Needlework, The Novel
Julie completed the first draft of her novel, Needlework, in 1997. After discussions with her agent and a publisher, she began revising that draft until her illness made it impossible to continue. I have compiled the latest versions of Needlework I found in her files.
I am publishing that compilation of her novel, a chapter at a time in serial fashion, on AllanShowalter.com. All posted portions of Needlework can be accessed at Needlework – With Links To Published Portions.
Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.
Note: Originally posted Sept 1, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com
Needlework – Chapter 4: PDF Download
To download a PDF version of Chapter 4 of Needlework by Julie Showalter, go to Needlework: Chapter 4 – PDF
Needlework – Chapter 4: Manuscript
Needlework – Chapter 4
Heat waves still radiated off the parking lot. My feet sank into the tar as we walked toward the one-story red brick building. It was like a dream I’d been having every few nights lately, where each step was harder than the one before it. If I stopped, I would sink to my knees in the tar in seconds, disappear in minutes.
Why would Uncle Clete want me here? I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen, over three years ago. I could have come with Mother and Daddy after the heart attack or the stroke, but I didn’t. So many stories of drinking and wildness and women. So many times, Mother telling me, “There’s good Hopewells and bad Hopewells. We have to keep your father leaning toward the good ones and away from Clete.” I hadn’t wanted to see him, so why did he want me?
When we got to the door, Daddy stopped and lit a cigarette, stalling one more minute before going in. He drew deeply, taking comfort from the hot smoke hitting his lungs. We moved on and the glass doors parted for us, releasing a blast of cold, Lysol-scented air into the breeze-way, cooling the sweat that had formed during the short walk, chilling us.
There was no one in the waiting room and the reception desk was deserted. We stood and waited, Daddy tapping his fingers lightly on the counter. From somewhere down the hall we could hear a television. Applause and laughter, an announcer’s voice. The phone at the reception desk rang twice, then stopped. The blinking button stayed lit. We watched it until it went out, but still no one came. We waited until Daddy finished his cigarette. Then, as if he’d set that as a limit to how long he’d stand there, he put it out in the sand ashtray and started down the hall. I watched him for a second and then hurried to catch up.
Daddy’s hard-soled shoes broke the silence of the empty hallway. The first two rooms we came to were dark. In the next, a woman in a bed watched the television we’d heard. On the TV, women dressed like chickens jumped up and down and squealed. Around the corner, another dimly lit room. We stopped in the door.
Uncle Clete lay with his eyes closed, tubes in his arm, in his nose, running out of the sheets to jars on the floor. He looked small, as if even his bones had shrunk. His hair was still dark, pushed back from his face, but it no longer made him look young. At first I thought he was already dead, then the sheet rose as he pulled air through the tubes in his nose.
Granno sat in a straight-backed chair next to him, her head nodding over her crocheting. A mean-looking old woman with steel gray hair and frown lines as deep as your fingernail, the way she’d looked as long as I could remember. When she lifted her head and saw Daddy, her eyes filled but her expression didn’t change. “Oh, Jimmy,” she said, pushing herself out of her chair and walking toward him, “I’m so glad you’re here. It’s been so hard.” She collapsed against him.
Uncle Clete opened his eyes and saw us. He made an attempt at a smile and lifted the fingers on his left hand in a kind of wave. The tubes in his nose made him look deformed, and I had to make myself look at him. “Come here,” he mouthed, motioning me toward him with a slight move of his head. I imagined tubes pulled loose, medicine squirting into the air, pee and liquid shit spilling onto the floor all because I hugged him wrong. When I reached him, I put my hand on his shoulder and bent over so that my head touched his chest without putting any weight on it. He squeezed me, and his arm shook from the effort, like a frail old woman’s. When I raised up, he took my hand and put his on top of it. His ring was loose on his finger. I looked at it instead of his eyes. The sadness in them made my throat close up.
I put my free hand on top of his and twisted his ring, straightening it so the ruby pointed up. I’d never seen another ring like it. The ruby was at least five carets, cut round and domed; and it sat on the gold beneath it without prongs. He’d had that ring as long as I could remember. I twisted it and watched the way the light seemed to come from the center. “Wish I had a pretty ring like this one,” I said. It was an old joke. Granno had trained all her children and grandchildren that it was a sin to covet something belonging to someone else. You could only wish for one just like it. I darted a look up. He was smiling.
