The child rushed at her as soon as she entered the Meltzers’ kitchen, hugging her legs. His small careening body was electric with energy, excitement. His eyes were a feral animal’s eyes, gleaming and fiery. Rebecca stooped to hug him, laughing. Yet she was trembling, too. His cry tore at her heart, she felt such guilt at being away from him. “Niley, you didn’t think Mommy wasn’t coming back, did you? I always do.”
His relief at her arrival was absurd, hurtful. He wanted to punish her, she thought. And for Tignor’s absence, he wanted to punish her. It was often like this. Damn she felt the injustice, she should be doubly punished by both the child and his father!
“Niley? You do know Mommy has to work, don’t you?”
Niley shook his head stubbornly, no.
Rebecca kissed him. His fevered face.
Now she must endure being told by Edna Meltzer that Niley had been fretting through the day, demanding to listen to the radio and moving restlessly from window to window as soon as the sun passed behind the treeline, waiting for Mommy.
“He don’t like the daylight shortening, he can tell it’s getting on night faster. This winter, I don’t know how he’ll be.” Mrs. Meltzer was frowning, fussing. Between her and Rebecca there was an air of muted tension, like a telephone dial humming. “Oh, that child would hang out on the road if I didn’t watch him every minute,” she laughed. “He’d trot along the canal to meet you like a lovesick little puppy if I let him.”
Lovesick little puppy! Rebecca hated such flowery speech.
She hid her face against the child’s warm neck and held him tight. Her heart beat in the aftermath of relief, that nothing had happened to her on the towpath, and no one would ever know.
She asked if Niley had been a good boy, or a naughty boy. She told him that if he’d been naughty the Great Spider would get him. He shrieked with laughter as she tickled his sides to weaken his grip on her legs.
Edna Meltzer observed, “You’re in a good mood tonight, Rebecca.”
Mrs. Meltzer was a stout, solid woman with billowing breasts and a sugary pudding face. Her manner was benign, maternal; yet always subtly accusing.
Shouldn’t I be in a good mood? I’m alive.
“I’m out of that hellhole till tomorrow. That’s why.”
Rebecca smelled frankly of female sweat, her skin felt clammy-pale, feverish. Her eyes were bloodshot. She shied from Mrs. Meltzer observing her so closely. The older woman was wondering maybe if Rebecca had been drinking. A quick drink with co-workers in town instead of coming directly home? For she seemed excited, distracted. Her laughter was rather wild.
“Huh! What happened, hon, did you fall?”
Before Rebecca could draw away, Edna Meltzer took her right hand, and lifted it to the light. The fleshy edge of her hand had been chafed raw in the dirt, blood oozed out now in slow drops glistening like gems. There were thinner cuts on her fingers, that had barely bled, caused by the sharp piece of steel she’d been gripping in her pocket.
Rebecca drew her hand from the older woman’s grasp. She murmured it was nothing, she didn’t know what it was, no she had not fallen. She would have wiped her hand on her coverall except Edna Meltzer stopped her. “Better wash this, hon. You don’t want to catch what’s it-tet’nis.”
Niley clamored to know what tet’nis was. Edna Meltzer told him it was something very bad that happened to you if you cut yourself out in the wild and didn’t wash it very clean with good strong soap.
Rebecca washed her hands at the kitchen sink as Mrs. Meltzer insisted. She was flushed with annoyance for she hated to be told what to do. And in Niley’s presence! Washing her damn hands like a child with a bar of grainy gray soap, 20 Mule Team was the brand name, a laborer’s soap useful for removing dirt embedded in the skin, the nastiest dirt and grime. Edna Meltzer was married to Howie Meltzer, who owned the Esso station.
Rebecca’s father had used such harsh soap to clean himself of grave-dirt. Except of course you can never clean yourself entirely of grave-dirt.
Excitedly Niley was crying, “Tet’nis! Tet’nis!” and crowded beside Rebecca, wanting to wash his hands, too. He was of an age when new words thrilled him as if they were gaily feathered birds flying about his head.
The windowpane above the sink had darkened. In it Rebecca could see Mrs. Meltzer observing her. Tignor disliked the Meltzers for no reason except they were friendly with his wife, in his absence. Rebecca was herself undecided whether she was very fond of Edna Meltzer, a woman of the age Rebecca’s mother would have been if she hadn’t died young, or whether in fact she resented her. Always so righteous, so maternal! Always telling Rebecca the young, inexperienced mother what to do.
Mrs. Meltzer had had five children. Out of that compact fleshy body, five babies. The thought made Rebecca feel faint. All the Meltzers’ children were now grown and gone. Rebecca wondered how Edna Meltzer could bear it: having babies, loving them with such tenderness and ferocity, enduring so much on their behalf, and then losing them to time. It was like gazing into the sun, your eyes are blinded, so Rebecca could not comprehend a time when Niley would be grown and gone from her. Her little boy who so adored her and clung to her.
“Mom-my! Love you!”
“Mommy loves you too, honey. Not so loud, now!”
“He’s been like that all day, Rebecca. Wouldn’t settle down for a nap. Wouldn’t hardly eat. We were outside in the garden, and what’d he want but the radio on the porch railing, turned up high so he could hear it.” Mrs. Meltzer shook her head, laughing.
The child believed that certain radio broadcasters might be his father, their voices sounded like Tignor’s voice. Rebecca had tried to explain to him that this was not so, but Niley had his own ideas.
