Veblen MacKay-Sim was engaged to Paul Vreeland, a postgraduate research fellow in neuroscience, and the time had finally come to bring him home to meet the family. A classic rite of passage, except that the irregularities of her mother’s personality held a certain terror for her. She was often reminded that humans were flawed, no families faultless, and no matter what happened that day, it was all part of the rich tapestry of life. Her mother would surely rise to such an occasion. And Paul, who routinely examined brain-injured cadavers, could surely endure it too.
The couple set off on a Saturday morning, skirting the traffic-ensnarled Bay Area, passing the minaret-like towers of the oil refineries at Martinez and the mothball fleet of warships in the Carquinez Strait, discussing their future. Then Veblen found, as they drove up Napa Valley into the mountains, that she was having trouble breathing.
He touched her arm. “You’re shaking. What’s wrong?”
She said, “What if you don’t like her?”
“Does she have three heads?”
“Hugely obese? One of those people who can barely move?”
“No.” She shook her head.
“She’s—complicated. She, sometimes—” To sum up the catalog of past episodes would be strenuous.
“Tell me, it’s okay.”
“Take it easy!”
“Whenever she gets the chance, she’ll call someone a pompous ass.”
Paul looked surprised. “You mean, like, strangers?”
She nodded. “Usually.”
“Friends sometimes too?”
“Depends on what you mean by friends.”
He took her hand. “Are you saying she’s going to call me a pompous ass?”
Veblen said, “No, but if she does—”
“I sort of agree with her,” Paul said. “Pompous asses are everywhere.”
At last they reached the long driveway of Veblen’s childhood home, on a hammer-shaped parcel her mother had bought years back, so rocky and barren it had never gained in value during the land booms. The house sat on the hammerhead, and the driveway was in the handle, flanked by elephant-sized hummocks of blackberry vines, where Veblen used to pick berries by the gallons to make pies and cobblers and jam. She’d sell them at a table by the road, to help her mother make ends meet. In the fall she’d put on leather gloves to her elbows, to hack the vines back off the driveway, uncovering snakes and lizards and voles. In the spring the vines would start to come back, the green canes growing noticeably by the day, rising straight like spindles before gravity caused them to arc. They grew on the surface the way roots grow underground, in all directions, overlapping, intertwined. The blackberries had defined her life in those days—their encroaching threat, their abundant yield. All her old chores came to mind as they rolled up the drive to the familiar crunching sound of tires on gravel.
“I never would’ve imagined you growing up somewhere like this,” Paul said.
No time to think about this now, for Veblen saw her mother advancing out of the house in her best pantsuit, an aqua-colored Thai-silk number beneath which new (as in 25 years old, but saved in the original box for special occasions) Dr. Scholl’s white sandals flashed. She wore them with socks. Her husband, Linus, came out coiffed and ironed, in a blue oxford shirt. They appeared relaxed, normal, attractive, almost vigorous.
How stiff and formal Veblen’s mother’s posture was, and how tall she stood! She had nearly six inches on her daughter and had gained some mass over the years.
“You must be Dr. Paul Vreeland,” the mother said, with a formal style of elocution heard mostly in old films. “Melanie Copper.”
“Linus Duffy,” Linus said, joining in the hand-grasping ritual.
“We have prepared a nice light lunch to eat outside. Paul, if you would be so kind as to help Linus move the table into the sunshine, we’ll sit right away.”
The men took off behind the house, as the women went inside.
Veblen smiled. “Mom, you look pretty.”
“I’m absolutely miserable,” her mother said, once the men were out of earshot. “My shoulders are buckling under the straps of this bra and my neck is already ruined. I never wear a bra anymore. I despise my breasts. They’re boulders. The nerve of God to do this to women! I’m going to be flat on my back with ice, soon as you leave.”
“Mom, you don’t have to wear a bra for our benefit. Take it off. Be yourself.”
“No man wants to see a woman with her breasts hanging down to her navel.”
“Take the straps off your shoulders, then.”
“I’ll try that. Let’s go inside.”
“I love your suit.”
“I was going to wear it to the wedding, but had nothing else for today. Now I’ll have to get something else, won’t I?”
“You can wear it again.”
“Paul’s very good-looking,” her mother said. “But I haven’t sensed the chemistry yet.”
“We got here two minutes ago.”
“I hope he’s not in love with himself,” Melanie said. “Come in the kitchen, I need your help.”
