Sunday, March 16, 2008

Take Me Out of the Whirl of the World

"Take me out of the whirl of the world, place me in the quiet and simple scenes of life that I was born for."
Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Laureth was eighteen and an interloper. Her sins were double - she was not working and she had no college plans. Ms Kummer, the high school guidance counselor, and all her brochures and insistence had faded away and turned part of another life. But odious as Ms. Kummer was, she had been right about one thing. The time had passed. What to do now, really, after all? What to think, what to "want"?

Ms. Kummer had been absolutely odious. Even Laureth’s father did not like her. "Hard-bitten lady, I must say," he commented. Laureth had had a terrible scene with her last December. "I just want to be a mom," she said.
Ms. Kummer had looked blank, and then turned green with anger.
"Okay," she said. "Okay, that’s great. We all want that. I want to be home with my son right now. But that’s not reality, Laureth. We’re here to talk about reality." She raised her long bony fingers before her long, dry, folded face and her long lank hair. She began to tick off her points on her fingers.
"One. You could get divorced. Two. You might never find anybody to marry at all. Three. He could get sick or disabled and you’d have no income to be a mom with. Four. Even if you’re a mom for thirty years, eventually you’ll probably be widowed and you’ll be, like, totally pushing your luck to go that long with no job skills and no reason anybody should hire you. Plus your age will not be a good thing by then. Five. He could be a drinker. What am I on? Five or six? I forget."
Ms. Kummer rattled on fiercely and managed to tick off an even ten reasons why Laureth could not be what she said she wanted. Laureth sat there, grim and polite, the good child. Ms. Kummer’s unrehearsed logic was impressive, Laureth had to admit to herself. But she had also raged and fantasized about bringing a rifle to school the next day. You wonder why, asshole grown-up? This is why.

That was last December, almost a year ago. Now it was September and Ms. Kummer was no doubt getting ready for her newest batch of incoming seniors, good children. The time had passed. Laureth had no purpose. But she had also met a boy.

*

Laureth’s twin sister Emily was home from college for the Labor Day weekend. She had been away only two weeks. Everyone was happy to be together again so soon, but the little home’s atmosphere was tense regardless, everyone dryly agreeable and a bit off-kilter owing to Laureth’s still unexplained and apparently indefinite presence at the parsonage. Yes, the parsonage, like where the Brontes, adult women, lived with their father in the1840s. What if I also want to write Wuthering Heights now, what if I want to write Shirley, Laureth thought. Mayn’t I? The Brontes might have answered, well yes, all of that perhaps, but we were governesses too, for a while. And then we all died of consumption anyway.

The Labor Day weekend was difficult, off-kilter. There was Emily, fruitful and triumphant and somehow exonerated with her plans – she was proven, yeasty, proofed like bread – and there was Laureth, still a child, still drifting in the ragweed straggles of a dying after-school summer. The corn stood high, and the sun streamed down at a different angle and there seemed no excuse. Nowhere to hide.

That Labor Day, the family sensed Laureth was trembling with something besides her usual moroseness. The Warners loved both their daughters, and had so far, out of delicacy, forbore to quiz the puzzling one much about what she planned to do. They sympathized, up to a point, with the fears and hesitations of this period of life. Emily’s returning home, a little woozy from homesickness but still happy and excited about her prospects as a bringer of French language and civilization to Danville, threw Laureth’s grim indolence into a more awful relief than before, however. They might all have said something to her, Emily especially possessing new rights as a happy, studying, working adult American gentlewoman, a woman with plans, had not John King – blessed, blessed, thrice blessed – driven up in his buggy, clip-clop, to call on Laureth on Labor Day afternoon.

