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 8, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com
Needlework – Chapter 5: PDF Download
To download a PDF version of Chapter 5 of Needlework by Julie Showalter, go to Needlework: Chapter 5 – PDF
Needlework – Chapter 5: Manuscript
Needlework – Chapter 5
The next morning, I woke to pots banging and Granno singing “Lift High the Cross.” The only light came from the kitchen. Even though it had been years since I’d slept at Granno’s house and I’d never slept on her couch before, I knew where I was immediately. And why I was there. Although I’d slept, it had been a kind of half sleep in which I was constantly aware of the lumps in the couch and the scratchy upholstery making me itch through the sheet
I stared at the ceiling and thought about Uncle Clete. My whole life he’d been around, and Mother had been keeping me away from. Why had I remembered sitting in his lap playing with his ring when I was only two or three? The way he looked standing on the porch in the cold when we moved away? Because he was important to me. And I was only being allowed to learn that when he was dying.
The glow-in-the-dark clock on the desk said five o’clock. Mother always wondered if Granno made this racket every morning or just when she had company.
The night before, after we ate tepid egg salad and sliced tomatoes, Daddy had gone back to the hospital. I asked to go with him, but he didn’t want me. I heard him come in after midnight.
Daddy came out of the bedroom carrying his shoes so he wouldn’t wake me up. “It’s O.K.,” I said. “I’m not asleep.” I moved my legs so there was room for him, and he sat on the couch to put on his shoes. “How was he last night when you went back?” I asked.
“You must be tired,” I said.
“I’ve got nothing to complain about.” He got up and went into the kitchen, leaving me knowing I’d said the wrong thing. I wasn’t sure why it was wrong — probably my showing sympathy for Daddy indicated a lack of sympathy for Uncle Clete. Another Hopewell rule: There’s only so much love to go around and it has to be portioned out meticulously.
I dressed in the bathroom then went to the kitchen. Daddy and Granno sat at the table, staring into their coffee. When I walked in, they both started, as if I’d broken a trance. Daddy said, “I called the hospital. Nothing’s changed. They expect the doctor around seven. I’d like to be there then.”
“What about Pauline?” Granno asked. Daddy looked at her blankly. “You said she might be here at 6:00. What if she’s not here by the time you’re ready to leave? What if she gets here and we’re gone?”
“I guess she’ll go to the hospital.”
“What if she doesn’t? What if she doesn’t know where to find us?”
“We could leave a note on the door,” Daddy said. “We could tell her where we are.” “I don’t like leaving notes. It’s announcing to burglars that you’re not home.”
There’d probably never been a burglary in Eunice. Granno didn’t even lock her doors. “O.K., Mama, we won’t leave a note. But I think she’ll know. If she doesn’t know to come to the hospital, she’ll call her mother and Lila will tell her where we are.”
“Li-la,” Granno whined. “She doesn’t care about Clete. She might tell Pauline to come see her instead.”
“She cares,” Daddy said. “She came by to see him last night. Wouldn’t let me wake him up. Just sat by the bed for a while. Said she’s been coming every night.” He stared into his coffee. “She cares, all right.”
“Have it your way.” Granno’s mouth tightened. “All I know is she left him when things got bad.” Daddy’s jaw clenched again. Everyone knew Aunt Lila stayed with Uncle Clete longer than any sane woman would have. She finally gave up on him when he brought some floozy into her house and Pauline found them in bed together. “You stay married thinking you’re protecting your child,” she told Mother. “Then all of a sudden you get a wake-up call and learn you’re not protecting anybody.”
I got myself a cup of coffee and said, “Let’s hurry up and get to the hospital. That’s the main thing.”
“I’ve made breakfast.” Granno went to the oven and pulled out a cookie sheet. With her fingers she moved soggy bacon and eggs with brown lace edges to three plates. The pilot light was supposed to keep them warm but all it had done was keep the grease from congealing.
Daddy tapped his foot and lit a cigarette off the one he was smoking. We both knew she wasn’t going to let us go until we ate. When she put his plate in front of him, he put down his cigarette and ate quickly, but neatly, following all of Granno’s rules of etiquette. He ended with his knife and fork crossed on his polished plate.
