocky school group of robust twelve-year-olds became red-faced and silent, panting during the steep climb. The odor of many thousands of perspiring bodies hung in the air like an almost-visible curtain. Still, upon reaching the top, Kate had to admit that the view — though rather claustrophobically viewed from between corroding iron bars set into tiny, deep-cut windows, the wide stone sills themselves further ornamented by large, multicolored wads of gum — was panoramic.

Hal’s entire vacation plan, Kate now realized, consisted of walking, walking, and walking. The next day, on their way west, out to the Berkshires, they stopped at a restored Shaker Village. Again, more miles to be traversed, through wet grassy fields and gaping wallows of mud. Kate’s sneakers were a disgrace. But she found she enjoyed touring the dormitory buildings: men on one floor, women and children on another. The sect’s emphasis on celibacy and the members’ resultant childlessness caused her a strange, unexpected envy. Why hadn’t she thought of that? No one to worry about but herself.

“What a wonderful idea!” she said to Hal, turning to face him, surrounded by the cots in the middle of the women’s dormitory — pretending she was joking — and they both laughed. Suddenly, she craved the hard, simple life that the narrow, rather lumpy Shaker cots suggested. One’s life decisions made by the elders, no questions asked. Unfortunately, toward the end of the tour Kate discovered that the last surviving Shaker community of elders had already decided: no more members admitted! Even so, she imagined what it would be like — being far away from Rebecca for the first time since her birth, it was almost as if the baby had never existed. Could Kate really forget her so easily? She concluded she could not, then felt absurdly guilty.

That night, spent in a lovely old mansion near Tanglewood, was no better than the rest. She feared the trip would be over before she figured out why she wasn’t enjoying it. Her conversations with Hal were horribly self-conscious, forced in a way that she’d never experienced before. At dinner, the two of them were the only ones in the hotel’s restaurant — the music festival hadn’t started yet — so the empty tables around them made the staleness of their words even more obvious to her. The waiter, however, hovered over them: there was, it seemed, an oversupply of waiters. She drank too much, and though they made love back in the hotel room, it was more out of a sense of not-to-be-missed opportunity than of passion.

The next morning, they started for home. Kate had a peculiar rotten feeling, formless and overwhelming like motion sickness. She thought of how much money they’d spent on the trip and how it had been wasted on her. She was incapable of appreciating anything! She resigned herself to going home feeling even more tired and depressed than when she’d left. In self-disgust, she rolled up her needlepoint and contemplated throwing it out the window. As she was drifting off into a light, disoriented sleep, just before they crossed over the Tappan Zee, Hal saw a highway sign that caught his eye — something he hadn’t planned. A scenic overlook called Wappingers Falls, located in the middle of a large state park. One last hike. Just what I need, Kate thought.

“Look it up in the guidebook,” he told her.

“It says it’s a big waterfall,” Kate said.

“No kidding,” Hal said sarcastically. His tone turned to one of reflection. “Wait, wait. Now I remember. I read about this one. It’s supposed to be really beautiful.” Still driving, he turned to her for a moment. “Don’t be such a wet blanket.”

Saying nothing, she slammed the guidebook closed, and was not at all surprised when he took the following exit. She considered waiting in the car while he hiked alone, but as they drove through the park, something in Hal’s face opened up as he hunted for a parking space — she seemed to remember that particular demeanor, his earnest expression from years ago, that one where he really looked her in the eye. A remarkably clean light of awareness shone out of his pupils, bewitching her utterly. So, giving him the benefit of the doubt, she walked up to the falls with him.

The march up the mountain made her calves cramp bitterly. She forgot about his eyes and regretted having come. She couldn’t decide which aspect of the vacation had been the worst. Deep in self-loathing, she did not speak at all on the trail. They passed several laughing groups on their way down, and she felt horribly conspicuous in her sullenness. She lagged farther and farther behind Hal, becoming irritated when he didn’t wait up for her. She rolled her eyes at the dark canopy of trees, shaking her head, and then Hal disappeared around a bend in the trail.
As she walked, alone now, the air changed, becoming eerily fragrant, sweet with the mysterious smell of growing things and dirt. Presently, she could hear the water rushing in the river, then she could glimpse through the trees the rapid, swirling current, the translucent shine of the mountain water. Breaking into a fast jog, she labored up the steep path to catch up with Hal. She walked rapidly, next to him, eyeing him surreptitiously, checking his face for the look she remembered she’d seen earlier, but it was gone. They went around another sharp curve, and then the trees opened up into a large clearing. There was a narrow stairway carved into the huge granite boulders in front of them.
As she went down the stone steps, her view of the falls still blocked by trees, Hal held his hand out to steady her at the bottom. She stood gingerly on a patch of moss and raised her eyes to the sound of the water. The falls themselves almost made her stop breathing: high, jutting projections of rock; twisted, angular trees growing between the boulders; the surrounding sky bright blue and cloudless. There was something she’d never seen before in these rocks, in this moss, in the sight and spray-mist feel of this water. The falls bathed her face with a soft sigh of coolness — a breath of fresh air, moistened by God. She felt some sort of calcified anger snap in two, giving way inside her like a dry stick; with that, the merest bit of her accumulated, self-hating poisons began leaching out and away, and that was enough.

She had always been such a reluctant, grudging optimist — always, in the end, forced, against her will, to appreciate the universe, despite her tiredness, despite her crankiness. Kate wasn’t silly enough to believe she would be able to change her whole outlook overnight, but if she wanted it badly enough, she knew this moment could be the beginning of a new way of looking at the rest of her life. This — this rocky fall of water was somehow the truest thing she’d ever seen — dramatic, passionate, and dangerous — and it was demanding admiration from her. Whatever made this made me too, she thought. She stared at the exploding mass of water, the roaring noise soothing her like a baby.

Hal reached out and touched her arm. “So. Was this worth walking two miles?”

She turned to him, wondering at the smooth warmth of his palm, the slow gentleness of his voice. It was so seldom she and Hal were ever in sync. It was like he was a stranger most of the time — but not now. Perhaps this was also what had been missing. “Yes, it was worth it,” she said.

“Did you have a good time?” he asked her solemnly. “Was it a good vacation?”

“I did,” she said, and she squeezed his hand.

“Now, let’s go home to the kid,” he said, smiling as he turned away from the falls. She leaned forward and kissed him. “I actually missed her,” he sighed. Kate didn’t reply.

“Race you to the car,” she called, turning away from her husband and rising up the stairs, running as fast as she could down the angled mountain trail, moving easily towards home.

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