An excerpt from Beth Castrodale’s most recent novel, In This Ground, was a short-list finalist for a 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Award. Her previous novel, Marion Hatley, a finalist for a Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from Southeast Missouri State University Press, will be published in 2017 by Garland Press. Beth has published stories in Printer’s Devil Review, The Writing Disorder, and the Marathon Literary Review, and she also recommends literary fiction on her Web site, SmallPressPicks.com.
A Short Story
By Beth Castrodale
At various times, Thel had heard the story from her mother. In a sense it was an ordinary story of what had been a fairly ordinary procedure in the middle of the last century: the pulling of a number of failed teeth to make way for a set of dentures. After the pulling but before the dentures (the swelling had to be given time to subside), Thel’s grandmother—her mother’s mother—had lain for a month in a darkened room.
“I’d never seen her off her feet for more than a day or two,” Thel’s mother had said. “So you can imagine the pain she was in. But with those teeth, it was something more. It was a loss to her dignity. She never asked to be spared much, but she might have been spared that.”
By the time Thel first heard the story, her grandmother was years dead and she herself a young and casual listener, open to all types of distractions, from within and without.
Her mother went on: “For days, there was the smell of clove oil, all downstairs. She wouldn’t—or couldn’t—take medicine for the pain, and there was no question of alcohol. It wasn’t kept in the house. Then, one day, she and my father dressed for town, and when they returned, they came into the room where I was reading. They stood by the door in a formal way, as if they had troubling news.
“I laid my book along the arm of the chair, and when I turned my full attention to them, my mother smiled, against her will. She had in her new teeth, the dentures, and her smile was like a foresight of her death.
“Of course she immediately read my expression and bolted from the room. I followed, but there was no way to make an apology, for she knew as well as I did that she was not quite the same and never would be.”
Here it was, recorded in her grandmother’s neat, upright hand: Teeth pulled at Dr. Harvey’s, Feb 18 1949—9 above 8 below. The words had been written on the inside cover of the 1925 Pennsylvania State Grange Cook Book, along with the dates of the first snows from 1947 to 1964, the heights and shoe sizes of her three children, measured at various times, and the times of certain plantings. They coexisted with these other notes as if they were of no greater significance than them, and this might have seemed so to Thel had she not known the fuller story.
Now, Thel couldn’t take her eyes from these words; it seemed she’d never seen her grandmother’s handwriting, though surely that was impossible. She tilted the book toward the window and the waning light. Nineteen forty-nine. Her grandmother would have been fifty-one then—relatively young today, but not so then. Thel herself was nearly sixty.
Thel had come here, to the house she’d grown up in, to finish sorting through the things that hadn’t followed her mother into the nursing home. On Sunday her brother, Graham, was to arrive with a rented truck so they could divvy up what seemed worth saving, then haul what remained to the dump.
Thel knew from her own moves that the kitchen was among the thorniest rooms, with cupboards full of cooking miscellany and—in her mother’s case—drawers of what might be unkindly referred to as junk: bill stubs and warranties for discarded appliances; various linens Thel had embroidered as a child; indeterminate parts of electronics that her father had dissembled and apparently forgotten—the sole evidence of his having been in this room. It was in one of these drawers that Thel had found the Grange cookbook. And as she continued flipping through it, Thel saw more cryptic notes, jotted here and there among the recipes from farmers’ wives.
cook chicken till falls from the bone—slow oven
about 75 ears of corn for 7 quarts
hair done—April 23 1954
Told S.H. off the line—Mar 25 1946 Oct 30 1947 Jul 3 49
The dates in this last note had been written by different pens at apparently different times, and at some point someone had attempted to cross out the whole entry with a pencil. But the attempt was ineffectual, the pencil lines faint and wandering, like the scribblings of a child.
S.H. Who was S.H.? Thel cast about in her memories, personal ones and those shared by her mother, but could think of no one with those initials. It was possible, too, that S.H. wasn’t a person. Then there was “Told off the line.” Thel got a fleeting picture of her grandmother standing in a long line on a bright sidewalk, then stepping out suddenly to berate someone cutting in ahead. It was a comical and disturbing image given the gentle person her grandmother had been. But even if Thel was right, why would there be different dates for such a thing?
The old wall phone rang, startling Thel into dropping the book. It was Emily.
“How’s it going, Mom? I bet you’re pretty buried.”
