Jackie Zollo Brooks
The Montréal Review, April 2011
The Largess of the Grapevine (Oil on canvas, 56x44', 1996) by Ilya Zomb ( www.zombart.com )
She had gone through something but she wasn't sure what it was. She liked to name things. She was a writer. But the experience was ill-defined, excruciating in its vagueness but horrifically precise in its aim to pierce her heart with doubt.
Sometimes she dreamed she was falling off a cliff as if someone, a person unseen, had pushed her; when she first woke up she looked for signs of bruises but, of course, there wasn't a scratch. It was four months later when she felt clear-headed again and full of marvelous good health that she tried to interpret the strange malaise into which she'd fallen.
Before that Carolyn awoke each morning with the most awful feeling. Ennui was the word that came to mind. She chided herself when she first began to feel this way. She had everything to be grateful for. Her parents had died, relieving her of her distressing debts still left from graduate school. During the two years she wrote her dissertation, she was desperate, living on credit cards. She was constantly worrying about money. As if the crushing interests rates weren't enough to make Carolyn walk hunched over with rounded shoulders as though she were carrying the debt on her back, she was more recently helping her son pay off his student loans. All at once and unexpectedly, Carolyn experienced instant relief. When her parents died, she was surprised to find they had saved a great deal of money and had invested even more in government bonds. Her debts were completely wiped away. How many people could say that? Her son and his wife felt free to try to have a child. And Carolyn had the freedom to stay at home to write.
Her daughter, Alice, was glad for her mother who had worked hard all her life.
"Now, Mother," said Alice briskly, "you can do whatever you like all day long."
Soon Carolyn found exactly what she liked was - when her writing was done - to spend her time reading European novels. The writing was complex, deep, sophisticated. The European writers as well as the South American ones dared to offer contradictions in their characters. Their protagonists had bad habits and guilty secrets. These international writers were not afraid to go lightly on plot in order to shadow their characters to the heart of their dark interiors. Theirs was the kind of writing Carolyn aspired to. When a friend would eagerly pass on the latest selection from a popular book club, Carolyn tried not to wince.
Her best friend Pamela read popular American novels. And what was she to say to her? They had raised their daughters together; had shared their miseries during their divorces. Carolyn could not bring herself to tell Pamela how nauseatingly awful were the books she passed along. She generally held onto these books for what she considered a decent interval before returning them to her friend with no comment. Not that all American authors were awful, of course. There were several great living American writers but Pamela seemed not to know about them. Pamela liked her book club selections, enjoyed the sentimental, cloying sensibilities of writers of dreadful American novels. The writers Pamela enjoyed most wrote about New York , about New Yorkers with important jobs that exerted so much pressure on them they had constantly to have sex. When Pamela stuck a bookmark in a book she'd given her, Carolyn was to be sure to read the parts describing gross details of the differing love-making positions their authors no doubt found in a moth-eaten copy of the Kama Sutra. And then characters in Pamela's novels had affairs in such astronomical numbers it was a wonder they had any time for their work. What careers or jobs the characters held between couplings were worn as lightly as a cheap watch. The reader barely knew what a character actually did on the job unless the main character was a lawyer or a private detective. Then one must prepare for the entire book to show off the research prowess of a writer who had accumulated a full set of legal terms or nasty tools of pathology with which to solve crimes. The writers in most cases had never been to court in their lives nor ever seen a murdered corpse. Sometimes, Carolyn knew from reading interviews in the Times, these writers had pets that they loved better than people, sleepy fat golden retrievers who snored at their feet in the midst of a dizzying clutter of books and clippings or cats who nestled for naps on their desks atop piles of papers. Or so the Times interviewers reported in describing their subjects' environs. No wonder they couldn't find anything decent to write about in these suffocating situations. Carolyn could tell by page fourteen if it was going to be one of those books where the lawyer would fall in love with his client or the female protagonist was going to set out for some unlikely spot like Bermuda to fall into a love triangle with a black man in Bermuda shorts and at the same time - talk about conflict - a white man who was already married.
