click to enlarge image

Homeland and Other Stories

Quality Time

(excerpt)

Miriam’s one and only daughter, Rennie, wants to go to Ice Cream Heaven. This is not some vision of the afterlife but a retail establishment here on earth, right in Barrimore Plaza, where they have to drive past it every day on the way to Rennie’s day-care center. In Miriam’s opinion, this opportunistic placement is an example of the free-enterprise system at its worst.

“Rennie, honey, we can’t today. There just isn’t time,” Miriam says. She is long past trying to come up with fresh angles on this argument. This is the bland, simple truth, the issue is time, not cavities or nutrition. Rennie doesn’t want ice cream. She wants an angel sticker for the Pearly Gates Game, for which one only has to walk through the door, no purchase necessary. When you’ve collected enough stickers you get a free banana split. Miriam has told Rennie over and over again that she will buy her a banana split, some Saturday when they have time to make an outing of it, but Rennie acts as if this has nothing to do with the matter at hand, as through she has asked for a Cabbage Patch doll and Miriam is offering to buy her shoes.

“I could just run in and out,” Rennie says after a while. “You could wait for me in the car.” But she knows she has lost; the proposition is half-hearted.

“We don’t even have time for that, Rennie. We’re on a schedule today.”

Rennie is quiet. The windshield wipers beat a deliberate, ingratiating rhythm, sounding as if they feel put-upon to be doing this job. All of southern California seems dysfunctional in the rain: cars stall, drivers go vaguely brain-dead. Miriam watches Rennie look out at the drab scenery, and wonders if for her sake they ought to live someplace with ordinary seasons—piles of raked leaves in autumn, winters with frozen streams and carrot-nosed snowmen. Someday Rennie will read about those things in books, and think they’re exotic.

They pass by a brand-new auto mall, still under construction, though some of the lots are already open and ready to get down to brass tacks with anyone who’ll brave all that yellow machinery and mud. The front of the mall sports a long row of tall palm trees, newly transplanted, looking frankly mortified by their surroundings. The trees depress Miriam. They were probably yanked out of some beautiful South Sea island and set down here in front of all these Plymouths and Subarus. Life is full of bum deals.

Miriam can see that Rennie is not pouting, just thoughtful. She is an extremely obliging child, considering that she’s just barely five. She understands what it means when Miriam says they are “on a schedule.” Today they really don’t have two minutes to spare. Their dance card, so to speak, is filled. When people remark to Miriam about how well-organized she is, she laughs and declares that organization is the religion of the single parent.

It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Miriam is faithful about the business of getting each thing done in its turn, and could no more abandon her orderly plan than a priest could swig down the transubstantiated wine and toss out wafers like Frisbees over the heads of those waiting to be blessed. Miriam’s motto is that life is way too complicated to leave to chance.

But in her heart she knows what a thin veil of comfort it is that she’s wrapped around herself and her child to cloak them from chaos. It all hangs on the presumption that everything has been accounted for. Most days, Miriam is a believer. The road ahead will present no serious potholes, no detour signs looming sudden and orange in the headlights, no burning barricades thrown together as reminders that the world’s anguish doesn’t remain mute—like the tree falling in the forest—just because no one is standing around waiting to hear it.

Miriam is preoccupied along this line of thought as she kisses Rennie goodbye and turns the steering wheel, arm over elbow, guiding her middle-aged Chevy out of the TenderCare parking lot and back onto the slick street. Her faith has been shaken by coincidence.

On Saturday, her sister Janice called to ask if she would be the guardian of Janice and Paul’s three children, if the two of them should die. “We’re redoing the wills,” Janice reported cheerfully over the din, while in the background Miriam could hear plainly the words “Give me that Rainbow Brite right now, dumb face.”

“Just give it some thought,” Janice had said calmly, but Miriam hadn’t needed to think. “Will you help out with my memoirs if I’m someday President?” her sister might as well have asked, or “What are your plans in the event of a nuclear war?” The question seemed to Miriam more mythical than practical. Janice was a careful person, not given to adventure, and in any case tended to stick to those kids like some kind of maternal adhesive. Any act of God that could pick off Janice without taking the lot would be a work of outstanding marksmanship.

Late on Sunday night, while Miriam was hemming a dress of Rennie’s that had fallen into favor, she’d had a phone call from her ex-husband Lute. His first cousin and her boyfriend had just been killed on a San Diego freeway by a Purolator van. Over the phone, Lute seemed obsessed with getting the logistics of the accident right, as though the way the cars all obeyed the laws of physics could make this thing reasonable. The car that had the blowout was a Chrysler; the cousin and boyfriend were in her Saab; the van slammed into them from behind. “They never had a chance,” Lute said, and the words chilled Miriam. Long after she went to bed she kept hearing him say “never had a chance,” and imagining the pair as children. As if in infancy their lives were already earmarked: these two will perish together in their thirties, in a Saab, wearing evening clothes, on their way to hear a friend play in the symphony orchestra. All that careful mothering and liberal arts education gone to waste.

Lute’s cousin had been a freelance cellist, often going on the road with the likes of Barry Manilow and Tony Bennett and, once, Madonna. It was probably all much tamer than it sounded. Miriam is surprised to find she has opinions about this woman, and a clear memory of her face. She only met her once, at her own wedding, when all of Lute’s family had come crowding around like fog. But now this particular cousin has gained special prominence, her vague features crystallized in death, like a face on a postage stamp. Important. Someone you just can’t picture doing the humdrum, silly things that life is made of—clipping her toenails or lying on the bed with her boyfriend watching Dallas—if you hold it clearly in your head that she is gone.

Lute is probably crushed; he idolized her. His goal in life is to be his own boss. Freelance husbanding is just one of the things that hasn’t worked out for Lute. Freelance fathering he can manage.

Miriam is thinking of Rennie while she waits through a yellow light she normally might have run. Rennie last week insisting on wearing only dresses to nursery school, and her pale, straight hair just so, with a ribbon; they’d seen Snow White. Rennie as a toddler standing in her crib, holding the rails, her mouth open wide with the simplest expectation you could imagine: a cookie, a game, or nothing at all, just that they would both go on being there together. Lute was already out of the picture by that time; he wouldn’t have been part of Rennie’s hopes. It is only lately, since she’s learned to count, that Lute’s absence matters to Rennie. On the Disney Channel parents come in even numbers.

The light changes and there is a honking of horns; someone has done something wrong, or too slowly, or in the wrong lane. Miriam missed it altogether, whatever it was. She remembers suddenly a conversation she had with her sister years ago when she was unexpectedly pregnant with Rennie, and Janice was already a wise old mother of two. Miriam was frantic—she’d wanted a baby but didn’t feel ready yet. “I haven’t really worked out what it is I want to pass on to a child,” she’d said to Janice, who laughed. According to Janice, parenting was three percent conscious effort and ninety-seven percent automatic pilot. “It doesn’t matter what you think you’re going to tell them. What matters is they’re right there watching you every minute, while you let the lady with just two items go ahead of you in line, or when you lay on the horn and swear at the guy that cuts you off in traffic. There’s no sense kidding yourself, what you see is what you get.”

Miriam had argued that people could consciously change themselves if they tried, though in truth she’d been thinking more of Lute than herself. She remembers saying a great many things about choices and value systems and so forth, a lot of first-pregnancy high-mindedness it seems to her now. Now she understands. Parenting is something that happens mostly while you’re thinking of something else.

Excerpted from Homeland and Other Stories. Copyright © 1998 by Barbara Kingsolver. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers.