The Solace of Leaving Early

The Solace of Leaving Early


How Did She Die?

I started early, and took my dog," Langston quoted to Germane as they headed out for their Sunday morning ramble. Germane's intense civility, as a dog, came about in part, Langston believed, because of his early and repetitious exposure to Emily Dickinson. Other poets had done him no harm, but Emily seemed to understand the metaphorical relationship between women and dogs in a way that elevated Germane's status beyond the literal, and thus, Langston concluded, he behaved more like the Platonic ideal. He exhibited more Dogness.

Like many towns in the rural Midwest, Haddington seemed most comfortable with two directions, as opposed to the standard four; everything in the town that was not residential lay either east or west on Main Street. Langston and Germane turned right off Chimney Street and onto Main, toward the "downtown." Haddington had no library, no place to hear live music (with the exception of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, half-a-mile to the west of town, which was subtitled The Israeli Church and Her Army—no one who attended the tabernacle would reveal the meaning of the name), no bookstore, no restaurant of substance, not even a bar. There was, however, at the west end of town, a little free-standing liquor store that sold cheap beer and grain alcohol mixed with lemonade; a retail outlet called Kountry Kids and Kousins, where one could acquire a wide variety of stuffed rabbits in gingham dresses and wooden little black children for one's front yard; a convenience store/gas station combination, which also sold a species of Pizza King pizza out of what had formerly been a hydraulic bay; a beauty shop; the Farmer's and Mechanic's Bank; a rickety building, once the hardware store, where Haddington's weekly newspaper, The Crier, was produced; Lu's Diner; and a small grocery store wherein all the floors tilted to the west. (Woe to the child who dropped a gumball there.) This comprised the downtown. There were a few more establishments at the east end of Main (a veterinarian, a post office, a junk shop), but they were no different in quality, and if anything, were even less interesting to Langston than Kountry Kids and Kousins, which she had picketed one summer during her undergraduate years for its exceedingly poor taste. Farther east, all the way out of town, was the pesticide plant where her father, Walt Braverman, worked. The plant was called Jo-Gro, after the owner's wife. The plant took over a series of airplane hangars built on a whim by a survivor of the Second World War, Jed Kelso, who believed he would be able to buy vintage aircraft from the government and open his own tourist attraction. When he died he owned exactly one plane, the cropduster he used on his fields, which Jo-Gro left sitting in front of the plant as an advertisement for its services.

They crossed Main Street and headed north, toward the park. Germane didn't walk on a leash, so he and Langston were acutely aware of traffic noise, of which there was little. Just after they had safely covered the distance from one side of the street to the other, Langston heard the rumble of a large truck in the distance, and reached down and looped her hand through Germane's collar. He didn't chase cars—he didn't, as far as Langston could tell, misbehave in any way—but she wouldn't take chances. The truck lumbered up the street, switching laboriously from one gear to another, and she could smell who it was before she even turned and looked. It was Lars Yoder, with a load of pigs headed for auction. As he passed he waved at Langston. She waved back. They had gone to school together, Lars and Langston, and never exchanged a single word. Langston was so confident of this fact that when she met her maker in heaven and was asked: Did you ever exchange a single word with Lars Yoder? she would say, even if her salvation depended upon it, "No, I did not." And yet he waved every time he saw her. She could only assume that he waved at everyone. The pigs were pushing their noses through the slats in the truck bed, which made Langston so unaccountably sad she thought she would have to sit down on the sidewalk. How is it possible, she thought, that a person can drive a thinking, feeling animal to slaughter and not become less than an animal himself? And what were the pigs searching for, after all, but air and freedom? She considered purchasing a copy of Charlotte's Web for Lars and sending it anonymously through the mail, and at the same time she knew such a gesture would be fruitless. All around her people participated in occupations they neither advocated nor condemned. They simply acted. Her father, for instance, had never expressed any excitement over pesticides, and her mother's own garden was organic, and yet he drove to work every day and loaded his Jo-Gro truck with toxic chemicals and sprayed them on the fields at various farms, and her mother lived off his paycheck and no one said a word about it. (And this particular irony—her father, her mother, chemicals, money, given the nightmare they had lived through and continued to endure—this one caused Langston's heart to stutter in its traces, when she was able to think about it at all.) Every time Langston came home she felt this way, both appalled by and curious about the methods her family and fellow townspeople employed to navigate their various discrepancies. The longer she had been away the more obvious their pathologies or blatant fictions seemed, but she found herself unable to speak. She didn't know what to say.