The kitchen was a constant—the oatmeal-colored tiles, the chicken-headed canisters, the hand-crank can opener screwed in over the sink, gears and magnet always mysteriously greasy, yet everything else quite clean, and Veblen was proud of her mother’s artwork on the walls around the table—abstracts done in oil pastels, aerial views of landforms and waterways and rocks, sure-handed and dreamy. She remembered the constant scent of linseed oil, and from the cupboards, a trace of seeping molasses.
Her mother removed a casserole dish from the oven, hot mitts splayed. “This is a delicious recipe I discovered recently, using artichoke hearts and bread crusts and just a little asiago cheese and butter,” she said. “Very special.”
“Nice.” Veblen cracked open a head of red-leafed lettuce. Her favorite part was the tiny center of baby leaves, and she removed it quickly before her mother could see and ate it.
“Before I forget, I have a strange lump on the back of my neck. Will you look at it, please? Linus doesn’t have an eye for this sort of thing.”
“How about later, after we’re out of the kitchen?”
“Now!” her mother said.
Veblen placed the lettuce on the counter, and parted her mother’s hair with her wet hands. She saw a dime-size swelling. “Yes, you have a little bump here, does it itch?”
“No. Is it red?”
“Is it indurated?”
“Is it hard, with clearly defined margins?” her mother asked.
Veblen squinted at the bump. “You tell me.”
“Is the texture peau d’orange?”
“What’s that?,” Veblen asked, exasperated.
“The texture of orange peel.”
Veblen squinted again. “I’d say it’s more like the skin of an apple, or maybe a pear. Maybe Paul can look at it,” she said, sighing.
“As long as he doesn’t talk down to me, that’s all I ask,” her mother said.
Veblen finished making the salad, and brought it out in her arms, like a victim. Linus had furnished Paul with a beer.
“Local brew, one of those designer jobs,” Linus said.
“I taste some lemon,” Paul said, nodding.
“We make our own blackberry wine in good years.”
“How is it?”
“Sweet, nice for a dessert wine. We end up with thirty bottles or so, give them to friends. I’ll send one home with you.”
“Great,” Paul said. “Love dessert wine, especially with some nice Gruyère.”
“I like it with pie.”
“Luncheon is served,” Melanie called, bringing out the casserole and placing it on a woven mat on the table. “Paul, I want you here. Veblen, at the head. Linus, would you open that special bottle of champagne?”
“Right,” Linus said, returning to the kitchen.
“No, out here!,” Melanie yelled. “Watching the cork fly is festive.”
Linus shuffled back with the bottle, untwisting the wires around the cork.
“Don’t aim it at us!,” Melanie cried.
“It’s not ready yet.”
“You’re aiming it at us!”
Linus turned toward the house.
“Not at the wall! We want to watch the cork fly! Turn around.”
Linus turned and began to wiggle the cork.
“Wait, you need a cloth.”
Veblen handed him a napkin to put under the neck of the bottle. Paul was tapping his fork on the table. The cork popped, and shot all of about three feet.
“Bravo!,” Melanie cried. “Now, let’s make a toast to your engagement. May you have many wonderful years together!”
Glasses clinked and bottoms-upped. Then Paul smiled at her across the table. If he were gracious about this day, she’d love him forever.
Paul said, “I don’t know if Veb has told you, but we’re having a lot of fun looking at houses. I was raised on a commune, by the way.”
“Are you planning to have a commune?”
“No, the opposite, I want to live behind a gate that no one can get through.”
“You’ve got to escape the way you were raised,” Linus said. “Boy, do I know it.”
“I just want you to know that Veblen is going to be living in comfortable surroundings,” Paul said.
Melanie said, “Well, Veblen, you’ll really have surpassed me. I don’t know if Veblen has mentioned it, but I’m very interested in medical matters, having grown up with a physician in the family, and having a complicated history myself. You can never be too prepared when dealing with the health-care system, wouldn’t you agree?”
“That’s right. Patients really need to advocate for themselves these days,” Paul said.
“That’s a refreshing attitude.”
“I know you’ll find it difficult to believe, but most doctors feel that way.”
Veblen’s mother dished out steaming mounds. “I’ve received atrociously condescending treatment over my recent migraine business,” she said. “It’s a wonder cads like these stay in practice.”
“What seems to be the nature of the condition?,” Paul asked, and Veblen’s dread distributed itself through her limbs.
