Introduction: Julie Showalter’s Unpublished Writing
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.
Julie’s Unpublished Writing comprises a group of pieces I’ve found on Julie’s computer or in her office that range from workshop exercises to story fragments to projects set aside to finish at a later day to work that appears, at least to me, to be fully as polished and effective as her published stories.
Becky, the latest addition to Julie’s Unpublished Writing, was originally posted Dec 29, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com.
A half dozen geese scatter as Vee pulls into her father’s rutted gravel driveway. The trailer, with rust along its seams, is parked under a black walnut tree in the side yard. The house needs paint, the stonework on the front porch is crumbling. Two pickups stand in front, one on concrete blocks. The other is held in place by what her dad calls a “Missouri parking brake,” a block of wood jammed behind the back tire. The water wagon, still connected to the tractor, is filling at the faucet; condensation on the giant tank shows that it is three-quarters full. That used to be one of her jobs. Fill the tank, pull it up to the field, connect it to the automatic waterers, bring back the empty tank. More geese squat in the shade under the wagon.
Two large black dogs run up to her car barking wildly. They shake the small rental car when they jump against it. Vee’s daughter Becky comes to the door of the mobile home. She is wearing cutoffs and a tank top, her hair, long now and less blonde than the last time Vee saw her, is pulled into a braid. “Ya’ll get down now,” she calls to the dogs who are now leaving nose smears on the windows.
The dogs back away and Vee gets out smiling brightly. Her heels sink into the packed dirt yard, and she twists her ankle when she steps on a walnut left from last fall. Sweat runs down her sides. Her silk blouse will be ruined, maybe the jacket. Her smile intensifies as she realizes how ridiculous she looks, briefcase in one hand, a stuffed squirrel in the other. This isn’t the way she’d planned to see her daughter again. But when has she ever had the luxury of planning what goes on between her and Becky?
The announcement in her office mail this morning set her on this unexpected journey. A teddy bear, blue balloons, and “It’s a boy.” Inside, a name, Jared Philip, no last name, birth weight 7 pounds, 9 ounces, birth date June 12 – two weeks ago. And “We’re staying at granddad’s for now. Thought you’d want to know,” in her daughter’s still-adolescent hand. Her daughter, her Becky, barely seventeen, has gone through a nine month pregnancy and child birth, and no one has told her.
She canceled her appointments, called TWA, grabbed a cab, grabbed the squirrel at the airport, flew to Springfield, Missouri, rented a car and drove two hours. All the way, thinking, This can’t ruin her life. There must be a way to get her out of this. And here she is, at one in the afternoon, at her ex-father-in-law’s farm with no idea of what to say or do.
She climbs the metal steps that hang from the trailer door and hugs Becky. “It’s good to see you, Sweetheart,” she says. And it is. No matter what, she still feels a weight lift when she sees her girl. She brushes Becky’s hair out of her face and smells a faint trace of vinegar, the smell that has always been Becky. “Pretty as ever,” she says. She doesn’t add what she’s thinking — “pretty, but tired, bruised.”
“What are you doing here, Mom?”
Inside, the trailer is dingy and shabby, but, thank God, appears to be clean. There’s no sign of a male presence, just the detritus of a baby and a teenage girl. A window air conditioner growls erratically. Becky walks through the room to the back of the trailer. Uncertain whether she should follow, Vee sits on the edge of the scratchy brown sofa. In the other room, Becky croons. “Is he wet? Would he like a change? Is he a good boy? Yes, he is.” Hearing her, Vee abandons one option. She won’t be able to persuade Becky to place this baby for adoption.
Becky brings out a blue flannel bundle and hands it to Vee.
The baby’s eyes are closed and his lips are pursed in a half-sucking motion. The little callous new babies get on their top lip is about to peel off. She tries his name, “Jared,” but it’s too early. When do they grow into a name — two months? three? He’s still too unformed. He’s still baby. Her daughter’s son, her grandson, who will be a Jared. She pries open his fist so he’ll grab her finger, and he opens his eyes and frowns intently at a spot just above her right eye. She is dazzled. “Becky, he looks just like you.”
Becky flushes and smiles, “Yeah, I think so too.” After a moment she says, ‘But I think his hair will be more like yours.”
