It has started again. This time I think it’s serious, the pain in the chest, the funny fluttering beneath the ribcage. I go to the doctor and he says it’s heartburn. But I haven’t eaten anything with grease or spices, only yogurt with honey and a bowl of Chinese noodles. It infuriates me because my father died of heart attack. And two of my cousins have stomach cancer. I tell Dr. Chadwick this and he smiles, a closed-lip smirk that condescends to listen, then he shakes his head, hands deep in the clinical white pockets of his lab coat.
“Oh, now, Professor Ashton, you’re too young to worry about that,” he says, deliberating over “professor,” as though it amuses him to say it. He’s young himself, with the brashness of the prodigy, and a manner as icy as his stethoscope.
“Your tests show nothing,” he says, taking up the flimsy grey pictures on his desk, my stomach a mysterious shadowed surface, white squibbles representing my intestines large and small. “It’s just the same old acid stomach acting up under stress.” He smiles again and releases my X-rays with a definitive snap of the wrist.
I nod slowly, conceding nothing. My internal organs are milky clouds on the X-ray film, cumulus giving way to cirrus edges. I myself read stormy weather ahead. Stand by for turbulence.
Crossing the quad, (I am late for a faculty meeting), I clutch the bag of sample medicines Dr. Chadwick has given me. They are versions of the same drug he always recommends, chalky and unpleasant, setting my teeth on edge as I chew them through careful teeth.
The day is mild for a New Hampshire autumn, the maples a spectacular splash of red, illuminated by a soft and knowing sun. I inhale the brisk air and feel its coolness settling into my lungs like ether, numbing the persistent pain. It is a season of transition, conducive to my soul; its sunlit brilliance edged with chilling winds, leafy glories soon to dry and darken, and die atop the hardened earth.
The pain is worse under stress. In that, Dr. Chadwick is right. Wesley Knowles has just to pop his mammoth head into the room and my blood pressure heaves; 210 over 100, I am sure of it. He glances disapprovingly at my faded jeans, my “Century of Women on Top” T-shirt, my Birkenstock sandals, and goes to sit with his cronies on the other side of the table.
Long ago he tried to lecture me about my clothes. He came into my office and leaned awkwardly against the chalk tray, looking at me through dull fish eyes. “Marion,” he’d said, mocking concern, “as a senior faculty member with 26 years of teaching experience, I can assure you that, despite what they say, students do not respect professors who dress as they do. On my part, I wouldn’t even let you into my classroom dressed like that.”
He’d paused, waiting for me to respond. I was fascinated by the way his bald head shone in the fluorescent light, misshapen and smooth. I pictured him polishing it, spitting on a piece of chamois cloth and rubbing it like it was an old car. When it was clear I wasn’t going to say anything, Wesley had coughed and gone out. Yellow chalk ran in blurred lines across the back of his black tweed jacket.
Otto gets the meeting started. I bring out my knitting. It annoys the others to hear me clacking away, to see the precise movement of the needles and the lengthening weave of wool emerging. I don’t care about tenure, so I do as I please. Another couple years and I’ll think about what to do next.
They are discussing the case of a graduate student whose mother died at the end of last term. She returned to her classes and failed two exams, did not make up three problem sets. The rules say any student who fails one course is out of the program. Otto is inclined to make an exception and there is general agreement.
Then Wesley holds up a patrician’s hand and shakes his swollen head, his brow a ledge of incomprehension. “I think we’re letting emotion get in the way of better judgement here,” he bellows. His voice, from that tremendous source, fills the room with heat. “She didn’t bother to turn the problem sets in, even weeks later. And her algorithms score was the worst in the class. Let’s not lower our standards just because we feel sorry for the girl.” He pauses. “I mean, he adds, shrugging, “everyone’s mother dies sometime.”
The meeting erupts. Poor Otto reddens. Wesley glares triumphantly around the room. I cannot help laughing. I think of my own mother and sober up quickly. Who is worse? I reckon with myself. Wesley thinking that since everyone’s mother dies, we shouldn’t waste feeling on a particular case? Or a daughter who, contemplating the particular case, feels nothing?