In normal times, I didn’t know what to say to Uncle Clete. What could I say now — “How you doing, Uncle Clete?” “What’s new?” I kept playing with the ring. What had he told me when I was a little girl? “You can’t see the future, but you can see the past.” I looked at the ring and saw lost chances, times I could have reached out to Uncle Clete, but hadn’t. Every few seconds I looked up at him. He was watching me, no longer smiling. My nose tickled, but I refused to scratch it. Taking either hand away would have felt like abandoning him.
Granno was still sobbing against Daddy’s shoulder. “It’s so hard,” she said over and over. Gradually, he was able to move her across the room, back to the chair beside the window. He got her to sit and knelt beside her. She patted his head, still crying. Only when she took her hand off him and picked up her crocheting did he stand up and move to the bedside.
He squeezed Uncle Clete’s left shoulder and they exchanged a look, a try at the old sly grin, a little tearful, a lot afraid, a look that left no doubt that they both knew Uncle Clete was dying.
Watching them, I felt a pang. I was an only child. No one had shared my childhood, and I could only guess what it meant to have a brother or sister. As far as I knew, Daddy and Uncle Clete never had an argument. Mother would say it was because Daddy never broke out of the role of little brother, never challenged Uncle Clete. And probably that was part of the answer, but only part. As I stood there watching them give each other that look, I knew they understood each other. Maybe Mother was right when she said that Clete represented the worst of the Hopewells, that he was Daddy’s bad side. But he was part of Daddy. That was clear. Those two men belonged to each other, belonged to a family, in a way I’d never experienced. The bond between them was stronger than those to their wives or their children. Maybe that was the source of Mother’s resentment. She could only envy a bond she’d never experienced.
Granno motioned for me to come hug her. When I straightened up after kissing her cheek, she said, “I guess you’re not too busy to come see us anymore.” She could pack more insult into fewer words than anyone I knew. In one sentence she pointed out that in the past I was too full of myself to do my duty to my family and that now I was too shiftless to have anything to do.
I turned back to Daddy and put my hand on his arm. We’d been in the room for at least ten minutes, and for the first time he spoke. “How you feeling?”
Uncle Clete struggled to pull in enough air to answer all at once. He didn’t make it. “Not so —” He pulled in air again. “Good.” He smiled an apology.
The smile was a hammer to my chest. Uncle Clete apologizing, looking like a dog that was afraid it was going to be hit. He’d gone through life straight-spined, looking ahead, never seeming to notice the rubble he left in his wake. And now he was asking us to forgive him for his weakness, to forgive him for dying. I took small breaths to keep from crying. Strong and silent, as handsome and as distant as a movie star, he’d been on the edges of my whole life. I knew I’d always loved him even though Mother had said I shouldn’t.
He was looking at me again. I gave him my left hand, and Daddy clasped my right where it rested on his arm. I stood there between those two men whom I loved and feared, and felt a connection with both of them. Even more, I felt that somehow they were connected with each other through me. Just for a moment, I forgot what Mother had told me all my life — “You’re all Hailey. There’s not a Hopewell bone in your body.” Just for a moment, I felt like a Hopewell.
Mother had always joked that if one of the Hopewell brothers got laryngitis no one would ever know. Uncle Clete’s labored speech showed the lie in the joke. The rhythm of the Hopewell silence was disrupted. Uncle Clete wanted to do his share of the ritual. If he didn’t ask, “How was the trip?” Daddy couldn’t look at his feet, think it over, stare at his cigarette, tap the ash, and then say, “Fine.” But Uncle Clete couldn’t say, “How was the trip?” Each word was a struggle.
My inclination was to jump in, babble, talk over the embarrassment. The words kept forming in my throat — “great breakfast in Tulsa,” “really great drive,” “everything just great, super” — and I bit my cheek to keep them in.
After a couple of exchanges, Daddy settled in to asking questions which Granno answered. He asked about little things we needed to know now that we knew the one big thing — that Uncle Clete was truly dying. It was a revelation to me. That in the face of this overwhelming reality, people acted like they always did. Daddy still asked questions and Granno still was Granno.
“Has Baby been here?” he asked. Aunt Baby was the sister between Daddy and Uncle Clete in age. Her nickname didn’t come from older siblings as such names usually do, but from Granno. When Aunt Baby was born, Granno announced, “This is it. This is the baby.” It was like Granno to consider her determination adequate birth control. It wasn’t
— Daddy was born three years later.