“Well, starting four years ago, just after my yearly flu shot, I experienced an array of symptoms ascribed to migraine equivalent or transient ischemia. Obviously, and as you know, many known foods and chemicals precipitate the condition.”
“Absolutely,” Paul said. “Sodium benzoate, cyclomates, chocolate, corn—”
“Peas, pork, lamb, citrus, onion, wheat, pears, the list goes on. Symptoms of mine have included hypothermia, aphasia, a feeling of rotating. Further, I’ve had facial paralysis, paralysis of upper limbs, and narcolepsy. I don’t believe this fits in the typical migraine profile.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it typical,” Paul said, hesitantly.
“Now, I have learned in time that a middle-aged woman with unusual symptoms can easily be labeled a crackpot, a psychosomatic case, a malingerer. Further, my general physician recently told me I’m too observant. How can I agree with that? If not me, who then?”
Veblen was breathing rapidly.
Paul looked at her and said, “Yes, patients need to be proactive.”
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear a doctor say that!”
“Now, the cause could be non-organic—” Paul began.
“Non-organic? Psychosomatic, is that what you’re saying?”
“No, not in that sense—”
“What do you mean? If a migraine falls outside their specialty, many physicians don’t realize that it is no longer considered psychosomatic.”
Veblen said, woodenly, “Mom, let’s eat.”
“I can’t speak for ‘many physicians,’” Paul said, “but I’m a neurologist and—” He stopped abruptly to sip his champagne, temples pulsating. His jaw was seizing like a tractor, and Veblen’s stomach ached. “You sound like you know more about it than I do,” he said, mildly.
“That’s very likely true, which is a sad story in itself. I have this central scotoma when in hot or warm showers, and with exercise. I see a blur, followed by an irregular opaque gray area, and rest restores normal sight. But if I walk on a cold day, the central scotoma is lighted and non-moving.”
“Interesting,” Paul said.
“Oh, another piece of the puzzle!,” Melanie exclaimed, almost gaily. “Two years ago, I found an area on my chest that was ‘dead’—numb, without feeling. Located right here—” she pointed to an area at the top of her left breast. “It was about five by five centimeters. That large! It remained dead until about six months ago, when suddenly, remember Linus, I realized that my dead spot had feeling again. Is that related?”
“Mmm. Could be,” Paul said.
With that, Melanie swiveled in her chair and reached for a few typed sheets of paper that had been stapled together, hidden behind a ceramic bowl full of miniature pine cones.
“This is a complete list of my medical history,” she announced.
Paul looked surprised. “My, arranged almost like a CV!” he said, with mild enthusiasm.
“You don’t need to ridicule me,” Melanie said, making Veblen jump up and retreat through the sliding doors into the kitchen, breathing short and fast. She could still hear them, as she bit her forearm so hard she left teeth marks in it.
The risks had been known. She returned outside.
“No, not at all, I think everyone should have one.” Paul was scanning the first page. “Measles, scarlet fever, tick fever, tonsillectomy, appendectomy, and histoplasmosis, all before you were fifteen?”
“Mmmm.” He continued. “Possible exposure to gamma radiation from a Nevada test site?”
“Yes, it’s well documented. I was part of a class-action suit.”
“Mmmm. Thyroidectomy for papillary and follicular carcinoma, I-131 ablation—neck injury, acute degenerative arthritis of neck resultant … pancreatic insufficiency—how did you become aware of that?”
“I had tests! How else would someone become aware of it, through a crystal ball?”
“Ciguatera poisoning, with permanent irreversible anticholinesterase?”
“Yes. I assume you know what that is?”
“I do, though in all my years in medicine, I have yet to hear of anyone with this condition.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing, just that it’s rare. Let’s see, then atrial fib, tetany, transient Cushing, psoriasis, double vision, empty sella, secondary hyperparathyroidism, primary aldosteronism—” Paul stopped reading. “Well. Very complicated. Very—impressive.”
Linus sat entirely still, clasping his hands together, as if praying.
“I’m thinking about an eye test you could have, but it must be performed when the scotoma is present,” Paul said.
“But it is present,” Melanie cried. “I told you, it’s right here, right now.”
Paul’s voice was pinched. “Yes, you’ve had a complicated history of vasomotor instability with severe neurological manifestations, including paralysis and ocular difficulties, haven’t you?”
“Well, then, I will write down the name of this test, and I suggest you ask your doctor about it.”
