Saving the world, p.1
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       Saving the World, p.1

           Julia Alvarez
Saving the World



  Julia Alvarez

  A Shannon Ravenel Book

  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill



  After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, Guides us by vanities …


  Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices

  Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues

  Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.

  These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.


  from “Gerontion”

  History says, Don’t hope

  On this side of the grave.

  But then, once in a lifetime

  The longed-for tidal wave

  Of justice can rise up,

  And hope and history rhyme.


  from “Voices from Lemnos”

  The child carriers are all but forgotten, but their humble if wholly unrewarded efforts deserve a place in human recollection.


  from “Francisco Xavier Balmis and the Introduction

  of Vaccination in Latin America”


  1 | I | 2 | II | 3 | III | 4 | IV | 5 | V | 6 | VI | 7 | VII | 8 | VIII

  This Summer on Snake Mountain

  Further Reading and Acknowledgments

  Reader’s Guide

  Preview of Julia Alvarez’s Latest Book, A Wedding in Haiti

  Also by Julia Alvarez



  In the fall of her fiftieth year, Alma finds herself lost in a dark mood she can’t seem to shake. It’s late September; she has actually not turned fifty yet, but she has already given that out as her age, hoping to get the fanfare and menopause jokes over and done with. It’s not her own mortality that weighs heavily on her. In fact, it makes her sad when she reads that women of her profile (active, slender, vegetarian, married) will probably live—if they take care of themselves—to ninety and beyond.

  She should probably feel glad that her glass of time is half full. But instead she wonders who might be alive in her dotage whom she would care to be with? Richard, her husband, overworked and project-driven, will probably not live that long; Tera, her best friend, over-weight and full of political-activist rage, will likely die before Alma does; her saintly neighbor Helen, already in her seventies, fat chance she’ll stick around. Day after day, Alma feels that peppery anxious feeling that she has truly lost her way.

  Earlier this year, she went to see the local, small-town psychiatrist, a very short man with an oversized face that reminded her of the post-deaf Beethoven. She explained that she felt as if a whirling darkness were descending on her, like dirty water going down a drain or that flock of birds in the film by Hitchcock.

  The doctor, who’d been jotting down her explanation, had looked up. He was so young; he probably hadn’t seen the film. “What kind of birds?” he had asked.

  At least he is being thorough, Alma thought.

  He asked a lot of questions, referring to what seemed a long list on a clipboard—about whether Alma had fantasies of killing herself, whether she had a gun in the house (Richard did keep an old shotgun down in the basement, which he would occasionally use on the raccoons and groundhogs that invaded his garden), whether there had been any untoward events in their family.

  Alma tried to be accurate and provide him with the information requested. She was baffled by this dark mood but still trusting that medical science in the guise of Dr. Payne (incredibly, that was his name) could help her get back to her old self.

  Months go by and one after another of the antidepressants Dr. Payne prescribes fail by her lights—she is “better” but numb all the time; she sleeps well but can no longer smell the paperwhites Richard brings her; nothing truly upsets her, even when her agent, Lavinia, sends her an ultimatum letter about Alma’s overdue novel. (She is going on her third year overdue.)

  One afternoon when she is trying to rouse herself into some wifely attractiveness before Richard gets home, she goes into their bathroom, opens the cabinet and collects all the prescription bottles she has accumulated over the last months of treatment, and for some reason, rather than flush them down the toilet, she puts on her coat and walks to the back of their property near the tree line. She scoops a small hole in the ground with her boot and pours the contents of these vials inside—no doubt hundreds of dollars worth—then kicks some dirt over it. She is concerned that deer or raccoons or groundhogs will find this trove and drug themselves into a stupor and thus become easy targets for anyone with a shotgun, perhaps Richard himself. In these small ways Alma finds she can still trust herself. She rolls a heavy boulder over the spot, circles it with the upended emptied bottles wedged into the earth (the ground has not yet frozen), and then waits, for it seems some ceremony should close this moment. But she can think of nothing, so she merely stands there for a few more minutes before the dusk and cold draw her back indoors.

  She tells no one, not Richard, not Tera, whose impatience with Alma’s persisting sadness Alma can hear in her friend’s voice. As always, Tera is involved in one or another of her causes—antiwar, anti-mines, anti-something—and any confession on Alma’s part will bring on an invitation to join Tera on the front lines. But Alma knows she can’t treat this thing with peace rallies and political work. So, no, she does not tell Tera either. (Another sign that her instincts are still trust-worthy: she knows who to talk to, mostly who not to talk to.) Most definitely, Tera won’t approve. We’re all so goddamn lucky: hers is one of the voices lodged in Alma’s head. Depression is nothing but a first-world disease (she parcels out the word that way). Tera has been Alma’s best friend since Alma ended up in this rural state two decades ago, still young enough to be thought of as a waif, not a lost soul. Now Alma is older, and as her sense of detachment grows, she watches Tera go about her campaigning, her picketing, her trips down to Washington with her live-in companion, Paul, to protest any number of atrocities that Tera somehow always finds out about; e-mail has proliferated her sources of horror. Alma watches Tera the way she would a movie, a good movie, but one she has seen several times already and that, therefore, leaves her slightly bored.

