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Mark Bremerton had been waiting all day to put his feet up, read a bit of John Olsson’s Word Crime, and enjoy some of that Yemeni coffee the postman had delivered. And he was almost there: two Aesop’s Fables, one Goodnight Moon, Three Billy Goats Gruff, one small glass of water, one last trip to the bathroom, and his five-year-old nephew, Paxton, was finally tucked in with his favorite stuffed animal, Floppy Joe.
Mark paused at the door. The earthy aroma of the coffee wafted down the hallway, making his stomach rumble. He sniffed appreciatively, then looked back at his nephew. “No more water tonight, Pax,” he said. “That’s the last set of sheets—“ He stopped. The boy’s eyes were closed. Mark walked back and sat on the edge of the bed. “What is it, Packster?”
“Do you think Mommy can hear me when I talk to her?”
Mark placed his hand on Pax’s head and rubbed the boy’s forehead gently with his thumb. Pax’s eyelids trembled and Mark could see wetness along the tips of his lashes. “I think so,” he said.
“’Cause I can’t find my toe-socks.”
“Toe socks?” Mark asked. “Must take forever to put them all on.”
Paxton opened his eyes and gave Mark a serious look. “Not one for each toe. They’re regular socks with—“ He thought for a moment. “They have toe sleeves,” he said. He pulled away from Mark’s hand. “I’m okay,” he said.
“I know you are,” Mark said. “It was helping me think.” He let his hand settle on top of the blanket and he pursed his lips. “Toe sleeves. Now I get it. What color are they?” A glimmer of a memory sat at the brink of his mind. He looked around the cluttered library that was now serving as his nephew’s bedroom, mentally retracing his steps over the last week.
“You don’t look like you get it,” Paxton said.
“No, I do. Tiny sleeves on the end of the sock. Clear as a bell. Are they blue?” When had he seen them? Monday had been Lainie’s funeral. Wednesday, the author-signing at the store. Thursday, at his sister’s house, packing up Paxton’s belongings…. His eyes lit on a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello. Yes. The socks had been neatly folded, green toe sleeves up, on the shelf behind the strategy game. He’d brought the game, but left the socks.
“They’re blue with green toes,” Paxton said. “You know where they are.” He sat up. “You have your remembry face on.”
Mark breathed in sharply and a flash of ache painted his insides. Pax sounded like his mother. “I’m not sure,” he said, “but I might have an idea.” He stood up and reached over to pat Floppy Joe on the head. “He looks very tired. You two need to get some sleep.” He knew he was being a coward, but God, he was tired.
Paxton’s lower lip slowly jutted out. “I want my toe socks,” he said.
Okay, how did Lainie deal with this? Mark could see a storm brewing in Paxton’s face, could practically smell the rain. A regular temper fit was doable, but the boy’s mother was freshly in the grave—maybe the socks would comfort him. Mark checked his watch. 9:30pm. They’d been bedtiming for an hour and a half.He did not want to go out. Did not want to walk through his sister’s house tonight. Did not want—
A sniffle brought his attention back to Pax, who was rubbing his eyes with his pajama sleeve. “Please, Uncle Mark?”
“All right, let’s go,” Mark said. He could deal with a trip across town better than he could an upset child.
“I’m not a crybaby,” Pax said, throwing back his covers and slipping off the bed.
“No, you’re a trooper,” Mark said. He leaned against the doorway and watched Paxton struggle to put his shoes on over his footed pajamas. It struck him that he could not remember the last time he’d seen Pax laugh.
“Leave the shoes, Pax,” he said.
“But Mom said not to—“ Paxton grunted as he tried to force his foot into his shoe. “Maybe I should just get dressed.”
“No, leave it. Let’s go.”
Pax squinted at him. “Mom said—“
Mark cocked an eyebrow at him. “I’m going to get some coffee, which will take approximately one minute. If you think you can have your shoes on in that time, have at it. But if you want those socks tonight, you’d better be ready.” Mark left the room.
He’d just put the lid on his travel cup when he heard the shuffle of his nephew’s footsteps on the hardwood floor. He switched off the coffee pot and met Pax by the front door. Pax gripped Floppy Joe in one hand and his tennis shoes in the other.
