Summer 2008, #15
"Convenient Acts of Human Behavior"
HOT #15 TRAILERS
The Curve of The Earth
by Susan Morgan
He filled a cardboard box with photographs, stray images that had surfaced among loose papers in his
mother’s desk or fluttered out unexpectedly from the crowded bookshelves. Slowly, he was emptying out her house. “It’s strange,” he’d told his wife one night on the telephone after he’d left the hospital and she
was, two thousand miles to the west, just getting home from school. “When I’m with her, I don’t see her
dying. I only see her.”
Usually, when he is traveling on his own, he sleeps fitfully, tossing about in an unfamiliar bed, seeking
his wife’s absent warmth, missing the press of her belly against him, the bend of her knees dovetailing
into his body. Since he has been back East, spending nights alone in his childhood room tucked beneath the eaves, he doesn’t wake intermittently in the dark or even turn over on the narrow mattress. Each morning, the bedclothes appear undisturbed, taut as a pressed handkerchief placed in a breast pocket.
He was 25 years old when he first introduced his mother to the woman he was going to marry. Twenty
eight years ago now, an autumn afternoon. That day, his mother and the girl he loved talked so easily
together that he was thrown off balance and his happiness suddenly felt sharp, tentative and aching.
“Have a glass of sherry, “ his mother advised. “It’s really very lovely. Like drinking liquid gold.”
On warm evenings, when he and his wife have returned home from teaching, they like to sit outside at an old
wooden picnic table and look out across the high plains. In the distance, they can see a cluster of
desert willows blooming along the bank of a dry wash, a pale green blur, a verdant cloud fading on the
horizon. Along the dirt road that leads up to their property -- a rugged landscape scattered with shrubby
cinquefoil, prairie sage, and creosote bushes – there is an apple tree, a fruitful relic from the days when
the surrounding thousand acres had been one ranch.
When his wife received a small inheritance, they had been able to buy 15 acres, atop a ridge, with an
abandoned garden, a fieldstone terrace and one derelict building: an adobe bunkhouse with thick
white-washed walls and a corrugated red tin roof that rocked unsteadily in the wind. They built a very
simple house: two stories with a neatly pitched roof, square windows, and a fireplace. On winter nights,
their house – outlined against the sky, wood smoke bellowing out from the chimney, lamplight glowing in
the windowpanes—appears bright and resolute as a child’s drawing.
He puts the box of photographs onto the passenger seat of the rental car and drives to the hospital. The
road, bordered by stonewalls and old deciduous trees, curves around the reservoir and then slopes steadily downhill into the town. The box, fastened in place with a tightened seatbelt, is jostled about but never tips over; he can hear its contents shaking, the muffled rustle of bleached-out snapshots, Victorian
cartes de visite of unidentified ancestors, and rolled-up black and white panoramas, group portraits
of schoolgirls and amateur baseball teams. Near the hospital, he turns on to a tree-lined lane where tall
branches arch overhead, soaring upward from opposite sides of the road and, join together mid-air, a lacy
tunnel of dark leaves pierced through with brilliant sunlight. When he was a child, he and his mother often detoured to town along this route and they nicknamed it ‘The Heavenly Way.”
“Only drifting,” says his mother, opening her half closed eyes to greet him. She sits up straighter in
the bed, brushing aside a newspaper that rests, splayed and unread, in her lap. He was thinking that
they could go through the photographs together, identify all these people that he doesn’t recognize,
most likely never met.
His mother looks down at one studio portrait of a little girl, framed in a cut-out oval and stamped with
the photographer’s name, an elaborate swirl of raised gold ink. “I never liked that girl,” his mother
remarks, her voice frail but unapologetic. “Our mothers were cousins.” She pauses to rub at a chafed
red spot on her cheek. “ You know, I can’t even remember her name.” He notices that his mother’s
fingernails have turned grayish blue, a shadowy lavender color. “You can throw all of these away if
you want, “ she tells him, tapping on the box as if to make it disappear. “Unless, for some reason, you decide you want to keep them.”
The next morning he rents a dumpster, an enormous metal container that takes up the entire driveway and
slams against the lilac bushes. He hauls toothless garden rakes, a rusted lawnmower, and gallons of
dried-up paint out of the garage and heaves them, clattering, into the giant garbage bin. Inside the
house, he carefully packs up his mother’s clothes into suitcases that he has no plans of keeping.
