Needlework, A Novel by Julie Showalter: Chapter 6 of 14

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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

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.

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Note: Originally posted Sept 16, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

 

Needlework – Chapter 6: PDF Download

To download a PDF version of Chapter 6 of Needlework by Julie Showalter, go to Needlework: Chapter 6 – PDF

 

Needlework – Chapter 6: Manuscript

Needlework – Chapter 6

David Baxter was a kind of cousin. Aunt Maureen’s husband, Uncle Henry, had a brother and David was his son. He wasn’t really related to the Hopewells at all, but Aunt Maureen and Uncle Henry helped raise him after his mother died, so it felt like he was a distant relative of some kind. I’d see him every year or so when we’d visit. He was two years older than me, and when I was six or seven he would play with me because there weren’t any other boys around. He taught me how to climb a pecan tree at Aunt Maureen’s place one summer. I guess I was about nine then.

When I was thirteen I found a family picture with him in it. I cut his face out and put it in a heart locket and told my friends in Missouri that he was my Texas boyfriend. I even told them that he kissed me and that his lips were so hot they burned like ice. I made up a lot of other stuff, too. For a while I wrote letters from him to me and mine back. Even after I quit talking about him to my friends, I kept up the writing, kind of like a journal between me and my ideal boyfriend. I’d write what books I was reading and what he was reading. I’d write our plans for the future. I didn’t completely give up my made-up David until Richard and I started going steady. I don’t mean I wore the locket, but I had him in the back of my mind.

As you can imagine, once I had made up all these stories about him, I wasn’t very comfortable around the real David. At family events I’d act like he wasn’t there, not even say hello. It was a funny thing. On the one hand, I knew that I was thirteen and he was fifteen so he didn’t even notice that I wasn’t talking to him. Probably just thought I was some kind of weird kid. But, on the other hand, even though I knew the things I made up never happened, it felt like they had. Like he was the first boy to ever kiss me, to say, “I love you,” and I wanted his feelings to be hurt that I was ignoring him.

Even now when I was almost nineteen years old and about to be married, I turned red when I saw him.

He’d always been nice looking, not so handsome that my friends couldn’t believe he’d like me, but good enough to be proud of. He’d grown up more angular than I remembered, and gotten real tall.

I wasn’t used to being in Texas yet, so his cowboy boots and hat looked like a costume to me. He shook Daddy’s hand. “I’m real sorry about Clete.” He nodded at me. “Hi, Jan.”

“How you doing?” The way my voice cracked, it didn’t come out sounding as casual as I’d hoped.

He and Daddy talked about cotton crops and how David was working at Uncle Henry’s gin during the summer. He’d finished his third year of the Ag program at Tech, but thought he might switch to Pre-Vet. I concentrated on looking grown up and interested. I folded my arms so my engagement ring showed, but he didn’t notice. “How about you, Jan?” he asked. “I heard about your scholarship. What are you majoring in?”

I blushed again, this time from shame. “I’m not in school anymore.” I held up my left hand.

“Jan’s getting her M R S degree,” Daddy said. “Marrying a real nice boy, a dairy farmer.” I flashed him a look of gratitude. He hadn’t made it sound too awful.

If David was heartbroken, I couldn’t see any signs of it. “Dairy farming is a nice way of life,” he said. “I’ve been studying new stuff they’re learning about milk production. Maybe I can talk to that husband of yours sometime.”

Husband. The word sprang like a trap. Richard was my boyfriend. I had two more months before I had a husband, before I became a wife. What did David see when he looked at me? One of those girls with no ambition, without the brains to go to college, one of those girls who got married right out of high school.

As Daddy and I got into the car, I forced myself to think of Richard, to see myself at the kitchen window watching him walk toward me. It was an image of safety, of happiness. How had I let it get dislodged by an old boyfriend. No, that wasn’t right. David wasn’t even an old boyfriend. He was an old fantasy, and the life I’d planned for us was painful to remember.