“I see. I see exactly.” She smacked her lips and rose from the table with the imperious and sullen bearing Veblen ascribed to Napoleon departing for Elba.
Veblen and Paul and Linus remained, in punishing silence. An intonation, an insufficiency of deference, or the way Paul’s lips looked slightly pursed as he read—something had gone wrong. Linus twisted his napkin and tossed it onto his plate. “Excuse me a moment, folks,” he said, getting up and following his wife.
“Oh man,” Veblen said.
Paul glared at her. “What the hell?”
Veblen looked sidelong into the house. “She’s just got this thing about doctors.”
“What a case.”
“You’re doing great,” Veblen whispered. “Really great. Keep your cool. Please.”
She reached across the table for his hand, squeezed it. She’d brought a boyfriend home only once before, resulting in the flash incineration of his urbane persona and a near-immediate breakup.
“You warned me, but wow.”
Linus appeared. “Veblen?” With unnatural cheer and strained, clasped hands, he said, “Would you go in and talk to your mother? You are so good with her.”
She excused herself from the table, afraid that Paul might be wearing thin after less than an hour. This pattern, of going into her mother’s room and sitting on the edge of her bed in the middle of the day, had been in place since Veblen was a young girl. She thought back to all the times she’d sat starboard of her mother after bringing in a heating pad or an ice pack or little bouquets of dandelions and alyssum.
“Sit down here,” her mother said, from beneath the covers.
“You okay, Mom?”
“No, I’m not.”
“That man is a narcissist.”
Veblen counted to ten, her usual restraint. “But not a pompous ass?”
“He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He barely noticed you at all. He only hears the sound of his own voice.” Her mother thrashed under the covers, as if trying to annihilate a small creature beneath her.
Veblen swallowed, having none of it. She caressed her mother’s arm through the blanket and spoke gently. “Mom, you know what? He’s been nervous about meeting you, and you know why? Because he knows how important you are to me. He wants to make a good impression.”
“He didn’t,” coughed her mother.
“Then it’s because he’s so nervous. You’ll see when you get to know him better.”
“I want you to tell me how that man’s sweet.”
“He fell in love with me the first time we met.”
“That’s not a feat, Veblen. You’re very lovable.”
“People often don’t get me, and Paul does.”
“How dare you say that! You are a beautiful, sweet, smart girl.” She began to sniffle. “How have I failed? Where have I gone wrong?”
“Mom! Stop it. Please!” She continued to pat her mother’s whale-like hip.
“My beautiful girl is going to marry a narcissistic prig?”
“I beg you to stop talking about him that way, and be patient the way you are when studying a painting you don’t understand at first, and just get to know him.”
Her mother sniffled awhile. “Life is more than big houses and garish diamonds.”
“Of course. Did you really want him to prescribe the test himself? Is that what upset you?”
“No. That wouldn’t be appropriate. But he might have offered, at least.”
“That would be stepping over the line, wouldn’t it?”
“No one ever steps over the line for me, and that’s how my life has always been. Will you help me up, Veblen? My back is in a spasm.”
Veblen pulled. Her mother rose to her feet and stalked into the bathroom. When she came out, she’d put on some fresh lipstick and styled her hair.
“I’m doing this only for you,” she said. “Nothing else would impel me to spend a second with that man.”
“Come on, Mom. You’ll see.” The words were well cloaked in her gentlest voice, her hardy optimism, her subtle sorcery.
Linus was showing Paul his collection of fossils and arrowheads. Paul was nodding politely. “This one I found in Utah, just outside Moab, sticking out of the red soil like a thumb.”
“Nice,” Paul said.
“I had a beauty, seven-tiered, about eight inches long, red jasper, and I made the mistake of turning it over to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Well, they have a warehouse, and they cataloged it, and it disappeared, never to be seen again. Never displayed the thing. I wish I’d kept it.”
“Well, don’t blame the institution. It’s a repository of artifacts, and even so, it adds to the body of knowledge. It was a good contribution,” Paul said.
“I don’t suppose I could entice you to help us with a chore, Paul,” Melanie interrupted, “with some Key-lime pie as a reward?”
“What chore?,” Veblen asked, suspiciously.
“Well, last winter, a full year ago, we had that massive storm that ripped the roof off our chicken house, which I want to use as a studio, and the roof flew down into the ravine. I can’t go down there, because of my ankles. But Linus could easily bring it up if he had the help of a strong fellow like Paul.”