This was Laureth’s boyfriend. He was an Amish lad from a nearby farm. He arrived right during the Warner family backyard cookout. John was a handsome boy, big and bright-skinned across the cheekbones, with small sharp brown eyes and fine, curly gold hair – and yet with a man’s, an executive’s receding hairline and a man’s big jaw and imperfect teeth. Laureth loved him, and he loved her. They had met in town in the spring. Pride, joy, and cold fright surged in her when she heard the clip-clop of Skip’s hooves, and when she glimpsed the boy himself, from where she stood in the yard, through the kitchen window that gave right through the house to the living room window that faced the road. There was his hat, there the thin gold curls. Dear God, he had picked the worst possible time to – no, he had picked the best possible time. Of course, the Amish don’t fuss with "English" holidays. The sooner her parents learned that, the better.
Had no one seen him? In a flash she was reminded of the depressing poem they all had to learn in freshman year, The Highwayman. (Amish schooling ends in eighth grade. More power to them, Laureth thought grimly.) Bess, the landlord’s daughter, shoots herself to warn her bandit-lover of the trap laid for him, baited with her. He was coming. "Were they deaf that they could not hear?" Now John tied the reins, and jumped down from his buggy. She lost sight of him. He was reaching back into the buggy for a big bouquet of spindly farm-garden flowers. She saw the tops of the flowers turn briefly through the window. He walked around to the back of the house and knocked gently at the picket gate, and Laureth got up, shaking, and brought him into her line of vision again. These were the last few seconds when nobody knew.

There they all were, in shade and sun, all but his lover in various attitudes of astonishment. Delicious barbecue smoke wafted across the yard. The birds chipped in the heat, and the cicadas whanged. It was hot. Laureth walked forward and smiled, and opened the little gate and let him in. They kissed.

Of course, Laureth was a nice girl and had not kept her dating habits entirely secret from her family. They knew she had eaten ice cream and gone to tractor-pulls with a handsome boy named John from a nearby farm. She was always home by eleven and had never caused a shred of untoward worry. Only Emily pricked up her ears at the news about tractor-pulls. "That’s like what the Amish do," she said, newly adult, to her parents one night. "You mean they don’t do anything, they don’t go to the movies, they don’t go into Normal or Champaign or anything?"
"Not from what she tells us," Mr. Warner shrugged. "Maybe the kid can’t afford it."
"So she’s got a job. She can afford it," Emily said. "How long has she been working at the pizza place?"
"Not long enough," Mrs. Warner muttered.
But Mr. and Mrs. Warner had never done more than very slightly tease Laureth, a little, about her mysterious admirer. "When are we going to meet the glorious one?" they would say. And she would laugh, and they augured all was well. It was. They only had no idea what else he was, nor that he was the epicenter of their daughter’s very different passion.

John came into the yard, gave Laureth her flowers and kissed her again. She felt terrified, and felt also a naughty, ancient sort of triumph over her sophisticated sister, so busy and perfect out in the rushing, flapping English world. Let her stare. Who had ever kissed her in front of their parents? This was what mattered, this was where real life came from, babies and everything.
She made introductions, calm but as red as the poppies in Mrs.Warner’s garden. Mr. and Mrs. Warner looked narrowly at John while pretending they weren’t. Mr. Warner shook his hand, hard. After being polite the lovers didn’t stay too long. Mrs. Warner turned away from them even before they finished closing the little picket backyard gate – turned away nonchalantly, as if, of course, she was the mother of girls who dated boys. Naturally. But she was furious.

The delicious smoke trailed behind them as they left. Laureth reminded herself she might never eat quite the same cookout food again – store-bought hamburgers, microwaved dinner rolls, store-bought marshmallows roasted over the charcoal fire on sticks. She imagined an Amishwoman lived completely and blessedly in the past, the clean and hard-working past, unpolluted by plastic and condescending commercial brand-names. She imagined that for an Amishwoman, only the sweet corn and the sticks would have been real.

*

They climbed into John’s buggy. Skip seemed to look around and recognize her. They drove out toward town and then through it, branching off down a country road which led to his family’s farm. Laureth felt almost sick with joy. Other girls made their decisions in Ms. Kummer’s office in the hard winter, under the hard lady’s hard, city gaze. Now she was making hers out here in the clean sun, behind a softly plodding, beautiful horse, that was all. She was still fulfilling her potential.
"Well. Let’s go meet your parents," she grinned, and he leaned over and laughed, laughed into her mouth as he kissed her and their hands pulled at each other. Skip plodded on, drawing her to this blessed, simple world, where people worked out their lives over plants and rain, animals and babies. Anyone can imagine the Brontes at their father’s parsonage, but can we imagine them driving the expressway to go be dental hygienists, or staying in town and being firemen? No? Difficult? Comical? Why? Laureth had longed to scream this at the world and every person in it from the time she was twelve. Why?

