SHE KEPT WAKING up at 4:45 in the morning, and when she did she felt lonelier than death, like an iron globe was locking over her heart. A dull but definite click. She could almost feel it, a shudder in the bed.
Sometimes she went back to sleep and she would oversleep, staying in bed well after the sun was up. Around nine, say, she would get up and fix coffee and stare out the broad front window. The day always seemed beautiful.
She had been waking like this since her father died six months earlier. He had suffered the stroke around four-thirty am. Her father was one of the few people in the world she really liked, or this is what she thought. Perhaps he was one of the few people in the world who really liked her.
This morning she had fixed scones from an overpriced mix purchased the day before at Whole Foods. She and her husband, Martin, had gone shopping together, and that in itself was unusual. Usually she went alone to the upscale grocery. And sometimes he went alone. Not that they planned to avoid each other. It was just that their schedules had never dovetailed, not in twenty-five years. For most of their marriage she had eaten breakfast around seven-thirty while he slept in, rising in time for a hurried shower and coffee before rushing off to the office at five after ten. Sometimes he came home around two-thirty in the afternoon for Raisin Bran. She judged him harshly for this malformation of schedule and diet, believing he made himself weary unnecessarily. And then, too, she would have liked for him to fix the coffee occasionally and sit with her at sunrise. When their son, Thomas, was young, she felt Martin should join them for a family breakfast, just as she had eaten breakfast with her parents growing up. But she no longer said anything about her husband’s scheduling.
She tried to enjoy the occasions they shared, such as shopping yesterday at Whole Foods. Since their separation and the impressive debt they had incurred, and then their reunion and the cost of his starting a private business, going to Whole Foods was one of the few luxuries she allowed herself. Choosing a glossy eggplant while classical favorites wafted down from hidden speakers like the soft mist that miraculously showered the vegetables, keeping them bright and clean as the day of creation, was ever so much more satisfying than choosing anything at Kroger.
At Whole Foods, there was free coffee in little cups and real cream to lighten it. You felt, for a moment, well-to-do, blessed, intact. You could slow down and indulge your imagination in European chocolates, even if you didn’t buy any. Someone might think you were the sort of person who could buy several bars at once, bars of dark French chocolate, storing them in the cupboard and eating only two squares a day because not only were you, in someone’s imagination, well-to-do, you were moderate and wise about your body, fit, which wealthier people seemed to be, though she also privately believed they drank too much and were silently miserable. She hoped so. Certainly she hoped so. Yesterday, she and Martin had admired a batch of pink lilies sitting in a clear vase on the glass of the meat counter. The woman waiting on them had spoken in an exotic accent and then wrapped their pork roast in white paper, offering up the package like a work of art. The experience felt almost sacred.
Ellen wasn’t sure why her husband had agreed to go with her. He had simply said “Yes.” So this morning, with Martin at work, she was nibbling scones from the mix they had purchased. In her more satisfied moments she gave her husband credit: he got up every weekday and went to work, while her job allowed many leisurely mornings. It was his failure to ease his life, and hers, and their son’s, with reasonable rituals such as breakfast that she had let worry her through the years. He hadn’t seemed quite focused enough on their progress and welfare.
Though it was only May, summer had come to North Carolina, and the sun was fairly exploding into the front room where she was sitting. She had the entire day open, except for a brief meeting in the English department at the university where she taught.
What she wanted was a phone call, but the phone did not ring, so she rose and went upstairs to shower. She had enough motivation for that today, though since her father’s death, she sometimes wondered if she would ever move from the couch. In the shower, she spoke aloud.
“Tell me I’ve won something.”
“Tell me I’ve been selected.”
“Tell me I’ve been chosen for an award.”
She was not speaking to her father or even to God.
The week before, walking on the Raleigh Greenway—a wooded corridor that ran through the city—she had confided to a friend, who happened to be a Jungian analyst, that she often made such pleas aloud in her empty house.
“Yesterday, I said to myself, ‘I will go mad if someone does not call in the next forty-five minutes to tell me I have been chosen for special recognition.’”
