Monday, November 10, 2008

Pearls and Roses, chapter 6

Pearls and Roses, chapter 5

She answered an old-fashioned want ad in the paper for the old-fashioned position of secretary at a small film production company. It was Monique Productions, affiliated with the Boyd Foundation. In 1982, workplace vocabulary was still old-fashioned. A secretary was not yet an Administrative Assistant and H.R. was still "Personnel." Alice did not do data entry. She typed, and took dictation. There was only one more thing she did before going out to work, and that was to ask God for a miraculous proof that he cared what happened to her, and then to get it.

Why? In all her peregrinations in life so far, and for a nineteen-year-old she had done quite a lot, she had never yet faced a failure. An emotional failure, a failure of planning, a life failure. Now she had: divorce was that. Its stigma may have been long gone – except for her mother, who also felt vindicated by this particular one – but Alice felt foolish and imperfect. The Spanish princesses who sailed from Corunna did not then do this. Imagine Juliet, divorced. She felt as if she had jumped off the tracks somehow, or stepped aboard the wrong life. But no, metaphors of movement would not do, when her situation now was immobility and failure. She felt people would think she hadn’t meant it, that she wasn’t serious. That was galling. She was always serious.

Naturally, what more serious thing to do now than to go to God? All right: here I am: let us start afresh. Let us start at all. She thought she could recall a historian once writing that American life is simply too vigorous to permit Old World worship patterns to survive here. Very well. She did not know herself what she wanted to believe, which was why she demanded proof that there was at least the basic element out there, the source. Religious trappings, specifically, would perhaps come later. So many God-fearing women are such mousy, intellectual little souls, and Alice did not want to be like that.

She had a friend like that. Gayle had reverted to the full ‘Abigail’ in order to be more biblical. You will meet them – the really faithful women who not only bounce about in the joyous happiness of having found their "Savior," but educate themselves to the point of knowing of the death by fire of Aaron’s sons, or which Psalms are quoted in what chapter of Isaiah. And they are always so old, not in age but, paradoxically, in their swooning, withered inexperience. Abigail was like that, thirty, thin, a spinster. God was her man, her child. She was nervous and throttled. She knew a great deal and tried to be at ease with everyone but was only half-there – wall-eyed, perpetually, disconcertingly laughing.

Alice did not want to be like that. She wanted to get this matter of God or not-God cleared up now, now that she had stumbled badly and had a growing child to be responsible for. She gave herself, and the Divine, two weeks.

(Not that they didn’t already have a nodding acquaintance. Alice enjoyed reading books about medieval nuns, and for a while as a teen tried to work up the nerve to ask her parents if she could make or get a prie-dieu for her room. She never did. Later, if ever she were out driving and escaped some minor mishap – if she pulled into a horribly narrow parking space against her better judgment without hitting the cars nearby – she would feel abashed and undeserving and thank God sincerely, repeatedly. Yet the gigantic experience of childbirth struck her as all her own doing.

Of course the stars and nature were beautiful and vast, but the Bible (poor Abigail) was so often a colossal bore, and the prayers in church modern, cutesy, and dull. It seemed very sensible and very dignified sometimes, for the universe as a whole, that there should be no God. Since she loved historical associations with practically anything, and since she knew nothing and cared less about the Orient, she never for one moment contemplated some sort of religious quest outside her own historic horizons. Church and altar, as cutesy as they had become, nevertheless remained the same items they had ever been for the anonymous medieval countesses who bore babies at seventeen, and knelt at a prie-dieu in their own chambers. There was nothing for it, to her reasoning, but to ask the countesses’ God whether He was still at home.)

Two weeks. She had met a very good-looking man in her brother John’s brother-in-law Roger (Pam’s brother) at a family party shortly after her divorce came through. One would think she would be once-bitten and twice shy, and so she was, a little. But it seemed obvious to her that he had sought her out. They talked for a good forty minutes. Her doubt of her attractiveness to men – this happens to divorcees; after all, many women, most women? are simply never rejected – cured itself, a little, that evening. She fell in love with the idea of him.

One night later in the week, lying in her bed with Hunter snoring sloppily nearby, hoping against hope that Roger might have looked at her with real appreciation, she bargained with the Deity. "Let him call me, God, and I’ll believe you exist and try to go to prayers somewhere," she said. "For the baby’s sake. If you’ll help me. Let him call me within two weeks." How he was to get her phone number was his affair. Men who cared found a way. And could he write her, would a letter or a note count? No, she had better be specific. He must call.