All over now. She sat very straight in the buggy and closed her eyes. The smell of leather, of Skip, of John’s clothes with their stiff, funny smell, reminding her in her ignorance of something like warm linen and corn, the jostling of the buggy and the chirps of birds at the roadside all seemed to pervade her head flowing in from every sense, as thick as if they could be wiped off her face. Many things, relief, disbelief, happiness, anxiety, filled her anew with sympathetic love and hope – for Emily, for her parents, for all people in town and everywhere who were happy, or wanted to be, or ever remembered being, for all the world in general. She could have slept. She could have moaned. A car drove by, giving the buggy a wide berth, and she opened her eyes quickly enough to catch sight of a curious little boy’s face in the back seat, looking out the dusty window at the Amish couple in their weird old world. So someone else, an innocent child, considered her one of them. So she was.

After about half an hour at this pace – and that was only about three miles, she would have to get used to Amish distances – John turned to her, smiled, and pulled up the horse. He had stopped in what seemed a little cool hollow in the earth guarded by a screen of tall trees on either side of the road. All beyond was corn and afternoon sun, all of Illinois lost in the middle of the whole rushing country. Invisible webs of satellite signals, television news, phones, and e-mails must be shuttling right now above their heads. She imagined it like an ominous silver net above the innocent, waving green. The net held everyone except her. Except them. She could see through it. There was a hush all around her, a visible hush. It was like the Max Ernst paintings of fugitive kings and queens escaping by humble boat into a broad blue sea. It was like the cessation of weeping; like a first breath. Laureth was like the man in the science fiction movies who finally climbs the ladder up a metal chute out of his terrible society, pops the forbidden manhole cover, and finds himself in the air of earth, amid seagulls floating in the setting sun. Who knew that it was there all the time? He only guessed, and ran for it.

The quiet in the cool hollow was thick and beautiful. They leaned together, wrapped their arms around each other, and kissed as deeply as grown-ups. They kissed again, moving in the sure knowledge that they would soon be a married couple. She was not garbed Amish style yet and they both fully enjoyed the summer-tanned flesh barely concealed by a white slip dress patterned with big orange roses. Now imagine, imagine, she said to herself – imagine doing this in bed in a dark house way out in the cornfields, out in the peace and darkness. Total silence – total privacy. Like the patriarchs, in a tent in the desert. He’ll have to be up at 4 am so we’ll have little time. But we can probably make all the noise we want, unless we live with his parents at first.

When it was time to stop – Skip saw to that, Laureth would have to get used to animals’ needs and characteristics coming first often – they separated. He flicked the reins. The buggy moved off, clip-clop, clip-clop. Laureth wondered how soon she, too, would learn to drive a horse and buggy. Perhaps she would meet Ms. Kummer one day in town. Ms. Kummer would be unchanged, as useless and professional as ever. Laureth saw herself with a line of five or six or eight children, mostly daughters, trailing behind her on a shopping trip to Arthur, all of them knowing with awe what Mother had done to carve out a domain of security and happiness for them in a world which was very good but had somehow turned out – their mother thought, and surely she had a right to her thoughts – frightening and unjust beyond words. A whole legion of women, a family to look Ms. Kummer in the eye and say, "I stayed." And my own mother and father and sister are right over there across the cornfields, underneath the silver net. They like it there. She smiled complacently. She would have left Ms. Kummer and all her expectations far behind.

There ahead lay the King farm. A few children in white and brown clothes played and ran in the yard near the house. They might have been from the seventeenth century. They knew practically nothing, she assumed, of the silver net above their heads. They didn’t follow the NBA or go to the movies or eat microwave popcorn.