The unexpected generosity brings tears to Vee’s eyes. This baby has no hair, just an iridescent fuzz like an aura extending a sixteenth of an inch from his head. “Maybe.” She mustn’t overreach, destroy the moment. She looks at the baby, smiling, willing him to look at her. And it works. His gaze moves from her eyebrow, to her smile, to her eyes, and it locks. He studies her looking at him. Softly, without moving her head, Vee says, “Have you noticed this? If you really concentrate you can get him to see you. See you watching him.’
“Yeah, it’s weird, like he’s trying to memorize something.”
“I know. I think this is when bonding really happens. When a baby realizes that someone is looking at him, looking at him so hard. When he looks back and realizes, that’s my mother.’ Vee has never told this to anyone. Is not sure she even knew it before.
“Did you figure that out with me?”
It’s an opening, a chance to break through to Becky. She speaks carefully, “Yes. I’d sit and look at you for hours at a time. We’d just look at each other. And we knew each other then.”
Her heart pounds from the effort of not saying more, not pushing. She flashes on a memory of luring a wild kitten out of the barn, grabbing it too soon, getting scratched.
Becky breaks the silence. “But you left.”
Vee slumps. It’s the same argument, the same words said thousands of times. She performs her part of the ritual. “I left your father. I didn’t leave you.”
“You left us both.”
“Just for a while. Just until I could get on my feet. I came back to get you.” Came back to four-year old Becky turned against her, to an ex-husband determined to make her pay, to a narrow-minded judge who said mothers like her didn’t deserve their children. “I never meant to leave you.”
“Well, you did.”
And that’s what it comes back to with Becky every time. Once, when she was fifteen, Vee tried to get her past this block, tried to force her to see beyond it. Literally sat on the girl making her listen. No catharsis, no purge, no breakthrough. Just Becky, hands over her ears shrieking “you left, you left, you left.”
Vee takes a breath. She looks around the ten-foot wide trailer and thinks Becky must understand now what it feels like to be trapped. “I had to get away or I’d go crazy.”
“Yeah, sure,” Becky says. “Whatever.”
The baby stirs and whimpers. “Is he hungry?” Vee says. ‘Can I feed him?’ Becky’s smile is smug. ‘Of course not, Mother. I’m nursing.”
Vee catches a glimpse of Becky’s breast as she covers it with a diaper. She’s been denied access to her daughter’s body for so long, it’s hard to remember the little arms that used to cling to her.
She knows she has to ease into this. “What are your plans?”
Becky shrugs. “No plans, really.”
“Jason Reilly can get stuffed for all I care. You know what he told me when he found out I was pregnant? ‘Call me if it’s a boy.’ Now he says he’ll pay $30 a month and raise it to $50 when Jared gets interesting. Says we’ll talk about getting married then.”
“Do you want to marry him?”
So the question remains, what are her plans? Vee’s mind is racing. She will take Becky and the baby back to Chicago with her this evening. Her condo will do for a while – they can convert the den into a nursery – but they’ll really need a house, a place with a yard. She can start researching suburban school systems on Monday. Find a place where Jared can grow up. Becky probably won’t want to go back to high school, but Vee can get her a tutor and she can have her G.E.D. by fall. Then maybe Northwestern or U of C. Well, maybe a community college. She can raise Jared and leave Becky free to have the life she should have.
Becky buttons her blouse. “I have to buy diapers. You want to stay here or what?”
She can’t let them go out in that pickup. “I’ll drive you. Get the car seat.”
“I don’t have a car seat yet. He’s little enough to lay on the seat.”
Of course. If you trust in luck enough to drive a pickup with no brakes why would you worry about a car seat? “Maybe I’ll buy you one. The chipmunk isn’t a very good gift.” They’ll need a car seat on the plane. Vee has read of the dangers of flying with an infant in your lap.
Becky brightens. “There’s one at Wal-Mart that’s a stroller, a carrier, and a car seat.”
Becky gives her directions to the store, and Vee, who hasn’t been paying attention, suddenly realizes they are on the block where she and Billy and Becky lived until Becky was two and a half, until Vee left and Billy took Becky to his parents’ farm. She chances a glance at Becky to see how she handles the memories. All the fights, Billy yelling at her while
[Gap in manuscript]
When they drive past the house where they lived, Becky says, “The dang set’s gone now.
It was still there for a long time.’
“You remember that?”
“Sure, I remember lots about living there. “The spanking, Vee thinks, the constant fights between her and Billy.
‘I remember Dad swinging me and you bringing us Popsicles. I remember when I’d get in the big bed between you and Dad and you’d both tickle me. It was great. We were all together.”