David and I would be going to college together. We’d spend our evenings studying and talking about the books we’d read and the new ideas we’d learned. We’d probably join the Peace Corps when we finished college. Or maybe we’d go to the South and help the Negroes fight segregation. Or we’d teach children in Appalachia how to read.

As I thought of the important things I had thought I would be doing, my eyes watered. What would Richard say if I told him I wanted to do those things? “We’ve got enough problems right here to handle. And you’ll have babies of your own soon enough to teach.” Richard’s family’s goal was to maintain a farm that would take care of them and theirs and let the rest of the world take care of itself.

David was sitting in a booth by the window, and I watched him as Daddy backed the car out. He was going to be somebody important, a college graduate, maybe even a veterinarian. People would call him “doctor,” and he would save their sick animals. I was going to learn to make pickles.

And to top it all off, I looked awful. I hadn’t even put lipstick on that morning. My hair was greasy, limp. If someone asked him who I was, he’d say, “Nobody. A girl I that’s connected to my family some way.” It wasn’t so much that I wanted David to like me. I wanted the girl who’d made up a future with him to like me.

I rode all the way back with my eyes closed, concentrating on an image of Richard smiling at me in my wedding dress

When we got back to the hospital, we’d been gone thirty-five minutes. Aunt Baby was standing by the bed. “He woke up for a little while,” she said. “He seemed a little more alert. Wanted some water. I told him Pauline should be here soon and he asked about Jan.”

“Me?”

“He’s agitated about Jan, Jimmy,” Aunt Baby said, not looking at me. Daddy said, “Let’s make sure you’re here the next time he wakes up.”
We all stood around the bed and watched Uncle Clete sleep with his mouth open. The tubes didn’t bother me so much now, but it was hard to get used to how old he looked. His breathing seemed slower than it had earlier.

After a while I went out to the hall to knit. I could hear Daddy and Aunt Baby talking in the room, but their voices were low and I couldn’t understand the words. That I wanted David to see me when I looked better didn’t mean I was disloyal to Richard. It was just important to me that David didn’t think I was an idiot. What had I said in the coffee shop? Three words — “How you doing?” My eyes burned when I thought about it. I closed my eyes and let my head fall back against the wall. I didn’t want a boy I’d imagined was in love with me to think I was a worthless nothing. At least an hour passed in which I drifted in and out of sleep. Why had Uncle Clete wanted me to come see him? I still didn’t know. Maybe he wanted me to knit him something. Maybe he wanted me here so David could kiss me with lips so hot they hurt like ice. I heard the electric doors from outside open. Someone, a man, walked in the doors. Now he was walking toward me. Not David! I need to hide till my hair’s done! An empty room — I can hide in an empty room under the bed.

Uncle Clete’s voice. “Jimmy?” “Right here.”

“About Jan —” I jerked awake, my heart pounding from the dream. Uncle Clete needed me. I shook my head to clear it.

“It’s O.K.” Daddy’s voice sounded definite, final.

“No. It’s not.” Uncle Clete was having even more trouble talking now, and he was upset. “I told Baby. I want Jan to have this.”

“I don’t know, Clete. It’ll open a whole can of worms.” I blinked hard trying to get rid of the scared feeling you get when you wake up at the wrong time in the wrong place. It’s three o’clock. You’re in the hospital. Uncle Clete wants to give you something.

Aunt Baby came out of the room and closed the door behind her. The first time the door had been closed. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Just something between your daddy and Clete. Nothing for you to worry about.”

“They were talking about me, weren’t they? I heard them talking about me. What does Uncle Clete want me to have?”

“Jan, you just forget about this. Your daddy will tell you what you need to know.”

“All my life Daddy’s told me what he thought I needed to know, and it’s been damn little.” I wasn’t sure who was talking. It couldn’t be me saying damn to Aunt Baby.

