In which Mercy learns the price of publication.


Mercy could hear the boys fighting over their Legos as she turned the chicken in the pan, but she didn't go to play umpire. They could fight their battles out themselves. Once upon a time, she vaguely remembered, she had liked to cook. Habit had wrecked that, as it did most things. Now she concentrated on dishes that required a minimum amount of preparation and resulted in minimal theatricals at the dinner table. Fishsticks would have been perfect, but Mercy didn't care for them--and for George they were out of the question. He would have had a fit if she'd served them when he came home from a hard day at the vacuum cleaners.

Turning over the last piece of chicken, Mercy started to sing to herself. She felt exhilarated from Portlandia's parade and Deborah's praise, and her poems in print blew up her balloon to the bursting point. So it was in an unusually inflated mood that she went from the kitchen back into what had once been half of a two-car garage and was now her "study," where her computer hummed softly to itself, awaiting her arrival.

The wall George had finally allowed her to put up was thin, and the study was cold in winter, although it seldom went much below the 30's in Portland. In Oregon, the mellow state of mildew, you were more in danger of growing moss between your toes than of freezing to death. Still, the temperature outside was about the same as inside, cold enough for a native Texan. She wore sweaters. She had a room of her own and she loved it, even though you froze your ass off--and what was worse, your fingers. The study didn't look like much either. She did have an antique desk of massive proportions and books. Two walls-full of books.

A number of the books on her shelves were a tribute to George's influence way back when they were freshly in love. George read Saul Bellow and told Mercy he was a philosopher. George read James Joyce and said he was a poet. Mercy read Bellow and Joyce and thought George was brilliant. Back then, George wanted to be a poet too. He wrote about clowns and bears and ferris wheels and gave Mercy lectures on literature while she wrote his papers for him and admired him tremendously. George studied anthropology for a B.S. so he could get around the language requirement, but he never completed his degree. Mercy took up literature and now she taught it. And she didn't think much of Bellow or Joyce anymore.

To the casual visitor to Mercy's study, her collection of books seemed to lack both definite aesthetic standards as well as any kind of organizing principle, but despite that, Mercy nearly always found what she was looking for. It didn't occur to her that Norman Mailer and Kate Millet might be considered strange shelfmates. That didn't bother Mercy, and she relegated them to keep company on the shelf with Joyce. On another shelf, E.L. Doctorow and Virginia Woolf were well represented, as were Georgette Heyer, King Arthur and Jorge Luis Borges in English, but not Spanish. Her Texas high school education had gotten lost somewhere along the road. One shelf seemed at first glance to be devoted to women writers, but Hawthorne, Flaubert and Henry James were lurking in their midst. Scattered here and there was the odd book in German, mementos of a junior year abroad, and the even odder book in French, reminiscent of nothing more than repeated attempts to master that language as well. The language of high culture, however, had always seemed to elude her.

The study had been a major victory, but Mercy had to pay for it with sweat and tears, if not blood. And certain strategies which went against her peace-loving nature. She had finally set her computer up in the bedroom because she couldn't work in the living room with the T.V. on--and then she had simply continued with class preparations and diverse writing projects after George went to bed, stubbornly ignoring his tossings and turnings and sighings. That was when she finally got her study.

On this particular day Mercy may have felt like singing and had done so, but she usually didn't. Her life was certainly full; she sometimes thought she would burst at the seams, even though she was built on a rather generous scale (the well-intentioned called her "buxom")--but fulfilled was another matter entirely. At least she didn't belong to the legions of women who had studied something useless along the lines of the philosophical or the creative and ended up frustrated genius waitresses. Or housewives. The age of the feminine mystique was not over; there were still a lot of unnamed problems, and the Reagan era only seemed to have increased them. Mercy was fortunate to be a genius professor housewife. Assistant professor. In a less than mediocre "university" specializing in night school courses for frustrated secretaries. Who would all eventually manage to become frustrated secretaries with college degrees. After all, it was the land of unlimited opportunities.