Having played in this kitchen for years, Emily well knew what a mess it was, though it had been a treasure trove for a little girl.
“You could say that. But it’s going fine, really. Is everything okay with you?”
“Yeah, yeah. I just wanted to let you know that Dad called and asked where you were.”
Thel’s heart skipped then beat faster.
“Have you heard from him?”
“No. Not yet.”
“He wants to know if we need any help on Sunday, and I didn’t want to speak for you.”
No, they wouldn’t need Alan’s help. More specifically, Thel didn’t want it.
“I hope it’s okay that I told him you were at Gran’s.”
“Of course it’s okay, Em. He’s your father.”
That word, father, had become strange to Thel. Not so long ago, it had been a word spoken in rooms they all shared; it encompassed all the things that Alan was in all of their lives. Now it was something—your father—that held Alan apart, at least from Thel.
“Do you need any help there now? Tim’s home, and he can watch Maddy.”
“I’m all set, honey. But thanks for asking.”
“Okay. Love you, Mom.”
For years—the entirety of her teens—Em hadn’t offered these words freely. Now it seemed she said them at every farewell.
“Love you, too.”
When Thel hung up the phone, her hand froze on the receiver.
“The line.” S.H. had been told off the phone line.
She still wasn’t convinced, though. No conjecture could ever see to the truth, the fullest truth, about others’ lives. In the case of Alan, Thel’s conjectures had proved true, but she had known him, not through what he’d told her but, in the end, through the mask of composure he wore over his private emotions, through his unsleeping weight beside her on the bed, when he thought she’d drifted off.
Whenever Thel remembered her grandmother, she recalled her as she’d been on that day in Burkittstown, where the three of them—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter—had set themselves loose for an entire summer day, or so it seemed. The reason they’d spent so long in town was lost to Thel now, although she remembered her mother and grandmother carrying string-bound packages and moving somewhat purposefully along the narrow sidewalks.
Gran was heavy by the time Thel had come into the world, and sitting on her lap was like sitting in a plush chair. She wore a cotton dress the color of butter, a matching hat, gloves, and a corsage of white roses, the tiniest Thel had ever seen. She wore, too, a bit of cologne–Muguet des Bois–a bottle of which had always sat on her dressing table, next to a box of Coty face powder. That morning, she’d allowed Thel to put some on too. Just a bit, behind each ear.
Thel didn’t remember what her mother wore, but she didn’t recall much of anything about her mother from that day. She was too taken with her grandmother, who returned her grandchild’s attentions respectfully, waiting for her at corners, lifting her to the drinking fountain, inclining her head politely when Thel piped about something that had caught her eye.
At some point that day, Thel and her grandmother were obliged to wait on a park bench while Thel’s mother went off on her own for a time. Thel had never been a patient child, but Gran’s uprightness on the bench, the way she folded her gloved hands over her packages, inspired Thel to behave.
The bench was set back from the street, offering a good view of the people passing along Maple Avenue. Thel watched Gran watching the scene and imagined her as having authority over everything.
They had a clear view of an old pedestal clock on the opposite sidewalk, in front of the drugstore. And Gran mentioned how it had been there since she was a child. She explained how the clock had stopped once during the coldest winter on record, and a special part had to be sent for from Switzerland. She and her father were in town when the part arrived on the train, and they saw it handed down from a car like a box of china.
“Right then my father said, ‘In your long life, Delia, that clock will never stop again. And it hasn’t. So far.’”
Thel was about to ask whether the clock might stop in her own life when she saw a man approaching from the right, the side where her grandmother was sitting.
He stopped in front of the bench and stared down at Gran, as if Thel weren’t there. The part of his face that Thel could see beneath his hat brim was thin and deeply sunburnt, not young or especially old. Though, like them, he was dressed for town, his suit was loose, like something unfamiliar to him. Swaying over them, he smelled like a wide-open medicine chest.
Either ignoring him or blinded by her own hat brim, Gran stared ahead. Thel said, “Look, Gran. Look up. There’s a man.”
Gran seemed not to have heard. She kept her hands folded and her eyes on the clock, as if the man weren’t there.
“Haven’t seen you here in a while,” he said in a kind of sing-song voice. “I’d say years.”
When she didn’t answer, he followed her gaze to the clock and back. Then he pushed up his hat brim, showing hard, dark eyes.
“You still looking for him? After all this time?”