“Don’t say that around my dad,” Paul said. “He’ll give you a long list of chores I’d mess up owing to my supposed laziness. Where is it?”
Linus said, “Come on, Melanie, that’s a terrible job. We don’t want to subject Paul to that.”
“It’s in the ravine?,” Paul asked.
“At the very bottom. Past the still.” This was a mysterious rusted hulk they had discovered down there years before. They’d decided it had to be an old moonshiner’s still.
“Let’s take a look,” Paul insisted, with authority.
They moved outside. Lake County was coming up in the world, and to the north one could see new vineyards ringing the hills across the valley. On site, the land dropped off sharply around the hammerhead, giving way to the gnarled thicket of blackberry brambles, twelve feet deep in some places, harsh and naked in winter, like a farm of cat-o’-nine-tails. Somewhere below lay the tin roof.
“We’ve got overalls you could put on,” Linus said. “It’s not that heavy, but the shape’s awkward.”
“Gloves?,” Paul requested, as if asking for a scalpel.
“Good leather gloves.”
“Hmm. What about boots?”
“I’m a size thirteen,” Linus said.
“Big, but that would work.”
“Are you sure?,” Veblen faltered. Her mother’s gall affronted, and yet she was pleasantly gratified that Paul was willing, and strangely, his affability made her feel loved.
“I’ll get the gear,” Linus said.
Paul followed and emerged shortly in mechanic’s coveralls, the big paint-stained boots, the heavy gloves. Linus came next, in his version of the same outfit. “The path starts over here,” Linus said. He held two rusty machetes and two pairs of oxidized clippers and handed one of each to Paul. “Just hack away.”
“All right, let’s do it,” Paul said.
“Thataway!,” Linus said.
The men began to fight and hack their way through the brambles. Veblen watched Paul trying to free his sleeve from a rack of thorns.
Her mother murmured, “This is a very good sign.”
They went back inside, and Veblen’s mother stretched out on the couch.
“That job is about the worst you could have cooked up,” Veblen complained.
“Paul is an able-bodied man. He should be able to help his future father-in-law with this. So what are you going to wear for the wedding?”
“Wait here.” Veblen retrieved her purse and removed a picture of a dress she’d printed. Talking about clothes, they tapped into a comfortable vein. “Something like this.”
“Beautiful!” her mother said, examining the picture. “Very simple and elegant.”
“I’m going to make it myself,” Veblen said, deciding right then.
Melanie jumped up, taking Veblen into the bedroom, to the closet. “I might wear this.” She pulled out a midnight-blue silk dress.
“Here are the things I’ve found for you. I want a fashion show.”
A heap of garments, which Melanie believed to be diamonds in the rough and therefore evidence of her superior skills in the gem fields of the Rescue Squad thrift store, sat on the chair in the corner. Veblen began to sort through the items, which appeared to have belonged to an aging society woman in the 1970s. “Funky.”
“That one’s Coco Chanel. See how the pockets are sewn closed?”
“Finely tailored items arrive with the pockets sewn closed. I’m sorry our budget didn’t allow you to experience that. You can open them gently with the seam ripper I gave you.”
“You still have the seam ripper I gave you?”
“It’s in my sewing kit.”
“That’s a very expensive Swiss seam ripper. Be careful, it’s sharp.”
“I know, Mom.” Veblen paused the appropriate number of seconds necessary for Melanie to feel appreciated.
Melanie pointed to a pantsuit with a sash, in a bright-green Marimekko cotton print. “Try that. With your shoulders, it’ll look smashing on you.”
Veblen sat on the edge of the bed, removed her shoes and socks, and dutifully unzipped her jeans. This seemed to be one of her mother’s only joys, so how could she refuse? Her mother said, “Honey, haven’t I told you to shave the hairs off your toes? Toe hairs are very unattractive.”
Veblen looked down at her feet. “Where?”
“On the first joint of your big toes. There.”
Veblen doubled over and detected a few blondish hairs she’d never noticed before. “So?”
“I’m remembering one of the last things my grandmother told me before she died, oddly,” Melanie said.
“What do you mean?” Veblen had slipped on the pant part of the Marimekko pantsuit, but the cut was very matronly, the way the waist went over her hips. She continued with the masquerade, familiar with the routine of thanking her mother, then stuffing the clothes in the back of her closet when she got home or tamping them into a plastic bag and kicking it like a football into a Goodwill bin.
“She had opinions.”
“What other great advice did she have?”