Granno ate primly, taking her time. She patted the corners of her mouth with a paper napkin, cleared her throat, and said, “The only answer is for Jan to stay here until Pauline comes.”
I froze and looked at Daddy. Surely he wouldn’t make me sit by myself in this house. “No,” he said. “Jan came all this way to see her uncle. And it’s important to Clete, too. He wants to see her again.”
Granno’s mouth tightened even more and her eyes started to water. “I guess I’ll stay here, then. I’m just his mother. It’s not important for me to be there.”
“Mama, please,” Daddy looked at the ceiling and took a deep breath. “We’re all going to the hospital.” He reached across the table and took one of her hands. “We don’t know when Pauline will get in, and she knows the way to the hospital. If we’re not here, she’ll figure it out.”
Granno nodded, but she made no move to get up.
“Daddy,” I said, “why don’t you go on to the hospital now. Granno and I can come as soon as we’ve cleaned up here.”
Before he could answer, Granno said, “It’s wasteful to take two cars. I’ll be ready in a minute. There’s no sense in getting impatient now.”
Daddy paced on the front porch smoking while I did the dishes. I swept the floor. Still no Granno. What was she doing? She was already dressed when I got up. She never touched her hair; she had it combed once a week at the beauty shop and kept it in place with a hairnet the rest of the time. She didn’t wear makeup.
Finally, she came out and we started for the door.
“Wait! My purse.” We all looked until I found it by the couch. She rummaged through it. “My keys. My keys aren’t here.”
“Why do you need your keys, Mama?” Daddy asked. “We’re not taking your car.” “Someone could walk right in here and take the keys and steal my car.”
“I had your keys last night. I put them on the desk,” I said.
Then she had to go to the bathroom. Then she had to check all the pilot lights on the stove so there wouldn’t be an explosion. Daddy kept walking out the door as if his going would make her follow. He’d go out, stand on the porch, look back at the house, turn around, come back in. The third time he even got in his car, but still he had to come back. She continued to dither around, making sure all the windows were closed, remembering that a plant needed watering, scolding Bootsie in the closet. I could see Daddy’s temple throbbing across the room. Granno was deliberately torturing him. Just once, I wished somebody would treat her like she deserved. It would teach her a lesson if we just left her. She had a car. She’d been getting to the hospital on her own before today; she could get there today.
Then I saw her eyes darting around the room. She was like a hurt turkey walking round and round in circles pecking at the ground because the pain had taken away the little sense it had. She was eighty-five years old and one of her children was dying. For the first time, I felt sorry for her.
We finally got her to the car and she stopped. “My aspirin. I forgot to take my aspirin.” “Do you have a headache, Mama?” Daddy asked.
“No. No. It’s just a preventative. I have to take my aspirin.” She went back into the house and Daddy and I leaned against the car. He lit a cigarette and kicked at the curb. I knew he was thinking he’d been away from the hospital too long. Something had happened there without him.
“She’s been gone five minutes,” I said. “Want me to go in and see if she’s O.K.?” “No. You’d just make her mad.”
“Why do you think she’s acting like this?”
Daddy considered the question. He laughed. “Maybe she thinks nothing can happen if she’s not there.”
“Yeah. Uncle Clete wouldn’t dare die before she got there. That’s pretty rational.”
Daddy shook his head, “I don’t know if that’s any crazier than me. I think if I’m there I can keep it from happening.”
We got to the hospital at 6:45 and we started to wait. The doctor was delayed. The nurses didn’t know when he’d be there, so we waited. In my family, it’s always been understood that when someone’s in the hospital, you stay with them. You don’t just visit, you stay.
This is true even for relatively minor illnesses. When Daddy had his appendix out, Mother stayed at the hospital for forty-eight hours without a break. That was what wives were supposed to do. There wasn’t a wife to stay all night with Uncle Clete, but Daddy was there until midnight, and now he was back at 6:45.
At nine o’clock Aunt Baby arrived. Daddy told her what the doctor said last night, about how Uncle Clete had been sleeping this morning. “He woke up a little bit when we came in. Nodded at me. Held Jan’s hand.”