They wandered through alleys and back streets on their way to the park. Germane ran ahead of her sometimes, but always turned and looked back to make sure Langston could keep up. When they got to the playground she found a stick of the appropriate size and began to throw it; in moments of inner candor Langston was able to admit that there was something in the discourse of "fetch" that Germane did not understand. She picked up the stick. She looked Germane in the eye. She said, with authority, "Fetch!" and threw the stick and Germane tore after it and even skidded on his stomach to catch it, and then threw it in the air and would not return it to her. This happened repeatedly. She ended up having to gather a number of fetchables, and after two years, Langston continued to uphold her end of the conversation and Germane did not.

She primed the pump at the edge of the park and gave Germane a drink. The well water was undoubtedly the retirement community of a thousand different types of parasites, and yet Germane drank it every day and never became ill. Langston hoped he was building up immunities that would see him through a very long life.

After his drink they wandered back toward the downtown, where they made their daily stop at the grocery store. Because of the severe and possibly illegal angle of the floor, the store's ancient front door didn't open or close without a fight. She pushed against it for a few and gave it a hard bump.

"Yer gonna go through that glass someday, Missy!" Mr. Clarence Burton, the proprietor of the eponymous Grocery Store, said as she walked in. He was standing behind the counter, scratching the top of his bald head with a pencil. Mr. Burton was a stout man who always wore a butcher's apron that tied at his "waist" and hung down past his knees, although no butchering occurred in his establishment. The closest thing to fresh meat carried there were Dinner Bell sausages. Mr. Burton's hair, when once he had it, had been something of a phenomenon—it was the color of a ripe cantaloupe and so curly it couldn't be combed. All that remained of it was a U-shape that went from temple to temple, curving around the back of his skull like a long, skinny, orange SOS pad.

Langston pushed the door closed with great effort, and then turned and nodded at him. "Mr. Burton."

"Miss Braverman. How's the folks?"

"They're well. And Mrs. Burton?"

"Ahhhh," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "She's a tough old heifer."

"Is she recovering from her hip replacement?"

"I'm a' tell ya! I wish't we'd never did it!"

As usual when speaking to Mr. Burton, Langston flinched. "And why would that be?"

"Because used ta I could always know where she'd be! Used ta I could put her in a place and say 'Stay right-cheer,' and she'd not move! And now she's up as she pleases and movin' around and what all. I'm a' have to put a cowbell around her neck so's I don't lose her!"

Langston tried to nod pleasantly, but ended up just sighing. She knew as well as anyone that Haddington was no place for feminist militancy (as far as she could tell, the women's movement was still three decades and four hundred miles away), but for the love of God! A cowbell!

Mr. Burton went back to scratching his head and Langston wandered down the middle aisle toward her favorite section. Germane clicked along behind her. She didn't know what kept him from sliding westward, but somehow he was able to stay on his feet. They pretended to look interested in the potted meat, bleach, and dry cat food that was the Grocery Store's stock-in-trade. Langston was trying to work up the nerve to ask Mr. Burton a terrible question, a loathesome inquiry, but found herself unable to form the words. Finally, she picked up the one grand and anomalous product Clarence stocked that she could find nowhere else: Giant Fizzies. Fizzies were two big tablets that looked like Alka-Seltzer and which foamed mightily when dropped in a glass of water. They had an ersatz fruit flavor, but mostly just color. In addition to being delightful, Langston believed they aided one's digestion, because she always felt better after drinking one.

Mr. Burton rang up her purchase. "That'll be 67 cents, Missy," he said, as usual. As far as she could tell, Clarence had never told anyone about Langston's lifelong attachment to the Giant Fizzy.

"Clarence," she began, "do you ever find yourself in need of...what I mean to say is, are you ever tempted to take on a...."

"Whatcha fixin' ta ask me there, Langston, because I've got to be gettin' on home to the Missus."

"I'm asking," she cleared her throat, "if you need any assistance with—"

"Well God love ya! Thanks for askin', but no, we get along fine. Mrs. Burton is happy to stay on the couch watchin' her programs while I'm here at the store. But I'm a' tell her that you asked."