“She was very practical, after her first husband died so young. Thought a woman should accept an imperfect marriage.”
“What’s perfect, anyway?,” Veblen said.
“No!,” Melanie cried. “You’re too young to think that. If you don’t think Paul’s perfect, don’t marry him. You still have time.”
“That’s not what I mean. Nothing’s perfect. Is your marriage to Linus perfect?”
“I’m very lucky to have him.”
“Her point was that you make a choice and stick with it. That you make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. She gave me a lot of grief when my marriage to Rudgear failed. She had no idea that any meeting of the minds was impossible. You see, in her day, matches that bad didn’t happen unless youths were foolish and unsupervised. You will never hear that kind of advice from me. When is this event happening?”
“We haven’t decided.”
“And what about your journalism career, sweetie? Are you happy with your job?”
“What about that idea you had, about starting your own magazine?”
“I don’t know, that’s pretty hard.”
“I would love to advise with the layouts.”
“I think helping you would be thrilling. We’d have so much fun collaborating.”
They chatted awhile amiably then, Veblen in her ill-fitting pantsuit bouncing a few ideas off her mother and snuggling into the curve at her hip, just as she had a thousand times before, viewing the glass of water ready for pills, the gooseneck lamp, the large oak chest of drawers with its magical presence, filled with her mother’s mysterious things. For some reason, the chest reminded her of the day she first glimpsed her mother’s underarm, being plied with some type of cream from a jar. The armpit was a hitherto unfamiliar landscape of fleshiness and stubble, and Veblen thought it strangely large, an armpit so vast it could smuggle a pup. She’d been relieved when the arm came down and the armpit receded from sight, though, alas, not from memory. The afternoon sun streamed past the chest in motey beams, unbroken except for a dark silhouette in the unexpected shape of a squirrel.
“Oh my God, Mom, look!”
Her mother lifted her head. “Scram!” She clapped her hands together.
“Why is it staring in the window?”
Veblen rose and felt a spike of adrenalin, a jab.
“Oh my God!” Her voice came out in a rasp, as the squirrel leapt off the sill. “I know the face, it’s him!”
Her mother sat up. “Veblen, come here. Right now.”
But she moved to the window to check.
“Mom, I’ll be right back.” And Veblen took off after the squirrel, despite her mother’s calls.
Out the door, she searched for her ally, arms to the sun. She had called him Thorstein.
The cottonwoods shivered up an arm of the ravine, the grasses whispered. A hawk circled in the upper reaches of the sky. And all else was quiet. She scanned the trees around the house, starting with the gnarled, arthritic crab apple, with lots of deadwood covered in stag weed. Then the old plums, the cedar, and the madrone. She had spent hours of her young life outside, very still, watching sunlight filtering through the trees, or storms coming in across the hills and graying everything, and the clip of birds dipping from tree to tree. Beetles and dark jelly newts had lived under the rotting logs by the chicken house. On some days a thousand robins would alight in the treetops for an hour, then leave in a great upward rush. Toadstools popped up in moist corners in the rainy months, and somewhere in the ravines was a plant with cotton-winged seeds that took flight through the air in unexpected spirals. Thorstein liked to sit in the trees too, ears spry and soft, and listen to anything she had to say.
At the madrone she heard a noise, and spun around.
“Come out! Are you here?”
Short hills flanked the land on the western side. When the sun went down, the hills grew bossy, like matrons pushing in at a sale, prematurely ending the day. Wind liked to race over the crest of those hills, gaining speed as it swept over them, and no one was surprised when the roof of the chicken house flew the coop. She used to watch the sunflower heads banging in the wind. The grass waving, the burrs flying, the foxtail so affectionate to your socks. He’d told her: This is only the beginning. One day you’ll have your way. She’d believed it. Her ears would prick to the sound of it, coming on the wind.
Was it arrogant to think a squirrel might wait for your return? Or to think your parents cared about you?
And yet—with those well-marked whiskers, and that topcoat, and the notable scruff, a squirrel who knew her and cared—wouldn’t that be nice?
“Thank you for checking in!”
She came back inside and had a slow drink of water, before returning to her mother’s room.
“Sit here, right now,” her mother said.
Veblen sat next to her mother, the room darker than before.
“Don’t start this now. You have everything to look forward to.”
“I know I do.”
Her mother stared at her, and stroked her hair. “Honey. What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy?”
“Yes! I’m very happy.”