Mercy often felt like a real circus artist, trying to juggle maternal and intellectual endeavors, but compared to some moms, rotating around their kids and creating stress out of sicknesses, sitters and domestic situations, she was tranquility in person. She had other things to worry about, like publishing or perishing.

Semi-regularly, Mercy turned on her computer for a purpose other than academic, and at these times she actually felt a flicker of enthusiasm, a spark of excitement, even if the flame itself failed to materialize. She didn't take it seriously, her playing with words, there was no sense in that; she didn't have enough time. It was tempting to think the publication of the two poems might mean she had talent, but she knew perfectly well that it wouldn't have happened without connections. Her true ambitions had nothing to do with poetry, anyway. Poems were finger exercises to keep her creative capacities from getting stiff, a mental lube job to keep her mind from rusting. Daily writing was a strategy for survival in the fight against cerebral constipation. And it kept her hope alive; maybe someday, she could think, just maybe she would have time to write a novel.

Because that, of course, was where her ambitions really lay. On the ground, panting, dehydrated, almost dying of thirst, but tough, and not dead yet. Mercy belonged to that multitude of creative souls who are all going to "write a novel someday." Everyone said she had a way with words, the typically Irish gift of gab, and she knew she had stories to tell. Mercy would write the story of a woman with great potential who slowly but surely gets poisoned by the deadly diet of routine. The ending would have to be open, with the protagonist taking solitary walks in a park by the river and sitting up late nights drinking Irish whiskey. That was a story Mercy was sure she could tell, and sometimes she even tried writing a chapter. The main problem, though, as she saw it, was in making a story of boredom interesting. And, boring or not, she occasionally got the feeling the story had been told before, even though she knew it was her story and nobody else could have told it.

Mercy wondered what kind of books Deborah wrote. Among the many books on her shelves, there were none by Deborah Dobell, and Mercy made a mental note to get one. What was that comment Deborah had made about writing? If we want to change our lives, we have to change the myths. Suddenly Mercy began to have doubts about the merits of a story of female frustration.

As she was feeling the rug of her ambitions being tugged away a little beneath her feet, she heard the car drive up and realized she hadn't set the table. At least the boys appeared to have solved their problems themselves, since she no longer heard the sounds of battle coming from their room.

Mercy was putting the plates on the table as George entered the dining room, the familiar sardonic look on his face that she had once found attractive, but which now elicited from her at best endurance and at worst dread.

"So how were the vacuum cleaners today?" Mercy asked brightly to try to avert the sarcastic storm she could see brewing in the turned up corner of his mouth.

"Malfunctioning. And how is the published poet? Does she still deign to cook dinner for her family?"

So that's it, Mercy thought to herself. And she'd been so pleased. She looked at George without answering, trying to retain a questioning smile on her face.

"Aw, come on," George drawled indifferently in his urban nasal twang. "Did you really think I would enjoy this? You know, several of our friends read this magazine, and I'm sure they'll be quite amused to see me portrayed as a spider."

"Oh, George, but you're not the spider. After all, it's a she," Mercy said, shaking her head.

George was annoyed in ways he couldn't admit, even to himself. Spider or no spider, Mercy had managed to publish a poem, two poems. George didn't even write poems anymore. "Clever trick, Mercy. That's really going to fool a lot of people."

"But she gets caught in her own web, George."

"The trap of our marriage, am I right? It may be going down the drain, but you don't have to publicize it, publish it even. There are a lot of people in the same boat, but they keep their mouths shut. Look at our friends. Tell me which of them has a better marriage than we do."

"None, George." But at the same time she thought to herself, your friends.

"So why don't you tear the family apart, and the kids can join the ranks of the victims of failed marriages, just because you can't reconcile yourself to the choices you made?"

"I wasn't planning to."

"Well, let me know when you do, alright? And we can spend a couple of years dragging Bruce and Ben through the courts and making our lives hell. Sound like a rosy prospect?"

"Sure, George." Mercy felt lamed. She turned her back on him and went to the room where the boys were playing. "Bennie, Bruce, dinner."