The women in Daddy’s family didn’t get any of the good looks. Aunt Baby was a plain, solid woman who looked like Granno without the meanness. She’d had acne as a girl that had left her face scarred. Those scars, mixed her natural quietness, gave people the mistaken impression she was shy. But she was like the rest of the Hopewells, waiting to talk until she had something worth saying.
She went in to see Uncle Clete, then came back to the hall. “The rules are two visitors at once,” she said, “but I don’t think they’ll bother us. We need some more chairs though. Jan, you see if there’s a problem with getting some chairs from the empty rooms, and ask if more than two of us can sit with him. They’ll let us, but you need to ask, just to be polite.” I went looking for a nurse, glad to have a purpose.
Having Aunt Baby there made things seem orderly. She didn’t exactly take charge when she came in, but she found things for people to do. She was different from Daddy. When she asked me to do something, she explained what she wanted, and she always seemed to assume that I could do whatever it was.
We sat the chairs up so there were three in the room with Uncle Clete and three in the hall. Straight-backed, unpadded folding chairs with no arm rests. We could see the waiting room with the upholstered arm chairs from where we sat in the hall, but the waiting room seemed too far away. And sitting there wouldn’t serve notice to everyone who walked by that Clete Hopewell’s family was here in force.
Once you’re into the waiting, the staying, you get sucked in closer and closer. At first, you take a break and spend some time walking the halls, in the cafeteria, but soon that seems uncaring, too distant. Trips to the cafeteria become hurried affairs where one person brings food for everyone to eat in the room, or just outside the room. The feeling takes over that the presence of the people waiting will keep death away. The more people waiting, the better.
We don’t sit with our dead like I’d heard Catholics do. But we sit with our dying. Partly we think that our being there will prevent the death. Partly we think it will help the dying one. Partly we think that we need to bear witness to the passing, to share the moment, to make it easier if possible. Mostly we just don’t think. We knew that most of the time Uncle Clete wasn’t even aware of us. But we were there and we waited. Because that was what we were supposed to do. Because we were showing that he was loved. Because his death mattered.
“Jimmy, you sit inside with Clete and Mama,” Aunt Baby said. “Jan and I’ll sit out here and talk a while.” As soon as we were settled, she pulled a Lee Ward’s bag out of her carry-all. “I have something for you.” She brought out a twelve-inch piece of knitting. “It’s an afghan kit,” she said. “It’s too complicated for me. I can’t concentrate on the pattern. I thought you might like to do it.”
One year when she visited, Aunt Baby had given me lessons on left-handed knitting. After that, she always brought me a project. Aunt Baby, Uncle Clete and I were the only left handed Hopewells. No one in my mother’s family was left handed for three generations back. “This is beautiful,” I said. “Are you sure I can do it?” I could tell the yarn was expensive. “I never worked with mohair before.”
“I’m sure. It’s really not hard, just a seven row, twenty-two stitch repeat. You have to pay attention to where you are. See, it looks like lace when you’re done. You knit it in panels then crochet them together.” She rummaged in her bag. “Here’s the pattern. I’ve marked where I stopped. You just have to keep track of where you are. I was going to make it for your wedding, but I think it might mean more to you and Richard if you made it yourself.”
It was the first time that day that I’d thought of Richard or the wedding. That all seemed far away, like a story playing out on a screen or in a book, with characters that didn’t really have anything to do with me. In my real life, I was still a girl trying to figure out how to please her father. In my real life, I wasn’t nearly old enough to get married.
Daddy came out and I showed him the pattern. “Aunt Baby thinks I can do it,” I said.
“I’ve not known your Aunt Baby to make many mistakes,” he said. “If she thinks you can do it, you can.” I don’t think anyone outside our family would understand my pride at this moment. Hopewells don’t praise. If I finished this afghan without a slipped stitch, every panel even and perfect, neither Daddy or Aunt Baby would do much more than nod. The closest they would ever come to praising me was to tell me I was worthy to tackle the job.
I picked up the instructions and studied them. “Just keep track of where you are,” Aunt Baby said again.