"We have guys in Lancaster County selling dope now," John told her earlier in their courtship. Lancaster County, in faraway Pennsylvania, has the largest Amish population in the country. He wanted her without illusions.
"Oh well," she murmured, the image of womanly patience, "Lancaster County has been a bit of a lost cause for years, hasn’t it?"
John grunted. "You may be right. They are on display." He smiled at her. "Too many tourists, too many quilts."
Now at the last minute Laureth felt a few little bizarre icy thrusts of panic. Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre’s beloved guard and friend, would not have been surprised. That’s why women "don’t go a hundred miles alone." The Brontes knew that. What was she thinking of? Who were these people, who was this boy, where was she going? She would have more in common with any strange roommate, any frightening landlord in Normal than with this John King. Look at those children, clothed to the neck on this hot day. We’re getting closer. I didn’t mean it. I changed my mind. What was this horse doing before her? It smelled. Where was her mother? She wanted to go home.

But no. She closed her eyes and fought the fear back, gripping John’s hand. She loved him. Who else was going to possess his gold curls and his scarred, man’s hands as they ran and fumbled across her body? No one; only her. And who else was going to possess her kitchen, her fields, her babies, her time? No one. Only her. She was a Bronte. She didn’t have a dental hygienist’s bone in her body.
Nor could she very well go back now anyway, as if it had all been deceit. An unbidden thought flashed through her oversaturated mind. It was not as if she would be in any real seventeenth-century danger, either. Amish women go to doctors, you don’t hear about them dying in childbirth every day.

Skip pulled the buggy into the Kings’ yard. John stopped it, got out, and handed the reins and whispered to an older boy who looked saucer-eyed at Laureth. Laureth jumped down too, holding her flowers. He held out his hand like a man and she took it – feeling she could not possibly be more in love, he could not possibly be handsomer – and followed him into his parents’ house. Her stomach felt empty and excited and souring, high up in her ribs. Maybe Emily felt just this way when she walked into her first class on the first day of college. Just because you are a woman, fear doesn’t mean you are wrong.

They walked into the big white kitchen. Laureth, within seconds, felt overjoyed at the sight of Lizzie King’s royal purple dress above bare feet – and then crestfallen at the three, four, five plastic lunchboxes covered in popular cartoons sitting on a countertop. School was in session of course, today, and tomorrow like always. She had forgotten that Amish children go to school. And an actual bag of marshmallows and what looked like a newspaper, too. Was there no escape?
"Mamm," John said. Laureth stepped forward to meet her pretty future mother-in-law. She gripped her hand and smiled despite a horrible perception that Mrs. King’s head was alternately ballooning up and shrinking back over and over. A shaft of sunlight on the wall – a very ordinary wall, like any other – the metallic trill of a red-winged blackbird outdoors, seemed calming and portentous. Here was her own world, become very small and very beautiful. How different could they be? This was still America. She could do what she wanted. This was it.

Mrs. King used the customary Amish greeting, like everything else in Amish life, "un-fancy."
"Why are you here?" she said.

*

Days later, Mrs. Warner cried in anger to her husband, "Our Miss Earth Princess is going to be mightily surprised. If she thinks they all eat whole-grain foods and use pewter dishes like the pilgrims she’s got another think coming. They’re farmers. I had an Amish friend years ago. They eat off plastic plates and live on practically nothing but sugar. They don’t go to the dentist, they just have them all pulled. The women go bald from having their hair skinned back like that. And they go to church for hours, in German, and can’t do anything for fun except read old horse novels from the forties. Or Little House on the Prairie. Whoop-de-woo. And now they’re selling coke in Lancaster County. Like that’s not modern and corrupted. I’m surprised Madam allows that to go on."
Mr. Warner grasped at any straw to comfort her. "Well, that’s Lancaster County," he said gently. "I think that’s been a freak show for some time. This is different. These people are just living. And she may change her mind, honey." Mrs. Warner pursed her lips, and looked out her kitchen window, and shook her head at the corn in the sun.

It was true that even in those first moments in Lizzie King’s kitchen, Laureth had already learned enough not to look around for the old oak cabinets lined with pewter dishes that she really had expected to see. Already she was making the best of things, and planning what to say to her mother. "Don’t worry, Mom," she pictured herself saying. "We roast marshmallows, too." She felt John’s hand in the small of her back. Joy returned, timidly.

The End

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