Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.39] When Elizabeth came home from school, Cody met her on the porch. “For you,” she said, standing to present an envelope.
Elizabeth opened it. “Fifty bucks! I can’t accept this!”
“Sorry, you have to,” Cody said. “It’s more for your mom than you, actually. The money’s nothing.”
“The money’s fifty bucks. You can’t spare this—Dad doesn’t pay you that much.”
[p.40] Cody sat on the porch again and stretched her legs. “Merry needs you to fly for her. I’ll drive you to the gym myself.”
Elizabeth raised her brows—dark brows, much darker than her dishwater hair.
“You want to get back to your gymnastics anyway,” Cody added. “Something in you knows how important it is. Don’t pretend with me. Won’t do you any good.”
Obeying mutely, Elizabeth sat a full foot away from her.
“Did you know your grandma is coming here tonight?” Cody asked.
“Boswell? Oh no.”
“Why ‘Oh no?’”
“She hates my dad. Blames him for the way Mom is, I think. Blames Utah. She lives in Santa Barbara. She thinks Utah’s a suburb of hell.”
Cody laughed, and Elizabeth finally laughed with her— briefly. “But Merry loves Utah,” Cody said.
“She misses the ocean.”
“You know that too then.”
“We all know that. Why’s Grandma coming?”
“For your mother’s birthday. She’s making a big party.”
“Oh. A gooey celebration, huh.” She rolled her eyes, then glanced at the money in her hand. “I haven’t been real nice to you, Cody. I know you have good intentions. I’m just automatically suspicious. I know you want to help my mother. I’ve seen it.”
Cody nodded slowly. “I’m here because I’m supposed to be.”
“So you’ve told me.” She let herself look at Cody, then let herself relax.
“Two years ago,” Cody said, “I started my wanderings, trying to find myself. And you know, every now and then, I’d get guided. Once it was a Cheyenne elder. Then a Crow medicine man. Once it was a man I loved.”
[p.41] “The one who taught you that dream song?”
“Yep. And once it was Buffalo Woman.”
“Right. In the sweat hut.”
“And Buffalo Woman didn’t guide me to Merry just so I could help. She gave me Merry so I could have a soul.”
Elizabeth inched away. “What do you mean by that?”
“Haven’t you seen what’s happening?”
She lightened the conversation with a quick smile. “We’ll talk about it sometime.” She touched Elizabeth’s fingers, and Elizabeth didn’t pull away. “How old were you when your mom was diagnosed?”
“So you don’t have memories of—”
“It’s been very hard for you.”
“Not always. I used to think it was such a pretty sounding disease. Multiple sclerosis. Sort of an exotic name, isn’t it?”
“Auschwitz. Bergen-Belsen. Siberia. Exotic names.”
“Multiple sclerosis.” Elizabeth dragged out the sounds and let them linger on her tongue. She was permitting herself to get closer to Cody. “At first, it just made us special because our mom had it. We got lots of pity.”
“And the m.s. has been good for us in some ways. We’re brimming with responsibility, haven’t you noticed?”
“You are brimming with responsibility,” Cody agreed. “And with resentment. Guilt. Shame.”
Elizabeth stiffened. “We love our mother.”
Then, slowly, Cody drew an invisible line in the air, like she was erasing tension from the sound waves. When she spoke, her voice was soft and calming. “I didn’t say you don’t love her. Do you remember her at all from before?”
Elizabeth hedged. “A little. I do have one image of her. From a photo, I think.” She let her words relax. “I see her sort of flitting [p.42] around the house, dusting the front room furniture. When I told Jan, she said I was confusing Mom with a Pledge commercial.”
“It’s not a commercial,” Cody said. “That’s a real memory.” She closed her eyes. “Your mom wants us,” she announced.
Inside were the Merry smells: lavender and Lysol. Merry was in her wheelchair, a towel under her chin to catch her drool and keep her head up. Elizabeth knelt on the floor and Cody began kneading Merry’s shoulders.
“So how’re you doing, Mom?” Elizabeth asked.