“I’m sorry,” Rebecca said, embarrassed. She was confused, and could not think what to say.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Mrs. Meltzer said quickly. “You know what children are like, these things they ”believe in,“ they don’t really. Just like us.”
Preparing to take Niley home, Rebecca heard herself ask casually if Mrs. Meltzer had ever heard of a person named Hazel Jones.
“Somebody lives around here? That’s who she is?”
“She lives in Chautauqua Falls, I think.”
But was that right? The man in the panama hat had possibly said that Hazel Jones had once lived in Chautauqua Falls, as a girl.
“Why’re you asking? Who is she?”
“Oh, someone asked if that was my name.”
But this, too, was inaccurate. The man who was Dr. Hendricks’s son had asked if Rebecca was Hazel Jones. There was a significant difference.
“Asked if that was your name? Why’d anybody ask such a question?”
Edna Meltzer screwed up her broad fattish face, and laughed.
It was the response to anything out-of-the-ordinary by local standards: a derisive laugh.
Niley ran outside, letting the screen door slam. Rebecca would have followed him except Mrs. Meltzer touched her arm, to speak with her in a lowered voice. The younger woman felt a pang of revulsion for that touch, and for the forced intimacy between them. “Is Tignor expected home sometime soon, Rebecca? It’s been a while.”
Rebecca felt her face throb with heat.
But Mrs. Meltzer persisted. “I think it has, yes. Weeks. And the child-”
Rebecca said, in her bright, blithe way, to forestall such intimacy, “My husband is a businessman, Edna. He travels, he’s on the road. He owns property.”
Rebecca pushed out the screen door blindly, and let it fall back. There was Niley running in the grass, flailing his hands and screeching in childish excitement. How healthy the little boy was, how like a self-possessed little animal! Rebecca resented this woman speaking to her, the child’s mother, in such a tone. Inside the kitchen Mrs. Meltzer was saying, in her patient, prodding, maddening voice, “Niley keeps asking about ”Daddy,“ and I don’t know what to tell him.”
“That’s right, Edna,” Rebecca said coldly. “You don’t know. Good night.”
Back in their place, a small two-storey farmhouse Tignor rented for them at the end of a dirt lane off the Poor Farm Road, Rebecca printed out the new word for Niley: T E T A N U S.
Even before she removed her sweaty clothes and washed the grime of Niagara Tubing off her body, and out of her matted hair, she looked up the word in her dictionary. A battered old Webster’s it was, from the time when she’d lived in Milburn and gone to the grammar school there; she’d won it in a spelling bee, sponsored by a local newspaper. Niley was fascinated by the bookplate inside:
SPELLING CHAMPION MILBURN DISRICT #3
*** 1946 ***
REBECCA ESHTER SCHWART
For in that place and in that time she’d been her parents’ daughter, bearing the name her father had taken in the New World: Schwart.
(Rebecca had not wanted to correct the misspelling of “Esther.” She had not wanted to defile the handsome printed bookplate.)
From the time Niley was two, Rebecca began to look up words in the dictionary to spell out for him. She herself had not been encouraged to spell, to read, even to think until she’d been much older, but she did not intend to emulate her parents in the raising of her child. First, Rebecca carefully printed the word onto a sheet of stiff paper. Then Niley tried to imitate her. Gripping a crayon in his stubby child-fingers, and moving it with a fierce and unswerving concentration across the paper. Rebecca was struck by the child’s deep mortification when his laboriously printed word failed to resemble Mommy’s; as Niley was deeply mortified by other mishaps of his-spilling food, wetting his bed. Sometimes he burst into tears, and sometimes he was furious, kicking and whining. With his baby fists he struck out at Mommy. He struck his own face.
Rebecca quickly embraced him at such times. Held him tight!
She loved him passionately, as she loved his father. Yet she feared for him, he was developing something of his father’s temper. But he was avid to learn, and in that way different from Tignor. In the past several months he’d astonished her, he’d become so captivated by alphabet letters and the way they connected into “words” and were meant to represent “things.”
She’d been poorly educated herself. She’d never graduated from high school, her life had been interrupted. Sometimes she felt faint with shame, to think of all that she did not know and could not know and could not even fathom not-knowing for the very scope of her ignorance was beyond her ability to imagine. She saw herself stuck in a bog, quicksand to the ankles, to the knees.
This earth is a shit hole. Ignorance!-stupidity!-cruelty!-confusion! And madness over all, be sure.
Rebecca shuddered, remembering. His voice. The levity of his bitterness.
Niley had printed, with excruciating slowness, T E T A N U S on a sheet of paper. He squinted up at her, anxious. He looked nothing like his father, certainly nothing like Rebecca’s father. He had fine, fair-brown hair; his skin was fair as well, susceptible to rashes; his features were rather small, pinched. His eyes were like Rebecca’s, deep-set and intense.
As usual Niley had slanted his letters oddly downward so that he ran out of space, the final letters had had to be crowded together-NUS. Rebecca smiled, Niley was so funny. As an infant he’d reminded her of a little monkey, wizen-faced, intense.
Running out of space on the sheet of paper might set off a temper tantrum, though. Rebecca quickly took away the paper, and provided another.
“O.K., sweetie! Let’s both do ”tetanus’ again.“
Eagerly Niley took up the red crayon. This time, he would do better.
Rebecca vowed: she would not make mistakes with her son at this time in his life. So young, before he began school. When a child is at the mercy of his parents almost exclusively. That was why Rebecca looked up words in the dictionary. And she had high school textbooks, too. To get things right. To get those things right that you could, amid so much that you could not.