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.