The friend laughed and said, “I love how you talk. I just love it. You say what other people think.”
She thought her friend exaggerated. Surely most people did not speak aloud in their homes, pleading for a phone call conveying the news that though they had not applied for a grant, they were being awarded one.
Often she let the phone go unanswered, and when no message was left, she knew that a salesman had been calling about vinyl siding or refinancing. Her students didn’t leave gifts for her.
There were two truths about herself that Ellen had told her friend. She wanted phone calls about awards and she did not want anyone else in her community to be named Ellen. She had grown up a white girl in West Africa where other girls had names like Tunji and Deli or possibly Esther and Ruth. Her parents had been missionaries. Now, in her American life, if she went to a party and was introduced to another woman named Ellen, she left. Or even if she wasn’t introduced but just heard that some other woman at the party shared her name, she left. Her reasons were obscure; she could hardly explain to her husband. Once she had tried:
“I came to the U.S. when I was fifteen. I felt so lost. At night in bed, I would say to myself, ‘I’m Ellen and I grew up in Nigeria.’ I would say it over and over.”
“Right,” he had commented.
“Is that all you’re going to say?”
“You felt lost so you said your name to yourself at night. Okay.”
And then he had turned on the television, signaling to his wife that she was being self-absorbed.
When Ellen got out of the shower, she put on her robe, the expensive silk one from Crabtree & Evelyn that she had purchased as an indulgence during the separation. When she walked into the bedroom, her father was there, sitting in the old cherry rocker from the family home in South Carolina. He had spent two months refinishing it. Ellen saw him leaning over and tying his shoelaces. Then she watched as he straightened himself, rested his back against the slats, placed his elbows on the arm rests, laced his fingers in his lap, crossed his legs, and gazed out the bedroom into the hallway.
He looked as natural as the spry cardinal in the evergreen tree outside her window.
“Dad?” she called, her voice like a question to herself. Then louder, “Dad?”
He turned his eyes to her, and in a moment he unclasped his hands, pushed against the arm rests, and began to lift himself. He was now standing but with his knees still bent, a posture so familiar to her it was almost part of her living, everyday body, like a pronounced freckle on her leg. He leaned toward her, his head slightly in front of his shoulders, his mouth in that familiar half-smile of his, a communication she remembered from before words.
“Helen,” he said like an answer, not a question at all. And that was all he said before his body began to look as if it were composed of faintly colored lights you could see through, and then he was gone.
Helen was her aunt’s name, her father’s younger sister’s name.
When the phone rang, Ellen was so startled she dropped an earring.
It was Martin.
“I left some yogurt on the counter in the kitchen,” he remarked, and she understood that he meant for her to put it in the refrigerator.
“Oh. Oka-ay,” she pulled the last syllable out into two.
“What’s going on?”
She put the receiver down, ending the connection, and when the phone rang again she didn’t answer.
She was full of love for the universe. She did not want to be interrupted.
All her life, she had been happy with her father. If someone had plotted his line of vision, it would have ended in the stars. Still, in Nigeria, where he was the administrator of a Baptist hospital, he had planted his feet on the earth and was as disciplined as an athlete about his work. Yet, he did not search for fame. And thus, in their relationship, he had been free to love his daughter.
When she got to her department, Ellen ventured into the faculty lounge just long enough to shove a drink into the refrigerator. Entering her office, she closed the door immediately. She thought about Martin and how she had not answered the phone when he called back. The department meeting was not for an hour yet.
Ellen did not turn on the fluorescent light. She had no need to with the fifteen-foot, floor-to-ceiling window that looked out onto trees and beyond them to the street. Besides, the artificial light would shine from under her door onto the wooden floors of the hallway, and she did not want anyone to know she was here.
She sat in her office chair.