Granno’s voice made every statement a complaint, an accusation, “Baby was here all day, but she had to leave. I told her you were coming, but she couldn’t wait. So you missed her.” Guilt for everyone in a few words. Aunt Baby, who had driven forty miles that morning, leaving her work and her husband to sit by her brother’s bedside, was guilty of having left too soon. Daddy, who had gotten up before five this morning and driven all day, was guilty of not getting there soon enough. Another Hopewell rule: No matter how much you do, it’s never enough.
“What about Maureen?” Aunt Maureen was the oldest sister, part of the group who were grown, or almost grown, when Daddy was born. Granno sighed, “Maureen has only been coming every other day for a couple of hours. I guess she’s busy with her own affairs.” Her voice went high and whiny, “Henry needs her.”
No one ever challenged Granno when she got hateful. The most we did was try to ignore her. Daddy found something out the window to study. I began to count the tiles on the floor. We battened down to weather out an attack on Aunt Maureen and Uncle Henry.
“Maybe she’ll be here tomorrow, maybe not. No one tells me their plans,” Granno went on. “I guess if she knew you were here she’d come. You’d think his condition,” she pointed at Uncle Clete with her chin, “would be enough to get her here. But she’s got concerns.”
Her voice lingered in the air. Daddy continued to stare out the window. I kept counting tiles. Gradually, it became clear that the silence wasn’t silent. There was the sound of Uncle Clete breathing. Every breath in, every breath out. The longer no one talked, the louder it got. I prayed for a distraction, a cart in the hall, another patient screaming, anything to cover the wheeze in, pause, wheeze out coming from Uncle Clete. I tasted blood from my cheek. It wasn’t my place to talk. I waited.
At length, still looking out the window, Daddy said, “What about Pauline?”
“Oh, Jimmy,” Granno sobbed, stuffed her handkerchief in her mouth, got control, took a deep breath. “I called her the same time I called you. I don’t know if she’s coming.
Nobody listens to me. I told her it’s real this time. I told her she should get here, but I don’t know if she’s coming.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘I’ll have to arrange some things.’ Just like that. ‘I’ll have to arrange some things.’ She was curt, Jimmy, very curt.” The tears started again. “Nobody knows what I’ve been through with him. Nobody. And his own daughter. ‘I’ll have to arrange some things.’ I don’t know if she’s coming. I don’t know if she cares enough about her daddy to come.”
I looked at Uncle Clete. How could she say these things in front of him? He was staring at the ceiling, pulling air in, pushing it out.
Daddy clenched the window ledge, the muscle in his jaw twitching. I put my hand on his back. He turned and looked at me. The sadness and the fear that had been in his eyes all day were still there, but in addition there was the look of a trapped animal. He couldn’t tell his mother to shut up and he couldn’t bear to have her hurt Clete. He looked like he could murder someone. He shuddered, looked at the floor, took a deep breath. When he looked up he was himself again. He walked to the bed, and put his hand on Uncle Clete’s shoulder. Uncle Clete gestured toward the cigarettes in his pocket. “Looks good,” he managed to say.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” Daddy left the room. The clicking of his heels stopped half-way down the hall. “Excuse me ma’am, can I bother you?” He was talking to someone in another room. She swished out. “My brother, Clete Hopewell, in room 15 would like to smoke,” Daddy said.
The nurse, all efficiency and Texas charm, replied, “Well, Mr. Hopewell has lung cancer and smoking isn’t good for him.”
Everything was quiet. Then Daddy said, “Do you think it’ll do him any good to quit now?”
She giggled nervously, seized on a thought, “But there’s the oxygen. He’s getting oxygen through the tubes. That could be dangerous.”
Again Daddy waited a minute before he asked, “Could you show me how to shut it off for a little while?” I knew what happened in that minute. Daddy looked at the floor, looked up at her, grinned, and without him planning it or her even knowing it, the nurse fell a little bit in love with him. If you asked her, she’d just say, “He seemed so nice, and I wanted to help him. What could it hurt?”
They came in the room. The nurse, now a conspirator, showed him how to turn the oxygen off. “I’ll be right at the nursing station if there’s any problem. You just give me a buzz and I’ll be here in nothing flat.” Daddy glanced at her and nodded, but he was done with her for now. She turned away, not knowing why she felt so disappointed. As for Daddy, he had no idea he’d let her down.
I knew how she felt. And I knew she’d be back.
Daddy held a cigarette while Uncle Clete drew on it, struggling not to cough. When the nicotine hit, you could see him relax a bit. He smiled at Daddy. “Good,” he said. Then after another draw, “Thanks.”