He did call her, but under circumstances so strange that Alice doubted whether it was not the devil at work, or whether God had an angrily literal mind, or whether it was all just silly coincidence. She happened to be visiting her parents with Hunter one Saturday afternoon, well within the private, cosmic deadline, when the telephone rang and she answered it. The voice asked for Pamela McNamara, Alice’s mother. Alice said, "Yes, just a minute," and called to her mother while faintly thinking that the voice on the phone sounded oddly familiar. A man’s voice, high pitched like a tenor’s. Her mother took up the phone, and after a little confusion and laughter on her part, the call ended.

She hung up and explained that that had been Roger Lucas. He was trying to reach his sister Pam, her own new daughter-in-law. She was also Pamela McNamara now. Roger had dialed the right number for the right name, but the wrong identity.

Alice smiled casually, but was too floored to speak. So God existed. He had heard her proposal and had agreed to it and kept it. Roger had "called" her, which was all she, stupidly, had asked. But no, it all belonged in quotation marks. It was all unreal. "He" had "called" "her." She had better start going to prayers. It would be a good thing for Hunter anyway. The boy should not grow up without reference to the Almighty. Alice never mentioned a word of this revelation to anyone, least of all to her mother or sister-in-law who had been God’s unwitting handmaidens, all the while her parents’ house was a private Sinai. She also lost all interest in Roger for himself. The next time she saw him at a party – it was years later, when Polly was christened – she spoke to him easily.

It had been a private Sinai. Ever afterward, Alice’s religion remained mostly private and revelatory. All that really changed was that she dutifully excised doubt, excised the secular impulse, from her mind whenever she pulled safely into a narrow parking space, or recovered from a cold. It was easy to do. She did not become a fervent believer, an Abigail. She settled rationally into a prefigured relationship, exactly as if she had heard all her life about an absent, rich uncle, and had now satisfactorily met him. She found a new place to go to services, a congregation called Bethany Reformed.

The countesses who knelt at prie-dieux, and had babies at seventeen, probably would not have gone out searching for new people to pray with, but Alice did. She abandoned her childhood’s church because she had never gotten over the disappointment of the receptionist’s being unimpressed with her pregnancy. And further it seemed that the Masses there had ceased to be masses at all, such as any bewimpled countess would have recognized, but had become laborious concerts at which a large awkward woman no longer young screeched out jazzy Psalms from behind her glasses and a helmet of black hair. And nobody joined in.

She left, and found Bethany Reformed. When she asked Tim about taking Hunter there, he said he didn’t mind. He would prove more upset, later, at Hunter’s repeating kindergarten. Abraham, or Rebecca, had found new people to pray with, so there was some validity for Alice’s search even further back than countesses. A kind of endless historical neediness was, perhaps, her true faith. It was not often that a person of Alice’s age, with her charged look, walked in Bethany Reformed’s doors. In a year or two they began to give her tasks of some authority, which she liked very much.

Her new job paid her adequately and got her out, as Bethany fortunately also did, among adults. Monique and Frank Boyd’s joint company, in its fourth year when Alice was hired, was doing well. Legal discrepancies between the things the Boyds wanted to do with a two-headed non-profit architectural research and film production corporation had been fairly well smoothed over. Chuck had made it into a "tax-exempt educational institution," and everyone was happy.

The Boyd Foundation, headed by its five annually elected officers, researched old sites of interest in America – Frank specified that, always – voted on them, and then assigned the employees of Monique Productions to go out and write stories and make films about whatever had won the vote. Sometimes they were shrewd enough and lucky enough to catch a site already in the midst of refurbishment, and it gave those documentaries a satisfying, happy ending, and helped improve the joint company’s reputation among audiences for its interesting little films on public and later on cable television stations. Monique organized publicity and did it beautifully, all in her smooth gray chignon and pink angora and pearls.

For Alice the best things about being a secretary, apart from the money and the sheer delightful novelty, were the independent, piecemeal but not terribly responsible work, and the daily associations with older women, many of them Monique’s friends, who seemed to her very much like herself. Most of them had married young. They all had children. Like her, they wanted to survive, not have careers. They were relaxed and pleasant and church-going. In addition she had the satisfaction of being younger by far than all of them. She did her work conscientiously and was rewarded with raises once in a while, a thing which in her innocence she had never anticipated.