My apartment is very bare. There is a table pushed against the wall which is covered in wool, carded and uncarded, some sewing stuff, and my bicycle pump. There are some pillows on a low futon couch in the other corner. That’s it. In my bedroom is a futon and an alarm clock on the floor, my spinning wheel and several cardboard boxes of clothes.
What is the minimum required to live, I ask myself? I am still finding out, using dishwashing soap for laundry, recycling paper bags at the grocery store, cutting down on toilet paper by one square a day. I eat no meat or fish.
I buy most of my clothes at rummage sales. Fifty cents is my maximum limit on shirts, but I’ll go five bucks for a good pair of pants. The rest I can make. I buy remnants of cloth and bags of shorn wool, and sew simple blouses. I card the wool and spin it into yarn to knit sweaters. It is the mechanism of handiwork I like: the rhythm of the needles, the wheel’s steady spin, the groaning goosestep of my antique sewing machine. It lulls me, that beat, matching an internal rhythm perhaps, or assuring it, for my heart seems in need of reinforcement.
The telephone rings as I am sitting down to spin. Its warbled cry persists. I finger the smooth cherry edge of my wheel and take a deep breath of fortitude, breathing out resignation. I know who it is as surely as if it were her own voice breaking through the room. She called twice yesterday and I hung up on her both times.
“Hello, Mom,” I answer. “What is it?”
“Marion, thank God! We got cut off yesterday.” Her voice fills my ear, low and loud, with a tremulous falseness that rises easily to hysteria. “So, I arrive on Wednesday. Heidi will pick me up at the airport in Boston and I’ll spend two nights there. I should get to your place by Friday evening.”
“Mom, I already told you, it’s not a good time for me. The term just started and I’ve got a ton of work.”
“Don’t worry, dear, I’ve got a good fat book. I’ll just curl up and read and make my own way around.”
I suppress the desire to hang up. She’s going to come anyway, I tell myself, and feel the corrosive acid rising in my stomach.
“Look, Mom, if you come, you’re only staying for the weekend. I want you to know that now. I’ve got things to do.”
“Of course, sweetheart. Heidi and I are going to the Cape on Tuesday. Oh, Marion,” my mother’s voice rises, “do you remember Walter Chessman, Daddy’s insurance agent from State Farm?”
“Well, he’s retired to the Cape and we’re going to get together up there. What do you think? He’s very handsome—he looks just like Cary Grant now that his hair’s gone all silver. Only he’s short, that’s the trouble. All the men I know are too short. I swear they start shrinking at 60.”
I hold the phone away from my ear, uninterested in Walter Chessman’s height. For some reason, I see my father in the den, squinting into the smoke of his Dutch Master cigar, looking me up and down with displeasure. “You’re good in math,” he said to me once. “What kind of a girl are you?” “She doesn’t have the looks, Stanley,” my mother had intervened, shrugging, “so, she’ll be a scholar.”
My mother’s voice goes on and on. My ear is numb against the receiver. I hold it away, then switch it to the other side.
“…a gentleman once in awhile,” she is saying, “but they’re very hard to come by these days. I just might settle for old Walter. Make him wear lifts. Say, maybe there’s a distinguished professor you can introduce me to up there, Marion. I’ve always liked the intellectual-”
“I’ve got to go, Mom,” I say, a sudden vision of Wesley Knowles and my mother sending me into panic. “I’ll see you Friday, okay? Bye.” I hang up and go back to the spinning wheel, starting the treadle, feeding the wool through lightly brushing fingers.
She shows up in a yellow car the size of a small aircraft, with pointed corners that extend beyond the body’s length. Her hair is all but hidden beneath a white turban, and her large frame is draped in yards of green cloth.
“Did you convert to Hinduism?” I ask her.
She looks at me searchingly, then touches her head. “Oh, this? No, no, it’s the fashion, Marion,” she says. “You don’t keep up.”
I help her with her suitcases; there are three, though she’s only staying two days. She follows me into my apartment and looks around warily.
“So,” she says, settling awkwardly into my futon couch, “this is where you live. You should get some furniture, Marion. It looks like a tomb in here.”
“They must pay you enough at this fancy university to afford furniture?”