“Pretty well today,” said Cody for her.
“Joe’s got us reading Huck Finn. I’m sick of Huck Finn. Penny wore me out with it when she did that research paper. I think he’s having us read it just so he can invite her to do a guest lecture.”
“He’s not a manipulator,” said Cody.
“He misses her, that’s obvious.”
“Of course, he does,” Cody said. “He’s attached to her. Joe forms deep attachments. He’s one of the most attachable people I know.”
Elizabeth’s walls were up at once, erected in a panicked second. “You’ve never met him!”
“Merry knows him,” Cody answered in a soothing tone, fanning her fingers across Merry’s neck.
Merry’s mother, Elaine Boswell, didn’t visit Cache Valley often. When she did, her feelings for Ben were apparent. She used laser eyes whenever she looked at him, curled her mouth whenever they conversed. Her words could have been lemons.
Merry was her only child, and Elaine Boswell made it clear that she resented Ben for moving her to Cache Valley. That, as [p.43] she saw it, was like going from Eden to the Lone and Dreary World—and without the need to, without as she once put it “God’s boot in your behind.”
Merry missed the ocean, but she loved the farms surrounding the little university community, grassy knolls and blue-grey mountains that isolated Cache Valley from the world, loved the Mormon temple that sanctified it: the huge watchtower on a landscaped hill, lit up at night to remind all Mormons who they were, what they stood for, and told even non-Mormons that God was cordially invited to this place. She loved the seasons and sweet farm smells. Sometimes she did say she was suffocating in the desert without her water.
When Elizabeth answered the door, she saw that Grandma Boswell had cut and dyed her hair. It was copper-colored, not its usual white, and swept back. Her brows were penciled-in arches that gave her a constantly astounded look, and her lashes as long as Raggedy-Ann’s. As always, she was a perfect size eight.
“Grandma!” Elizabeth put on enthusiasm like tight gloves.
“You know, it’s a chore even to breathe in Utah. Hello Elly.” She offered her cheek for Elizabeth’s quick kiss.
“I’ve noticed,” Elizabeth said. “If only all us Utahns could live in Santa Barbara.”
“Nonsense. Only the few elect. Which certainly includes the ones who were born there. Where is she?”
Elizabeth pointed to the front room where Cody was brushing Merry’s hair. Elaine Boswell went to her daughter, hugged her head, then looked up at the nurse. “You must be the new person. Wyoma, was it?”
“Cody. Good to meet you.”
“Well, Wyoma, you’re not only a nurse, you’re a stylist. Don’t you look pretty, Merry! Your hair’s lovely. No offense, Elly, but you girls were never much for making straight parts.”
“I know you didn’t expect me, Merry,” said Elaine Boswell. “But frankly, I needed a break. Frankly—no pun intended— [p.44] Frank peed in the bath tub yesterday. At least he found the bathroom. And he’s been reciting the Gettysburg Address about twelve times a day. He keeps saying, ‘I know the Gettysburg Address. Do you want to hear it?’ I tell him, ‘You just recited it, dear. Fifteen minutes ago.’ And then it starts: ‘Four score …’ I was going nuts.”
Merry moaned, and her mother knelt at once. “First half? Second? L? M? N? O? P? Q? R? S? T? U? V? W? Who’s with him? Aunt Jane,” said Elaine as Merry blinked. “She agreed to take him for a couple of weeks so I can visit my favorite daughter. Oh, Merry, you should be grateful you still have your mind! This m.s. is a lousy deal, no debate there, but at least you know which way’s up. Your sweet father!” She let the word trail as Ben came out of his lab. “Well well! Look who’s making an appearance!” she said.
He offered his hand, then kissed her cheek as she presented it. “Nice to see you Mother Boswell.”
“So, you’ve hired a nurse.”
“You’ve met Cody?”
“I have indeed. She did a fine job on Merry’s hair. Wish I could help you pay for her services.”
“How are the finances?”
“Oh, the law doesn’t recognize insanity as an excuse when it comes to investments. I suppose too many investors are insane. We’ll be able to keep the house. Not without a few liens, but it’s still in our name.”