But often Carolyn had to catch herself in one of these diatribes that she expressed mainly to herself after Pamela had left her yet another book-club selection. Why was she so intolerant of these writers who'd achieved so much acclaim, not to mention money? Clearly, Carolyn often chided herself, she was defending herself and her work against these other writers, even if she did have good taste. Carolyn had published a collection of short stories in her early thirties and then a novel when she was forty nine. She used a pen name, Barbara Bleyland, so it was safe to say that many people didn't believe she had written them when she mentioned the names of her books. The novel still sold because it was about Africa where she lived for a number of years with her second husband, Peter, a Brit with the United Nations. Americans for some reason loved to read about Africa. She believed she'd discovered the reason when Pamela was discussing Carolyn's novel with her daughter, Lesley as the three women sat in chairs at the beach. It was the first time she had heard Pamela discuss her book with another person. Pamela sounded as if she'd forgotten it was Carolyn who'd written it.
"It's not just exotic," said Pamela, leaning toward her daughter whose long lotioned legs extended far out in the sand, her toes buried so she appeared to have no feet. "Imagine snakes in your kitchen every morning when you go out to make coffee! But Africa is complicated and it's frightfully dirty so I just shiver when I'm reading it. People who don't have toothbrushes. No shampoo or even a shower let alone hot water."
Pamela shuddered there in her new lounger beach chair, her hair caught up in a gauzy scarf and her skin a peachy color in contrast with her gleaming blue bathing suit which never went anywhere near the water.
So that was it, Carolyn decided. Americans with good-smelling hair who lived in clean houses and drove shiny cars shivered with the same delight over the incredible filth in Africa as little children do when reading about evil witches, bloodthirsty pirates, and naughty children who don't do as they are told.
She was glad Pamela found something to enjoy in her book although she hadn't written it to titillate the American public around the subject of dirt. Still that discussion, if you could call it that, took place years ago. Pamela probably no longer remembered ever having read Carolyn's novel. That in itself was no cause for unhappiness. Carolyn never expected her friends to feel about her writing as she did nor to discuss with them what what it was that most engaged her when she worked on a book. The hours she spent in discovery, laughing over the OED or Webster's would have bored her friends to death. Nor was their disparity of interests the root cause of Carolyn's ennui.
She had to have knee surgery. Her surgeon a young Irish doctor, named Farrell, looked as if his mother still scrubbed his ruddy face with a bath brush. He assured Carolyn that her surgery would in no way be intrusive. She had torn cartilage in two places from torquing her knee during her exercise program. It was the first time Carolyn felt a little old. She limped out of Dr. Farrell's office, having set the date for the minor surgery for two weeks later. In the parking lot she shook her head, muttering to herself about the Catch 22 of getting older. One was supposed to exercise strenuously and daily to avoid the rigors of old age and then when one did as she was supposed to, snap! her cartilage cracked like a dried-out branch. Like a baseball player for the Red Sox, Carolyn now had two meniscus tears.
True to his word, Dr. Farrell performed the surgery expertly, leaving just two tiny holes in her knee: one where the camera had been inserted so he could see the damage and one for the scraper or whatever he called his instrument for repairing the meniscus. Dr. Farrell had never mentioned how long would be her recovery period. It was very long indeed.
Her days took on a new pattern. She hobbled to the bathroom, took her pills, cooked a little breakfast, phoned the children to assure them she was fine, and got back up on the bed. This pathetic lifestyle continued for four weeks until she was well enough to start therapy. The therapists were miracle workers. They could make a stone move. Not only that they were fun. They never said a word to any patient that wasn't positive. Gently they bent or folded or stretched the stiffened limbs presented to them. And through the efforts of the therapists as well as daily stretches and the lifts with ankle weights done at home, she began to get better.
Carolyn dispensed with the painkiller early on. However much they alleviated her pain, even one dulled her mind in ways she had never imagined. She could think only in concrete terms, no abstract thought at all. For example, after a pain pill if she tried to describe a harbor sunset to one of the children over the phone, she could not for the life of her use a metaphor. A writer cannot be stripped of her metaphors. She cut back to one painkiller at bedtime the first week after the surgery. Then down to half a pill before sleep. By the end of the second week, she was taking ibuprofen and keeping the pain just under control. Still Carolyn found she was unable to read with the same concentration as before. As a substitute she introduced television, watching on a small set she bought for the guestroom after Pamela told her she could not live without television when she came for overnight visits.
Even when she had finished the ten weeks of therapy, Carolyn had to continue resting in the afternoons. So she took to watching television while she iced her knee. She had never spent so much of her time alone before. As a writer, she had always closed herself in somewhere to do her work but when she emerged there was a husband and later children to talk with. And now living alone in her loft apartment that overlooked the harbor, she had the privacy to do as Alice had said "whatever she liked all day long."
