Of Mule Teams and Periwinkles

1,575 words

Marnie itched to rearrange the computer desk to her liking now that her daughter had returned to college. She might never have found the anthology otherwise.

“If you get a parking ticket,” Marnie had warned, “you need to pay it on time.”

“I had to get to class,” Nicole said.

“It takes two seconds to put change into a parking meter.”

The last time Nicole was ticketed, she told her parents there were piles of snow on the streets and not enough parking spaces, so Marnie let it go.

“It’s up to twenty-five dollars,” Marnie said. “We’re not paying this time.”

“I can’t pay it.” Nicole grabbed her sweatshirt from the back of a chair and swiped her keys off the table. “You just don’t get anything,” she muttered, ending another visit, days early.

During Nicole’s first year at college, Marnie barely touched her bedroom, buying into one of the guidebook’s suggestions: “Don’t remodel your child’s room into the study you’ve always wanted. Kids need a place to come home to, or they won’t succeed apart from you.”

That made sense. Marnie thought about remaking Nicole’s bedroom into a writing room—she wanted more space for her writing books, her favorite novels, and decorating magazine collections. No, she would heed the advice of experts and leave Nicole’s room as it was.

Instead, Marnie stored Nicole’s things in the attic, all the items she abandoned when she began her new life at the University of Rochester: clothes, teen lit books, dollar-store knickknacks, handmade jewelry. She hadn’t wanted them for two years. If they’d been important to her, she would have taken them to college.

Marnie hadn’t wanted Nicole to storm out again. Nicole was her only daughter. She was trying to set some boundaries. Marnie would never admit to Ben that she couldn’t wait to reclaim the computer area she and Nicole shared the entire summer. Construction paper scraps, scissors, glue, Harry Potter book jackets, and two library books—one on raising a family on minimum wages, the other on genocide—were Nicole’s mess, not hers. Funny, how we are more tolerant of the things we leave strewn lying about than others’ messes.

Marnie set the library books aside to return when she went to the fitness salon. While searching for naked books needing jackets, she saw a small, fat book wedged into the corner of a computer shelf. Marnie opened the front cover and saw a book-plate that began, “THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF LANCASTER MENNONITE HIGH SCHOOL.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, fifth edition, was a textbook. Nicole graduated from MHS three years ago. Marnie couldn’t possibly return it now.

How long had it been since she read a literature anthology? Since college, she decided. Book in hand, she settled into the upholstered desk chair and scanned the table of contents, looking for familiar titles, finding chapter headings such as “Fable and Tale,” “Point of View,” “Reading a Poem,” and “Understanding the Poetic Voice.”

When it came to analyzing poems at the college level, Marnie was intimidated by the truly great poets and professors who actually “got” the great poets, never taking a poetry elective. She studied Shakespeare and Chaucer because they were required for a teaching degree. As far as the American poets, she didn’t always understand Walt Whitman and settled for appreciating his language. She found the work of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay cryptic and confusing.

Thirty-two years later, one literature class stood out from her undergraduate career: American Literature, junior year, Dr. Kopitski. Among the accessible Sherwood Anderson and O. Henry stories, Kopitski snuck in a mini-unit on Wallace Stevens. She tried to understand Stevens’ writing, his dysfunction, his demons. She wrestled with each assignment, but the harder she worked, the more critical Kopitski became. With the last poem assigned, “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock” she thought she finally got it right. That was until Kopitski returned her paper.  Scrawled across the top in red ink was a big C-, her “shallow analysis” documented in the margins. After that grade, she told her classmates “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock” was the perfect anthem for any class with Kopitski—morning, noon, or night—the “shallow” crack still smarting.

She raced through the index until she got to Stevens. Ten poems, including “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock.” She turned to page 564 and read the piece again. There it was: the line that had baffled her most 32 years ago:  “People are not going to dream of baboons and periwinkles.”

Who dreams of baboons and periwinkles anyway? No one. She’d raised her hand and remarked that baboons and periwinkles were funny words and asked whether Stevens was trying to amuse the reader. Kopitski scoffed and told her to think more deeply.

Was it providence that Nicole had never returned that literature anthology, abandoning it on the shelf for her mother to find? Was the anthology Marnie’s chance to reintroduce herself to a poet who had bewildered her in her twenties, to salvage a little self-worth, to redeem herself?

*

That night, Marnie climbed into her white nightie and crawled into bed, weary from all the packing and hauling. She slept restlessly and awoke earlier than usual, her head filled with a clear memory of a dream about mules. Flying mules.

An Amish family down the lane tended their fields with a team of mules rather than motorized equipment—their church prohibited worldly conveniences. In her dream, the farmer stood as he always does on his plow, sullen-faced, behind a team of seven mules harnessed shoulder to shoulder, plowing under a cornfield. The blazing sun had bleached the sky to an anemic shade of blue in sharp contrast to the indigo of the farmer’s long-sleeved shirt. The old farmer shook the reins, and the mules stepped livelier. He jostled them again and again until the mules were racing through the field. All of a sudden, the mules took to the air with the farmer sailing behind him. The mules formed themselves into a bulky “V,” pawing their air with their hooves. He sailed fifty feet above his own cornfield, waving his hat through the air, laughing, belly laughing, barely keeping hold of the reins as his body convulsed with joy.

Why on earth had she dreamed about an Amish farmer flying through the air with his mule team?

*

Marnie slogged through work that day. She checked her cell phone at lunch. There was a message from Nicole asking her to send things she’d forgotten because she left in a hurry, a long list—books, art supplies, jewelry items—things Marnie’d packed away since Nicole hadn’t needed them for over a year. She pushed the green button to return the call. No answer. She’d have to leave a message:

“We’ll have to talk about this. Call me at home tonight.”

Around three o’clock Marnie’s cell phone rang. She set aside the article she was editing and took the call.

“Mom, can you please send my things?”

“You can get them yourself at Thanksgiving.”

“I won’t be home. I’m doing an alternative break in Costa Rica.”

“Well, that’s the first your dad and I heard of this. How are you going to pay for it?”

“It’s a service trip. We’re going to build a school for children whose school burned down.”

“So, the school is paying for your transportation?”

“No, parents have to pay.”

*

After dinner, Marnie poured herself a glass of wine and curled up in the sofa with Nicole’s anthology in her lap. She flipped to the Stevens’ poem, “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock,” having marked it with a Post-it note yesterday. “People are not going to dream of baboons and periwinkles.” She read the whole thing three more times, the last time out loud.

More than 30 years after first hearing it in Kopitski’s class, she realized it was a thoughtful poem, if not a despairing one, about people who wear white nightgowns to bed and live among mules every day, about people who are mules—slaves to their mortgages, their utility bills, and tuition bills—who never allow themselves to dream of things far removed from their daily experience, like baboons and periwinkles. Too impractical to warrant the attention of adults slogging out the stuff of real life, day to day.

If she understood the poem, then she agreed with the author. People must have dreams of shucking their daily burdens and flying over cornfields on a clear summer afternoons, or they are resigned to a plodding sort of existing rather than living. She picked up the phone to call Nicole, who didn’t answer, and left a message:

I don’t mean to be harsh, but you could’ve collected what you wanted to take back to school during your last visit. You’ll have to do without them until Thanksgiving. Then you can bring it all down from the attic and pack up the things you want yourself. And as far as that trip to Costa Rica, we’re not paying—we can’t afford it—so you’re not going unless you can swing the expenses another way.”

Marnie sipped her wine and turned to page 682 to read Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

 

# # #

Author’s note: The poet Wallace Stevens attempted to amuse in several lines of this poem, according to one expert analysis. Take that, Mr. “Kopitski.”

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