Since the time she was a young mother and a graduate student—working part-time too, since Martin was also in school—she had lived this way, furtively, hiding in the wings and yet hoping to be found, rewarded for her efforts. At first she was only protecting herself, she thought, and desiring reasonable recognitions without having to advertise herself. But as she found her way in the profession, first as an assistant professor with a book, then another book and a promotion, and so on, her reasons for concealment had changed. And her desire for honors had escalated. She felt something had been lost to her, maybe greater joy with her husband and son. She couldn’t be sure. She needed time to think. Certainly she felt she had paid too high a price if the reward for her efforts was this office and the opportunity to keep laboring at the same rate—teaching eighty students a semester, doing her research and writing on the weekends and holidays. Something else—something large—should come to her in recompense for the loss she felt. This morning, remembering her father, Ellen felt a longing flood out of her onto the floor. Her earlier euphoria gone, she would not have been surprised to look down into a circle of liquid on the floor around her chair. Had she really seen him? Could grief create such yearning that her father would appear to her?
When Thomas left for college two years earlier, Ellen had realized she might have wanted more than one child if her profession had not been so demanding. But how would she have fit a baby into her bid for tenure? She hadn’t believed she could manage more than her marriage and her commitment to Thomas and her job, and, she knew this last: she had been ambitious.
The further she had gone—in life, in her profession, in her marriage—the less Ellen had known what yielded joy or what brought sorrow, and she’d withdrawn, even at times from her father. She did feel that he had expected something of her. Perhaps she wanted an award so she could call him.
“Dad, I’ve won a Guggenheim.”
That would have pleased him, wouldn’t it? Ellen could not be sure. It might have pleased her mother.
Occasionally, Ellen experimented with a more public persona. Earlier in her career she had attended a prestigious gathering of feminist critics at a major literary conference. Boldly, she had sat in the front row and offered to take up the office of secretary when none of the older, more famous women wanted the job. After she got home, she became desperate to free herself from the obligation. Fortunately, she had developed vertigo for a period of time and was able to bow out with some integrity, though she never felt truly absolved. Her father had always told her to finish what she started.
On another occasion, Ellen was invited to speak at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. She would be paid. Ellen knew her material the way a mother knows the tender ridges of her child’s vertebrae, which she caresses every night. She decided to accept but she didn’t look forward to it, remembering that she never quite fit in, was never the quick, witty, lovely woman at the table who drew people’s devotion. She told her father she wished she hadn’t agreed on the trip.
“Why don’t you want to go to the college?” her father asked. In retirement, he still sometimes spoke as if he were a missionary in Africa in the 1950s and colleges were scarce, so anyone would know which one he meant.
The truth about Ellen’s father was that he had expected much from her: integrity, hard work, even beauty of a sort. She could still feel the press of his eyes on her Sunday “outfit,” as he would call her girlhood ensemble, checking to be sure she bore herself well or that her white socks with the lace trim were perfectly matched. Still, he had often indulged her and said, with his smile, that there was no one like her in the universe; she would not fail.
Sometimes Ellen wished to repair to a small enclave somewhere in the foothills with a band of writers and artists. Often when she conjured up this fantasy she was aware that artists are likely to be envious of one another, but sometimes she forgot. In this vision—which ran counter to the desire for unsolicited awards—painters and writers, photographers and sculptors, musicians and quilters would work alone during the day and no one would really compete—everyone’s work would be so different—and none of them was painting or writing for fame anyway. That was the best part. One would be able to relax. Occasionally someone would play bagpipes in the late afternoon. In such a setting, Ellen might be able to befriend another Ellen. She would not have to cherish the difference of her history so much because she would have the difference of her writing, her own voice.
Dinner would always be some warm generous stew in a huge pot and salads just picked from the garden. The smell of yeasty breads would hover about the group like the breath of Apollo. And éclairs for dessert, or perfect fresh fruit. After dinner they would share from their work. Finally, the group would sit around a fire, or in the summer gather in the amphitheater and watch a sunset over glasses of wine.
Sleep would come like closing a well-made book, simply, softly, elegantly.
Ellen was not shallow. She felt things so deeply she was almost bottomless. She couldn’t sleep, and not only because her father had died. She worried about her students, almost all of them white, who seemed to believe that hard work alone was the key to success.
