Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(9)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(9)
Elizabeth Strout

“How do I know? Oh, I guess I do know. He met some woman at the local hospital when he had his gallbladder out. Say, that’s almost like you!”

“Like me? You think I’m going to run off with Cookie or Serious Child?”

“You never know what attracts people to each other,” my mother answered. “But I don’t think he ran off with any Toothache.” My mother tilted her head in the direction of the door. “Though he may have run off with a child, I’m sure she’s not a serious child, you know, I mean—” My mother leaned forward to whisper, “Dark or whatever ours is, you know, Indian.” My mother sat back. “But I’m rather sure she’s younger than Dottie and more attractive. He left Dottie the house they lived in, and she’s turned it into a bed-and-breakfast. Doing all right, as far as I know. And Abel’s in Chicago doing more than all right, so good for poor Harriet after all. Well, I suppose she’d worried about Dottie. My word, Harriet worried about everyone. Not worrying now, though, I guess. She’s been dead for years. Like that, in her sleep one night. Not a bad way to go.”

I dozed on and off listening to my mother’s voice.

I thought: All I want is this.

But it turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly—it was just stupidity—I blurted out, “Mom, I got two stories published.” She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones,” I said, “in tiny magazines.” Still she said nothing. Then I said, “Becka doesn’t sleep through the night. Maybe she gets it from you. Maybe she’ll take catnaps too.” My mother kept looking out the window.

“But I don’t want her to not feel safe,” I added. “Mom, why didn’t you feel safe?”

My mother closed her eyes as though the very question might drop her into a nap, but I did not think for one minute she had gone to sleep.

After many moments she opened her eyes and I said to her, “I have a friend, Jeremy. He used to live in France, and his family was part of the aristocracy.”

My mother looked at me, then looked out the window, and it was a long time before she said, “So he says,” and I said, “Yes, so he says,” in a tone of apology, and in a way that let her know we need not discuss him—or my life—any further.

Right then, through my doorway, came the doctor. “Girls,” he said, and nodded. He went and shook my mother’s hand, as he had the day before. “How’s everyone today?” Immediately he swooshed the curtain around me and this separated me from my mother. I loved him for many reasons, and one reason was for that: how he made his visits private for the two of us. I could hear my mother’s chair move, and I knew she’d left the room. The doctor held my wrist to take my pulse, and when he gently lifted my hospital gown, in order to check the scar, as he did each day, I watched his hands, thick-fingered and lovely, his plain gold wedding band glinting, pressing gently on the area near the scar, and he looked into my face to see if it hurt. He asked by raising his eyebrows, and I’d shake my head. The scar was healing nicely. “Healing nicely,” he said, and I said, “Yes, I know.” And we’d smile because it seemed to mean something—that it was not the scar trying to keep me sick. The smile was our acknowledgment of something, is what I mean. I have always remembered this man, and for years I gave money to that hospital in his name. And I thought then, and I think now, still, of the phrase “the laying on of hands.”

The truck. At times it comes to me with a clarity I find astonishing. The dirt-streaked windows, the tilt of the windshield, the grime on the dashboard, the smell of diesel gas and rotting apples, and dogs. I don’t know, in numbers, how many times I was locked in the truck. I don’t know the first time, I don’t know the last time. But I was very young, probably no more than five years old the last time, otherwise I’d have been in school all day. I was put there because my sister and brother were in school—this is my thought now—and my parents were both working. Other times I was put there as punishment. I remember saltine crackers with peanut butter, which I couldn’t eat because I was so frightened. I remember pounding on the glass of the windows, screaming. I did not think I would die, I don’t think I thought anything, it was just terror, realizing that no one was to come, and watching the sky get darker, and feeling the cold start in. Always I screamed and screamed. I cried until I could hardly breathe. In this city of New York, I see children crying from tiredness, which is real, and sometimes from just crabbiness, which is real. But once in a while I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make. I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you could hear outside in the open air—when the conditions were exactly right—the corn growing in the fields of my youth. I have met many people, even from the Midwest, who tell me that you cannot hear the corn growing, and they are wrong. You cannot hear my heart breaking, and I know that part is true, but to me, they are inseparable, the sound of growing corn and the sound of my heart breaking. I have left the subway car I was riding in so I did not have to hear a child crying that way.

My mind went very strange places during these episodes of being in the truck. I thought I saw a man coming toward me, I thought I saw a monster, I thought one time I saw my sister. Then I would calm myself, and say aloud to myself, “It’s okay, sweetie. A nice woman’s going to come soon. And you’re a very good girl, you’re such a good girl, and she’s a relative of Mommy’s and she’ll need you to go live with her because she’s lonely and wants to have a nice little girl to live with.” I would have this fantasy, and it was very real to me, it kept me calm. I dreamed of not being cold, of having clean sheets, clean towels, a toilet that worked, and a sunny kitchen. I allowed myself into heaven this way. And then the cold would come in, and the sun would go down, and my crying would start again, as a whimper, then more forcefully. And then my father would show up, unlock the door, and sometimes he carried me. “No reason to cry,” he sometimes said, and I can remember the feel of his warm hand spread against the back of my head.

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