Daddy watched the two of us, checking his watch every few minutes. He walked down the hall to the waiting room and looked out the windows onto the parking lot. He stood there for five minutes, looked at his watch again and came back. “You ever make that drive?” he asked Aunt Baby.
“You mean here to Pauline’s house? No, but Lila did last year. She said it was almost exactly twenty-four hours of driving.”
“That’s what I thought.” I could see him calculating. “I forgot something. There’s a two-hour time difference. So let’s say they got up like Jan and I did, got right on the road yesterday morning, say by six or seven. That’s eight or nine here. So, even if they’ve been driving straight through, no troubles, no delays, the soonest they could be here is around now.”
Like always when Pauline was mentioned, I felt a twinge. Once she got here, Daddy wouldn’t notice me anymore, and for sure Uncle Clete wouldn’t want me with him holding his hand. He’d have his daughter. A niece could never mean as much as a daughter.
Daddy stood, leaning against the wall, one leg bent with his foot resting on the wall. “Remember, Baby, when you tried to teach me to knit?”
I looked up, then quickly back down at my knitting.
“Of course I remember,” Aunt Baby said. “You were ten. You didn’t do bad. Othel, though, he could really knit. When sweaters got holes in them, we’d unravel them and Othel would knit them back in smaller sizes.” Uncle Othel was the oldest Hopewell, more than twenty years older than Daddy. “But you and Clete, you never were very serious about knitting. I think you were afraid Mama would put you to work. When you were real little, you’d crochet chains and give them to the parakeet to tear up.”
Daddy laughed, “I think I remember that.” He looked at the opposite wall, considering something. “Jan wants to know what it was like when we were kids.”
Aunt Baby pulled her own knitting out and her needles started clicking. She was making a sweater with an Indian on the back that she was designing as she went. People paid her
$200 for those sweaters. She smiled at the Indian. “Your Daddy was a real little devil. He was always getting into trouble with Mama. Jimmy, remember? She hated for you to play marbles. She called it gambling. She prayed over you and said you were going to hell.”
“I sure did like to play marbles,” Daddy said. He puffed air out of his nose. A laugh. “She sewed buttons on the inside of the knees of my pants so I couldn’t get on my knees and play marbles. Hurt like the dickens.”
“Remember the time you ran away from home?” Aunt Baby asked. “You were seven years old. You got mad at Mama and just ran off down the road. You didn’t come back until a long time after dark.”
“I remember she whaled the tar out of me” “Remember Clete and that dog?”
They talked at Hopewell pace. One of them would think of something, say it, then they’d both think some more, enjoying the memories they were shaking loose. I could tell when one of them thought of something funny. They’d puff.
“Remember when Uncle Hubert came to the house and took our tonsils out?” “Remember when the police brought Clete home?”
“Remember that mean rooster?”
All the time they talked, and during all their silences, we listened to Uncle Clete breathing in the room behind us. The click of two sets of knitting needles, mine slow, Aunt Baby’s fast, a puff of air from Daddy or Aunt Baby, a sentence of memory, and Uncle Clete’s breathing. For almost an hour, those were the only sounds in the hall.
It was ten and we still hadn’t seen the doctor. One reason we couldn’t leave Uncle Clete alone was that we had to be there when the doctor came. If we missed him, we’d have no report for the day, no official word of how things were going. It didn’t occur to us that we could call the doctor or ask him to call us if he came when we weren’t here. Yesterday it never entered anyone’s mind that Daddy might say to the nurse, “I’m Clete Hopewell’s brother. I’ve just driven twelve hours to get here. Could the doctor call me and tell me how he’s doing.” Instead, Daddy waited at the hospital until the doctor came in.
We also didn’t think we had the right to ask questions, or to get explanations of words we didn’t understand. We waited like good children for the doctor to come in, take two minutes with Uncle Clete, thirty seconds with us, and then leave. If we asked questions, he might get angry or think we were questioning his judgment. He might think we were stupid. He might stop talking to us altogether.