Langston nodded, humiliated, and walked out of the store into the bright morning. That's it! she thought, stomping down the street. That's the end of that particularly hideous road. I'll tell Mama when she brings it up, because she's about to bring it up, I can just feel it, that I cannot possibly get a job, I'm not ready to get a job, there is absolutely NO suitable employment for a person of my education and my temperament in this town. I will even be able to say that I humbled myself once, dear Lord, I all but maligned myself, by asking for a job in Clarence Burton's Leaning Grocery Store!

These thoughts were followed by the encroaching shadows, the dark visages of her former professors and colleagues witnessing her plight in Haddington, hawking crafts in Kountry Kids or serving pie at the diner, and there was no end to the pain of such an encounter, even in imagination. It was the stuff of literature, Langston very well knew, it was overrepresented in literature, this failing in increments. She was no Lily Bart, nor even Bartleby. Haddington was a destination no respectable writer would choose as the fate of a character; it lacked the power of the tenement, the beauty of the gothic ruin, the geometry of the heartless city. She wondered if she were about to become one of them: the hog farmers who waved at everyone while driving live animals to slaughter, or broken-hipped Mrs. Burton, absorbed in daytime television, or Alice Baker-Maloney, laid waste. Or even worse, Langston's own mother.

* * *

As she approached her house, which was built at the turn of the century and used to be just a white, wood-sided farmhouse like any other in town, but which her father chose to cover with avocado-colored aluminum siding, highlighted with brown shutters, thus causing it to look from a distance, like a salad going bad, she noticed her father sitting in the wicker glider on the front porch, drinking a cup of coffee and enjoying the fine Sunday weather. He raised his hand in greeting, then patted the seat next to him, inviting her to sit down.

"Morning, Langston."

"Hi, Daddy."

He was no Atticus Finch, her father. Painfully shy and hard of hearing, Walt had recently started wearing two little flesh-toned hearing aids that sent Langston into spasms of heartache. She didn't know why. He was handsome in a hardworking, laconic, salt-and-pepper sort of way. Something about him was even a bit elegant (he would probably disagree); his finely shaped hands and black eyebrows, the straightness of his nose, his wide mouth, added up to make him look different from the other men in town. All Langston's life he wore essentially the same clothes, first at the grain elevator (gone now), and then at Jo-Gro: a red shirt with blue trim (the sleeve length varied by season), his name sewn over the left pocket, and blue pants. Even after a shower he seemed to retain some of the dust of the shelled corn, and a certain chemical sheen.

"Is Mom still at church?" Langston asked, sitting down.

"She'll be home directly."

The glider eek/eeked back and forth on its track. Walt pushed them with his dusty work boots.

"It's a shame about Alice Baker," Langston said.

"Sure is."

They glided.

"You hear how she died?" Walt asked, looking a little to his left, away from Langston, shyly.

"No. I assume some wasting cancer. It seems to be how everyone these days."

"That's not—"

"I know she's dead; I don't feel compelled to know the details. Why explore the nature of her wound? As Shakespeare said, It will suffice."


"I've remembered a lot more about her in the past two days," Langston said. "Like how she was one of the first girls in our class not to have a dad. I'm sure it's quite common, now."

"He died."

"I remember. We were in the second grade and our teacher said he'd been in an accident. Alice wasn't at school for a week, and then she came back and I don't... I don't know what happened after that."

They glided.

"Was he, wait a second. Was he electrocuted?"

Walt nodded. "Trimmin' trees."

Germane stood up, circled, lay back down.

"And also how Alice was the best in our class at making those string designs, those little string things you made with string. Do you know what I'm talking about? how you hold a string over here and over here and then do something with your fingers and it makes a little, what, a little design?"

"Cat's Cradle, Jacob's Ladder."

"Right. And she could also braid things, braid hair or strips of leather, very elaborate things." Langston thought a moment. "There's a connection, isn't there? Moving her fingers, seeing a pattern where there is none."

"She went into textiles."

"Excuse me?" It had never occurred to Langston that Alice might have had a profession.

"She was an artist. Made baskets, some as big as a room you could walk into. Shown all over the country."

"Are you sure?"