Before Gran could make an answer, Thel spotted a dark figure closing in from where the man had come. A police officer. Seeing the cop the man fled, his retreat swift and light as if his suit’s loose folds had turned to wings.
When Gran had finished reassuring the officer that she and Thel were fine, she took Thel’s hand and led her from the bench into the shade of a nearby building.
Of course, Thel asked about the man and the him he’d referred to. She asked once, and then again, and at the third or fourth time, Gran reached her limit. She looked at Thel as if she’d barged into a room she had no business in.
“That was a stranger speaking nonsense,” she said. “Nothing more.”
At that moment Thel’s mother, Delia’s daughter, seemed to materialize from the sunlight. Everything about her, even her greeting voice, seemed bright and new.
Later, when Thel asked about the drunk and the him, her mother had no idea what she was talking about.
“Pond Manor. How can I help you?”
“Myra Blinton’s room, please.”
Thel’s mother picked up on the first ring, as if she’d been expecting the call.
“Mom, it’s me.”
“Where are you?”
“Oh, no,” Myra said with a laugh. “Can’t you just toss what’s left?”
“Not everything, I’m afraid. Certainly not all of Grandma’s things.” Thel explained about finding the cookbook and the writing in it. “Do you remember, Ma? Do you remember about the writing?”
“I do remember her jotting things down, little reminders and such, but I don’t remember what they were. Those sorts of things just didn’t interest me at the time.”
Thel knew she had to get to the real reason for her call. The cookbook was open and ready, but she didn’t know how to begin.
“Well, Ma,” she said, finally. “What about this?”
She read the note about S.H., and all the dates after it.
A moment passed, and somewhere on Myra’s end a vacuum cleaner came to life, Thel’s only sign that she was still on the line.
“S.H.,” Myra began. “I have a memory of S.H.”
“Who was it? What was it?
Thel didn’t recall anyone by that name, and she was quiet long enough to make this clear.
“In those days, Thel, we shared a phone line with other families, a common practice then. Each home on the line had its own particular ring—ours was a long ring followed by two short ones—so it was clear who was to pick up on a call. But anyone on the party line could listen to any call, and there were those who took advantage, if you understand. It got to be that you got a sense of when someone was listening in—even if they were absolutely silent. It was as if the quality of sound had changed. It was as if some big and stubborn bird had settled on the telephone wires.
“The listener who plagued the line the most was Sally Harvey, the town dentist’s wife. At certain points, right in the middle of a calm conversation with the butcher or the minister or some other neighbor, Mother would break off and bark, ‘Sally Harvey, is that you?’”
“How did Gran know it was Sally Harvey?”
“Just the way I said. She got to know her silences.”
Though skeptical of this explanation, Thel was also relieved. It placed Gran’s note about Sally Harvey in the same category as the other trivia recorded in the cookbook.
“Do you know anything else about the telling off?”
Thel was surprised when her mother answered “Yes.”
“One morning, Thel, as I was starting down the stairs, I heard Mother shouting from the kitchen, and I froze. Because Dad and your uncles were out in the fields. Then I realized she was on the phone. I knew it was wrong to listen in but I couldn’t move, out of fear or curiosity or maybe both. She sounded—“
Myra’s voice broke.
“She sounded so unlike herself it terrified me.”
In the quiet that followed, Thel couldn’t tell if Myra was crying or just collecting her thoughts.
“You don’t have to say anything else, Ma.”
As if she hadn’t heard Thel, Myra went on: “Mother said, ‘You want some interesting news, Sally? Well, get ready, ‘cause I’ve got it.’
“She accused Sally’s husband of nearly breaking her jaw while pulling her teeth. She said that he offered no apology, only a denial, and that good manners were the only thing keeping her from spreading word of his ungentlemanliness, and his probable incompetence. And her good manners, she claimed, were wearing thin.
“Then she brought up Sam Gates.”
This name was new to Thel.
“For years he wound and oiled all the pendulum clocks in Burkittstown—the public ones, I mean. So he took care of the clocks in the three church steeples, and also that one on Maple Ave, in front of the Rexall. I never exchanged a word with him, but he was as much a fixture of town as the clocks he took care of, one more reminder that this was one particular place and not some other. Whenever he spotted us on our errands—Mom or Dad and me, or the whole family—he’d smile and wave from a distance, and we’d smile and wave back, and it was as simple as that. Or so I’d thought for years.