At seven-thirty, Granno, who had been driving herself everywhere she needed to go until that moment, decided that she could not drive herself home that evening.
“That’s fine, Mama,” Daddy said. “Jan will drive your car when we’re ready to go. You can ride with me.” “I don’t want her driving my car after dark. She’d better go now.” She wanted Daddy to herself.
“Maybe I should stay in case you need anything,” I said; but Daddy shrugged and motioned for me to go. As I left the hospital, I realized that I’d broken my promise to mother in less than ninety minutes. Daddy was already out of my sight, alone with Granno and Uncle Clete.
When I opened the door to Granno’s house, I was hit by the sour, stale smell I remembered — over-cooked green beans mixed with house dust and a dog not washed often enough. I tried to think of something good, something happy in the house. With effort I could remember a few holidays with aunts and uncles, lots of kids, cooking smells that overwhelmed the smell of the house. But my real memories of this house were of forced visits when Mother and Daddy were divorced, long boring days when Granno expected me to play without making noise, the time she made me sit in the bedroom for an hour because I’d used the word infernal.
I heard the dog scratching in the bedroom closet. Was this one a Bootsie or a Bunny? She alternated names on the identical rat terriers she owned. I knew better than to let him out. All rewards, punishments, training of Granno’s dogs were to come from Granno herself.
She locked them in a closet whenever she was gone and often when she was home. When I was five, she’d spanked me and the dog when I let him out.
A blue parakeet pulled at his feathers in a cage in the corner. “Hi, Petey,” I said. The parakeets were always named Petey. She kept one until she taught him to say, “Petey’s a pretty boy.” Then she gave him away and got another.
The house had been closed up all day, and the smell was intensified by the heat. I opened a window, hoping for a cool breeze. I felt as feverish and stale as the house. I wandered through the living room, looking at the familiar clutter — the three brass monkeys “Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil.” Yellowed newspaper clippings under the glass desk top. “Clarence Hopewell dies suddenly at home.” “Jimmy Ray Hopewell awarded Distinguished Flying Cross.” The photo of Granddaddy Hopewell framed with a poem — “He is not dead. He is just away.” — he’d been away for nearly twenty years now. I picked up the family portrait taken in this room. Granno and all of her children squeezed on the couch, grandchildren on the floor, children’s spouses standing behind the couch.
Daddy, still in his navy uniform, was holding me. I was six weeks old. Pauline, four years old, beautiful in lace and ruffles was center front. Uncle Clete sat on the arm of the couch, holding a cigarette. The children were all smiling, but the adults stared at the camera soberly. It was the day of Granddaddy’s funeral.
It would be cooler outside. I walked through the kitchen, through the back room where Granno used to raise canaries by the dozen, and out onto the back porch — just a stoop, really, five concrete steps going down to the ground. I sat down and looked out at the yard. Shabby, not kept up, like anybody’s yard. The rabbit hutch was falling apart; it hadn’t been used in at least ten years. Rusting swing set at the back.
Granddaddy Hopewell died in this yard, just a couple of weeks after Mother and Daddy and I came back from the War. Daddy and Granddaddy were digging a hole to get to a busted water pipe. When the hole was about waist deep, Granddaddy said, “I think I need some ice water.” He put down his shovel, started to climb out, then fell back. Granno came running out of the house screaming, “What will become of me? What will happen to me now that I’m a poor widow woman?”
I had my own memory of the back yard, one that still gave me nightmares. When I was four, Granno took me to the rabbit hutch. At first she just let me look at the rabbits through the screen doors of their cages. She gave me carrots to stick through the mesh, and the rabbits came to the door and wiggled their noses at me. Then Granno opened one of the cage doors and picked up a black and white rabbit. “Be careful of his back paws,” she said. “They can scratch you and they’ve got quite a kick.” She sat on a stump and put the rabbit in her lap, belly-up, holding the back legs together so they couldn’t hurt me. “Pet him,” she said. “The belly is the softest part.”
And it was. The rabbit’s belly was the softest thing I’d ever touched.
One by one, she took out the five rabbits, holding them so I could pet them. When they were all back in the pens, she asked, “Which one is your favorite?”
“The white one with the pink nose. He was the softest.”
“That’s a good choice,” she said. “Let’s get him back out. You saw how I did it. Hold his legs and put his head on the stump.” I held the rabbit as still as I could, the way she told me. I didn’t see the ax until the rabbit’s head was on the ground and blood was spattered all over the white fur.
