Fiction 2010 / Issues / Spring 2010 / Volume 40

The Essay — Mary Pat Musick

My mother fell in love with Africa. She left us for the great plains of Kenya, and she died there. Ms. Ulinsky read aloud that passage from Karen’s essay, and then placed the paper on her desk, gently, as if the document were fragile. Karen wanted the essay to confer an image of her mother as adventurer. She hoped the reader would picture her shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, her hair falling over a rescued lion cub cuddled in her arms. Karen could tell from the guidance counselor’s tone that she was transported and listening to the cub’s murmur.

Karen and her father, Bill Miller, waited for Ms. Ulinsky to get on with the rest of the college application packet. They sat, side by side, in the chairs where she had directed them to sit when they arrived for their appointment. The room was tight. When her father crossed his leg, his tasseled loafer bumped the chrome edge of Ms. Ulinsky’s desk. She looked at him as though he were an intruder into her thoughts. Karen supposed she was daydreaming about her mother’s life in Kenya. Maybe Ms. Ulinsky needed an escape as well. The desk bump seemed to bring her back to the room. “I’m sorry, it must be difficult to reflect on what happened,” she said.

“It’s been five years. We’ve adjusted,” Karen heard her dad say. She was looking at the motivational posters that covered the putty-colored walls. In one, titled OPTIMISM, a red tulip grew out of a sidewalk crack. The message on the bottom of the poster read: There are always flowers for those who want to see them. She looked over at her father. He had taken a break from his bank duties to be here and kept his suit jacket and tie in place. He looked uncomfortable. The reading from the essay didn’t help.

“It is the most remarkable college entry essay I’ve read,” said Ms. Ulinsky, who was in her forties, but hard to tell which end. She didn’t dress as casually as most of the school staff. Something about her made Karen think that she had to work at portraying herself as a professional; maybe it was the chewed fingernails.

“We came to Appleton Park because of the schools,” he said. The we referred to Karen and her dad. They had moved to the Chicago suburb, leaving a St. Louis suburb behind, a year after her mother, Mary Miller, was buried from St. Stanislaus, the parish where she was baptized, attended elementary school and married Bill Miller. Karen didn’t think her mother would have liked Appleton Park. It was too much like where she had spent her entire life until she changed after she went back to get her degree, and after she read Dinesan and Markam and Hemmingway.

Karen came home from school one time when she was in the fourth grade and saw the orange juice carton still on the kitchen table along with cereal bowls each with a few limp flakes drowned in souring milk. Her mother reclined on the Lazy Boy chair. She was reading. She lifted her faux tortoise shell glasses to her head, like she did, and asked how school had gone. Karen sat on the arm of the chair and told her about the upcoming St. Stanislaus fair. The PTA had a program that day to drum up enthusiasm for the annual fundraiser and Karen became a cheerleader for the cause.

“We’re going to have the best booth. And Mr. Morris agreed to be in the dunking tank. I said we’d bake 3 cakes again for the cakewalk.” Her mother had been the fair chairman 2 years earlier but that year had not even signed up as a helper.

She pulled her down onto the chair and they snuggled. “Listen to this, sweetie.” She picked up the book from her lap and opened it to where a folded napkin marked a page. She read:

Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just “home” It is all these things but one thing-it is never dull.

She closed the book, and pulled Karen’s head against her chest and held her there. “There’s a vast, wonderful world out there. Lots of life outside of St. Stan’s parish. I don’t want you to take as long to figure that out as I have.”

Her mother’s trunk was shipped back to them after she died. Recently, Karen went through it again and found the book, West With the Night. The napkin was still sticking out and the passage underlined.