Suppressing a smile, Mark lifted the keys off the keyholder by the door and ushered Pax through. When he turned from locking the door, he saw Pax tiptoeing across the gravel to the Jeep. He sighed and followed him to the car. As he buckled Pax in the back seat, he said, “Clothes get dirty all the time, you know. Then we wash them.”
“But what if they rip?” Pax asked. “Can you sew?”
“Yes,” Mark lied. He shut the door and went around to the driver’s side and got in. He made a mental note to buy more pajamas, then drove to his sister’s house across town.
As he pulled into the driveway, he noticed three things: his aunt’s car in the driveway, the lights were on in the house and on the porch, and there was a For Sale sign on the lawn. Mark cut the engine and shoved open the door and stalked over to the sign. He yanked it up and tossed it to the porch steps. “What the hell,” he muttered.
He glanced around, taking in geraniums drooped over the wide porch railing, their tired flowers barely clinging to the stems. The fiery bougainvillea bushes that climbed up the walls of the white house looked none-the-worse for wear, and the jade plants looked healthy. But the geraniums. Lainie’s favorite flowers. He went to the faucet and turned on the hose and watered everything. The front door creaked open as he was tossing the hose to the middle of the lawn. He turned, and saw his elderly aunt, Regina, standing at the top of the porch steps. She was wearing strappy red sandals, a fluffy yellow dress that probably cost as much as that signed edition of Mark Twain he’d had his eye on, and a wide-brimmed purple straw hat. Her crimson lipstick was smeared across her cheek.
“Fifi. Is everything okay?”
“Marcus?” She held out her hand to him. “You must help me.”
Mark leapt up the stairs and put his arm around her, guiding her over to the porch glider. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m so upset,” she said. She let Mark steady her as she sat down. “Clancy has been missing for two days and I just know that Japanese man ate him.”
Mark rubbed his eyes and gave her a sideways look. “Your neighbor ate your dog? I don’t—“
“Clancy has never run off in his whole life,” Regina said. “Ever. He is loyal and sweet and such a good dog and—“ Her lips trembled.
Mark said, “Okay, look. Pax is out in the car. Let me go get him, and then we’ll talk.” He wheeled around and walked to the car to get Paxton, hoping he hadn’t seen the sign on the lawn. “Hey, buddy, sorry about that. I got busy watering the plants.” He unbuckled him and lifted him into his arms. “Everything’s wet so I’ll carry you, okay?”
Paxton clutched his shoes and Floppy Joe to his chest and held up his arms. Mark bumped the door shut with his hip and carried Pax to the porch, where he set him down.
“Paxton!” Regina held her arms out. “How’s my favorite five-year-old? Come give me a hug.”
Paxton looked up at Mark, who nodded, then he went and stood obediently in her arms, his own hanging limply at his side. Regina rested her cheek on the top of his head, then brushed a light kiss on his hair. “It’s so nice to see you,” she said, and leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes.
Pax gave Mark a quick look out of the corner of his eye, and Mark waved him on. “Go on in to your room, Pax. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Mark picked up the For Sale sign. He stood there and held it up. “Do you know about this?”
Regina laid her hand on her forehead. “I think I have a temperature. I’ll go in and lay on the couch.”
Mark frowned at her. “Fifi, did you put this sign on the lawn?”
Regina shook her head. “It was here when I arrived.” She got up and walked to the door, smoothing her dress. “Come inside?”
Mark followed her inside, setting the sign in the entranceway. “Why would someone put this on the lawn?” He turned to look at Regina, but she had already gone into the living room.
A crack of light shone down the hall from beneath Pax’s bedroom door. Mark flipped on the hall light and gazed at the family photographs: Lainie cradling Pax when he was a month old, her black curly hair a halo, her smile mysterious and content. Another one showed Lainie holding a sprinkler over her head while she danced in the water drops. He’d taken that one a couple years back. Another: Paxton in a tiny black suit and tie, standing stiffly at his mother’s side on the church steps. His father’s funeral. Mark rubbed his eyes tiredly.
Paxton burst out of his room. “I found them!” He held up the pair of bright blue socks.
“Great,” said Mark, sorrow rippling through him. Even now Pax was unsmiling. His face was fierce, triumphant, even, but not a shadow of a smile.