The wounds healed. She still missed some of the old life, or missed the appearance of it. Missed being able to say "My husband," though truthfully she did not miss not having a lumbering man in her house all the time. Most of all she missed the life of the autonomous woman at home, where, she liked to imagine, a thousand generations of farm girls and countesses alike had kept the looms working and the ovens hot, and had otherwise been allowed the use of their time, to read, to pray. More historic neediness, only it became awkward to become aware if it. She had had a baby, had worn a champagne-colored, low-necked frock at her wedding, had defiantly sworn that life meant just these primeval, loving, blood-soaked things, and not mere jobbery.

When it all failed and she found herself in a small apartment – a new one, since she could not stand the memories of failure and fighting in the old one, nor did she want to live within sight of their old high school’s front doors – with a handsome preschooler and an ordinary job, she wondered whether the whole thing had not been an effort to impress her high school girlfriends who did or did not read Austen. Or Medieval Panorama. Well. Thank God for Bethany.

Men let her alone there, at first, because she was pale and stunted, and bore small interest in anything but herself. But years flew by. In time they came to her and bantered with her after her potty little speeches at Social Action nights. One man wanted her to think about volunteering as a prison tutor. The assistant Lieutenant Governor danced with her twice at the congregation’s eightieth anniversary party, a thing which would have frightened the girl Alice out of her wits but left he woman floating in a mystified calm. "I deserve it," she thought. Anyway he was married.

Time flew. Hunter grew into a superb child, because his parents and grandparents were superb people, and loved and minded him devotedly. Alice and Tim treated each other amicably. Nobody moved away.

It was once Hunter’s school years began that time sped up so awfully. It is inevitable in the way schools do business. The children begin rehearsing songs for the Christmas pageant in October, a time when the sun can still be summer-hot and parents still consider the school year fresh. (Alice made costumes for him out of t-shirts and fabric paint, and people said they were so good she could go into business and sell them.) "At least they’re back in school now – oh, you’ve got a test already? I didn’t know that." Warnings about very important state exams to be held in March go out the previous November. The principal’s last newsletter, in May, wishes everyone a safe and happy summer, and reminds parents that registration and Open House will take place "next August." And the whole cycle begins again, rush rush, grow up, get it over, get ready for it to be over.

Alice felt sometimes, in the blur of her twenties, that she was kayaking over endless rapids, or holding a bull by the horns, or some such cliche. No – perhaps she felt like a scuba diver she had seen on a television program about the ocean. He propelled himself through the water with a hand-held little engine. Only in her case, she thought wryly, the engine was not entirely in her control and there appeared no way of emerging from that alien environment, the water.

When she was twenty-six and Hunter nine, the two of them moved again, into another new apartment, this one on the second floor of an old farmhouse. The house had creamy, real plaster walls and big windows. It was long and narrow, built precisely on a north-south axis to spare it the brunt of the winter winds, and to take in as much sunshine from east and west as possible. Alice felt a satisfaction in living in a house with some historical thought to it, a place that intelligent people, with an old knowledge of mankind’s weaknesses before nature, had built with a hundred years of future comfort in mind. She lived there, and Hunter grew up. He thrived, as old-fashioned people might have said.

"A shadow in a dream is man, but when God shines light then all is filled with brightness and life is sweet as honey." Alice was still idiotically well-read. Those words were from Pindar, not harvested at the source but gleaned from a novel. She wrote them out, in her own, self-taught calligraphy, on a piece of expensive, clothy paper, which she then framed and hung on her living room wall. She took great pride in inscribing the author’s name delicately on the paper, for who had ever heard of Pindar? The only confusion was, what of the small ‘g’ in ‘god’? Was the translator an atheist who edited Pindar’s capital-G belief out of the quote? What did the pagan Greeks, with all their Apollos and Zeuses, mean when they said ‘god’? As calligrapher she would have to decide this. No one would ever know the difference, and she was a believer. She wrote it a capital G.

Life was beautiful, just as Pindar said, just as the bandit Ramerrez says it is in the opera. The December night when Hunter was nine and a half, she took him, her parents, and her former mother-in-law out to dinner in a Chinese restaurant. (Tim and his new wife – whom Alice honestly liked – would have him all weekend.) They all had a wonderful time. Mrs. McNamara happened to mention Roger Lucas. "Do you know that of all those kids, he’s the only one who’s never married?"

The half-birthday boy ate his first egg-drop soup. They had pot stickers and Eight Precious Duck, and rice drowned (on Hunter’s plate) in soy sauce, and cup after little white cup of tea. Everyone tried chopsticks except her father, still smiling and patient. The food was so light in mouthfuls and yet so drowsily filling in bulk, and the darkness, the dim lamps swaying with red tassels, the red tablecloths and the black walls hung with black lacquered wood carvings of Chinese scenes, all conspired to make them feel warm and sleepy and very far away from the cold snowy night and the ordinary car waiting for them in the strip mall parking lot outside. They chatted with the friendly waitress, who talked swiftly and confidently, but with an almost impenetrable accent, about her life in Taiwan and her new life with her five-year-old daughter Brittany here. Alice’s mother remarked afterward how nice it was to meet such an interesting person.