He made a sorry nod, then excused himself to finish grading papers.
He had no papers to grade, actually; he usually lied to get out of being with his mother-in-law. It was his own ritual, a new challenge every time she showed up. What lie now? Did I use that one last time? Should I be creative? Tell her I have to go kill a cat right now, sorry I can’t stay? The lies were usually quite dull and therefore believable; she thought him quite dull, too.
[p.45] “Look who’s making an appearance,” he repeated to himself. It wasn’t hard to pick up on the allusion.
Missing their own wedding reception hadn’t been anyone’s fault, just one of those things. And he would never tell Elaine Boswell this, but it was among the most pleasant memories of his life.
They had gotten stuck at the Point of the Mountain between Salt Lake and Utah valleys and the Highway Patrol had refused to let anyone pass, not even a bride and groom just married in the Salt Lake temple en route to their reception in Springville. It was a good, furious, Utah snow storm, a blizzard so thick and slippery you could hardly see where you were falling. The Point, according to one fat policeman, would not likely reopen for five hours. Minimum.
Even now the memory made him chuckle: Merry in her satin gown, he in his black tux.
“Mom’s going to kill you for not leaving sooner,” she said to Ben. She burst out laughing when she said it.
When someone knocked on their window, Ben rolled it down half an inch. Flustered flakes rushed inside on an icy breath. The stranger’s head and eyebrows were snow-covered, face dripping.
“Congratulations!” the man shouted.
“What?” Ben shouted back.
“Someone just told me you’re newlyweds. Congratulations! Sorry about the reception.” He pushed a ten-dollar bill inside the window crack and ran back to his car.
When Ben rolled down the window farther to shout thanks to the stranger, he saw Hank Simpson, his best man, jogging to each successive car in the jam.
“Hank’s telling everyone,” Ben said. “Collecting money.”
Merry laughed wildly.
For over an hour, a steady line of strangers had run, skated, slid, plodded up to their car, shouted, “Congratulations! Sorry [p.46] about the reception!” and given them money. Two hundred and twenty-three dollars by the time the blizzard calmed and the fat cop said the road was open again, go slow. By then, it was midnight. The reception had ended two hours earlier.
“Mom’s going to kill you.” Laughing. “Not even making an appearance! She’ll KILL you!”
Indeed, from then on—and especially after Ben accepted his professorship at Utah State—”Mom’s” face looked like it could really enjoy his slow death. Though he wasn’t the one slowly dying.
“She doesn’t like you,” Cody whispered to him, entering his lab after a single knock. “And she knows you’re hiding.”
“She blames me. Likes to have a scapegoat.”
“So, what’ll we do?”
“Give Merry the ocean, Ben. Find a way. Show both women how deeply you love her.”
He shot her a look. “Don’t be stupid,” he said, then quickly, “Sorry.”
“Find a way,” she repeated. “I know you can.”
“I didn’t mean to call you stupid.”
She touched his hand. “You’re comfortable now. I like that.” She stroked his thumb.
The birthday preparations were complete by Saturday. Cody, feeling herself demoted for the evening to head servant, observed the guests as though from outside a locked window. Penny, in a black velvet pantsuit, her red-gold hair french braided, was gracing them with her nervous presence, smiling constantly despite some darkness in her that Cody couldn’t interpret. Penny looked like a twenty-year-old version of Merry, [p.47] the same gold eyes. Janny, who had managed to squeeze out an invitation for Josh Stanger, was cute and timid beside him. She had crimped her hair and it fell to her waist in pale waves. She was wearing make-up—unusual for her—and looked masked, trying to be a grown-up for the night. There was Elizabeth: puffy, plain, confused.
Merry beamed as her mother wheeled her to the table and Ben stepped out of his lab. For twenty-four hours, he had been working, hammering, re-arranging furniture, hauling in boxes. “Happy birthday, Mer,” he said. Merry’s smile managed to elude the m.s. She showed it now at full wattage.