“Is there anything else you want to get while we’re here?” Mark asked. He looked over the pictures, seeking one that showed his nephew smiling. He found one of his own mother. The glass was cracked but the picture was intact. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a white sundress with daisies on the hem, and she had a small kitten draped over her hand. He lifted it off the wall.
“Who’s that?” Pax asked. He craned his neck to see, and Mark showed him the picture.
“This is my mother—your mother’s mother,” he said. “Your grandmother. She died when I was about your age.” He tipped the picture back so he could look at it more closely. “I remember that cat,” he said.
“Mommy says you remember everything.” Pax tilted his head. “Do you really?”
“I remember things I see,” Mark said.
“Then how come you have to read the same stories every night?” Pax gave him a dubious look.
Mark laughed a little. “Because I’m lazy, and I like looking at the pictures. Don’t you?”
Pax nodded and stuck his hand behind his back. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“I remember stuff. I’m not clairvoyant.”
“Clairboyant?” Pax asked. He repeated it softly to himself. “Clairboyant.”
Mark smiled down at him. “With a “v”, clairvoyant. The actual definition is to see clearly, but it means to be able to see things that you can’t see with your eyes. Like to see the future.” He saw Pax’s blank look and added, “To know what’s going to happen tomorrow because you see it in your head.”
Pax nodded. “I see.”
Mark laughed. “Did you just make a joke?”
“No,” Pax said. He said the word again. “Clairvoyant. I like that word. It’s big.”
“It’s a big word,” Mark agreed.
“Mommy talks big to me, too. Talked,” he corrected himself. He turned and shuffled down the hall to his bedroom, fingering his socks. He stopped at the doorway and turned back. “I found this,” he said, holding up what looked like a playing card.
His words didn’t register immediately with Mark. He pinched his nose and shook his head slightly, trying to dislodge the ache. He set the picture down on a small hall table and walked over to Pax, taking the card from him.
“Huh,” he said, turning it over in his hand. A tarot card? It had a picture of a tower on it with people falling off the edge. “All by itself?”
Pax shrugged. “Can we spend the night here?”
Mark leaned through the doorway to look at Pax’s bed. “You don’t have any sheets,” he said, glancing down as Pax moved past him to climb onto his bare bed.
“That’s okay,” Pax said. “I won’t be cold.”
“You can’t sleep on a bed with no sheets. C’mon,” Mark said, stuffing the card into his pocket and holding out his hand. “Let’s get some sheets and make your bed. Or,” he paused. Not sure it was a good idea, but: “would you like to sleep in your mommy’s bed?”
Pax sprang off the bed and ran to his mother’s room.
Guess so, Mark thought, following slowly. He walked into his sister’s room and saw that Pax was already nestled deep under the covers. He tucked the blankets around Pax’s shoulders, then settled in a nearby rocking chair.
He started rocking. “In the great green room…”
Pax fell asleep, and Mark continued to rock, thinking about the book he’d left on the coffee table at home. The best laid plans. Tonight had been the first night he would have had time to read. He glanced over at Pax, noting his slow, easy breathing. Worth it, he decided, and dug into his pocket to bring out the card. Didn’t know Lanie was into tarot, he thought, and yawned. He set the card aside, then got to his feet and stretched.
He went to the living room and found Regina curled up on the couch, asleep. He stood over her for a moment. Why she always insisted her neighbor was out to get her was beyond him. He covered her with a nearby afghan and kissed her forehead. Then he checked to make sure all the doors were locked and turned off all the lights, leaving the hall light on for Pax, and made up Pax’s bed for himself.