  Alma pretends to Richard that she is still taking her antidepressants, but she goes about her own way. She writes Lavinia back and tells her an outright lie, that the novel is done and she is merely going through it one last time. She is still making an effort to maintain her old life, covering for herself, as if she is setting up mock models in one or another room, Alma cooking, Alma going to bed, Alma writing a letter, Alma writing a novel—displays people can look at through a lit up window—but meanwhile she has slipped out the back door with no idea where she is going except somewhere far from this place.

  She has every intention of returning—that, in part, is the reason for her secrecy. But she has no story yet to lead her out of her dark mood and restore her to the life that, she has to agree with Tera, she’s damn lucky to be living.

  ABOUT TWO WEEKS LATER, Alma is standing by the window on the landing looking out at the place where she buried her pills. She has not revisited the spot since. There have been a couple of what the weatherman calls snow showers, dusting and disguising the ground, so she isn’t even sure that the mound she is looking at is her boulder.

  Again, it’s that time of afternoon when even in happy periods of her life, Alma often feels a heaviness of heart. In fact, she once read an article in a woman’s magazine about how this time of day, dusk, was the most often cited as the nadir of mood swings. She is standing at the wind
ow, not having had lunch yet or, more accurately, not remembering if she has had lunch yet, when she sees a man coming up out of the woods. Without a coat, that’s what she notices first, wearing only one layer, as people up here like to say. She would be adding what she later learns if she says that this stranger’s hair is longish, that the shirt is a worn plaid, that he is attractive in a mildly disturbing way. The man is walking up from the line of trees that separate their own from Helen’s property. Pin oaks, Richard has told her, the last trees to let go their leaves. In fact, they still have their brown, withered foliage—why Alma might not have seen the man right off.

  She thinks of calling Helen but then thinks again about the wisdom of worrying an old, near-blind woman, alone in a run-down farmhouse, relying on a walker to get around. Besides, this man isn’t doing something wrong, he isn’t carrying a gun or a chain saw. But the fact that he isn’t wearing a coat strikes her for some reason as suspicious. He walks with large, easy strides—in good shape, every once in a while stopping, looking around, finally spotting the house. Alma steps back to one side of the window before he can see her and watches as he climbs up the slight rise toward the house. He is still a distance away—they have ten acres, “more or less,” surprisingly a legal phrase in the local registries. It crosses her mind to check that the doors are locked, but the man has stopped—and this is the curious thing—at that mound, though she can’t swear it’s the mound, but she has herself believing it is. He has taken on the pose of discoverers or explorers in statues: one foot on that boulder as he looks around, reviewing the house, the surrounding pasture, Richard’s garden, the pond with the raft already pulled out of the water and resting on four wooden blocks. Then the man turns, facing the woods, assessing, assessing Alma doesn’t know what.

  She stands there, waiting, annoyed at the ringing phone. For some reason the answering machine has not kicked in with Richard’s curt welcome and instructions. Finally, when it seems that the ringing won’t ever quit and the man has indeed turned to stone, she races down the rest of the stairs. Her intention is to get the portable and hurry on back to her lookout on the landing.

  “IS THIS MRS. HUEBNER?” a woman’s voice asks when Alma picks up.

  Alma considers correcting her. But the woman has pronounced Richard’s last name correctly, so Alma assumes the caller is someone he knows, perhaps a childhood friend from Indiana. “This is Richard Huebner’s wife. Can I help you?”

  “Okay,” the woman says as if that’s all she called to settle.

  “Can I help you?” Alma asks again. Why doesn’t she just hang up? The caller is obviously no one she knows. But she can’t not respond. Years ago, she briefly dated a man who accused her of having a “victim personality.” You make eye contact in subways, he explained. You stop when someone scruffy says, You gotta a minute? Good for me, Alma thought. But the man meant it as a criticism. As a reason for breaking up with her.

  “Are you alone?” the woman wants to know.

  By this time, Alma has made it back to the landing. The stranger is gone. “Who is this?” she asks. The woman now has Alma’s complete attention. Of course, Alma is alone. Richard is at the office, meeting day today, two hours at least before she’ll hear the garage door coming up under the floor where she has her study. “What is this about?”

  “I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you,” the woman snaps back. “It’s not easy for me either, you know.”

  What can it be? Alma’s mind begins racing around, inventing ways her life will soon be destroyed. She supposes that even a determined runaway will turn back if she looks over her shoulder and her house is on fire. Unless she has set that fire herself, of course. Alma feels a pang of guilt, as if she has brought on whatever losses are coming, even though she never intended anything to change. Her present state of mind is baffling and private. She doesn’t want to lose Richard over it.

  “I’m an old girlfriend of Dick’s.”