She liked watering her plants, picking dried trembling leaves off the shiny fica tree next to the slider doors to the balcony or breaking dead blossoms off the geranium that had belonged to her mother. Plucking off dead blossoms was a luxury she'd never had time for. It was amazing how the old red geranium bloomed after such simple tending. The light was beautiful in the apartment, too. Two skylight windows plus the sliding doors to a little balcony let light flood the living room all day until sunset which she could observe off the balcony with the same degree of pleasure each evening since the old carriage house she rented faced directly west. And the sunsets were never the same twice. Sometimes the naked sun blushed with rosy delight just before plunging for cover behind the fishing warehouse across the harbor. At other times the sun turned to an enormous crimson ball that sank slowly, slowly into the quicksand of the horizon. Other times it rained for days on end and there was no sign of a sunset which made the sight all the more welcome when, after a storm, the skies cleared as though the velvet clouds were theatre curtains parting after a long intermission.
Just when she thought she could never know more joy than she did recovering from her surgery in her lovely surroundings, Carolyn began to feel unhappy. Her writing seemed to dry up before her eyes. Her new novel lay half-finished in a cardboard box from Kinko's copy store. She couldn't bear to look at it. She couldn't bring herself to throw it away. She came up with a stock line for the children when they called to ask about the writing: it's going fine except for the brief break now and then.
She tried short stories again but they lacked inspiration. When she could settle down briefly with a book, Carolyn read the old masters: Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov, Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, of course, and others. Each time she was half way through one of these stories, she thought she was being inspired in the old way. She reached across her bed for her yellow legal pad to jot down ideas for a new story.
The next morning she limped to the computer, set the radio alarm clock on the shelf to ring in a half hour for her to stretch lest her knee swell, her leg stiffen, making it horribly painful to get up. Sometimes, though, she forgot. Looking through the archway from her desk, she could see through the sliders a large sailboat gliding past the windows to its mooring in the inner harbor or a rusted blue fishing boat, with its huge spools of net tended by fishermen in orange overalls, chugging in the other direction, out to the open sea.
When she saw the movement on the harbor she stopped her work to consider how lucky, how blessed she was to live in this loft, so protected from the world. Even though she was slightly disabled, she was getting better. She was working on a story that held promise or at least the call to be finished. She had always enjoyed the surprise the first draft provided when the focus or what she had thought of as the focus suddenly shifted as if of its own volition. It was her unconscious that did the shifting. But what she didn't know, had never been able to find no matter how hard she thought about it, was how the unconscious freed itself, swimming up and up from its depths like a sea creature until it broke the surface, challenging her conscious mind to do its work.
Now, though, in this new and terrible dullness her unconscious was stilled, drugged, perhaps, even though she wasn't taking the painkillers. She turned back to reading, trying to remain calm, to remain open until her valued unconscious was restored to her.
The New York Times Book Review and Book Forum came in the mail so she could keep up with what other writers were doing. There were the witty book reviews written by topnotch intellectuals, the interviews with the best writers of the times to be appreciated. But after her longest reading period since the surgery, she felt more oddly disconnected from her writing than ever. She didn't tell the children this because perhaps saying out loud that she was disconnected would alarm them. Anyway, as Carolyn told her son when he called to check on her, she was living the life she'd always dreamed of. She didn't tell Pete that she was lonely. She never told either of the children that because they would have felt guilty as if they must drive all the way from their faraway homes to visit her. That wasn't what she wanted; she had no wish to interfere with their busy adult lives any more than she had wanted her own mother around when she was their age. Still, she was lonely.
At night she watched the Red Sox. She always loved the baseball because her father had taken her to the games at Fenway Park since she was a child. But before her surgery she only watched a game when Pete and Alice were around for the playoffs in the fall or maybe for the World Series. Her surgery, however, had coincided with spring training so by the time she came home from the hotel where she recuperated for a few days, the baseball season had officially opened and Carolyn watched every single game undisturbed. No one called her in the evening, assuming she was resting. She watched each game with absorption while she did her stretches or iced her knee. Carolyn watched night after night as the Red Sox performed in Fenway or went on the road to play in city after city. She was grateful that her father had taught her the rules and nuances of baseball, that Pete and Alice had brought her up to speed on the newer regulations. She understood everything.
Alone in the guest room, propped up on the old studio couch with the red pillows behind her back, she cheered aloud and applauded when there was a run. She learned to appreciate the game beyond the exhilarating crack of a hit. She observed the tensions of the pitcher, the beauty of the work in the outfield, the precision of the shortstop. Gradually, after Carolyn had limped to the tv room in the evening, bearing her cold drink and popcorn along with her ice pack, she began to see that underneath the joy of playing there was suffering. At nearly every game some pitcher accidentally hit a player with a ball that might come hurtling at the batter over ninety miles per hour. Players twisted their ankles in the middle of making a brilliant catch. A player whose face twisted with pain strained a thigh muscle sliding into base after a steal. They rose from the ground, brushing red dust off their white uniforms; they shook off the manager and waved away the medical technician who came to their aid over the grass. Only the severest of injuries made them accept help of the men from the dugout who ran to support them off the field.
Some player or other was always on the disabled list. Sometimes more than one player was on the DL for as long as two weeks. One pitcher needed Tommy surgery on his elbow which meant he would miss the entire season.
Baseball was not what Carolyn had always thought it was. It was a sport, of course, but it was also a metaphor for the risks of pain and injury we all suffer in life as we gamely play along. When Pete called one night to check up on her, she told him her thoughts on the suffering of the Red Sox.
"Somehow I can't get too worked up about somebody with a strained calf muscle who's earning eight million dollars a year for the next five years," he said. "You think too much. You're getting morbid from staying in the house so long."
Their conversation made Carolyn sadder. Pete thought suffering was alleviated by having money. Carolyn who now had some money of her own knew better. Then, too, Pete sounded put out as though talking out loud about suffering was somehow disgusting. He wanted his mother to be well. He wanted her out there in the world living it up. He thought it was unhealthy, morbid he said, to think about the sadness of life. She felt Pete thought his mother was just someone he used to know.
She felt the same way about Alice after phoning her one day for a chat to hear the twins shrieking in the background.
"I won't keep you, darling," Carolyn said, "I just needed the sound of a human voice."
"What?" shouted Alice into the phone, desperately irritated. "What is it, Mother? I can't hear a word you're saying!"
Day after day she stayed alone, going out every other day to buy groceries, pushing her market basket as slowly as the shuffling elders beside her. She refilled her prescriptions, or parked the car at the beach, opening the window on her side to breathe in the salt air from the rough spring ocean that ceaselessly pounded the sand with blind force. Rarely, she went out for lunch but one day Pamela insisted; she too had grown lonely with her daughter Lesley off to Colorado for the whole summer to study geology.
"Don't tell me she's that interested in rocks," said Pamela at lunch in a small coffee shop convenient to Carolyn's loft. "I happen to know that geology departments are packed with gorgeous outdoorsy men."
"Well, it's important to travel while one is young," said Carolyn glumly.
Pamela noticing Carolyn's face, pale and gaunt from staying inside and not eating enough vegetables, said at once, "What you need is to get back to your work. That will put the roses back in your cheeks."
"What will?" said Carolyn, looking down at her half-eaten bacon and tomato sandwich.
"Why writing your little stories. Haven't you always told me that's what makes you the happiest in life? I don't understand it exactly but as your friend I'm here to steer you right back to doing it. Aren't you the one who always says, 'Follow your bliss!'?"
"Actually it was Joseph Campbell but thank you, Pamela. I'm sure you're right."
Pamela knew enough not to beg for an overnight just now so by early evening she had taken her brightness and best intentions, and was gone.
Carolyn made her way to the guest room with her tray of supper. Suddenly she remembered it was Thursday. The Red Sox were on the road, not due to play until Friday night. She felt abandoned. The Red Sox were gone off to some other state, the team had left her behind just like everything else she loved in life.
She picked at the tray of salad she'd set on a folding table, too lazy and disconsolate to move back to the dining room. The light was fading in the guest room and everything in the little room was misshapen by shadows. She felt a chill although it was so warm in the guest room she'd turned on the fan. She got up from the table feeling her knee swollen stiff from sitting too long at lunch with Pamela; she limped to the bookcase and turned on the lamp.