A Twist of the Grave
Anne Enright’s narrator in The Gathering, Veronica Hegarty, initially seems to be a petty, bitter woman, a woman who’s lost her way in a gaggle of siblings. She vibrates with anger over past hurts, and it seems she’s embarking on a journey to wallow in those hurts. She doesn’t seem to know her true north, and her musings come across like gropes in the dark. She is obviously grieving over her brother, Liam’s, suicide, and she reveals that she is not “properly alive” (80); that, like her former lover, Michael Weiss, she merely exists. The difference between them, she says, is that he chose “just to exist [to] see what came his way” (81). Most striking is her rage at her mother for bearing so many children, which the reader may, at first, interpret to actually be anger that her mother doesn’t know her name. This notion is dispelled when Veronica inwardly erupts after dealing with the undertaker. She considers her “child-battered body [and is] proud of it…for the people that came out of it, feeding the grave. Feeding the grave!” (79) A-ha, says the reader. This, then, is a story about grief. But no—and yes. Yes; Veronica moves through the stages of grieving; she speaks of her memories and current experiences as though she is remembering them right now, going back and retracing the memory if she realizes she doesn’t have it right, or if she is lying to herself and the reader, and Enright presents the story as though it were a dialogue between two close friends. However, Veronica is also on a quest for the truth of her past, for the truth, period, for, as she says, the dead require it. Her quest begins in a haze of denial, not just regarding the fact of Liam’s death, but regarding their shared past; it begins with feeding the grave and ends with cam reilige, a twist of the grave that unexpectedly and ironically offers hope.
After Veronica breaks the news of Liam’s death to her mother, she muses about her grandmother’s romance with Lambert Nugent. Here, she says, is where the seeds of Liam’s death were strewn. She concocts a story about Ada’s and Nugent’s first encounter, and it isn’t until she’s moved through this short tale to the end that the reader realizes that she’s invented it, and then the reader wonders why. It seems odd, and it creates a surreal sense that the narrator is about to lead us on a labyrinthine path to nowhere. Can Veronica be trusted to tell us the truth about anything? This surreal quality is embedded throughout the entire narrative, and for good reason: this is how the mind works when working through the grieving process, and we are there with Veronica each step of the way.
Veronica brings us home to her husband, whom she alternately despises and loves. She’s almost apologetic about this, but defiantly honest. Her mind jumps to other childhood experiences, then it’s back in the present, dealing with everyday minutiae and funeral arrangements, then it’s back in the past again. And she ruefully acknowledges that she sucks: “If someone sucks, then they are the worst possible type,” she says, then she ends up “sitting still while the loud world passes by, with a long coffee spoon in my mouth, sucking” (83).
Veronica’s persistence in rooting out old memories is a means to survive. “This is how we all survive,” she says. “We default to the oldest scar” (97). But as it turns out, Veronica’s oldest scar does not lie in Ada’s past but in her own, although she believes it is Liam’s wound: at first she remembers seeing Liam molested by Nugent, but later on the memory turns out to be her own. Again, there is a surreal quality to the memory, and neither the reader nor Veronica is certain whose memory it is. Perhaps the memory belongs to Veronica, Liam, and Kitty, since all three of them lived in the house where the abuse occurred. Perhaps, in fact, it belonged to all of the children. This is left to the reader to decide.
In the beginning, Veronica is railing against her mother’s incessant breeding, and it seems this is her wild grief talking. She’s just lost her brother, and is now faced with both her own mortality and that of her siblings. In the end, however, Enright tantalizes the reader with the possibility that Veronica may either be pregnant or would welcome it. This is ironic because of Veronica’s refusal to attend the funeral of another relative when she was pregnant with her first-born, Rebecca; she was afraid of cam reilige, the twist of the grave, because it could have a decidedly negative effect on her baby. That Veronica is now “falling into [her] life” after dealing with Liam’s death is indeed, a twist of the grave.
Susie Salmon, the latest young murder victim of her neighbor, Mr. Harvey, tells of her own death thus: “When you begin to go over the edge, life receding from you as a boat recedes inevitably from shore, you hold on to death tightly, like a rope that will transport you and you swing on it, hoping only to land away from you are.”
She describes being raped by Harvey in a similar fashion, her prose evocative yet tightly written, and allows the reader to fill in the blanks. Sebold never resorts to hand-wringing or drippy narrative, which is all the more striking when one considers that she writes from her own experience as a rape survivor.
Sebold manages to fashion a very dark subject into a light story; she captures the detached spirit-sense very well. In fact, the over-riding atmosphere of the story is reminiscent of a person’s dissociative state.
It is interesting to note that Sebold bristles at the notion that “The Lovely Bones is “working out” her rape…. In an interview, she says, “First of all, therapy is for therapy. Leave it there. Second, because you’re a rape victim, everyone wants to turn everything you do into something ‘therapeutic’ – oh, I understand, going to the bathroom must be so therapeutic for you!”
She continues, “OK, there aren’t that many women who come out and say they’ve been raped who also write a novel about violence. But when people discover you’re a rape victim, they decide that’s all you are.” (Viner)
On the one hand, the novel does seem to be an exorcism to a degree. The further along I read, the more convinced I was that the author had had a traumatic experience because of Susie’s detachment; Sebold captured the tone perfectly. On the other hand, Susie was supposed to be detached; she was dead.
Also interesting is the concept of a personal heaven Sebold portrays in the novel. The concept itself invites the reader to speculate on her own heaven, but Susie’s heaven seems vague, perhaps because she doesn’t know what she wants. She does seem to feel some responsibility for the world she left behind, as shown in her reflection of the time she’d held the bottle in which her father was building a ship: “And I would wait for him, recognizing the tension of that moment when the world in the bottle depended, solely, on me.”
This rings the chime of “victim’s guilt,” that shame that’s embedded in abuse survivors. That bell tolls in the like-minded reader, binding her to Susie—and perhaps to Sebold as well.
In terms of plot structure, the novel had some difficult moments for me. I was unable to suspend disbelief when Susie possessed Ruth’s body and Ray immediately knew it was her. How could he have known her? They’d only barely started exploring each other when Susie was murdered.
Furthermore, it was disturbing to witness a victim perpetrate what constituted rape on another female, with or without Ruth’s implied consent. Throughout the novel Susie narrates sensations she feels in others’ bodies, and to an extent this is acceptable.
When, for example, she tells of feeling the kisses her mother feels on her neck from the detective, the reader understands that this is her mother, that the lost child would of course seek to feel through her. She is “follow[ing] the physical to try to understand things that were impossible to comprehend” (273).
Susie detaches herself somewhat from the lovemaking, unlike what she does when Ruth and Ray had sex. Whereas her mother “had her own moonlit skin” (197) Ruth disappeared and Susie took over. She tells of feeling “every sensation…but …could not see Ruth” (300).
If there is any question about Ruth’s supposed acquiescence, it is dispelled when Susie tells of feeling Ruth struggling inside the body with her. “It was lust and rage yearning upward” (301). Ruth made way for Susie—after all, Susie had “willed” it, and apparently the reader is supposed to cheer for Susie getting that last one thing she wanted.
She “had been given a gift” (302) and flowers were being thrown at Ruth Connors feet. Afterward, Susie pinches herself and feels nothing, and the reader is taken back to when she was raped and murdered; the sense of dissociation is strong here, and while, yes, she is leaving Ruth’s body, the description is eerily similar to that of the rape.
I would also have liked to see more development of the problem of the mother’s abandonment. The only time we see consequences is when Buckley is antagonistic toward the mother when she returns home, and even that is barely addressed.
The fact is that the mother left her surviving children, communicating via the occasional cheery post-card, during a time when they needed her and no one really holds her accountable.
In spite of these troubling issues, Sebold’s story is engaging and compulsively readable and her personal history adds to its poignancy. Nevertheless, I am baffled at the critical acclaim this story received. Is it because Susie emerged as a triumphant survivor and was able to move on?
It’s disquieting that no one mentions how Susie mirrors her own abuse, and no reviewer seems to be bothered by the rather lame reunion of the mother with the remaining family. I found no mention anywhere of either of these issues, only praise for the story. This in itself feels dissociative and unreal, like I see a dragon in the living room and everyone else is walking around it but pretending it’s not there.
Overall, the story doesn’t ring with the honesty that, say, Amy Hempel’s stories do. How can there be truth if the characters don’t fully reside within their own skins? Susie spends nearly the whole tale suspended above the other characters, and she has no real grasp of her “own” heaven.
Sebold denies the connection between the story and her own experience, yet the story itself points to it, simply by virtue of things not quite being worked out. So while the style and the lack of melodrama are both laudable, the story reads like an ill-conceived fantasy by a person who’s trying to make sense of her own trauma. And I wonder what it is about our collective narrative that we applaud Susie’s perpetuation of victimization. Is it okay because she was a victim herself? Is this the only way she could find her heaven? I wonder how Ruth feels about that.