I go into the kitchen. “Want something to drink? Juice, water?”
“No diet soda? No thanks. What’s this, Marion? ‘Call Robert about Thursday.’ Marion,” she calls out, “is there a man in your life?”
I bring my glass into the living room. My mother has picked up a piece of paper that has been lying on the floor for weeks and is waving it like a flag.
“No, Mom, and I’m not looking either. Robert is one of the graders for my course.”
“Yes, and 21 years old.”
My mother sighs. “Marion, when are you going to start thinking about settling down and having a family? It’s nice to have a career, sure, but you’re 33, Marion, your ovaries are drying up. Besides, I’m ready to be a grandmother. I think I’d be very good at it.”
“Work on Avery, Mom,” I say, wondering if she knows.
My mother’s face brightens. “Yes, Avery,” she muses, “he’s such a handsome boy. Why does he have to be so shy with girls?”
I dump my mother at the art museum, telling her I’ve got some things to do in the office. I’ll be back in an hour, I say, leaving her among the Ming dynasty ceramics in the Gene Y. Kim gallery.
“Okay.” My mother smiles happily. “Isn’t this beautiful, Marion? Oh, I’d love to have a pair of these for my sitting room.”
Outside, the weather has turned colder. The leaves have passed their riotous peak and fall, subdued and curling, to the ground.
No one is around as I tread the dim corridor of the math department, collect my mail and unlock my metal door. Unlike my apartment, my office is cluttered, stacked with books and boxes of homework assignments, with a large metal file cabinet and two ancient computer terminals backed into a corner. It’s not mine, most of it. I let them use the space for storage.
I bring out my knitting, a six-inch rectangle of soft grey wool that will become a V-neck vest. The pattern of stitches is flat and unifying, interlocking loops holding taut in endless repetition. My clever hands glide into motion, inserting the needle into the loop, wrapping around the wool, sliding under and off. The plastic needles slip-slap together, the yarn among them getting tangled in an ordered web of my own devising.
When I go back for my mother, she is gone. I race through the Oriental gallery, the early American with its Hudson landscapes, the photography exhibit upstairs of dizzy-eyed freaks. But she is nowhere. I ask the elderly guard at the entrance and he smiles, recollecting she went out ten minutes ago.
“Charming woman,” he says to me, nodding. “Your mother, you say?”
I hurry back to my apartment and sure enough, there she is, peering into my medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
“Didn’t I say to meet me at the museum?” I ask.
She looks up absently and shakes her head. “No, Marion, I’m sure you said to meet here. What are these pills for, dear?”
“Anti-spasmodics, for my stomach. What are you doing?”
“Your stomach again?” My mother shakes her head. “You should really see a specialist, Marion. You know about Freddy, of course. That he had to have his colon removed? He has to wear this bag now, attaches right to his leg. Can you imagine? Poor Olivia, she’s worried to death about him.”
I feel my bowels constricting with the thought, a dull throbbing pain, as though my heart has slipped to my abdomen.
“Throw this out,” my mother says, lifting out a small brown bottle and handing it to me. “It’s expired.”
My mother has removed the white turban. Her hair underneath is twisted tightly into a bun, its end burrowed into itself like some grayish version of a Mobius strip. Her broad bones give every movement she makes an extravagant power. The pale smoothness of her skin seems scarcely able to contain them. Even standing in her stockinged feet in my bathroom, she is an imposing woman.
My mother turns to me suddenly, her mouth a puckish circle. “Marion, where’s your diaphragm? Don’t tell me you’re not protecting yourself!”
“Don’t need to,” I say, turning to leave. “Get out of there, Mom. Come on.”
. . .
I wake in the darkness. The orange glow of the alarm clock reads 5:02. It is a bad time of day for me, long and slow and empty. I have had a dream I can’t recall, as I can’t recall so many of my dreams. Only the impression is left behind, the wisp of a mood, and it is something bitter, something faintly unpleasant that I am glad to be taken from.
I go out into the kitchen. In the half-dark, my mother is crouched in front of the kitchen cabinets. Pots and canisters line the countertops.
‘Mother, what are you doing? It’s five in the morning!”