“This man of yours!” Elaine Boswell arched her penciled brows. “You wanna show us all your project, Ben?”
“Let’s eat first,” he said.
“Oh, I see,” she answered, sitting, “you want your present to be our grand finale.”
He stared her down. “Let’s eat,” he repeated.
There were times Cody felt duty-bound to stand between them, absorb their anger so it wouldn’t hurt Merry. She raised her hand and sent them both calming thoughts.
Light. Love. Peace.
Elaine’s mouth screwed up, twitched like she was gargling thoughts. “Someone’s missing,” she said. “Where’s Joe?”
Penny pounced on cue. “Oh, gone. He had some business in Ohio.” No one had told Elaine Boswell that Penny had left her husband.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Well.” She clapped once, as if to kill the problem like a mosquito. “We’ll tell him about it later.” She hadn’t killed the bug. The rest of the family exchanged conspiratorial glances as Cody poured the punch. Things got worse from there.
As soon as Cody served the shrimp cocktail, Josh started eating. Elaine Boswell cleared her throat and suggested that the blessing hadn’t been offered yet, please wait.
[p.48] “Grace,” said Janny.
“Oh.” He bowed his head, though his eyes stayed mockingly open.
Ben prayed over what they were about to eat, that it might nourish and strengthen their bodies.
“What does a blessing do? Remove the preservatives?” Josh whispered to Jan. Cody heard it clearly.
Grandma B. tightened her eyes as though to dissolve him. Josh grinned at her, merely amused.
“So, Josh.” Grandma was playing queen now. “What ward are you in?”
He answered, “I live at home.”
“I see.” She matched his smile but looked significantly at Janny, Raggedy-Ann eyes demanding, “What HAVE you come to?”
Now it was Jan pouncing. “Josh is an INVESTIGATOR.”
“Oh, you’re an INVESTIGATOR,” Grandma B. repeated. The furrows around her mouth framed her disapproval like parentheses. “Isn’t that wonderful.” She turned to Merry. “You know, sweetheart, seeing this china reminds me what a beautiful bride you were. We had all this china set out on the table at the reception. And we had naked ladies everywhere.”
Penny, feeding Merry, fumbled the plate. It flipped over her hand and sailed to the floor, splintering into brilliant arrow- heads.
“Penelope.” Elaine gazed at the fragments. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No,” Penny moaned. “No, it wasn’t you. I’ve been clumsy lately.” Cody felt Penny’s darkness deepen.
“There’s a lily in Santa Barbara,” Elaine Boswell went on, eyeing the breakage. “It’s called the naked lady. We had naked ladies—pale, pink lilies—throughout the Springville Art Museum. That was where the reception was. I had had three dozen shipped from California.”
Ben groaned. “Do we have to go over this again?”
[p.49] “I broke two cups yesterday,” Penny murmured. “I’ll get the broom.”
Cody had already found it.
“It was my fault. I should sweep,” Penny said. She reached for the broom, but Cody held fast, meeting her eyes, trying to get at her fear. There was only a dark reef. Penny broke her eyes away as though sensing the probe.
“Accidents happen,” Ben said. “Don’t worry. We never use these plates anyway. Except when SHE comes.”
“Of course, accidents happen,” Grandma Boswell echoed. “You know, my Frank, he thought it was a strange name, too. For a lily. He said if ‘naked lady’ was going to be the reception theme, then we ought to have real naked ladies singing love songs. We ought to have Matisse women on the walls, especially considering where we scheduled the reception and how much money we paid. That’s what he said.”
Penny gazed at her grandmother.
“Oh, it’s all right, dear,” Elaine Boswell said. “It’s only some old china. It can be replaced.”
But the plate had taken on deeper meaning. When Penny sat down again, she seemed broken herself. She was about to say something else when a knock interrupted her. Ben answered it, announcing from the entryway, “It’s Hank—excuse me, BISHOP Simpson!”
“I heard it was someone’s birthday,” a bass voice boomed down the hall. A dozen red roses appeared in the dining room doorway before he did.