When Karen tuned back into the conference with Ms. Ulinsky, her father was saying, “Did you see that Money magazine rated Appleton Park one of the top 5 small cities in America? They touted the schools, parks and overall cleanliness.” Karen thought his Chamber of Commerce checklist offered no reason to stay in Appleton Park beyond high school graduation. She considered the train station to be the town’s best feature. There she could catch the express into Chicago and watch suburbia fall away mile by mile. Her dad would leave the cage open for her return, as he had the Saint Louis house for her mother. He’d left it just the way it was when her mother went to visit Kenya, even after 18 months, as though any minute she would walk down the street lined with red brick bungalows and into theirs and slip into her old ways of bake sales, hanging out with lifetime friends down the street in identical houses, and braiding her little girl’s hair. Her dad couldn’t braid, so after she left, Karen got a super short haircut. By the time it grew out, she could take care of it herself.

Another wall poster shouted, DREAM. DARE. DO. Karen had friends, and got along okay, but like seniors even in non-All American towns, had circled a June date on her calendar and written Life begins. As she walked the school halls, she thought, This place is already a memory. She wanted to major in drama, and Northwestern University, less than 20 miles from the cramped school office where they sat, was the likely choice, and her dad’s pick. She was burning to get to New York.

“The essay is gripping. I tell you, the ending is heart-wrenching.” Ms. Ulinsky stopped short of reading the end of the essay. Karen noticed that her father looked at his watch before he crossed his arms, signaling that he had given this woman enough time to move on. “The purpose of the meeting is to review the college application process. I know the essay is important, but can we discuss…”

“It was a magical tribute to her mother and the land that she found irresistible,” said Ms. Ulinsky, as though she were giving an award presentation. Karen could have appreciated this acknowledgment of her tribute to her mother, if her father was not there.

Bill murmured something about scholarships, but Ms. Ulinsky was not ready to let go of the essay. “The end…the way…I tell you, I can’t get it out of my mind,” she said.

He looked up at the ceiling. After a few seconds, he exhaled as if blowing smoke from a cigarette. Finally he said, “What version of…the end.. As in the essay?” If only, thought Karen, Ms. Ulinsky had stopped at the part with her mother walking in an African desert, a white linen shirt breezy over khaki shorts, the sandy earth moving with each footstep, the dry air on her skin.

Ms. Ulinsky raised her eyebrows. They were thin lines that did not quite match each side. “You didn’t read the essay?” She smiled between them.

Karen jumped in before her dad could. “I didn’t show it to him.” She looked over with a thin smile. “I’ll show you tonight at home, Dad.” She knew he would not argue it in front of the guidance counselor, but he would bring it up later. They would have that talk again. He would take out the file with the death certificate, the police report, the photo, and the newspaper account and present the information as though the facts were all that mattered.

“Karen’s writing about it is powerful,” Ms Ulinsky said. “It was vivid.” She grimaced. “The trauma must be…” She stopped talking. Neither Karen nor her father filled in the moment of silence. Karen could tell from her face that Ms. Ulinsky was now focusing on the gory details, and that bothered her because she wanted her mother’s sense of adventure to be the lasting memory.

“Let’s move on from the essay,” said Bill, in a louder voice than was necessary for the room.

Ms. Ulinsky straightened the files on her desk as if she were putting some decorum back into their meeting. Karen regretted that the guidance counselor might think her dad was coldhearted, because he wasn’t. He had indulged her whims for art and dance lessons, acting camps, and the flute and violin that now sat silently on her shelf. He’d fixed pasta dinners for her friends and listened to them when they talked, not like most adults, who only listen superficially, waiting for a chance to lecture. He engaged with them in real conversation about global warming and the reality shows and the girl’s softball team who won state. Everyone thought she was lucky to have him for a dad, especially, after her mother had died that way.

Ms. Ulinsky took out Karen’s SAT and grade reports, the Sun-Times review of her lead role as Alice in the play Wonderland as well as copies of her published poetry. “This combination could put Karen in contention for a first-tier school,” she said.

Bill loosened his tie and sat forward. He was slim and fit with a face almost too pretty for a man. “What’s the story with scholarships?” he asked just as a loud buzz announced the change of classes and an abrupt end to their meeting. The counselor stood. She told them she would e-mail the date for the college-financing workshop. Her dad held Karen’s chair as she got up. He shook Ms. Ulinksy’s hand and thanked her for her time. No one mentioned the essay.