Aunt Baby put her knitting in her lap and looked at me. Her eyes glinted behind her glasses. “This is a real hard time for your daddy. Don’t you get some kind of chip on your shoulder that’s going to make it worse.”

I gasped. “Aunt Baby, that’s just not fair. I came so I could help Daddy. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt him.”

“Good.” She went back to her knitting. “Then leave him alone on this.” We knitted without talking. Click. Click. Click. You can put a lot of anger into knitting, a lot of pain. Another hour.

What did Uncle Clete want to give me and why didn’t Daddy want me to have it? I want Jan to have this. It must be something in the room with him, something he could hold or at least point to. All he had was his ring, but Daddy would get the ring, or Pauline. Maybe he had some money and Daddy knew they’d need it for the funeral. That would open a whole can of worms, all right, if Granno found out there was extra money and Uncle Clete gave it to me. But Daddy should trust me enough to know I’d give the money back.

The door opened and Daddy came out. “Your Uncle Clete just woke up again. He wants to see you.”

I thought he had already fallen back asleep, but he looked up and smiled at me. Again he held my hand. “You’re a real smart girl,” he said. He shut his eyes, exhausted from the effort. Breathe in. Breathe out.

I didn’t know what to say. “It’s O.K. You don’t have to talk.” “And good.” He closed his eyes. “We’re all proud of you.”
I hadn’t done anything to be proud of since high school. I hadn’t been smart since high school. I gave him some water and said, “Thank you. You don’t have to talk.”

“I love you.” He paused, gathered strength. “You know that?” He kept his eyes open, looking for an answer. He wanted an answer.

“Yes. Of course, I know it. I love you too.” I was out of air. I had been breathing with him. “It’s O.K.” I tried to breathe normally. “You go to sleep, you don’t have to talk any more. It’s O.K., Uncle Clete, I love you too.” I kissed his forehead and stood there still holding his hand.

When his grip loosened and I was sure he was asleep, I started to cry. First just tears running down my face, then jerking sobs that came from my gut. The effort to be quiet turned the sobs into gagging.

Aunt Baby was behind me. She led me out of the room, then put her arms around me while I cried. I buried my head in her shoulder. “I don’t understand. Why did he do this? I was never special to him.”

She patted my back and made soothing noises you’d make to a baby. “Shush. Shush.”

“I just don’t understand. Does he have me mixed up with Pauline? Does he think I’m her?”

“No. It’s not that. He knows it’s you. He really loves you.”

I pulled away from her. I could barely breathe. “Then why didn’t he tell me before now? Why did he wait nineteen years?”

“Jan, there’s a lot to understand here.”

“I understand that in this damned family nobody ever tells you anything, especially not that they love you. Nobody cares what you do with your life. Nobody tries to help you. Then all of a sudden they’re dying and love you and then what good is it?”

Daddy walked up. I sat down, wiped my eyes and blew my nose. Daddy was looking at the floor, shaking his head. He was trying not to cry. Aunt Baby was right. I’d come to help him, and all I was doing was making things worse.

“I just tried Pauline’s again,” Daddy said. “Fred’s mother answered. She’s staying with the kids. They left this morning.”

Aunt Baby asked, “This morning? Not yesterday morning?” She looked near tears too. All I felt was relief that I wasn’t the one making them cry.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Something about Fred working a double shift so he could get off and them not having a baby-sitter until this morning.”

“Why didn’t she call?”

“I don’t know, Baby. I don’t understand it.” He shook his head. “I don’t think she’s going to make it in time. I don’t think he can hold out.”

“We’ll see, Jimmy,” Aunt Baby said in the same tone she’d used to comfort me.

The outside door opened and Granno and Aunt Maureen came in. Granno started talking when she was still more than halfway down the hall. “Well, is Pauline here? We waited at the house as long as we could, and she didn’t show up there. I didn’t see any California plates in the parking lot. Where is she, I’d like to know.”