At ten thirty, the doctor showed up, hurried and distracted. He was on staff at three small hospitals in towns twenty minutes apart. That morning he had an unexpected deliver and
a farm accident. Now he was three hours behind with a scared seven-year old waiting to have her tonsils out. He didn’t have much time for Uncle Clete.
Of course, even if he had all the time in the world, there was nothing he could do. Uncle Clete’s case was at once serious and simple. “There’s not much change,” he said to us in the hall. “You’ve noticed how he’s sleeping more today than yesterday. We haven’t increased his pain medication. He’s just sleeping more. That’s how it will end. He’ll go into a deep sleep. He’s not in much pain, at least.” He looked at me. “Is this his daughter?”
“No,” Daddy said. “She’s on her way. We expect her anytime.”
“Well,” he looked at his watch. “The sooner the better. I know he wants to see her. We’ll do what we can.” He started down the hall. “The sooner the better,” he said again.
Daddy stared at the ceiling for a while, then looked at his watch. “Well, she didn’t drive straight through, or she’d already be here. Let’s say she stopped for the night, eight hours, say, to be safe. She’ll be here around four.”
“What time did she leave?” Aunt Baby asked.
“I’m not sure. Nobody was home last night, so I’m sure she’s on her way.”
At eleven Aunt Maureen came in. After she checked on Uncle Clete and said hello to Daddy, she sat in the hall with Aunt Baby and me and took a quilting piece out of her bag. She showed me a picture of what she was making, a baby quilt with a lamb shaped out of pink and blue patchwork. “What are you working on, Jaynice?”
I’d been knitting on my afghan for two hours and I felt like I had the hang of it. I held it up to show her.
Aunt Baby looked up too. “You’ve got a mistake about two repeats back. See where your stitches don’t line up?”
“So I’ve already ruined it?”
“Oh, no,” Aunt Baby smiled at me. “Needlework is very forgiving.”
Aunt Maureen looked at the mistake. “It’s really no problem. You’ve got two choices. One, you can just keep going. It’s a very small mistake in what’s going to be a very big piece. Two, you can rip out back to the mistake and start over from there.”
My instinct was to charge ahead. That’s what my mother would do, what she’d call my Hailey instincts. But I asked my aunts, “What would you do?”
They both smiled at their needlework. Aunt Baby said, “Jan, this is a big piece. You’re going to work on it for several months and have it in your home for twenty years. If you don’t rip it out, every time you look at it you’re going to see that mistake. It’s hard to go backwards, but it’s harder to live with a mistake you could have fixed at the time.”
I pulled the stitches off my needles and began to unravel all the work I’d done that morning.
The three of us sat in the hall doing our work, and we listened. No one was talking in the room, but we listened to the breathing. Every hesitation, every lapse in rhythm, caused us to hold our breath until he started again.
Granno came out of Uncle Clete’s room. “Someone has to take me home,” she said. “The mail’s in.”
“Mama, the mail will wait until this evening.” Aunt Baby could be tough with Granno, maybe because she did more for her than any of her other children.
“No. No. It’s July 1. That means social security checks might come, mine and Clete’s. We need to get home and get them to the bank.”
“They’ll wait a day, won’t they? You’re not overdrawn at the bank are you?”
“No I am not overdrawn at the bank.” She threw the phrase back at Aunt Baby in a high sing-song. “But if we don’t get Clete’s check cashed, we may not be able to. You heard the doctor.”
Daddy flushed when he realized what she was saying. “Mama, we can’t give Clete a check to sign. He’d know what that means.”
“He knows anyway. You think he doesn’t know he’s dying?” Granno’s voice rose. “For goodness sakes, Mama,” Aunt Baby whispered, “Clete’ll hear you.”
“Let him hear me. If he’s any kind of son, he’ll want me to have that $185. We’ll need that money to pay for the funeral and the hospital bills. It’s well and good to be concerned about Clete’s feelings, but we need that money.”
Daddy tried to reason with her. “If the checks are for last month, you’ll get the money whether the check is cashed or not. If they’re for this month, you’ll have to give back for any part of the month he’s not alive.”
Granno’s jaw was set. “I’d a lot rather have the money and let the social security try to get it back than have an unsigned check the bank won’t cash.”