Mercy brought the chicken out while the boys climbed up to their places at the table, but she could see from the set of George's mouth that he wasn't going to let up even while they were eating. She braced herself for the next goading comment, and sure enough it came, dripping with irony and superiority, and decreasing Mercy's subjective stature by several inches.

"So, what tactic do you propose next in the marital war, now that you can see I won't be beaten by public insults? A strike in bed? That's getting rare enough as it is already."

"Please, George. Not in front of the children." Mercy was an unequal opponent in sarcastic skirmishes, unable to combat the malicious cleverness with which he conducted his unrelenting battle to cut everything around him down to size; in other words, smaller than himself. Her generous figure seemed more designed as a buffer for defense. Despite nearly seven years of marriage, she still had not learned the counter-attack, still less the strategy that the best defense is a good offense.

"I'll end up going to someone else, you know," he drawled.

"Then do it!" Mercy said in a low, poisonous voice. Her attention did not swerve from the job of cutting up Bennie's chicken.

"Mommy, I want some more gravy!" Bennie complained, impervious to the conversation. Bruce, however, had his ears open. "Who will you go to, Daddy?"

"Daddy isn't going anywhere, Bruce. Now just eat your chicken like a good boy."

"But he said so, Mommy," Bruce pointed out.

"Daddy was just teasing, Bruce."

"That's right, Bruce. Daddy was just teasing. As long as your mommy behaves."

"Will you spank her if she doesn't?" Bennie asked.

"Naw, your mommy doesn't like that," George replied, cocking one sardonic eyebrow at his wife. "You know, Mercy," he volunteered in the tone of one generously giving excellent advice, "I think your old Eugene friends are having a bad influence on you. Especially that punk rocker, Diana. Since she came up here, we've been having a lot more disagreements."

Like about the study you wouldn't give me, Mercy thought to herself.

"And those feminist friends of hers. Look at that middle- aged hippie editor, what's-her-name, Lyssa, unable to grow old gracefully."

"Middle-aged? She'll be forty next year. She's just a few years older than you, George."

"Yeah, but she's graying. I guess women just don't age as well as men."

Mercy looked at George, the pronounced bulge of a rapidly growing beer belly creeping over his belt buckle. Tennis had long gone the way of their marital bliss. Gone too was the full red beard which George had once sported; he had shaved it off when it began to get too gray for his vanity, leaving his plump baby cheeks unembellished. Then there was Lyssa, brimming with energy, her fingers in every hot political pie she got a whiff of, while George's only remaining hobbies seemed to be sleeping on the sofa in front of the T.V. and drinking with the boys while they reminisced about the good old days. Which they probably hadn't experienced as such but which had to be created so the boys would have something to talk about.

Lyssa had escaped from marriage early, and the only visible reminder was a single daughter. A child of her own--one child of her own. But watching Bruce and Bennie shovel their chicken, Mercy found it impossible to regret anything.

"That Diana," George continued, "she's an absolute eyesore with her bright red crewcut."

"Crewcut is rather exaggerated, George."

"She looked a lot better down in Eugene. More feminine. More curves." George grinned and winked and grabbed her thigh under the table. He seemed to have forgiven her. The mention of Diana must have somehow revived his flailing superiority enough for him to feel comfortable again. "Diana's ruined herself, Mercy. Too skinny and too aggressive, trying to prove she's emancipated. A man will lose interest in you in a flash if you get involved in that bullshit. A real man, that is."

Self-irony was obvious in George's tone, but Mercy knew from experience that he meant it anyway. "Real men don't eat quiche," she murmured to herself. To judge by Diana's record, there had to be quite a few men around who didn't fall into the category of "real." Libber or no libber, long-limbed athletic energy were an attraction, regardless of the political leanings of the female sporting the limbs. Dumpy maternity was no match. Mercy admired Diana, she was even tempted to feel small in her presence, despite their friendship and not as a result of the admitted disparity in stature. She had Diana beat in weight if not in inches, she had a Ph.D., publications, children, a house, a husband....

A husband.

What Mercy needed was a wife.



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