Aunt Baby raised her voice to reach them. “It’s O.K., Mama. Jimmy just got off the phone. They got a later start than we thought, that’s all. They’ll be here tomorrow.”

For a minute, Granno’s concern was for Uncle Clete. “Tomorrow? What does the doctor say? Will he make it?” But old grudges surfaced. “I knew she didn’t listen to me. Nobody listens to a poor old widow woman.”

“Mama, it wasn’t that she didn’t believe you,” Aunt Baby said. “They couldn’t get anyone to keep the kids.”

Daddy said, “They left as soon as they could. Fred’s mother says they’re driving straight through.”

Aunt Maureen said, “Mama, let’s go in and look at Clete. See how he’s doing. Get you settled in your chair.”

At the door, Granno balked. “Jan, I want you to go to the post office. That check didn’t come, and I want you to go to the post office and get it.”

Go out in the world again where I might run into David? Not until I changed clothes, washed my hair, not until I looked like a girl he would be interested in knowing.

Aunt Maureen said, “Mama. You already told me the checks don’t usually come until the second or third. Anyway, you heard what Jimmy said this morning. You’ll get the money you’re due whether we get the check today or not.”

“Well, if Jan’s too busy to do it for me, I guess I’ll have to go myself. The post office closes in an hour. I better leave now. Jimmy, will you trust me with your car?”

“No. Jan’ll go.”

Aunt Maureen said, “Jan and I’ll go together. I’ll drive and she can run in and check the mail.” She smiled at me, “Give me a minute, Honey. I want to get Mama settled and look in on Clete.”

I sat low in the car. I would run in the post office and then out. One minute, maybe two minutes, I’d be exposed. Aunt Maureen said, “I thought it would be nice for you and me to have a little time alone. Seems like you’ve grown up without me ever getting to know you.” She reached over and patted my knee. “So. How’re you holding up under all this? Seems like a lot for a girl to handle when she’s planning a wedding.”

Yes. The wedding. When I got back, I’d be a week further behind on wedding plans. As it got closer, a big wedding seemed more and more like a mistake. A thousand details for a day I’d be too nervous to enjoy. While I was still at college, I was sure I wanted a formal wedding, but I was also sure that Mother would come around. I had pictured a fantasy summer — Mother and me planning, writing out invitations, picking out our dresses together; Daddy beaming with pride. Instead, I was planning the wedding by myself.
Richard tried to help, but his efforts just made it more obvious that my parents weren’t involved. He had wanted a quiet family wedding at the farm, a picnic in the backyard afterwards; but when he suggested it I balked. The wedding was one thing I was going to plan.

“The wedding’s pretty much under control,” I said. “Anyway, Daddy needed me. That’s more important.”

I watched her drive. Maybe she would tell me more than Aunt Baby. “Something’s going on,” I said. She raised her eyebrows and looked at me. “Uncle Clete’s upset. I think it has something to do with me, but no one will tell me what it’s about.”

“Jan, Clete’s agitated right now. He knows he’s dying and he’s worried about all the things he should have done and all the things he shouldn’t’ve. I wouldn’t worry about it. The important thing right now is that those three are together.” It took a minute to figure out she mean Daddy, Uncle Clete and Aunt Baby. “They were always like a separate little family. Mama felt like she’d done her share of taking care of kids by the time she got through with us three in the first batch. But the babies kept coming. At first she gave them to me to raise. But then I got married, and Clete and Baby had to take over with Jimmy. They weren’t much older than he was.” We were at a stop sign, and she turned and looked me full in the face. “What I’m saying is that those three may be closer to each other than they’ll ever be to anyone else. If they’ve got things to sort out, let them be.”

The same thing Aunt Baby had told me. Don’t make waves. Don’t pry. You’ll be told what you need to know. “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

At the post office, I told the man behind the iron bars, “I’m here to pick up any mail for Leona Hopewell. I’m her granddaughter, Jan.”

“Who?”