“Once Mother mentioned Sam Gates to Sally, once she’d said his name, she lowered her voice. I couldn’t hear any more of what she said until I crept farther down the stairs. And when I got to the bottom I caught just one more thing clearly: ‘If it’s you who’s claiming he’s been calling here, you better stop it, Sally. These days, he’s as likely to call you as me.’”
Outside the wind picked up, tossed rain against the kitchen windows.
“Do you remember Sam Gates calling your house, Mom?”
“No. But consider the source of those stories. Whenever the subject of Sally Harvey came up in our house, which wasn’t often, Mother said she should have written for the pictures. And she didn’t mean that as a compliment.”
Thel closed the cookbook, understanding she would keep it yet not sure just why.
“What about Grandma and Sam. Did they have a history?”
“Yes, but an old one, and not as lasting as Sally seemed to imagine. When I found a way to ask her about Sam, Mother told me she’d been quite charmed by him back in school. Who knows? Maybe Sally had been, too. But whatever Mom and Sam had together—let’s call it a hopeful friendship—it came to an end, long before your grandfather arrived on the scene.”
“Sam was a farm boy, then a clock keeper. Never had a hand in any business the way your grandpa did. I’m sure that Mother—and most certainly her parents—eventually found him beneath her.”
As a child, when she was frightened by a nightmare or thunderstorm, Thel would make her way to the landing of the front stairs. There in the outfacing wall, at the height of a grownup’s head, there was an oval stained-glass window and at its apex a round jewel, cranberry red. That something so beautiful, something so apparently valuable, had been confined to such an ordinary, out-of-the-way place made Thel certain it contained a mystery, one that she herself might decode if given enough time. Sitting on one of the facing stairs she’d contemplate this possibility, until she was no longer aware of the nightmare or storm, and eventually of the jewel itself.
Tonight, after packing her last box for the evening, Thel poured a glass of wine and climbed the stairs to the landing, sat down in her old spot. Lit by a streetlamp that had been absent in her youth, the little window spilled its colors at her feet, including the cranberry red of what was now so clearly a knob of glass, fully absent of mystery.
Sipping her wine, staring into the erstwhile jewel, Thel reflected back on that day on the bench, beside her grandmother. She remembered the man in the loose suit, his raw looks and accusatory tone. She considered the possibility that he himself might have been Sam Gates, then instantly dismissed it. It was far from squaring with logic, or with the notion that Sam had been polite and willing to keep his distance when that was required.
Nevertheless, the accusing words stayed with Thel. You still looking for him? After all this time?
Maybe even this was Sally Harvey’s doing. She’d cooked up stories about Sam and Delia Barnes—or, rather, Delia Barnes Maxwell—and made sure they got around, even to a stranger the police saw fit to chase off.
Thel turned her attention to the memory of her grandmother staring ahead at the clock. It was possible she had been waiting for Sam that day, but unlikely. An encounter with him was nothing she would have wanted Thel, much less her own daughter, to witness. In all probability Sam was long gone, living in another town or dead. In all probability he was nothing more than a memory, perhaps brought back by the image of that clock.
Encounter. This word, with all its connotations, was its own form of accusation. It stepped over bounds Thel had no justification to cross. What did she know of Grandma Maxwell’s private life? Nothing much, and anything she did know came second hand, through Myra, who said that Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage had most certainly been tolerable, if not remarkably happy.
“Lots of people had worse,” Myra liked to say. “Some of them, a lot worse.” And as cold as this comfort was, she was probably right.
Thel thought back on her Grandma’s confrontation of Sally Harvey, or the confrontation as Myra had remembered it. Perhaps the emotion of the thing, the anger, was the only thing that could be trusted. Anger against a snooper, certainly. Anger against a possibly incompetent dentist. But anger against a less-than-satisfactory marriage? Anger against lost love? These perceptions were Thel’s, colored by her own experiences and disappointments.
Thel drained the last of her wine and took another look at the red glass orb in the window. The faint and pleasant blur of the alcohol restored a hint of its old charms.
What did she really know? What did she understand? Perhaps only one thing: that something between her grandmother and Sam had persisted, enough to have been remembered by at least that stranger in the park. What exactly that something was Thel would never know, and had no right to. All she had was the silence on the line between then and now, and the sense of some weight on it, some real presence whose form would never be revealed.