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Off keck road, p.1
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       Off Keck Road, p.1

           Mona Simpson
 
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Off Keck Road


  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  Chapter X

  Chapter XI

  Chapter XII

  Chapter XIII

  Chapter XIV

  Chapter XV

  Chapter XVI

  Chapter XVII

  Chapter XVIII

  Chapter XIX

  Chapter XX

  Chapter XXI

  Chapter XXII

  Also by Mona Simpson

  Copyright Page

  for Richard Appel and Allan Gurganus

  The author would like to thank Alfred Appel Jr., Cristina Garcia, Robert Cohen, Amanda Urban, Cecily Hillsdale, Elma Dayrit, Robert Grover, her colleagues at Bard College, the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Foundation, and especially Gary Fisketjon, but for whom this small volume would not exist.

  I

  Bea Maxwell remembered the first time she’d driven out to see the new part of town. It was 1956 and she was home from college for the winter break. After Christmas, though, she had to get away from the house. Her sister and her sister’s entourage had taken over the place. Her sister always traveled with an entourage. And it was still nine days before Bea could return to the sorority in Madison.

  Bea had friends from high school, too, quiet girls who were back from other colleges, even a few who had stayed in town, working in the kindergartens or at the hospital or for Kendalls, the big department store, but these were not the people she wanted to see. She needed someone from Madison, to touch that part of her life. So she’d called June Umberhum.

  June sounded glad to hear from her. She was going stir-crazy, too, she said.

  Just then, someone else came on the line. A farmer’s wife June said she’d never even seen, who lived somewhere farther out.

  “Well, how much longer are you going to be?” that woman asked.

  “Just a jiff,” June said.

  “Already been on a quarter hour.”

  After she hung up—rather loudly, Bea thought—they hurried to make their plans.

  June wanted downtown. They agreed on Kaap’s, for ice cream.

  But Wednesday morning, June telephoned. Her brother and his awful girlfriend, Nance, had driven the only car up north. Both her sisters were working. No one could run her in. Bus service from Green Bay didn’t reach that far out yet.

  Where she lived was not part of the city proper. It was still Prebble, but there was already a motion to incorporate the village into the city charter.

  “Probly never happen,” June said. “Or when we’re forty.”

  But three days before, Bea had got her own car, a 1956 Oldsmobile Holiday, red, her Christmas present. She could go and fetch June.

  On the party line, though, June sounded stingy giving directions.

  “I can walk to the highway and meet you somewhere. Or should we just make it another day?”

  When Bea insisted she wanted to take the car for a spin anyway, June sighed. “Oh, okay.”

  It was a bright cold day with a weak blue sky. It wasn’t snowing anymore but it had and the white was everywhere, glaring off in planes, making flat surfaces of things ordinarily rounded. Bea wore driving gloves with holes cut out for the knuckles—her other present, from Elaine, although she was sure her mother had picked them and seen that they were gift wrapped—and her mood lifted as she drove past the stately houses, away from the quaint, pretty downtown. The specialty shops (Vander Zanden’s Fine Jewelry, Jandrain’s Formal and Bridal) had the ravaged feel of the boxes still under the Christmas tree in her own house. She knew their contents.

  She heard the regularly spaced girders of the bridge click under her new tires. Once you came down off the ramp on Mason, you passed a number of old buildings that happened to grow up near one another; they were clearly not built to look any way together or to make up a “downtown.” There was a cheese factory with a sour smell and a canning plant, with small windows and two large chimneys, operating today, judging from the squiggles of white smoke on the blank sky. They’d reopened already or perhaps the factories didn’t close for Christmas, as the small shops did.

  Then there was a low bank of brick storefronts; Bea spotted a selection of electric organs, sparkly green and gray, inside one—the Music Mecca, where people also went to take lessons.

  She drove farther east on Highway 141, which was what Main Street turned into.

  “That road was never any good,” Bea’s mother would say, and as long as Bea could remember, it had not been.