“Jan Hopewell, her granddaughter.” The door opened and closed behind me. The back of my neck prickled as I imagined David walking up behind me.

“But who are you?”

“I’m Jimmy Ray’s daughter.”

“Jimmy Ray Hopewell and Mildred Hailey’s girl? Little Jaynice Ray? Well why didn’t you say so? I can see it now. You got the Hailey chin. And you’ve got that red hair like Clete and his girl.”

“Uncle Clete doesn’t have red hair.”

“He did when he was a boy. Maybe a little darker than yours. It changed when he was in his twenties. Hair just like his daughter’s.”

He returned empty handed. “Sorry. Nothing for your grandmother or uncle on the afternoon truck. Say, how is Clete? I heard he wasn’t doing so good.”

“He’s in the hospital. Daddy and I are here to see him.”

“Well, that’s nice. I bet that cheered him up, seeing a pretty girl like you. You tell him hidy for me. And tell your daddy ole’ Roger Birdwell said hello. Your mother didn’t come, did she? Boy, talk about a pretty face to cheer Clete up. Your mother, now there’s a pretty woman.”

When we got back to the hospital, the doctor was making end-of-day rounds. He was talking to Daddy and Aunt Baby in the waiting room. Daddy motioned me over. “How was Clete when he talked to you?” he asked.

“He was in pain. It was hard for him to talk. Is that what you mean?” “Was he lucid?” the doctor asked. “Did he know who you were?” “I’m not sure. I think he may have thought I was his daughter.”
“He knew it was Jan,” Aunt Baby said.

“He’d been asking for Jan. He knew her,” Daddy said at the same time. “Does it matter?” I asked. “Is it important?”
Daddy answered. “They’re trying to figure out what to do, if there’s any sense in trying —” His voice broke and he looked away from us at the ceiling across the hall. He took a couple of deep breaths, blowing them out in soft whistles. “— in trying to keep him with us until Pauline gets here.”

“Here’s the situation,” the doctor said to Aunt Maureen. “He’s having decreasing periods of lucidity. And just now, I was barely able to rouse him. It didn’t seem like he could focus enough to talk.” He looked at the clipboard he was holding. “It’s a matter of hours no matter what we do. But we might be able to keep him alive until his daughter gets here if that’s important. The vein we’ve been using to keep him hydrated has collapsed. If we do a cut down we could probably find another one. It would cause him pain, and would only prolong things a few hours at most. But if you want me to, I’ll do it. It’s up to the family.”

Everyone looked to Daddy. He might be the youngest Hopewell there, but he was a man. And he was the one closest to Uncle Clete. Daddy squinted at that ceiling as if it contained the answer to all the world’s riddles. “No,” he said. “Don’t cut him. He’s been through enough. She’ll either get here or she won’t. Let’s just leave him alone.”

After the doctor left, Daddy walked down the hall to look out the window. Aunt Baby, Aunt Maureen, and I sat down and picked up our work. I had to keep blinking to see what I was doing. We passed a box of Kleenex.

Aunt Maureen licked her thread, squeezed it flat, held the needle away from her, locking in her gaze, and moved the thread forward. I could see the thread bend when it missed the needle’s eye. After four tries, she gave up. She looked at her watch. “It’s five o’clock. I need to get home.” She packed up her quilting squares. “I’ll take Mama home,” she said. “She didn’t get any rest before for fretting about that check, but I think she’s a little calmer at home than here. We can’t forget about her heart. We’ve got to take care of her too.”

After they’d left, Daddy said, “How about you, Baby? Don’t you need to get home, take care of Buddy?”

Aunt Baby’s eyes were red when she looked up from her work, but her voice was steady. “Buddy Henderson is forty-nine years old. If he hasn’t figured out how to feed himself by now, he can just starve.”

Daddy bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud. Aunt Baby was the family saint, the most dutiful of daughters, the most devoted of mothers, the best of wives. Every now and then, though, she showed some fire. We all loved to see that happen.

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