Bad enough that you should let this happen to you; now you want to compound the sin by murdering the child?"
"What else can I do?"
"Marry the father."
"When your uncles talk to him, he will be persuaded."
"I don't want to marry him."
"No, you want to take your filthy pleasure with him, like a bitch in heat, and then you won't face the consequences!"
"I don't know who the father is," Dolores hissed then. It was not true, but her mother believed her.
And slapped her. So hard she nearly fell. Dolores was a small girl; she looked no more than thirteen; she was fifteen, and three months pregnant.
"Slut," her mother said. "You slut."
Dolores was silent. The tears came, from the sting of her red cheek.
"You will have the baby. You will have it, and we will give it to someone who appreciates the gifts of God, some childless couple. May God give you a trying pregnancy and a hard labor when your time comes. Should it be His Will, and you die in childbirth, may He forgive you."
All Dolores knew about abortions was that they were dangerous and they worked. As for how to get one, in a little southern Colorado town populated with Indians and Catholic Mexicans, she hadn't a clue. Morning sickness had given her condition away; its task done, it disappeared, and she had, despite her mother's curse, an exemplary term of pregnancy. At the end of the second trimester, she was sent discreetly to a home in Denver, at a cost her parents would never let her forget, where the child was born in February, a boy, black-haired and olive-skinned as his mother. She never saw him.
She asked to see him, but Sister Ignatia forbade it. "This is not your child," she said. "It is merely the ejecta of your sin. The child is nothing to you. It has a mother who wants it, and a father who will care for it. It doesn't need you."
They gave her tranquilizers for the first few days; after a week she was returned to her parents, sallow and exhausted. When she regained her strength, she ran away, not to Denver but to Albuquerque. She was found in a shelter for runaways and returned to her parents. She finished high school; she was a good student, and school came easy to her, but she gave herself to boys, careful to take her own precautions, taking pride in her "reputation."
When she graduated, she was two months pregnant with the child of the boy she loved, Steve Shackert, a year older than she. For six months, she had given him relative fidelity; for three, there had been no one else, so she knew, as before, whose child it was. She told him; they told her parents; they married. A month later, she miscarried. She was nearly seventeen.
ms., Diseases of the Heart
"It was my own fault. I was cleaning under the sink, and I turned too quickly and hit my face on the drain pipe." The outer rim of Claudine's eyesocket was blue-green and swollen; the color spread like turquoise matrix down into her cheek. She sat down at her desk, opposite mine, and began moving papers around as if looking for something.
I had been at Red Rocks College for four years; Claudine Lindheim was my new officemate; it was her first year. She taught nineteenth-century American literature and the usual Freshman English load. We had been working together for about two months.
"Are you going to have it looked at? It looks pretty bad."
"Oh, thanks a lot. So now you're saying I look bad? Just what I need!" She turned on me with extravagant outrage, then grinned. "Like an orangutan, huh?"
It looked bad; like bones were broken. I didn't rise to the invitation. "No, really. Aren't you going to get it looked at?"
"It's all right. OK?"
She must've really slammed her head around, I thought. But there's no point in fussing about it. There was nothing I could do to make her take care of herself. I'm a sedentary slob; she is very athletic. She runs five miles every morning, swims, rides horseback, plays tennis and squash. She took State in the high jump her senior year in Minnesota, she had told me one day. Her husband, Peter, was two years younger that her, taller and heavier, but he was hard put to keep up with her; she "ran circles around him," she had said with a laugh. They bicycled together. They went climbing in the canyons every weekend, it seemed, and they had plans for major skiing excursions this winter. He had taught her to downhill the year before; she was already a good cross-country skier and snowshoer. My idea of a strenuous day is an afternoon of fishing in Poudre Canyon, or lazing through the woods, dodging ticks with Sam, my dog.
Claudine had found whatever she had been looking forsome mimeographed sheet in her desk. I watched her read it; he head was framed by a poster on her wall. The sheet looked like Margaret Deakins' memo on the Merrill reading at the University of Denver. Watching her read, I found myself thinking of two weeks ago, when Claudine had come to work in a frilly long-sleeved blouse. Standing behind her chair to help her proofread a letter on her computer screen, I noticed a green bruise the size of a quarter on her arm when she pushed up a sleeve to rub it. "Squash. Got hit by the ball," she had explained, looking at my reflection on the green and black computer screen. "That is a hard little mother." Then she pulled the sleeve back down.
I turned my attention back to the essay I was reading.
"What was the name of that Ambrose Bierce story you were telling Peter about when you picked me up yesterday? He wants to read it. For his comp class."
"'Chickamauga'." I was reading a student's analysis of her relationship with her father after his divorce. I finished a paragraph and swiveled again to face Claudine's desk. "Bierce is a little heavy for freshmen, I think. It's a little like expecting them to appreciate Jeffers. Or Vardis Fisher. Too grim."
"Idaho writer. Popular in the thirties."
"All right, the Idaho writer. The only Idaho writer. Not a writer who happened to blow his brains out in Sun Valley, but a real Idaho writer." I grew up in Twin Falls. She knew it.
She grinned maliciously. "So they have books in Idaho?"
"Yeah. They have books in Idaho." I paused, looking thoughtfully at the ceiling for a moment. "Seven. No, nearly a dozen if you count the university library. They take turns reading them, the twenty-three Idahoans who know how to read." I paused. "Literacy is a real problem in Idaho. Once people learn how to read, they figure out how to leave. Road signs, you know."