These days, they didn’t reserve their disdain for characters like Dave in Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” who, they argued, though a black sharecropper’s son in the 1930s, should have known better than to get a gun and shoot someone’s mule. He might have gone to night school, completed his GED, pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. During the class discussion, Ellen briefly remembered the look of a young Nigerian man who had asked her father for work on the mission compound when there was no work. He had looked defiant and sad. But the class period was not long enough for Ellen to range from North Carolina to Nigeria and back to Richard Wright. Her students’ young, prematurely rigid imaginations (or so Ellen thought) made them similarly dissatisfied with white characters who weren’t measuring up. The girl in Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” should not have agreed to an abortion. She should have stood up to the American, had the baby, sought a profession. How a young single mother was to accomplish such feats in Spain in the years between World War I and World War II, they weren’t sure. But Hemingway’s girl had disappointed them, and Ellen’s students were angry.
Ellen had had an abortion in the year before her tenure decision.
She did not tell them that.
She prodded her students to consider other possibilities for interpreting Hemingway’s story. Perhaps it was the older American man, and not the girl, who was shirking his duty; perhaps the story illustrated an ebbing of faith in God in the aftermath of war; perhaps “Hills like White Elephants” was about the failure to create, not babies but art.
The failure to create.
Ellen had begun to hear her lectures as an echo of her losses.
Her students did not like her views on Hemingway or Richard Wright, and she became afraid that they would leave college without ever seeing the possibilities. What would she have achieved if she could not spark her students’ desire to imagine and to sympathize with others unlike themselves?
Ellen thought of her son, who had not exactly burned up the books in college but who was witty and kind. What had his teachers thought of his efforts? What did they feel they had achieved in the classroom?
She had left him—her son that is—when she left his father. Thomas had been sixteen.
“I’m not going with you,” he said, and she was shocked.
Was it guilt or love that had led her recently to join a humanitarian organization that dug deep wells in West African countries? Ellen could no longer tell. And the books she had written—overly complex literary analyses of Edith Wharton and Eudora Welty? Did she write them because she found it impossible to write love poems to her husband?
Ellen grieved over years of tedious arguments with Martin when now she could see that neither of them had been right or wrong. They had only been so different in their habits and desires. Since her father’s death, dreams dragged through her nights like heavy, twined cables under the Atlantic. She had a dream of her own death in which no one noticed her absence. Ellen needed some things to keep her afloat and in the world. Her name, for example, or a certificate of merit that would say: Look. You have performed splendidly. Many people love you.
Was it last night she had dreamed in tattered sleep that she was a girl again? And with her father in the backyard? Ellen turned her head to one side, trying to remember. Her father was watching her at the high jump. Yes. Telling someone—she could not remember who it was in the dream—that his daughter could compete in the Olympics if only they held them in Nigeria. What went unspoken: because he was a missionary, he could not leave the “field” to take his daughter to Rome or New York or even Nairobi. Besides, she would need a coach, a real place to practice, all sorts of things missionary life did not afford.
Ellen rose and looked into the mirror on her office wall, the mirror beside the poster of Nelson Mandela, gray haired, in a photo taken the day he walked out of prison, his fist raised in the Afrika salute. Free at Last, the caption read. Nelson Mandela had spent years in prison, years in solitary confinement. What were her losses compared to his?
“But they are losses,” she said to the poster.
The great South African appeared almost translucent in the photograph, like her father had that morning just before he disappeared.
When Ellen finally opened her door and headed down the hall to check her mail, she saw a man leaning casually into the office of the secretary to the department head. He had blond hair, the kind she had always liked: full and straight and cut in a slightly angled fashion. From a National Geographic she had perused years ago, Ellen had developed the idea that white men in Africa who sat under baobab trees while studying giraffes had hair such as his. The man’s arms were tanned, and his torso tapered down from his shoulders. On her way back from the mailroom, she saw him again. He was walking toward her. Ellen was glad she was wearing a skirt and not the strict academic attire of slacks and a jacket, because she saw right away that he was a man she had once danced with. One evening over a year ago—during her separation from Martin—she had left her apartment, driving to the Lone Star Cantina. It had been a Thursday night, and you could take free lessons before the crowd of regulars gathered. The two of them had been among fourteen or so other beginners learning the West Coast swing. Going to the Lone Star was not at all like Ellen, who had never walked into a bar alone in her life. In the period of the separation, she had continued to wear her wedding ring, but that night she had taken it off and left it in the glove box of her car.