Karen and her dad pushed their way through the school hallway with its din of slamming lockers, loud shouts, and rushing footsteps and around a couple gazing into each other’s faces. Karen shook her head. “They need to memorize each others features so they don’t forget them in 47 minutes,” she said with a smirk. Karen did not have a boyfriend.

They reached the front door and said good-bye and he added, “We’ll talk about it tonight.” His tone was normal, but she could read his disappointment. She had seen how he confronted his frustrations quietly.

She watched him check his BlackBerry as he jumped over puddles to get to his car and back to the bank. How had he and her mother discussed things when they had disagreed? Some memories of her mother were gauzy, but she remembered the trip to Yellowstone, the last year her mother had lived with them. Mary approached a bison and wanted Bill to take a picture of her with it, but he protested that it was a dangerous animal. It must have weighed a ton, and her mother was more bone than bulk. She was deaf to his protest and calm, like she might be approaching a dairy cow. As if acting on a dare, her mother touched the buffalo. It didn’t move. Karen thought her fearless and wanted to follow, but her dad took her back to the car and told her to wait there.

In the car, her mother was lively. She said that the bison had coarse hair and sad eyes. “A creature can be both wild and tame at the same time,” she said. Her dad did not comment. He was like a lot of people who don’t say anything when they really want to object. Karen had learned that it was part of the unpretentious way he went about life.

Later, on the day of the appointment with Ms. Ulinsky, Karen was in her room, with her AP Economics book opened on the desk and her attention on Facebook. Her friend Rachael had posted party pictures from Friday night. They depicted teenagers, with beer-induced grins, posing themselves into a good time, making do until they could follow the promise of adventure that was calling them into a world far from their safe streets. Her father knocked on the door. She clicked over to The Bureau of Economic Analysis site.

He had changed to jeans and the light denim shirt with paint stains. In his hand was a half-empty bottle of Anchor Steam. The file was under his arm. He looked at a bag of Trader Joe’s Trek Mix that was next to her computer. “I got Moo Goo Gai Pan from Chang’s for later,” he said. It was her favorite. He set the file on the rattan chest at the foot of her bed. It seemed sacrilegious since inside the musty chest were ribbon-tied stacks of her mother’s letters, her tribal beaded necklaces, binoculars, books, and photo album. Karen almost said something, but didn’t. She knew his action was an unintentional insult. She had brought the chest up from the basement earlier this year when she started her own plans to leave home and was ready to better understand her mother’s departure.

Bill pushed clothes aside from the edge of the bed, and sat down.

Karen had gone for a run after school and still had her long hair tied back in a ponytail pulled through a Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

“You know she was a Cardinals fan. Our first date was to a game against the Cubs. She knew the team roster, even batting averages. She used to pull her hair like that through a Cardinal’s cap.” The comparison did not make Karen uncomfortable. She was glad there were some similarities to her mother. People in town always told her she was her father’s daughter through and through and in fact, the resemblance was like looking in a mirror and seeing how she’d look if she was a 44 year-old man.

“I remember going to games as a family, but her interest in stats was gone by then,” Karen said. When her mother went back to get her college degree, she became less interested in baseball as well as school volunteer work, Friday night football games, even going to lunch with her girlfriends. Karen realized now that giving all that up would have left her lonely in her old neighborhood.

“Did you know her brother and I were on the same little league team? After Mary and I got together, we realized our paths had crossed hundreds of times. I knew a lot of people from St. Stans.”

“Like Appleton. Only a couple degrees of separation.”

“She couldn’t go to the store without running in to people she went to school with or something,” he said.

“She was so young when you married. What? 20? That would be in 3 years for me. No way that will happen. Drowns your dreams.

He took a swig of beer. “Let’s talk about what happened today.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t know Ms. Ulinsky was going to do that.”

“What did you write…about how she died?” he asked.

“A lion got her,” she said without flinching. This did not hold the emotional force of when she learned her mother was gone forever.

He shook his head. “Why?”

“It keeps alive the life she wanted.”