“You’re having one of your attacks,” her mother said.
“No, I’m not.” She held her mother’s hand, entrenched as the tides.
“You make me feel guilty,” Melanie said. “Like I did something wrong.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“And I get frightened,” her mother said. “That you might have some of Rudge’s genes.”
Veblen felt she was now required to reassure her mother that she possessed very few genes from her natural father. “I do have some of his genes,” she said, today, trying something different. “You mated with him, how can I help it?”
“Don’t blame me!” her mother cried.
“I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t mated with him.”
“Well, he is certifiably insane. It’s something to look out for.”
“I’ll try to keep on top of it.”
“All kinds of treatments are out there nowadays, the world is different, you have nothing to be ashamed of—unless untreated.”
“Good to know. You don’t think I’m insane, do you?”
Her mother sat up. “Only when you go outside and talk to squirrels. You’re the bravest, strongest girl in the world,” her mother said, squeezing her hand.
Shortly they stood at the edge of the ravine, calling down to the men.
Linus called up: “The Eagle has landed!”
Veblen and her mother hooted back.
“Paul?,” Veblen called.
“How you doing?”
“I’ve been better.”
“Oh, you’ll be tired tonight!” laughed Melanie, an obvious sadist.
“Moving the roof should be easier, now that we’ve cut the trail,” Linus called.
They could hear the sound of the buckling sheet and the grunts and instructions going back and forth between the men for almost ten minutes before they could see any sign of the roof wiggling up the bank.
“This is a bitch of a job,” Linus yelled, with earned ferocity.
“I second that,” Paul yelled. They seemed to be gathering some strength through yelling.
“What seems to be the problem?,” Melanie called.
“We’re being shredded alive,” Paul bellowed. “Get out the rubbing alcohol!”
“Honey, it’s just very heavy and we have to hold it over our heads, and the weight shifts and our legs catch on the canes,” Linus added. “We should’ve hired someone with a winch.”
Cooler, sunlight weak and broken, near dark when the men mounted the crest of the ravine, the roof flashing triumphantly. Paul’s hair was full of leaves and brambles, scratches seeping blood across his cheeks and neck.
Melanie said, “Let me get a picture!”
When her mother handled a camera, she acted like some kind of hip photojournalist following a rock band—her jauntiest mode. She took a few posed shots of the men standing by the corrugated sheet.
“We’ll get it up on top another day,” Linus piped.
“Paul, you’re going down in our hall of fame,” Melanie said.
“Shower,” Veblen said. “Come with me.”
She herded Paul back into her childhood bedroom, with its sea-green walls and old corkboard retaining some of the flavor of that era, though it had since become a storage room for her mother’s art supplies and fabrics.
He collapsed onto the twin bed, clutching a towel. “I can barely speak. Oh my God.”
“They ambushed you.”
“Oooooh. Yes. They did.”
“I’ll have to think of a good reward.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Go take a shower,” she said.
Melanie was arranging the plates on the dining-room table by herself, a sign she was on a first-class flight of fancy. Her eyes were bright and excited, and Veblen remembered the hopes that that look had inspired in her when she was young, when Melanie wore her hair in a long braid and was thin and impulsive, and they would set out on the spur of the moment with some elusive aim, like returning a jacket to a former friend, someone who had let her mother down but might now have a chance of making amends.
“He’s great!” she said. “What a surprise to find a man like that, someone who’ll roll up his sleeves like that … I wasn’t sure, Veblen, but he’s real.”
Despite herself, Veblen beamed, and felt joy rising in her gullet, and her cheeks levitated not for the benefit of her mother, but from an overflow of feeling. “I told you.”
“He’s real. He’s solid,” her mother said, and Veblen watched as she opened the bottom drawer of a chest and pulled out the real silver, the Gorham Chantilly Melanie’s parents had bestowed on her when they sent her to Vassar and dreamed of pairing her with a Dartmouth boy.
“Very nice guy,” Linus noted, standing there with a glass of wine. “We had a great talk down there about all kinds of medical advancements and so on. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Veblen looked at Linus, a solid man himself, someone who didn’t think of himself every two seconds, who had always been reliable and kind. There he was, year after year. He took care of her mother like a nurse, chauffeur, secretary, bodyguard, accountant, and loving friend, all in one.
“He does, you’re right.”
In short order Paul presented himself, refreshed, reborn, smelling of Dove soap, his face full of color, his skin shiny, his hair groomed and slick.