“It wasn’t that simple, Honey.’
“Not for you, I guess. You were the only one that wasn’t happy.”
In Wal-Mart, after they’ve picked up diapers and the car seat, Becky lingers over baby clothes. “Wouldn’t he look cute in this?” she says holding up a sun suit with a blue rabbit face. “He’ll be big enough for this in a month.”
Vee fingers the fabric. ‘I can get you something much nicer than this back in Chicago. When you were little I had to dress you from Wal-Mart, but we can get better clothes for Jared.”
Becky throws the sun suit down. “Nothing here’s good enough for you, is it? Not Dad. Not me.” Before Vee can respond, she’s gone, pushing the basket down the aisle.
Vee picks up the sun suit, then a diaper set that’s a cowboy costume. She finds Becky close to the checkout area. Two women and a man are admiring the baby. The man, who appears to be a Walmart manager, sees her. ‘Well, here’s the proud Grandma now. You girls remember Velma Huntley?” The ‘girls” are in their thirties, and neither of them looks familiar to Vee. For that matter, neither does the man.
“Huntley?” one of them says. ‘Wilma’s sister? She does my hair. She’s always talking about her little sister off in Chicago.’
“You must really be proud,” the other one says. ‘Becky’s gonna be a good little mamma.”
Proud? Proud that her daughter’s a mother at seventeen? Proud that she has an illegitimate son? What can these people be thinking? But she looks at Becky and sees her watching her. “Yes,” she says. “Becky’s doing real well. The baby’s beautiful. I’m proud.”
In the car, Becky says, “See. Everybody here’s not awful.’
Vee waits until she pulls in the driveway and parks the car. Then she says, “Becky, you have to know I never meant to leave you. Nothing in my life has ever hurt as much as losing you. Every day I think about you, miss you.”
“Can’t you give it a rest? Just this once.’ Again Becky is running away from her, slamming first the car door, then the door to the trailer. Again Vee follows. She finds her in the back room arranging the baby in a wicker basket. It could be the same one she used with Becky.
Becky turns on her and she is crying. “Look. Mother.” Her voice is harsh. “I’m sorry about what happened to you. I’m really sorry.” She closes her eyes and her voice comes from deep in her gut. ‘But I can’t undo it. As long as I can remember you’ve been after me to undo it, and I cant.” She is sobbing great gulping sobs now, and Vee puts her arms around her, leads her to the sofa. She pats her back and shushes her. “Hush, baby, hush. It’s all right.”
They sit on the sofa not speaking for five, maybe ten minutes. Vee, continues to stroke Becky’s hair. She has no idea of how to make things right between them, but it feels like they’ve started. For this moment, she is almost happy. She can hold her daughter, comfort her, smell her hair. And she can imagine a future for them.
“I think you should come home with me,” she says. She feels Becky stiffen. “Just hear me out. I could get someone to help you with the baby, and you could finish high school. I’ll get
a tutor in for you if that’s what you want. You could go to college. We’d get a bigger place with a room for the baby. You’d have a better life. You’d both have a better life.”
“This is my home, Mom.’
“It doesn’t have to be. You can do better than this. For you and Jared.” ‘Don’t you listen? Don’t you ever listen?”
The heat has given Vee a blinding headache, and suddenly she is exhausted. “Baby, you have to have some help. You cant do this on your own. Tell me what you want.” She says the old refrain, and she thinks she means it. ‘I’ll do anything in the world for you.”
Becky’s reply is so soft that at first Vee doesn’t realize what she’s said. But Becky raises her head, “Stay,” she says a second time, locking her eyes on Vee’s. “Stay with me, Mama.” Vee thinks for a moment that her chest will explode. She can have what she wants, can have her daughters love and this new baby. But it’s like a fairy tale where the heroine promises anything, anything, to be given her heart’s desire, but the thing asked is too horrible to contemplate. Except it’s confused, because in the fairy tales the horrible thing asked is to give up your child, and she knows that she will choose to give up her child rather than do the horrible thing. She cant stay in this place where she’s Velma, where they hold their noses when they see her coming, where she’d be expected to make a public confession of her sins. She’s going to walk away. Again. And this one is worse, because this time she knows that is what she’s doing.
Becky is still looking at her, searching her eyes. Looking at her hard, almost a staring contest, willing her to see who she is. Vee can’t hold her gaze. She blinks. “Well, I have a plane to catch,” she says.