  Richard, she almost interrupts the woman. Before Alma came into his life, Richard had been known as Dick among his family and circle of friends. From early on in their romance, Alma hated calling him Dick, a name she associated with the punch lines of stupid party jokes. Richard himself admitted that he disliked the nickname but didn’t want to make an issue of changing it. Alma began referring to him as Richard to their family and friends, and slowly most everyone followed suit. It’s one of the little changes she has brought about in his life that she prides herself on. This woman obviously knew Dick before his life with Alma transformed him into Richard.

  “‘Course he’s going to tell you he doesn’t know me.” The woman could be laughing, could be clearing her throat. “They never know you, do they, after they get what they want.”

  Alma lets out a sigh of impatience. She wants her guillotine sharp and quick. Actually, Alma is hoping to be spared. In part, she doesn’t want to be distracted from her present state, from the possibility of coming through to the other side of her dark mood. Please, she addresses Richard retrospectively. Don’t have done anything stupid, please. A tryst during the company’s last overnight retreat? A reunion with an old girlfriend when he flew back to Indiana for the funeral of a favorite uncle? Recently, he brought home a cell phone. Richard, who dislikes the whole idea of cell phones (“I don’t want to be reachable every moment of my day”), now has his own private, portable number, courtesy of Help International, in case one of his on-site people needs to get hold of him. But mostly, Richard uses it to call home so Alma can read him the grocery list he has forgotten on the kitchen counter or to tell her he is stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive on his way home from his Boston meeting or to ask her how she is feeling, if she has made any progress in the novel he, too, thinks she is almost done writing.

  Maybe Richard is also using this private line to get in touch with other women.

  “I have some bad news,” the woman is saying. “I’m calling everybody.”

  Alma is sure now. The woman has some communicable disease. But Alma can’t really see how this applies to Richard. Her present mood notwithstanding, they have been basically happily, monogamously married for more than the requisite years you can carry these infections around with you. All those adverbs (basically, happily, monogamously) suddenly sound suspiciously assertive, defending themselves against the onslaught of Are you sure?

  “Where are you calling from?” If Alma can place the woman, it might be easier to dismiss her.

  “I’ve been so sick.” The woman goes on, ignoring the question, as if she has to get through what she has called to report. “I just found out and so I’m going through my book to warn everyone.” A book to go through? What does the woman run, a service? How many calls has she made already? Is Richard the first?

  “What exactly is it you have?” Alma asks the woman, trying to inject concern in her voice. It’s a strategy from her old hitchhiking days when some driver would suddenly turn weird or aggressive. Alma would start gabbing, asking questions, pretending to great interest as if being a nice person might keep her from being raped and murdered.

  “I’ve got AIDS,” the woman pronounces the word importantly. Like a trophy.

  Of course, Alma is thinking. What other epidemic do people worry about in this part of the world? Elsewhere, along with AIDS, there are other plagues brewing, in terrorist bunkers, in open-door clinics with dirt floors, flies buzzing over wasted faces, diseases long since banished from the richer-world neighborhoods—Tera knows all about them. Alma has been researching the subject, specifically the smallpox epidemic, Balmis and his vaccine expedition around the world with little boys. She doesn’t know why, but in her present mood, it’s the one story that seems to engage her, as if through it she might discover where it is she is going.

  “I’m calling all the wives,” the woman is explaining. “I just know how men are. They’re not going to tell you.”

  Alma has had enough. “Look here,” she tells the woman. “I don’t know who you are, but I know who my husband is, and
he shares everything with me, okay? Everything. And for another thing, his past relationships do not concern me. If you want to talk to him, you have our number, you can call tonight.” She is about to hang up, glad she has conquered her pettiness and mistrust, but the image lurks before her, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, the president having oral sex in the Oval Office while heads of state wait in the anteroom. Then there are Alma’s cousins back in the Dominican Republic, fading beauties having their hair colored and their faces lifted, joining Bible study groups led by young, attractive Jesuit men from Spain, while their cocksure, cologne-scented husbands go off to their mistresses in designer guayaberas. Alma wavers, wanting and not wanting to know more.

  “I know what you must think …” The woman’s voice trembles. “But I’m not some whore. I’m just calling everyone to be sure.”

  Whore? How old-fashioned the word sounds. There are no whores in the USA anymore, Alma feels like saying. Everyone has a new name now. Flight attendant, waste disposal engineer, sex worker. And what does it mean that the woman is calling everyone to be sure? To be sure of what?

  “AIDS is just the last stage,” the woman goes on. She sounds tired, worn out with trying to reconstruct all that some health professional has told her. “I’ve probably been HIV for some time. But I don’t have no health insurance. So I didn’t know myself till I got real sick.”

  It’s only now that Alma notices the woman’s bad grammar. Oddly, it makes her feel safer. Richard wouldn’t risk their happiness for someone who can’t talk right, would he? Like a lot of former farm boys, Richard can be a snob about certain things. Then, too, the woman might not be smart enough to have gotten the details right. Maybe she had sex with Richard years ago. HIV doesn’t lie dormant that long. Or does it? Alma knows so little about it—a pamphlet she read while waiting for her flu shot at the hospital. She actually knows more about Balmis and smallpox than about her own millennium’s epidemic.

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