"Taught it, too. Went around to schools. Children loved her."

This stunned Langston into silence. That little flat-faced girl with the overbite and the cowlick? She was an Artist in the Schools and children loved her?

Germane's tail started to thump and Walt said, "That would be your Mama," and then AnnaLee came into view. Oh, she was a mess, her mother, Langston thought, but at that moment she looked so pretty. Langston didn't look anything like her—she favored the Braverman side of the family (it was Taos who was so clearly her child)—and this distance, this lack of a resemblance, allowed Langston to see her mother, sometimes, the way strangers surely did. Everything about AnnaLee was strong: her chin, her jaw, her shoulders, her upper arms. Her calves knotted into muscle with every step, even though the only exercise she took was walking and gardening. She had broad, flat hands; widely spaced, narrow green eyes, thin lips. She never wore makeup or jewelry, apart from her wedding ring. When she smiled she had thin wrinkles everywhere—they radiated out and then connected in the middle of her cheeks, and even those looked lovely on this Sunday, to her daughter.

"Hey, you two," she said, walking up to the edge of the porch.

"How was church?" Walt asked, as he did every week, although as far as Langston knew he never went to church and probably didn't actually care how it went.

"It was good. Amos...he's a good preacher. He gets to me, somehow."

Walt nodded.

"You should come with me sometime, Langston. I think you'd find him interesting."

"Mmmm hmmm," she tried to sound pleasant, but noncommittal.

AnnaLee held out the index finger of her right hand, positioning it so that when Walt and Langston glided forward her finger touched her husband's knee. Langston pretended to concentrate on Chimney Street. Her mother could be so unconscious; it was exasperating.

"The little girls are coming to live with Beulah next week, Walt," AnnaLee said, and her eyes instantly filled with tears.

Walt shook his head in sympathy but didn't say anything.

"It's's so...Beulah can't take care of those children. She was past forty when she had Alice, which would make her almost seventy. And she spent the past ten years caring for her own mother, it seemed like she would never die, and I think Alice was planning to do something special for Beulah this summer—send her to Ireland or something as a way of saying, 'Okay, that's over, now you can enjoy the rest of your life.'"

Walt shook his head in sympathy and clucked his tongue. He was moved.

The whole situation makes me feel like," AnnaLee looked down the street at Beulah's mobile home, where nothing moved, "like we're never actually out of the woods. Beulah must have thought she'd seen the worst of it. She must have thought she was going to have some peace, and now this."

"Wait a second," Langston said, realizing for the first time that no one ever mentioned Alice's husband, Jack Maloney. "Why doesn't Jack just keep the girls? They're his children, too."

Her mother didn't say anything right away, but looked at Langston as if she'd suggested the children be sent to the moon.

"What? We're creeping up on the twenty-first century here, Mama. Men are not actually helpless. Jack can probably be taught to turn on a washing machine and make a bed. The rest of the world is examining post-feminist constructs, and Haddington is still handing out cowbells. I don't know which is worse."

AnnaLee shook her head as if to dislodge water from her inner ear. "Langston, don't you know how Alice died? Where have you been? What goes on with you that you are so completely free of anyone else's story? My God."

Langston was surprised to see that her mother was both really angry and really crying. "For heaven's sake, Mama."

Walt stopped gliding and took AnnaLee's hand.

"I didn't really feel, I've already said this to Daddy, that it was my business to pry into the nature of her illness, or the details of her death, that's all."

Her mother looked at her a moment, then wiped her face with the back of her hand. "That's not all, Langston. If you gave yourself even one hard look, you'd see that's not it." She squeezed Walt's hand. "I'm going in and make some lunch. Come with me?"

Walt stood up and Langston noticed for the first time how he favored his lower back, how he walked with a slight limp. Dear Lord, she thought, he's in his fifties. He had been just a boy when Taos was born, only nineteen, and just twenty-two when they had Langston, and she'd always thought of them as being so young, younger than other parents, but here they were, middle-aged.

"How did she die, then?" Langston called out to her mother as AnnaLee walked into the house.

Just before the door slammed, Langston heard, "It doesn't matter."

Langston glided a few times. "Exactly. That was exactly my point."
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Excerpted from The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel. Copyright © 2002 by Haven Kimmel. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.