What Wasn’t Said by Molly Gillcrist
Margo is watching Paul from the couch. She has the Journal open on the coffee table but is keeping him under surveillance, eyes toward the desk where he’s at work on taxes. His shock of blond hair is ruffled, nearly white in the light of the desk lamp, and his bare feet are hooked around the legs of the chair as though he’s holding on in a gale. She doesn’t understand why he stores lab notes on the computer but refuses to use Quicken for taxes. Each time she hears “Shit,” a wad of paper flies over his shoulder; the Bokhara under his chair is littered.
She imagines a child, their child, tiny hands curled around two stair balusters, eyes peering through the space between, seeing the doubts in her scrutiny, his impervious focus. That hypothetical child would be witnessing their truth. Throughout four years together, Margo has been charmed by his mind and passion, disturbed by his impracticality.
For both, that child is the issue at hand. She thinks he hopes for an anchor. From what she’s seen of parents, she fears a child would be a shackle.
The decision can’t be far off. Paul’s been offered a position at NIH and talks insouciantly as if it’s a matter of course she’ll leave Denver and go with him to Bethesda. “You’ll love Maryland,” he’s said more than once. “The lawns go right down to the Potomac. We’ll get a canoe.”
How does he know a canoe can take the Potomac? And—damn him—she’d lose her shot at Metro Editor when Hugh retires next year.
A week ago she made a list headed Go With Paul?, ruled it into two columns, added nuances in a third column like a teacher adding plus or minus to a grade. Some days, she’s able to forget about it; most nights, she gets up to pull it from her backpack. Yesterday morning she made a separate list headed Child? By afternoon she’d torn it to bits. Staying with Paul means having a child. Her columns still counterbalance and she’s looking for something—at this point, anything—decisive.
She tries not to fool herself by blaming the quandary on her job; she knows very well she could get another like it and do just as well. It’s not the physical part of caring for a child either—she’s up to all that. And she knows how to organize, thank God. What unnerves her is the attention factor, the fear she’ll fly apart—one piece riding the trajectory of her work, another orbiting like an antenna vigilant for the sound of a small voice in distress. And what would be left for her and Paul? Would he recognize that remnant? Would he want to? Would she?
“How can you agonize like this?” said her sister Betty. “People’s lives don’t explode when they have babies. Mine changed for the better.”
But Margo’s seen Betty running her supermom course with Arn and the twins. Their mother, she thinks, hadn’t bothered with that marathon. Her focus was teaching at the conservatory. Margo stayed in the library after school or helped their neighbor Lily while Betty cooked. Their mother kept to her desk or piano when she came home, and, too often when Margo entered her view, stiffened like a sentry guarding a night fire in the wilderness, a fire fueled and protected against whatever approached.
Margo thinks back to last summer when she decided to take the train to Hartwill for her yearly visit. A plane would have set her down on the corn-rimmed runway in less than two hours. She’d needed longer than that to decompress, had relished the long clacking roll across the checkerboard plains to Iowa, the exquisite green-gold fire of the fields. She’d gone, as always, to present herself to her mother, heart whispering that Rachel was her life’s first mirror, that this time she would see herself more clearly, mind fearing otherwise.
As the train slowed toward the Hartwill depot, it passed the once-vacant lot where she and Betty used to wave at passing engineers; it was now a coffee shop. And instead of finding her mother on the station platform, Lily was there in cropped gray hair and overalls, peering through thick lenses, saying, “Don’t be alarmed, Tiger. She just wrenched an ankle.”
Lily lived behind Rachel in a fieldstone house on what had once been an apple orchard. A few old trees still bore fruit, but she’d burned out the stumps of the rest to grow herbs and root crops for market. A preacher’s daughter, she’d hung one wall of her kitchen with her mother’s cross-stitched samplers, and although Lily refers to them breezily, Margo knows these proverbs are her rock.
“First column, second down,” Lily had once pointed her beet-stained shears while listening to Margo complain about Rachel. He who states his case first seems right until the other comes and examines him. Then later at catching Margo in a lie, “Center column, third from the bottom.” The words of a man’s mouth are deep water. “And if I were you, Tiger, I’d look at the one to the right of it too.” He who guards his mouth preserves his life.
Rachel was trapped in her rose chintz chair by the piano, feet propped on an overturned bushel basket. She had a cane across her lap and wore bright pink moccasins instead of her usual black mules. The blue path of the veins at her temples was clearly visible under her translucent skin. “Well, here you are,” she said.
“I told her those old slippers would catch her up someday and I was right,” said Lily.