“So the roses are a gift!” Ben said. “I thought sure they were a bribe to get us to volunteer for some church service!”
“Happy birthday, Merita!” Hank sounded like a tuba.
Cody had heard Hank’s name before, but this was her first view of the man. He was immense, teetering from side to side as he walked. He had curly dark hair, thick, black-framed glasses, and a belly that wobbled with each step.
[p.50] “Elaine, you remember Hank, don’t you? He was my best man when we didn’t come to the reception.”
“Of course, I remember you.” She stood regally to shake his hand. “And you’ve made bishop now!”
“Oh, they snatched him up like he was candy,” Ben said. “He just moved here last year.”
Bishop Simpson held the roses in front of Merry as he explained that Ben had gotten him his job with the city and how, two months ago, he had been called as bishop. “You responsible for that, too, Ben?”
“Do you think I’d do that to a friend? Hey, someone get a vase for these flowers.”
Cody left at once. She could still hear the conversation from the pantry. “Besides,” Ben was saying, “I’m not too keen on you lording it over me, Hankster.”
“Naaaw,” Bishop Simpson growled, “you know me too well! You could blackmail me if you wanted to. This man here—Rock Man, they called him in the dorms—he knows all my secrets, I’m afraid.”
“That’s true,” Ben returned.
“And now you’re his bishop!” This was Elaine.
“And loving every minute I don’t have to spare.”
When Cody returned with the vase, Hank was holding the roses under Merry’s nose. “Can you smell them, Merita?”
“Almost as pretty as you, I’d say.”
“She does look pretty tonight, doesn’t she,” Elaine said. “The new nurse—Wyoma—curled her hair.”
“Spun gold, if you ask me,” said Hank. “You have a nurse now, do you?”
“This is Cody,” said Ben.
Nodding at the bishop, Cody took the roses. “I’m the new nurse.”
“I’m the new bishop. That there’s one special patient you have, Cody.”
[p.51] At that, Elaine offered him a large slice of cake. “Your name’s written on this piece, Bishop,” she said.
“Oh no.” He held up his fleshy hand like he was stopping traffic. “Sheila’s got me doing bran flakes and mango pudding these days.”
“Again?” said Ben.
“If she found out about—”
“German chocolate,” cooed Elaine Boswell.
Hank grinned hugely. “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
“No, really, thanks but no thanks. Just bringing pretty flowers to a prettier one, that’s all.” He began his exit with a hearty wave.
“We’re about to do presents,” Ben said.
“Naaaw, that’s family stuff,” Hank returned. “Good to see you, Sister Boswell. And Cody, my pleasure to make your acquaintance. Rockman? You take care of this birthday girl.” And then he was down the hall and gone.
“Time for presents!” said Elizabeth.
“Presents,” Pen echoed thinly, lifting her head.
Merry’s daughters had gone in on a video, Camelot. Elaine Boswell bought her a silk blouse edged in Paraguayan lace. Josh had come prepared with a porcelain figurine of an ice skater. But Ben’s gift was indeed the grand finale.
“I know you miss the ocean,” he said as he wheeled Merry to the lab door. “Obviously, I can’t transport the Pacific to Cache Valley.” (Elaine rolled her eyes.) “But maybe I did the next best thing.” He opened the door, moved her inside, and Merry exhaled a long breath.
His gift was a wall mural of the sea. No specific sea, just a photograph of blue water, covering the lab’s entire south wall. He put on a tape of sea sounds: the rhythmic, muted thunder of waves, the wailing gulls. Against the east wall, a saltwater aquarium shone with yellow coral and iridescent blue fish.
[p.52] “Oh,” Grandma Boswell said as she entered. “What a thoughtful gift. A two-dimensional ocean.”
“You have to use some imagination.” Ben’s voice was defiantly happy. “Her imagination’s still there. And her memory.” He turned to Merry. Her glasses had slid down her nose; he pushed them back and gazed into her oversized eyes. “I wanted to get you the most beautiful fish from every ocean in the world, Mer. But those fishes are costly. So we’ll start out with these here. Blue damsels, they’re called. And we’ll buy royal grammas, heniochus butterflies. And some neons and angels. You’ll have parts of all the oceans right here.”