The next day it snowed lightly all day. It was Alice’s day off. When Hunter got home from school they went sledding at the local park’s hill. There was only an inch or so of cover on the ground, but while they were there, snow continued to fall, heavier and thicker, and still more beautiful. It was quiet. One jet only roared, muffled, invisible, into the clouds, and then was gone.

There were two houses on the other side of the fence, just outside the big park’s boundary. These houses were utterly still and snug down amid their fifteen big oaks – Alice counted them, for oaks are rare in the suburbs – in the falling snow. The closest street was barely visible from here. If you turned your back against the one car in the distant lot, you could imagine all this was a scene from 1890. Then, nothing would have stood between this hill and a view across the farmlands to the house where Alice lived, built in 1890. All this had once been farms. How wonderful it was to feel that because your house was the oldest, you belonged here, more than other people. Three electric candles burned behind the sheers of the blue ranch across the fence at the foot of the hill, but it was easy to imagine they were real candles. The big rose-ochre house next to it was dark. Alice remembered their Taiwanese waitress’ first unhappy impressions of America. "Where is everybody?" she asked in retrospect. "So lonely. Taiwan is so crowded, it is like Las Vegas twenty-four hour a day. Too crowded. Now I like my elbow room."

Alice and Hunter skidded down the hill together on one sled sometimes, or took turns apart. The skies that had been plan white darkened to gray. The clouds began to break up, very slowly, showing the declining sun, a cold yellowy pearl. When they were thoroughly chilled, they walked back down the hill to the car and drove home, and had cocoa. Real cocoa made with milk, the way Mrs. McNamara always made it, very French.

Life was sweet as honey. Life was chocolate, and interesting people, and rice, and red clothes and the red silk chair her parents bought her for Christmas. Life was Hunter doing well in school, and getting along with his new stepmother mostly because he saw that his mother liked her and made no fuss about her. Life was Alice’s own family gatherings – the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, new and satisfying and just as legitimate as the old Michaelmas and Martinmas of another universe – where she and her brothers and sisters-in-law laughed and gossiped unabashedly, and resumed old jokes and speech patterns, some of them not very nice, from their remotest common history.

She loved it all, not least of it her new books and new friends, and her ongoing little hobby of amateur public speaker. This was very small-scale. She never would breathe a word of it to anyone at work. But she continued to give talks on Isaiah or Proverbs to audiences of ten or twelve approving people, and took compliments and questions afterward – mostly from men – and six months or a year later was asked to do it again. Soon Hunter was twelve, and she twenty-nine, and then he was fifteen and she was thirty-two: just about the ages that her father had considered interesting and romantic all those years ago when the child-parents had announced their intention to marry, and worn orange roses at their wedding.

And while this was going on, the comforting matrons at work named Helen and Anne and Marge began to retire. Their places were taken by new women – almost always women – whose lives she did not understand. Something had happened, a jump in time, the crest of a sociological wave, to render her newly alone in a circle of new co-workers who were suddenly either younger and more experienced in the world than she was, or just slightly older but much less experienced with a husband and a child than she was. Or a twisted combination of the two. They told and re-told their stories with enthusiasm, as if any life experience were valid, womanly.

This was hard on Alice because she thought her experience at seventeen trumped all others. All of these new women had been through college and "internships," or had come from other workplaces. One had graduated Georgetown law school. Some had traveled, or lived elsewhere. They shared traumas, laughing, about coping with the Los Angeles freeway system. One had been a model for nine months in Greece. "My most irrational act," she called it happily in the company newsletter. Yet few were married yet, very few divorced. None under twenty-five had children, and those who were older, who were hired as it were laterally, outranking Alice in age and authority but not seniority, might at most have a toddler or two at home. She felt outpaced, all her experiences lost in a sepia-toned high school past, the pointless mother of a giant.

And the other women all got along so well, so naturally. They could not possibly have heard of Pindar. If they went to a church it really was for the children, or because they liked "Father Mike" but hadn’t liked "Pastor Dave." How sophisticated they seemed. They seemed to have met here purposefully, by mysteriously following the straight and narrow, while her own route had been circuitous and wrong.

Pearls and Roses, chapter 7

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