Rachel gave a wry glance toward her ankle. “You usually are—and these you brought me give a much brighter view of my feet.”
“They’re no good if you don’t have that old carpet replaced,” said Lily with her hands on her hips. “And I’ll be needing my basket.”
“Lily, go find something better to do.” Rachel waved her out.
Margo turned the piano bench to sit facing Rachel. “Do you need money?” she asked.
“Of course not. The carpet’s fine.” She frowned, “And so is everything else.”
Margo’s eyes traveled with those of Rachel as she surveyed the austere room. The yellow walls had aged to gold and were bare except for a bank of shelves along one side. These held Rachel’s books, her sheet music, and her collection of opera scores and CDs. Her pigeonhole desk and sound system were by the window opposite them, and the piano, Rachel’s chair and lamp by it, occupied the room’s center. Under all was the dark blue carpet, its field of flowers much subdued from what Margo remembered as a child.
“Mother,” she said, “did you decide to have Betty and me or did we just happen?”
“What a question.” Rachel glanced toward the window.
“Were you sorry? How did you keep it all together? Did you plan how you’d fit us in with your teaching?”
“Plans seldom work out.” She looked at Margo. “Look at your father. He had plans, and a flash flood happened. Others passed over that bridge. A cattle truck crossed just before.” She was silent a moment and then looked down toward her lap. “He was fun,” she said. “Did you know he had three successive dogs named Roger? At least that’s what he said.”
“Mother, how’d you fit us in with your teaching?”
Rachel looked away, toward the window again, then murmured, “So long ago. I can’t remember much about him except the facts.” She sighed, “At first I couldn’t remember anything—nothing real.” She put her hands on the arms of the chair, seemed about to stand, winced, resigned herself to the chair. “And here you are, wanting to know what I don’t know myself.” She shook her head, “You’re wanting secrets.” Then, with a calculating look at Margo, “Well, maybe I should tell you one—better than the one you want—something I’ve always kept to myself.” Her voiced dropped to a whisper. “Not long after your father drowned, I was sitting here trying to remember him. And—suddenly—my hand flew up to the keyboard.” She pointed to the octave below C. “I had nothing to do with it. It went by itself—to the very note of his voice. And there—for an instant—he stood!” A rueful smile crossed her face. “Don’t think I didn’t strike that note for days afterward. But he didn’t come again. What happened was that sometimes I’d catch sight of him when you jumped off your bike or Betty turned her head.”
Margo hears another wad of paper strike the rug and watches Paul again. The strong muscles of his arms lengthen as he stretches them above his head, then flex as he massages the back of his neck.
She remembers the Sunday at Breckenridge only a few months ago when she couldn’t find him. It was early afternoon near the timberline when they decided to leave the crowded ski run and circle cross-country back to town. As they passed the first trees, thick snow began to sift through the branches, muting the sounds of downhill skiers, then shutting them out entirely as the trees thickened and they moved farther from the run. Paul was tracking ahead, perhaps only twenty yards, when a clump of snow slid from a branch onto her face. Just as she stopped to brush off her goggles, a fierce wind swept through the trees and she was engulfed in a whiteness so dense, she couldn’t see her feet. Each time she called out Paul’s name, her voice was pushed down her throat.
She tried to pinpoint where she was. They hadn’t come far, had they? They’d been going southeast, hadn’t they? She moved to the right and hit a tree. A tree stood wherever she tried to go. She clung to her poles, gasping, bent low in panic. But, crouched there, she suddenly heard the clear repetition of her name cut through the wind and Paul was beside her, his arm was around her. “It’s all right,” he said. “We’re just having an adventure.”
Now Margo folds the newspaper and drops it on the table so Paul can hear. “I’m trying to decide whether to go with you,” she says.
“I know.” He swivels around to face her. “How’m I doing?”
“At the moment, winning.”
Paul smiles his steady smile and turns back to the taxes. Margo looks at his hair lit white by the desk lamp and feels a shudder. This is how his hair will change with age.
More paper accrues at their feet.
Margo wills herself to try to keep this moment.
After graduating magna cum laude from Duke with a BA in English, Molly Gillcrist received an MA from the University of Virginia in speech/audiology. She worked at the Boston area rehabilitation hospital, Kennedy Memorial, in speech/audiology evaluation and treatment. She also worked in a public school system in the Portland, Oregon area as a speech/language specialist and developed ESL programs for the district. She volunteers with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Start Making A Reader Today. In 1987 and 1988, Molly received the Teacher as Writer Prize. Her writing has been published in The Oregonian and Oregon English Journal.