He took another gulp from the bottle. After he swallowed, he took a deep breath, and then let his head drop slightly. “Mary was an accountant in an office building for Goodyear Tire and Rubber. She lived in a high-rise apartment in the city of Nairobi with a man who worked for Coca-Cola,” he spoke softly, as though passing on a secret. But it was not a secret to them, though they didn’t discuss it. Cruel details were full of problems.

Her mother had written about a land and skies so vast that they go on forever, broken only by a herd of zebra or other magnificent beast. Karen’s renewed exploration of her mother’s life had helped her accept the move. Her mother had lived her life, until then, within the confines of St. Stanislaus parish in suburban St. Louis. But she had separated from that life even while she still lived it.

Her father took out the death certificate, Nairobi police report, and the yellowed newspaper article. Both he and the therapist had presented Karen with those documents before. They would haul them out whenever a teacher or someone’s mother told Karen’s father about her account of how her mother had died. But she had not repeated the stories for a couple of years. The documents had stayed in their manila folder. The essay brought them back out.

“You accept that she’s gone, but why not the truth about it?” He put the photo of the crushed Toyota Corolla on her keyboard. She looked at the rattan chest and thought of the photo album with the picture of the orange-yellow sky surrounding a giraffe eating from a single acacia tree. She pictured the smiling tribal people that look more alive in a photo than the people she brushes by everyday. That represented more the truth about her mother than a picture in a police report. She said nothing.

“Is it being honest to yourself, and to her, to continue this pretense about her death?” he asked. He lifted his head and stared at her with the determination of the blinking game.

Hadn’t he pretended too? Pretended that her mother was coming back during her last 18 months when she lived in Kenya? At the funeral he and everyone else acted as if she died while on an extended vacation. He wanted her to face the truth, but Karen had wondered if he had done so. She had trespassed into her parents’ marriage and figured out that her mother had left her father’s ordinary life. She was certain that her v mother had missed her. She had said as much in letters and postcards and packages. Eventually, she would have sent for her to come to Africa.

“The romantic account is all that is left of her,” she said.

“But you’re passing off fiction as fact. When you do that, you lose the truth.”

She burst out, using her hands as well as her words to tell him what she now understood about her mother. “I wrote the essay for her, for her memory. It was the life she wanted, wanted passionately, and she was so close to it.” It was if Karen was giving a performance, but the lines were hers. She had used them on herself when she needed to support her mother against the cruel facts. “The tragedy is that she would not have left us, if she could have imagined…” She pushed the picture of the accident off her keyboard and pointed to the photo, where it had fallen face up, on the floor. “That could have happened to her in Saint Louis County, on Manchester Road, on the way to Wal-Mart to buy Cheerios.” Karen was bright with conviction. “She had tried to change her destiny. She would rather have died in a wild elephant stampede or in the jaws of a lion than to continue to live…that other life.”

He leaned forward, his shoulders rounded, and he rested his chin on his fist. “Mary had a complicated relationship with reality,” he said as though he was speaking to himself. Karen wondered if he was going there as an excuse to explain why she had left.

They sat silently for a while, their eyes sharing the photo on the floor. In the early years, after the accident, they had grieved her mother’s death through the images of their lives as a family, as though they had been one of those perfect ones that only exist in ads for minivans. Her mother’s moving away was harder for them to discuss, so they didn’t. It was a piece of her life that they stuck away and it became like a leftover in the back of the freezer that no one dared deal with, but could not throw away. Karen had thawed it out, and it was mucky. Her dad liked things clean, neat, like ail-American Appleton Park.

Karen’s phone rang and she checked to see who it was, but did not answer. She tossed her cap over to the bed and untied her ponytail.

He placed the death certificate, the Nairobi police report, the newspaper article, and the picture of the smashed Corolla into the file and closed it. He stood.

“I want to go to NYU,” she said.

“I know.”

He bent down and kissed her on her head and left his hand on her hair for a long minute. “I’ll go heat up dinner,” he said and walked out of the room with the file under his arm. He left the door open.

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