When she returned to the wicker armchair at her table, she recalled what Pamela had said about writing her stories. It was what lay at the root of the ennui, what woke her each morning, what she struggled against like someone unprotected walking head down into a high wind off the harbor. The emptiness stemmed not from feeling overwhelmed by the surgery, not the months it took to recuperate, nor from the sadness at the sight of her wounded warriors coming up to the plate night after night with nothing for battle but grit and a round wooden bat. The desolation came from her own smallness, her insignificance in the face of all the writers and all the literature that had preceded her, the countless books surrounding her in every room of the loft.
Pamela, who dismayed Carolyn with her superficial interests, was, after all, wise. She had said, you ought to write your little stories. And at the end of the day that was what Carolyn's stories were, little. She was a small talent. A tiny flicking silver fish in a sea of killer whale writers. The word small was what had been lying there just under the surface of her thoughts when she awoke mornings asking herself: what in the hell is it all about?
Tears came, rolling down Carolyn's cheeks until they fell into her uneaten supper. She sat in the wicker chair, crying as though she would never stop. Then she reached for the remote and turned on the television. She had left it on the travel channel when she shut it off last night. As she wiped her tears on her napkin, she saw two tall friendly Americans in khaki pants and checkered short-sleeved shirts on the screen. The men smiled into the camera before ducking their heads to enter a low wooden building bordering a vineyard in some part of France . The building held barrels and shelves filled with bottles of wine from the rows of vineyards off to the left. The owner, an attractive older French woman with a charming accent, told the Americans the right way to taste the wine which turned out to be from Burgundy. The Americans dutifully swirled a little wine in their thin stemware. Then as instructed by their French hostess, they smelled the wine and swirled again. The next time they sniffed their glasses, they were delightfully surprised at how different the wine smelled after its second swirl. The French woman told the Americans they could hold a little wine in their mouths and "chew" it, before spitting it into a bucket she held out. The Americans really wanted to drink the wine but the woman told them that would come later.
After their wine-tasting, she led the men outside to the vineyards. The camera moved in on her smooth expressive face, tanned to gold by a Burgundian sun. She smiled into the camera coming straight at her for a close-up as she explained to the Americans that in every section of the vineyard the soil was completely different, making the grapes taste different as well and the wine produced from each section had its own unique taste. One of the Americans stooped to pick up the earth. The camera followed and the man came up with a handful of dried, crumbling dirt.
"The soil looks quite poor here," said the man, holding out his hand to the vineyard owner.
The French woman laughed aloud. "The soil is terrible," she said, still laughing. "It doesn't nourish, it doesn't offer moisture, it does not support these vines in any way."
Here she held some of the hanging grapes in her hand gently away from the vine for a moment.
"These grapes have to suffer," the woman said, clenching her teeth. "They must dig down deep, they must search, they must struggle. In doing so, they find out how to survive, how to be strong, how to grow. In the end these are the grapes that make the finest wine."
Carolyn no longer heard the television. She rose to take her tray to the kitchen but detoured to the bedroom to fetch the yellow legal pad. Then she thought, I don't have to write down what the French woman said. I'll remember it.
That night Carolyn slept deeply. In the morning her ennui was gone. She ate a breakfast of fruit and scrambled egg. She took a shower and put on clean clothes. By nine o'clock she was at the computer writing and didn't notice the time until she reached for her cup of cold coffee and saw by the clock on the shelf it was nearly noon.
Then the phone rang; it was Pamela saying, "I've called to check up on you. You seemed very down yesterday."
"Ah, yes," said Carolyn. "That's the way it is with writers. Kurt Vonnegut says if you're not depressed, you're not a writer."
"Oh. So I guess that means you're writing."
"Yes, I guess it does."
"You sound like a whole different person."
"Yes, I guess I am. Thanks for what you said yesterday."
"Oh, dear, I don't remember what I said but I'm glad if I helped."
"I don't suppose you want to tell me what it's about?"
"Grapevines," said Carolyn.
"Oh." There was a small pause. Then Pamela said, "Sounds wonderful. Whatever turns you on, whatever makes you happy, right?"
"Right," said Carolyn. "Absolutely."
Jackie Zollo Brooks' recent publications appeared in The Serving House Journal, and in Glimpse, National Geographic's magazine for Americans living overseas. She was a finalist in the Iowa Review Short Story Awards with an excerpt from her novel, The Ravenala. She was also a finalist in Glimmertrain's 2010 Short Story Contest and received Honorable Mention in the New Millenium Writings Contest for Short Fiction.