She was crying.
“You like it?”
She blinked hard, then again. Yes, yes.
“You know what I’m trying to say, don’t you.” Kneeling, he held both her hands. “You know.”
She blinked. More tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Yes, Ben,” said Cody for her.
It was an hour later, when Cody was clearing the table and the rest of the Morgans were still watching Merry’s fish, that Joe Kelby arrived. Cody recognized him at once. She had gotten his image from Merry’s photo album, perhaps—a wedding shot of Joe and Penny on a blossomy Temple Square. Or maybe from Elizabeth’s descriptions.
“I’ll get Penny,” she said without introduction.
Pen stopped midway across the front room when she saw him. Cody watched only a moment. She felt Pen’s spirit take two steps towards the man in the doorway, then retreat. “Joseph,” Pen said—more sigh than name.
“Can I come in?”
[p.53] Cody lowered her eyes, gathering the silverware as Penny murmured, “You’d better not. I told Grandma you were in Ohio.”
“Oh. What am I doing in Ohio?”
“So I don’t teach school anymore? Is this a step up, this job in Ohio?”
“What’s that you’ve got?” Pen said.
Cody glanced at the gift in his hands.
“Birthday present for your mom. I found this music box. Plays ‘Yesterday.’ I remembered how much she loved the Beatles. Couldn’t resist.”
“I’ll be sure she gets it.”
His voice got lower. “Can we talk?”
“This isn’t the best time.”
“Really, Joe. Not the best time.”
“Would you at least tell me what I did?”
A long pause. “You didn’t do anything.”
“You just woke up one morning and didn’t love me?”
“Look, this truly isn’t the right time.”
Cody stacked the plates as quietly as she could. She sensed Penny’s soul yearning towards the mustache-man, sensed him fighting inside-tears with starchy determination.
“Is there another guy?” His voice didn’t even tremble.
“Another woman?” He made it a partial, biting joke.
“You know me better than that.”
“I thought I knew you.”
“I’ll give Mom your present. Thank you.”
“Yeah, I’d better go. I’ve got this big business deal,” he said. “In Ohio.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Joe.”
Another pause—much longer than the one before. Cody [p.54] didn’t look up from her work; this scene was an intimate one, not hers.
“Please come back to me,” she heard Joe whisper.
“Don’t do this, Joe,” Penny breathed.
“I really hate groveling.” His emotion was rising past his strength to fight it now, soul misting. “Please.”
The yearning, resistance. Attraction. Fear. This scene was too familiar.
“I’ll talk to you later,” Penny said.
“Have you filed?”
“But you’re going to.”
“Joseph, I need some space. We’ll talk later.” Her tone was sweet and sad and sorry.
“You know me,” he answered, defeated. “I’m always one to give space. Tell your mom I hope it was happy.”
“I will. She’ll love this—you know, the music box.”
Desire, resistance. Then Joe’s voice, even softer than before: “Listen, Pen—whatever it is—”
“Good bye, Joe.”
His tired steps. The door. Open. Shut.
Holding all the plates, Cody did not meet Pen’s eyes but headed for the kitchen. This scene made her nervous, lonely. She wanted to be with Merry. She set the plates in the sink, then turned. Penny was watching her.
“Shall I bring in the silverware?” Pen asked. Beneath her words was the real message: “Don’t tell anyone Joe was here.”
“All right,” said Cody, communicating all she needed to. She let herself look at Penny and instantly relived the night she had said good bye to the man she loved. Tomás Yos, her Cakchiquel Indian. They had likewise resisted their instincts, had likewise let themselves come apart. Then he had left for the Guatemalan jungles, taking her soul with him. She had heard later he had been murdered by “government officials.” All he had left her [p.55] were those words to sing a body into dreams, or sing dreams into a body.
Shavey on tay
Lonely. Lonely. Lonely.