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4

Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage. The garage belonged to my great-uncle who lived in the house next door, and in the garage there was only a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink. Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy, but it was fiberglass and could cut us, we were told. I was puzzled by that, and would stare at it often, such a pretty pink thing I could not touch; and I was puzzled to think it was called glass; odd to think now how much time it seemed to take up in my head, the puzzle of that pretty pink and dangerous fiberglass we lived right next to every minute. My sister and I slept on canvas cots that were bunk beds, metal poles holding one on top of the other. My parents slept beneath the one window, which looked out over the expanse of cornfields, and my brother had a cot in the far corner. At night I would listen to the humming noise of the little refrigerator; it would go on and off. Some nights moonlight came through the window, other nights it was very dark. In the winter it was cold enough that often I could not sleep, and sometimes my mother heated water on the burner and poured it into the red rubber hot water bottle and let me sleep with that.

When my great-uncle died, we moved into the house and we had hot water and a flush toilet, though in the winter the house was very cold. Always, I have hated being cold. There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm. The janitor, with a silent nod, and such a kind expression on his face, always let me into a classroom where the radiators were still hissing and so I did my homework there. Often I might hear the faint echo in the gym of the cheerleaders practicing, or the bouncing of a basketball, or perhaps in the music room the band would be practicing too, but I remained alone in the classroom, warm, and that was when I learned that work gets done if you simply do it. I could see the logic of my homework assignments in a way I could not if I did my work at home. And when my homework was finished, I read until I finally had to leave.

Our elementary school was not big enough to have a library, but there were books in the classrooms that we could take home and read. In third grade I read a book that made me want to write a book. This book was about two girls and they had a nice mother, and they went to stay in a different town for the summer, and they were happy girls. In this new town there was a girl named Tilly Tilly! who was strange and unattractive because she was dirty and poor, and the girls were not nice to Tilly, but the nice mother made them be good to her. This is what I remember from the book: Tilly.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didnt tell him right away. I couldnt take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself secretly, secretly very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didnt know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

Because of the hours I stayed in the warm classroom, because of the reading I did, and because I saw that if you didnt miss a piece of the work the homework made sense because of these things, my grades became perfect. My senior year, the guidance counselor called me to her office and said that a college just outside of Chicago was inviting me to attend with all expenses paid. My parents did not say much about this, probably out of defense for my brother and sister, who had not had perfect, or even particularly good, grades; neither one went on to school.

It was the guidance counselor who drove me to the college on a blistering hot day. Oh, I loved that place immediately, silently, breathlessly! It seemed huge to me, buildings everywhere the lake absolutely enormous to my eyes people strolling, moving in and out of classrooms. I was terrified, but not as much as I was excited. I learned rapidly to imitate people, to try to have the gaps in my knowledge about popular culture be unnoticed, although it was not easy, that part.

But I remember this: When I came home for Thanksgiving, I could not fall asleep that night, and it was because I was afraid I had dreamed my life at the college. I was afraid that I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me. I thought: No. I kept thinking that for a long time, until I fell asleep.

Near the college, I got a job, and I bought clothes in a thrift shop; it was the mid-seventies, and clothes like that were acceptable even if you were not poor. To my knowledge, no one spoke of how I dressed, but once, before I met my husband, I fell very much in love with a professor and we had a brief affair. He was an artist and I liked his work, though I understood that I did not understand it, but it was him I loved, his harshness, his intelligence, his awareness that certain things had to be forgone if he was to have the life he could have like children, they were forgone. But I record this now for one purpose alone: He was the only person I remember from my youth as mentioning my clothes, and he mentioned them by comparing me to a woman professor in his department who dressed expensively and was physically large as I was not. He said, You have more substance, but Irene has more style. I said, But style is substance. I didnt know yet that such a thing was true; I had simply written it down one day in my Shakespeare class because the Shakespeare professor had said it and I thought it sounded true. The artist replied, In that case, Irene has more substance. I was slightly embarrassed for him, that he would think of me as having no style, because the clothes I wore were me, and if they came from thrift shops and were not ordinary outfits, it did not occur to me that this would mean anything, except to someone rather shallow. And then he mentioned one day, Do you like this shirt? I got this shirt at Bloomingdales once when I was in New York. Im always impressed with that fact whenever I put it on. And again I felt embarrassed. Because he seemed to think this mattered, and I had thought he was deeper than that, smarter than that; he was an artist! (I loved him very much.) He must have been the first person I remember as wondering about my social class though at the time I would not have even had words for that because he would drive me around neighborhoods and say, Is your house like that? And the houses he pointed to were never like any house familiar to me, they were not large houses, they just werent at all like the garage I grew up in, which I had told him about, and they were not like my great-uncles house either. I was not sorry about the fact of that garage not in the way I think he meant me to be but he seemed to think I would be sorry. Still, I loved him. He asked what we ate when I was growing up. I did not say, Mostly molasses on bread. I did say, We had baked beans a lot. And he said, What did you do after that, all hang around and fart? Then I understood I would never marry him. Its funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about ones past, or ones clothes, but then a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh.