  In 1956, the highway had a junk store, a truly immense dilapidated place that reminded Bea of a banked ship. She could vaguely make out a man inside, carrying a stick, moving amid the dim jumble.

  She passed a motel, two-storied, with a slim twirled railing along the top floor. The son of the people who lived there, behind the lobby, had gone to high school with June. He was also the Maxwell’s paperboy.

  The Starlight Supper Club had a ball revolving on top of a tower, set over the octagonal dining room. There was a drive-in movie theater, which advertised FRIDAY NIGHT FISH FRY on a home-painted sign. And of course Kroll’s, a rectangular building of yellow and maroon tiles, where teenagers for two generations had gone for malteds and chili dogs. Bea’s mother had been taken there on dates, in her youth. “When I was dating” was as clear an era in Bea’s mother’s life as when she was in grade school or when her own children were still in diapers.

  By the time Bea came to the part of the highway that ended June’s road, she felt she’d already left town. There was a deep snow over everything, and when she turned onto Keck Road, she had to slow down. It was cleared out by hand. She could see the rows a shovel blade had made, two feet wide.

  The city snowplows wouldn’t come this far, either. On one corner, there was a white farmhouse, and on the other, a small tavern, pink and gray, that looked like an ordinary house during the daytime. Children’s boots drooped on the porch. A little farther up, the plowed middle of the road narrowed, and on top of the icy snow were sprigs of hay.

  The road was paved only as far as there were houses, eight in all. From where she was, Bea could see the road ending, and beyond that, fields led down to the railroad tracks.

  The houses looked small and hastily built, but the land out here was magnificent. Her mother would have loved to see the trees. A Norway spruce was half again as tall as the tree in front of City Hall, the one lit with candles at the annual Monk’s Charity Carol on Christmas Eve.

  Sun glittered on crusted snow, a forbidding brightness. Even in the intricate construction of ice and crystals, there was the promise of a green melting, change.

  · · ·

  And everywhere here, there were children, children running, children rolling snowballs, children on lumber they used as toboggans, children jumping off a shed into banks of snow so deep they turned invisible to Bea when they landed.

  They seemed scantily dressed and altogether unattended, some downright wild, such as the one swinging from a bare hickory branch, which looked like it could break any minute, some fifteen feet above the snow. That child, like many others, was not wearing mittens.

  The claustrophobia Bea had felt since the indoors day of Christmas swept out of her. She rolled down the new car’s window (inside the chrome handle, a circle of red leather). This vigor outdoors looked to her like a painting she had seen projected up on the auditorium screen at college, a Brueghel sparked to life.

  A thin-ankled, pregnant woman stepped out of one of the small houses, carrying a baby. She walked down the dr
iveway and put a letter in the mailbox, just a few feet away from Bea’s car. The baby, with a brown mark on its eyelid, couldn’t have been more than a few months old. Could she have been that pregnant again already?

  Bea felt like getting out and tromping in the snow. She thought of her cross-country skis leaning in the garage at home.

  June, the sorority sweetheart (literally, she was that; Bea had voted for her in Green Bay solidarity), June—who wore a sparkling blue-and-gold sari to the house invitational—lived here! Perhaps she’d been one of these antic children.

  Bea would not be invited into June’s house, not this time. On the other side of the road, there was a semicircular driveway before a pretty two-story white house. There, under the most spectacular tree Bea had ever seen, June stood like a tiny queen, stamping her feet in fur-trimmed boots.

  Her whole body leapt into motion as she opened the door and flew into Bea’s new red car.

  “Let’s go,” June said.

  From there, they talked a mile a minute—nothing about their Christmases, nothing about their homes, only about people they knew in Madison.

  But Bea wondered, in a scant way, as she glanced in her rearview mirror, about to turn onto that bad highway, what would become of these ruddy, unminded children.