Aunt Maureen stood up. “OK, I’ll take you home, but you have to promise to take a nap. Will you promise?” Granno went back into the room to get her purse. Aunt Maureen said, “We’ll be back about two or three.” She kissed my cheek and patted Daddy on the arm. “Jimmy, you look exhausted. I think you should get away from here for a while. Nothing’s going to happen. Clete’s asleep. Pauline must have stopped for the night. She can’t possibly be here for a couple of hours. Take an hour off.”
Daddy nodded, but he went back into the room with Uncle Clete. Aunt Baby knitted a while longer then decided something. She looked at me. “I’m going to have to tell a story about you to help him out. That O.K. with you?” I nodded and she went into the room. “Jimmy,” she said, “I’m worried about Jan. This is pretty hard on her. She needs to get away.”
Daddy said, “You want to take her out?”
“No. I think she needs you. Why don’t you take her to lunch?” I heard Daddy clear his throat. “I’ll be here,” Aunt Baby said. “I won’t leave the room. If he wakes up he’ll see his little sister. It’ll be O.K.”
Daddy and I walked out of the hospital into the Texas midday. The heat hit us full in the face taking our breath away. We stopped outside the door until our eyes adjusted to the light. It was another world, a world of noise and heat and light, frightening and alien after hours sitting in the hospital.
We drove to the coffee shop that Uncle Clete ran until he had his stroke. When the waitress took our orders, her voice seemed loud. We hadn’t heard anyone speak much above a whisper all day.
We ordered hamburgers and coffee. The hamburgers were good — not as good as Daddy and Uncle Clete made — but good. While we ate, three men came up to Daddy one at a time. Two of them knew why he was in town without being told. The third was surprised to learn how sick Uncle Clete was.
Daddy hadn’t lived here for almost fifteen years, but people still knew him, still talked to him as if he’d only been gone a few months. He fit back into the life and rhythm of this town perfectly. It was a mystery why Mother and Daddy didn’t live here and why it made Daddy mad when I asked about it. “Who were those men?” I asked.
“The first one was Bub Adams. He’s your Uncle Kent’s cousin.” Uncle Kent was no relation to us. I called half of Texas “Uncle” and “Aunt” when I was little. Daddy went on, “The second one was Randy Newton. He runs the Moose lodge. He and your Uncle Clete are old drinking buddies. The last one was Don Hainsworth. He went to high school with me, then to college over in Canyon. Your mother dated him a couple of times before she started going out with me.”
In the Legend of Mother and Daddy, as told by Mother, there was no other man except the rich flyer from Dallas. I looked with interest at this man who might have been my mother’s boyfriend. Daddy said, “She could have done better with him. He has his own insurance agency.”
I shrugged, “I guess she wanted somebody handsome.”
Daddy stirred his coffee and smiled into the cup. “I’m not so bad looking, am I?” “What does Mother always call you? The best looking old boy in Eunice, Texas?” I
watched Daddy’s reaction and realized maybe the real reason I loved Richard was the way he dipped his head and grinned when you gave him a compliment. Just like Daddy.
As if he read my mind, Daddy said, “So, have you really thought this marriage idea through?”
When I told my parents that I was getting married, Mother started yelling at me right away. Daddy sat and watched the two of us arguing for a couple of minutes. Then he shook his head and got up and left the room. He’d never said a word to me about my plans, just acted like the wedding wasn’t happening. Or like it wasn’t important enough to grab his attention.
Now, months later, he brought it up like it was something brand new, like the whole rest of my life hadn’t already been planned. I glared at him. Let him see what it felt like to ask a question and be given a look that said it wasn’t worth answering. I’m a grownup. I know what I’m doing. You can’t stop me. I kept quiet and tried to look daggers.
After a minute, he picked up the check. “Better be getting back,” he said. He didn’t even know I was upset.
I followed him to the cash register. He hadn’t noticed my scowl and I’d missed my chance to yell at him. Maybe in the car I’d let him know how angry he’d made me. I was planning what I’d say, something cold, biting, when the door opened and David Baxter walked in.