“Oh, Jan, you let him jump. Now the fur is ruined. Well, no mending that. Let’s go clean him for dinner.” She made me eat the fried rabbit, all the while lecturing me on the sin of loving one of God’s creatures more than another.
But that wasn’t the worst thing to happen in this yard. Even Granddaddy’s death wasn’t the worst thing.
Nine months ago Uncle Clete had tried to kill himself here. He had walked past the washer in the back room, known that it was running, that Granno would be hanging out the clothes when her stories were over. He took Granddaddy’s old straight razor with him. He had to use a cane after his stroke, so the razor must have been in his weak hand.
Maybe that’s why he didn’t cut deep enough. He lay down under the clothesline and waited to die. But he didn’t die. After an hour, he got up and walked back in the house to find Granno. He would never defy her, never talk back to her. Like all of Granno’s children, he was trained to be polite and to respect his mother. No, he wouldn’t talk back to her, but he tried to kill himself where she would find him. And when he failed, he went looking for her. He stood there, covered with blood, his throat gaping. He never said a word when Granno grabbed her chest, grabbed her pills, grabbed the phone. “I think he was trying to kill us both,” she told Daddy later.
Dark was coming on. I tried to clear my mind, but if I wasn’t thinking of Uncle Clete lying bleeding under the clothesline, I was thinking about him in the hospital bed.
The screen door banged behind me and Daddy came out. He sat beside me on the porch. “I didn’t know where you were,” he said. “The car was here, but there weren’t any lights on. It scared me a little bit.”
The lights came on in the kitchen behind us. “What’s Granno doing?” I asked.
“She thinks she has to cook something for us. I told her she doesn’t, but you know how she is once she gets something in her head. I think she’s just boiling eggs or something.” He picked up a handful of pea gravel from a flower pot.
“Should I go help her?”
The gravel pinged softly. He was aiming it at a broken bird bath. “No,” he said finally, “she doesn’t like other people in her kitchen.
“Well,” I said, “whatever she fixes, don’t eat any green beans.”
Daddy covered his mouth, as if laughing was a social indiscretion like belching. We giggled in the dark like guilty children. Twice in the past five years, Granno had gotten botulism from her own canned goods. It was a family joke to question the origins of green beans, beets, and pickles.
Ping. Ping. Three hits, two misses. “We got to see the doctor.” Ping. “It’s as bad as it looks.”
I sagged against the step. I hadn’t known I still had hope.
“We told the doctor he wants to see Pauline,” Daddy went on. Ping. Another hit. “They’ll try to keep him alive until she gets here.” Ping. He hit nine of the next ten. “The big problem is his veins, I guess. They keep collapsing and every time that happens, they don’t know if they’ll find another one.”
“Does he know all this?”
“I think so. Nobody’s told him, but he knows.”
I tried to sort out the pain. If I could figure out how much was for Daddy and how much for Uncle Clete, maybe I could deal with one at a time.
The gravel was gone and Daddy wiped his hands on his trousers. “Pauline is on her way,” he said.
“Did she call?”
“No. I tried her house and there was no answer. She and Fred must both be coming.” He stretched his legs out in front of him. “I figure if they left this morning when we did, they’ll be here about six in the morning. I’m sure they’ll drive straight through. They might even get in tonight if they left when Mama called them.”
The lightening bugs were starting to come out. “You know, when we get back home, I think I’ll try to get Mother to quit smoking,” I said.
“I think that’s a good idea.” “What about you?”
Daddy smiled and looked at the step, then looked at me out of the corner of his eye. I got ready for the joke. “I think it’s a good idea for your mother to quit smoking,” he said.
We leaned back and looked at the night. The sky went on forever and the stars were brighter than anywhere else. Without thinking, I started to sing under my breath:
The stars at night Are big and bright
Deep in the heart of Texas.
I didn’t realize I was singing until Daddy started to tap out the rhythm with his feet. I stopped, embarrassed.
“Your mother always sings that song,” he said. “She thinks everything’s better in Texas.” “Then why did you leave? You both seem happier here.”
He stood up, brushed his pants, looked at the stars.
I asked again. “I don’t understand why you don’t live where you’re happier.”
His voice was sharp. “And I don’t understand why little girls ask questions that are none of their business.” The screen door slammed behind him.
There had been a moment of closeness, but I’d pushed too hard. Now there were three pains — Daddy, Uncle Clete, and my aloneness. I couldn’t separate them.