And they sat for Key-lime pie, with a buttery graham-cracker crust, cut in slices on the Limoges china plates.
“We survived,” Linus said.
“Conquerors,” Paul said.
“I didn’t think we’d make it, at one point.”
“When my leg went into that snake hole, I thought that was it.”
“When I took the vine in the eye, that was my low point.”
They liked him, and he liked them! Tears of joy stung her eyes.
“Delicious pie,” Paul said.
“My grandmother’s recipe,” said Melanie.
“Veblen’s a great cook too,” Paul remarked. “She must have learned from you.”
Some people liked her mother and Linus. For instance, the Yamamotos, a visiting couple from Japan, the wife an artist, interested in textiles and art paper, whom her mother had pursued and won over. And the librarian couple from Sacramento, the Gilberts, interested in Native American artifacts and books. But one year the Gilberts house-sat for them and evidently delved into drawers where they shouldn’t have, and Melanie felt violated and terminated the friendship. The Yamamotos remained friendly, likely because they had returned across the Pacific Ocean for good. They still sent handmade New Year’s cards. If Paul liked Melanie and Linus, maybe a sea change was coming. Maybe lots of people could.
“So. A wedding,” Melanie said. “Your folks, are they excited?”
“God, yes. They think Veblen is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to our family.”
“Well, she is,” Melanie said.
“This girl is very special,” Linus said, reaching out to pat Veblen’s arm. “I couldn’t be prouder of her if she was my own daughter.”
“If you’re not good to her, we’ll have you for dinner!” her mother said.
“Yikes,” Paul said.
Then at last, the long, milling goodbye at the car, and the two of them rattling back to the main road, the driveway rutted and full of deceptive puddles. Paul reclined in the passenger seat, his arms trembling. He said, once they had traveled about a mile, “Jesus God.”
“That was so heroic of you!”
“I had no choice,” Paul groaned. “She was totally pissed off at first, wasn’t she?”
“That was normal. She liked you a lot.”
“You liked her?”
He made a noise that could be interpreted as a yes.
“Really, you did?” she ventured to ask, like losing her balance to pick a daisy. She began to hiccup deeply, with a need to keep hearing it, to pin it down for all time. “You were so nice about listening to all the medical stuff!”
“Yeah, I tried.”
“You understood her? You saw her good side?”
The pause was so long, she thought he’d drifted off to sleep. But then he said, “She’s quite a character. Smart, definitely. Intense.”
“Did I ever tell you she has an IQ of 185, and she can beat me playing chess with a blindfold?”
Paul didn’t say anything for awhile.
“I don’t know, Veb. I’m totally exhausted.”
“I know, you’ll be sore and stiff tomorrow.”
“You’re not kidding.”
She used her brights on the dark country road, with warm hopes for times yet to come.
Late that evening, as she might have predicted, her mother phoned.
“Hi, Mom. We just got back.”
“Oh, my. My goodness. It was quite a day. Linus hurt his back. How’s Paul?”
“He’s a little miserable at the moment.”
“Did he get the poison oak too? Linus is on fire.”
Paul was flat on his back on an ice pack, moaning softly.
“I have something to say to you,” her mother said.
Veblen moved with the phone into the kitchen. Upon her engagement, her first desire had been to spring the news on her mother, nothing being fully real until such springing. And nothing with her mother was ever simple and straightforward, and that was the thrill of it. A perverse, infantile thrill she’d thought necessary to life.
Thus her mother spoke. “I just want you to know that in general, when a man wants to make a good impression on a woman’s family, he bends over backward to do it. He thinks ahead. He leaves nothing to chance. He looks around the bathroom, he cleans up the hairs he left in the sink, and, most of all, he makes sure he doesn’t leave his towel wadded up on the floor for his future mother-in-law to find.”
“He liked you a lot,” Veblen boldly conjectured.
“He did? Nobody likes me when they meet me.”
Veblen replied faithfully. “Not true.”
“He didn’t have a field day, spinning theories about me?”
“No, Mom. He could barely speak.”
“Have him take some antihistamines for the dermatitis, and some anti-inflammatories for the muscle pain.”
“And call you in the morning?,” Veblen replied.
“Honey, if this is what you want, we’re happy for you. Are you sure this is what you want?”
Veblen looked into the bedroom, where Paul was now snoring, his body plastered in a pinkish-grey liniment, and just at that moment he twitched decisively.
“What more could I want?” she said.