  II

  In the obituary for Jonas Salk, run by the Green Bay Press Gazette, the wire service reporter said that by 1963, we had wiped out polio in the United States.

  Except Shelley. She must have been one of the last people to contract the disease. Now, they said in that same article, polio is coming back again.

  Shelley knows the exact day she got it. It was a May Saturday in 1961, the year the oral vaccine was introduced. She was five years old.

  On Saturday mornings, Shelley’s father would corral the kids, give the wife a chance to rest her feet.

  Not that the wife did. She usually went on a long walk with another lady so they could yak, yak, yak. When Shelley’s father said this, he’d shake his head to mean he didn’t understand it. A favorite joke of his was, “Too bad the two of youse can’t get married.”

  The vaccinations were given in a high school gymnasium, free, over on their side of town.

  The gym doubled as the auditorium. At one end of the big room, there was a stage where the nurses stood, injecting for tetanus and passing out small paper cups with the polio vaccine. The front half of the line received the vaccine in sugar cubes, pink or blue, one inside each Dixie cup. After those ran out, the nurses poured a certain measured amount of a sweet liquid. It was all very matter-of-fact. The disposable needles came wrapped in paper, like tampons, packed in square boxes. Beside each nurse was her own wastebasket.

  Kids waited in a long line on the part of the floor painted for basketball. Against the wall was a half-built float, a covered wagon, the cloth made of square school-issue toilet paper stuffed into the hexagonal openings of chicken wire. It would take hundreds of hours to fill the wire honeycomb with white paper blossoms.

  “Girl work,” Shelley’s middle brother said with a downturning mouth.

  High school girls did it, probably all the while thinking of themselves sitting on top, dressed up as pioneer women or some such thing, waving to a big crowd. Nell Umberhum would most likely be the one to ride on it. And she wouldn’t have helped build it, either. She had a paying job already, waitressing at Kroll’s.

  Shelley’s older sister, Kim, drifted over to touch.

  They were four children then. Dean hadn’t been born yet. He came five years later, a last surprise, and, like a present, he was the one who always was so handsome. Bea Maxwell had been wrong that afternoon in 1956. Shelley’s mother’s belly still looked full from having been pregnant with Shelley.

  She’d been wrong about another thing, too. It was not the first time she’d seen Keck Road. Once, in elementary school, she and her best friend had collected food for the poor. They’d been driven out to hand the grocery bags over to a family in an apricot-colored house with all kinds of junk in the front yard. That time, the street had looked different, terrifying.

  It seemed to Shelley and her sister and brothers that they could move about and still keep their place in line. Their mother would’ve let them. She tried to give them every advantage of being a four-kid family. She believed that small families were sad—in all cases, the result of selfishness or medical tragedy. And she trusted the world to help raise her children. If she’d been there, she would have already been talking to another mother. Her main public service in the world was that—being a mother—and she felt she was a good one.

  But her husband stood with his arms folded tight. He didn’t want anyone to suppose his kids were cutting in line.

  Shelley’s brothers signaled to other guys who ran track and to Petey from across the road, standing on his head twenty yards in front of them, next to his mom.

  The line moved, but it was so long. Shelley kept looking at her feet, happy because she had new sneakers. She was already as tall as Kim, but two years younger. She got these shoes because she’d grown out of last summer’s already. Her goal was to get so that Kim would have to wear her hand-me-downs, even though Shelley was the youngest, a goal she would soon achieve.

  Kim tried to step on Shelley’s tennies to make marks. Their mother would have noticed, even through her conversation with the other mother, would’ve turned to say “Stopit,” but their dad just lifted a hand, as if they were each equally to blame.

  Shelley’s feet kept dancing to miss her sister’s. So far, she was doing it. Her sneakers were clean.

  When they were getting close to the front, three S’s away, June Umberhum rushed in with her daughter, Peggy. They all knew Peggy because June often left her with the grandma, and sometimes the grandma paid Kim and Shelley a quarter to keep an eye on her while she did her housework. They watched for June’s white Volkswagen coming down Keck Road.