Not long after his father died, his mother had said that when she was growing up, she’d always imagined
two lives for herself: “I love having a family but I also knew that I could live contentedly as a
spinster.” His mother’s words, bare and unsentimental, never struck him in any way as peculiar or unkind.
Living alone, she preferred to read through the night, nap in the early afternoon, and eat her dinner before
the sun went down.
In her kitchen, he’s put nearly everything – plates and frying pans, canned goods and mixing bowls-- into
the paper shopping bags she’d folded and saved in the pantry. Over and over again, he loads suitcases,
boxes, and bags into the car and delivers the household, in pieces, to the back door of a charity
shop, leaving it there to drift into someone else’s life.
Although he grew up in this house, it is not the place that he returns to in his dreams; and, when he is
sleeping with his arms sweetly tangled around his wife, he rarely dreams of their house on the ridge or
the desert willows blooming along the wash. In dreams, he goes back to the cottage where he spent
holidays as a child, to an island that he has not visited in more than twenty years, a place inscribed
in memory, definite as the whorls of fingerprints.
The summer that he was 8, he started to wake up in the middle of the night. He would get out of bed and stand in the hallway outside his parents’ closed bedroom door. If he could see any light seeping over the threshold or hear the low hum of voices, he simply got back into his bed; but, if all the lights were off and the house was silent, he would skitter across the sand-crusted wooden floor and let himself out by the
kitchen door. Sometimes, he would only sit on the back step and watch the waves, a path of moonlight on the water, or glowing bands of phosphorescence breaking near the shore. There were nights when islands of spiraling hazy stars filled the sky like a luminous halo crowning the world. “It’s a galaxy called the Milky Way,” explained his father who was a scientist and knew the names of things and how they fit together.
“This is our home in the universe.”
Once, when the moon was waning, he walked his bicycle out to the road and then pedaling fast as he could,
deliriously glided through the darkness, opening and closing his eyes, breathing in the inky black night.
The next morning, when he sat down at the kitchen table, he felt giddy and secretive, rattling inside
like a kettle boiling unattended on an open flame. His father had already left for his walk and his mother
set out breakfast -- a box of cornflakes, a bowl of blueberries, a quart of milk – while roaming about the
room in her busy morning way. He was busily fidgeting and tapping out cornflakes when he realized that his
mother had come to stand, looming and unseen, directly behind his chair. He waited for her to say something.
His back stiffened and he breathed deeply, air flowing out his nose with a whistling hiss, as if he were
swimming barely beneath the surface of the water, skimming between cresting waves and the August heat of
the sun. “So wandering off by yourself in the mystical moist night air,” his mother murmured, leaning over
him, sniffing at the salty dampness of his uncombed hair. “And looking up in perfect silence at the
stars,” she continued, her voice wavering with singsong amusement and unraveling into laughter. She
mussed his hair and briskly rubbed his skull with her knuckles, just like she did with a terry cloth towel
on the beach after an ocean swim. He knew then that everything was all right.
When he calls the hospital, the nurses tell him that his mother is sleeping. “It’s all right now that you
are here,” says the one nurse who always remembers his name, how far he’s traveled, and what he and his wife do for a living.
He continues emptying out the house long after dark. When he was a child, his father told him how shadows
form and demonstrated day and night on a spinning globe. He never told his father that he believed that
when you looked out at the open ocean, it was possible to see the curve of the earth.
The photograph of his mother that he keeps was taken before he was born: she is sitting — wearing a striped
seersucker dress, bare toes pressed down into the sand -- on a New England beach on a high summer day. Her hair is loose, unruly in the wind and she is laughing, vibrant and shy, as she looks away from the camera. He wants to remember this.
There is only one object in the house that he decides to carry on his flight home: a globe filled with
colored sand, no larger than a mandarin orange, a souvenir purchased in the Painted Desert, an undulating placeless landscape preserved under glass. He wraps the little globe very carefully, tucking it first inside a knitted woolen hat and then swaddling it in layers of scarves, silk and mohair, fragrant with the scent of wild rose and heliotrope. And still he fears that it will shatter.