A week after the semester began, Claudine and I had discovered we lived close enough together to car pool. She had to go about half a mile out of her way to pick me up, but for me it was on the way to Red Rocks. We drove to work together whenever Peter needed to go up to Boulder to research his dissertation.
She was facing the window now, reading a book in her lap. The blue-green lump on her face didn't show from my angle of vision; it was on the other side of her face. Still, even invisible, it troubled me. Perversely, I wanted to touch itwhat for? To make it go away, I suppose; or perhaps to test it, make it real. I realized I was staring at her. She looked up, stared back expressionlessly. I felt like a camera. We both smiled, and each returned to our reading.
I was marking the essay with a green felt tip pen. The grammar was accurate for the most part, and the writer had kept to her topic fairly well. Ruth Stroh was the eldest in her family, and she had three younger sisters. She was seventeen or eighteen, I supposed; she said her sisters were eleven, fourteen, and sixteen, and she was a year ahead of the oldest in school. Her father was a rancher up in Timnath, separated from his wife for four or five years. Ruth had moved out when she finished high school, coming to Denver to enroll at Red Rocks, and I knew from other essays and entries in her journal that she was working at the Red Lobster on Arapaho Road.
She drove a huge hi-axle pickup and came to class in a ranch kid's wardrobe, swaggering a bit in cowboy boots and faded paint-on jeans creased with every line of her underwear. She never wore makeup. Her hair was light-brown, almost butterscotch brown, and usually tied back in a no-nonsense elastic, with a few stray tendrils spiraling off her head like frozen fireworks. She had a Scots complexion, skim-milk skin peppered with freckles, and a squareness in her torso that gave her a boyish look. She was not pretty but striking in a feline sort of way, the sort of girl one notices. She had long eyelashes and a sculpted-in-candy mouth. Her small, delicate hands were incongruous with the jeans and pearl-button sleeves.
Her heavy-lidded eyes and the cut of her mouth projected a kind of sensual availability incongruous with who I had discovered her to be. It was disconcerting: in repose, listening, there something almost sluttish in her expression. And yet there was none of it in her behavior. She was, in fact, one of the shyest girls I had ever known. She was not given to lewd double-entendre. She walked with a kind of loose-jointed sexy rhythm that drew men's eyes, but I never saw her walking one-to-one with a boy. Six years younger, she'd have given Humbert heart failure. But she was, at core, just a sweet kid. Sweet, and serious, a writer who took her writing seriously, and demanded that respect from me.
She was, however, one of those troublesome students who hover between a B and a B plus, never quite getting "the frosting on the cake," as Annabel Springer had put it one day, the intangible excellence that took a piece of writing from good to exceptional. She did best in her personal writing; she found analytical writing and exposition boring, and her boredom showed in the results. Some of her best work was in her weekly journal, free writing that allowed her creativity to ramble. This writing assignment had been to describe and analyze a significant learning experience, and she had chosen to write about the challenge of bringing up her sisters after her mother left them all with her father. Her father had depended on her as housekeeper and nursemaid since she was thirteen.
She had captured the situation in an opening phrase that troubled me from the moment I read it. It was gnawing still at the back of my mind while I continued to read: "He expected me to replace my mother in every way." The details of the story were trivial, common enough, in themselves: the maturing effect of responsibility, a couple of anecdotes about trying to impose her seniority on sisters she barely outweighed, a realization that she must have provided similar challenges to her mother. But as I read, that phrase kept returning, and a mental counterpoint, my own voice, kept repeating, "Does she mean what I think she means?" There were phrases that would have seemed innocent, outside the context of that opening statement: touchings described vaguely, references to loving. "We had a ritual, I would sit in his lap each night, when he came home for a few minutes...." I circled "for a few minutes," moved it where it belonged, and the image lingered as I read on. She described having to get up in the night once, when the youngest was sick. She wrote, "He made me go and see what was wrong." It seemed, I thought, as if she and her father must have been in the same room. The sameI pushed the idea aside.
The fourteen-year-old sister was Doris; the youngest was Marie. Doris was the easiest to manage; Ruth's problems were with Ann, next oldest and heir-apparent to household supremacy. Ruth's father seldom sided with Ann in confrontations and mediations. They didn't get along, Ruth noted. Marie was a tomboy, heart-stoppingly brash; she threw herself at athletic danger like a ballerina leaping into the cradle of her favorite partner's arms. As I read on, I found myself alternately worrying over that phrase from Ruth's first paragraph, like a dog picking the last gristle from a bone, and castigating myself for a suspicious and, Ruth no doubt would say, dirty mind. Is that what she meant? If so, how can she say it so matter-of-factly? Surely not. At last, I reached her concluding paragraph.
"I learned a lot," it began, "but I feel I lost my childhood." She went on to acknowledge how good it felt to have successfully raised the older girls. She was proud she had managed to talk Ann out of quitting high school. Ann would be moving to Denver once she graduated in May; Doris had a couple of years to go. The paragraph concluded with another quiet reference to experience gained at the expense of lost childhood, and then she ended with, "I want to get Doris out of there if I can, so he can't do it to her now." It was her last sentence. I caught my breath.
|Chapter One continues...|