“Oh, Marion, you’re up. I couldn’t sleep so I was going to fix myself a cup of tea, but I couldn’t find any. Your kitchen is so disorganized. I just got started trying to make some sense of it when I found the tea after all.”
I yawn. My mother’s backside as she squats on the floor is a vast green terrycloth plain. Staring at it wakes me.
I go to the bathroom and when I return, she is putting things back in the cabinets.
”See, I put the canisters in front and the pots over on the right side. That way you don’t have to reach way in back for the tea and sugar.”
I nod, standing sleepily against the wall. Whenever you come visit, Mom, do you have to snoop around in my things?”
My mother’s lightly sketched eyebrows rise. “Snoop? I was cleaning up after you, Marion. I don’t call that snooping. And when have I ever done it before?”
“Since I was a kid,” I say. “Remember the time I caught you reading all my letters from Lucy Roman?”
“She was a bad influence, Marion, and I just knew she was taking drugs.”
“How about the time you came to visit me in Berkeley? My desk?”
My mother blinks. “I was looking for a pen.”
“The trouble is, you ask if I gave Avery money, and I know you’ve been snooping.”
“He’s my son,” my mother says.
She turns her back to fill the kettle at the sink and place it on the stove. “Tea, Marion?” she says. “Let me make you a cup.”
She turns to face me, her hands behind her back. It is a casual gesture, but in the grey light of near morning, framed against the enamel whiteness of the kitchen appliances, it takes on a heroic proportion. Her face is stripped of its usual layer, and something else is gone with it, that vigilant look of desperate gaiety. She seems relaxed—I realize that I’ve never seen her so relaxed—and something within me also lets down a little.
“You’re so self-sufficient, Marion,” she says. “You make your own yarn… And you only eat rabbit food… You don’t care what you look like, just go around in whatever you please… And look at this place. It’s almost empty…”
A vagueness, unlikely in my mother, seems suddenly to possess her, scattering her thoughts like buckshot. Her eyes have frozen on my face in a look of contemplative wonder.
“I don’t understand you, Marion,” she says slowly. “I’ve never understood you. I don’t know where you came from.”
It is the truth, finally, and I should be glad to hear it from her, but instead I am surprised by the pain. It is my mother, after all, who taught me—her impatient hands pulling the yarn from my fingers—what I know of survival. In shape and substance I have formed myself in her negative image, a reciprocal arrangement of the same parts, and what scares me now is not how strange I seem to her, but how familiar she is to me.
There is a moment when I think I might tell her this, when it appears she might say something more about me. But then the silence goes on a bit too long, and the impulse falters. I hear the low ro ll of the water in the kettle, the creaking effort of the electric heating element. It is a silence of recantation, of taking back, the distance measured backward from an unforeseeable point. I see the opaque return to my mother’s eyes, as though a moment’s lucidity had wounded them.
“Anyway,” she smiles, her brave and utterly false smile, “I think it’s just great that we can talk like this, like a couple of girls at a slumber party! Oh, Marion, do you have any popcorn? Don’t you remember? You always have popcorn at a slumber party!”
The kettle whistles. I watch the steady, V-shaped steam. Evaporating with it, into the dim and startled air, is the moment of revelation itself, the opportunity taking on its own sad and spectral shape, and vanishing in wisps of disappointed smoke.
I sit down at the spinning wheel as soon as my mother leaves. The smell of sweetly-scented soap lingers in the apartment like something misplaced. My knowledge of that smell is intimate, almost unconscious, but today, in these spare rooms, it seems unprecedented, a large and curiously unhappy odor.
I get the treadle going, pumping lightly with my right foot as I coax the fibers through. With one hand I guide the wool, drawing it out gently as it passes close to the wheel; the other I merely rest against the fibers, smoothing an occasional clump between finger and thumb. The wheel whirs gracefully through its rotations, twisting the unruly wisps of wool and channeling into yarn. I watch in admiration. The pain in my chest flares and falters, stunning into fury the unreliable heart. Like the miller’s daughter, who sat in her cell knowing she could not spin straw to gold, I work toward an end I cannot figure, the skills I possess not equal to the task.
Spinning was published in The Chattahoochee Review in Fall 1990.