  Peggy tiptoed ahead of her mother, but not too far, like dice or jacks thrown from a hand.

  She was in white: white shorts, a white top, white anklets, white tennies, and a white bow in her hair. She was only two years old and everything she had on was new.

  Looking at her made Shelley not care much anymore about marks on her shoes. They would come anyway, sooner or later. Soon.

  When June first returned to Green Bay, their mother had given her their hand-me-downs for Peggy. June had stood by the open door of her white VW (the seats covered in red plaid!) and said, “Oh, thanks. These’ll come in handy.” But they never once saw Peggy wearing anything of theirs.

  Now their mother gave their old clothes to the church.

  But June still fascinated them. Especially Kim—who tried to make her own hair curl up at the ends the way June’s did. (June probably copied it from an actress on TV.) “I bet she has a standing appointment at the beauty shop,” Kim said.

  That day in the high school gym, June was wearing sunglasses and high heels and pants. Shelley hadn’t ever seen high heels before with pants. And sunglasses! She stood out in the underwater gymnasium light.

  She went right up in a movie-star way to their dad and said, “Hi, Tommy,” and just started standing with them, her arms crossed like his.

  The children looked—no one else called their father Tommy.

  She probably thought she could do this, always having been pretty and being one of the ones who got to go off to college. She didn’t seem to know—the way the other women here did—that being pretty had an end date, like milk. A year past twenty-three and already having had a kid swim through her body, she was past fresh. But she took the privileges just the same. And Thomas didn’t know how to stop her.

  His crossed arms tightened and his children understood that she was cutting in line and he was thinking, What about the people behind? What were they going to say? His children’s scurrying subsided. Their mother could have solved all this with just a lift of her eyebrow to the woman in front of her.

  That signal would have meant many
things and would have been repeated, like Telephone, all the way down the line: Who does she think she is? At her age. With a kid yet. And everyone knowing he ran off. But good for her, I guess, too. Maybe the rules aren’t the rules always. Heck, maybe even for us.

  Thomas’s mouth sank. June was asking what he thought of the vaccine, wasn’t it something what Salk had done, all kinds of round shapes and bright colors in her voice, and he wouldn’t look down at her face. He’d drop a word when he had to, just a pellet, one at a time.

  Then June saw her sister-in-law with Petey. “Oh, there they are!” she shouted, and opened her hand twice to her daughter, then pulled her by the arm up to the front of the line.

  Their dad’s mouth loosened as he watched her go.

  If they had stayed, the order would have been different. Someone else would have received Shelley’s cup.

  They all left together, June, Nance, and the two cousins, Petey doubling over to walk out on his hands.

  Then, a little while later, they stepped up to the plate in order. Butch first, flinching, then Timmy, brave, just shoving up his shirtsleeve. Kim next, looking away from the quick needle. Then Shelley. They had to stand there and drink the whole cupful. The nurse waited until the paper dropped into the wastebasket. The liquid tasted like cherry syrup.

  Shelley looked up at the nurse’s clean face. She wasn’t like her sister, afraid for a pin-second hurt. She gazed at her with trust, glad to be next. The nurse unpeeled the circus Band-Aid and gave a smile she’d saved. “Littlest one and bravest of all,” she said after Shelley drank the cup down. “Don’t forget your sucker.”

  On the way out, they each got a sucker. Hers was orange.

  As soon as she started unfurling the wrapper, Kim jumped on the front of her left foot. “Ha!”

  Shelley never considered what would have happened if Peggy and June had waited their turn at the end of the line. When she did compare luck, it was with her sister. (Her family was the world then.)

  And she was never able to keep the facts straight. She thought it was the shot that gave her the disease and the cup of potion that compensated, making it just a little. She also believed, although her mother and dad told her differently, that the polio had caused the brown spot above her eye.

 
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