I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a womans story. Its what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.

Looking back, I imagine that I was very odd, that I spoke too loudly, or that I said nothing when things of popular culture were mentioned; I think I responded strangely to ordinary types of humor that were unknown to me. I think I didnt understand the concept of irony at all, and that confused people. When I first met my husband William, I felt and it was a surprise that he really did understand something in me. He was the lab assistant to my biology professor my sophomore year, and had his own solitary view of the world. My husband was from Massachusetts, and he was the son of a German prisoner of war who had been sent to work the potato fields of Maine. Half starved, as they often were, this man had won the heart of a farmers wife, and when he returned to Germany after the war, he thought about her and wrote her and told her he was disgusted with Germany and all they had done. He returned to Maine and ran off with this farmers wife and they went to Massachusetts, where he trained to become a civil engineer. Their marriage, naturally, cost the wife a great deal. My husband had the blond German looks I saw from photos of his father. His father spoke German a great deal when William was growing up; though when William was fourteen, his father died. No letters remain between Williams father and mother; whether his father really felt disgust for Germany, I dont know. William believed he did, and so for many years I believed that too.

William, running from the neediness of his widowed mother, went to school in the Midwest, but when I met him he was already eager to get back East as soon as he could. Still, he wanted to meet my parents. This was his idea, that we would go together to Amgash and he would explain to them how we were going to be married and move to New York City, where he had a postdoctoral appointment waiting for him at a university. In truth it had not occurred to me to worry; I had no concept of turning my back on anything. I was in love, and life was moving forward, and that felt natural. We drove past acres of soybeans and corn; it was early June, and the soybeans were on one side, a sharp green, lighting up the slighting sloping fields with their beauty, and on the other side was the corn, not yet as high as my knees, a bright green that would darken in the coming weeks, the leaves supple now, then becoming stronger. (O corn of my youth, you were my friend! running and running between the rows, running as only a child, alone, in summer can run, running to that stark tree that stood in the midst of the cornfield) In my memory the sky was gray as we drove, and it appeared to rise not clear, but rise and it was very beautiful, the sense of it rising and growing lighter, the gray having the slightest touch of blue, the trees full with their green leaves.

I remember my husband saying he had not expected my house to be so small.

We did not stay with my parents an entire day. My father was wearing his mechanics coveralls, and he looked at William, and when they shook hands I saw in my fathers face great contortions, the kind that frequently preceded what as a child I had called to myself the Thing, meaning an incident of my father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself. After that, I think that my father did not look at William again, but I cant be sure. William offered to take my parents and my brother and sister into town to eat dinner at some place of their choice. My face felt as hot as the sun when he said that; we had never once eaten in a restaurant as a family. My father told him, Your money is no good here, and William looked at me with an expression of confusion and I gave my head a tiny shake; I murmured that we should leave. My mother walked out to where I was standing alone by the car and said, Your father has a lot of trouble with German people. You should have told us.

Told you?

You know your father was in the war, and some German men tried to kill him. Hes been having a terrible time from the moment he saw William.

I know Daddy was in the war, I said. But he never talked about any of that.

There are two kinds of men when it comes to their war experience, my mother said. One talks of it, one doesnt. Your father belongs to the group who doesnt.

And why is that?

Because it wouldnt be decent, my mother said. Adding, Who in Gods name brought you up?

It was not until many years later, long after, that I learned from my brother how my father, in a German town, had come upon two young men who startled him, and my father had shot them in the back, he did not think they were soldiers, they were not dressed like soldiers, but he had shot them, and when he kicked one over he saw how young he was. My brother told me that William had seemed to my father an older version of this person, a young man who had come back to taunt him, to take away his daughter. My father had murdered two German boys, and as my father lay dying he told my brother that not a day had gone by when he did not think of them, and feel that he should have taken his own life in exchange. What else happened to my father in the war I do not know, but he was in the Battle of the Bulge and he was at the H"urtgen Forest, and these were two of the worst places to be in the war.

My family did not attend my wedding or acknowledge it, but when my first daughter was born I called my parents from New York, and my mother said she had dreamed it, so she already knew I had a baby girl, but she didnt know the name, and she seemed pleased with the name, Christina. After that I called them on their birthdays, and on holidays, and when my other daughter, Becka, was born. We spoke politely but always, I felt, with discomfort, and I did not see any of my family until the day my mother showed up at the foot of my bed in the hospital where the Chrysler Building shone outside the window.


| My Name Is Lucy Barton | c