During the lesson itself Ellen had not focused on the blond man who was now approaching her in her department; she had been too involved with her own feet and the giddiness. After the lesson, she and the man had danced—for two hours at least. He was better than she but not by much. What charmed her was the way his shirt fit so neatly across his chest. And his face, which she found attractive, was slightly rugged, like the man’s in the National Geographic. He did not leave her to dance with anyone else. At last he had walked with her to her car. Ellen remembered the night as one of the most fulfilling romances of her life, though they had not even kissed.
Now in the hallway she realized he had no more business in her department than a man from a highway construction crew. He owned a bookstore in Durham. He had come looking for her. Though he pretended to be surprised.
“Ellen?” he asked.
He must have missed the faculty directory on the first floor. That was why he was talking to the secretary now, trying to find her office.
So she played along as if he were a friend of a friend, someone she had met once on a dim afternoon, someone you would only half remember.
They stopped and looked at each other and smiled.
He was carrying some books. She thought of her wedding ring and closed her left hand downward. She wanted at least to hear what he might say. Certainly she was not going to begin: Oh, I’m married. That night I was only playing.
“I was in the library,” he started and then hesitated. No clear case could be made for visiting the library and then leaving campus by way of her department. Momentarily he held the books out, as if he meant to give them to her. “I’m beginning ballroom dancing. I found some books. Someone said there was a chapter here at the university, lessons, a regular group. I thought you might know something.”
So he admitted he had come for her but on a false pretext. She noticed again how his shirt fit his chest so precisely, and when she saw the small white scar at his temple, she wanted to touch it.
In her office with the door open and both of them sitting, she learned that he had once played football for the high school Thomas recently attended. A football player (long ago, but what did it matter) who owned a bookstore and wanted to learn ballroom dancing. Well, she thought, no wonder I liked him. And her eyes lingered on his hands, now balancing the books on his right knee.
She did not say: I am drawn to your hair and the idea of you in Africa.
He did not say: I remember your slender waist and when I read a novel I often think of you.
She did not tell him: I had an abortion. How bad is that?
He did not tell her: My wife left me and remarried and I still find it difficult to eat dinner alone.
Instead, their voices met in that formal way that strangers’ voices do when they are suddenly brought close, as in an elevator.
Before he left he stood for a moment in her doorway with those books on his right hip and his left shoulder against the door frame. “Maybe I’ll run into you again,” he reflected. She said nothing but smiled at his shoulders, which seemed strong enough to sprout wings, and when he left she closed the door.
She closed the door and turned her chair to the window and sat. The window was arched at the top and a wild vine had grown up and around it so that the window itself was beautifully framed from the outside. The leaves of the vine were deep lavender green.
It was time for her department meeting but she would not go. It no longer mattered. She thought about her father.
She had not known what he had meant by saying “Helen,” calling his sister. But now, hearing how Richard said her name, she realized that her father must have said “Ellen.” Her name. Her father had called her.
As she sat in her office chair looking out the window, she remembered her father’s hands, always so beautifully groomed, the nails cut across but tapered slightly at the edges and the skin under the nails the color of white opal. How sad she had been in his last hours as the skin turned lavender, almost blue. But somehow her witness of that change had brought an intimacy with her father that Ellen had not experienced before, this though she had been in love with him all of her life. She had never known exactly how to say, I am fourteen; can you tell me what to do now? In the weeks before his death, she did not say, My father, how can I help you? I am sorry for the distress I caused you when I left my husband. She had never said, Dad, you sometimes frightened me with your requirements.
When she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder, she did not turn around.
“You were so focused as a little girl; you would stick your tongue out between your teeth when you played.”
“I guess that explains the braces later,” she answered, remembering how he was the one who took her to the orthodontist.
She felt him squeeze her left shoulder and then pick something—a piece of lint, a stray hair?—from her blouse. When she was young, riding in the front seat of the car with him, he had squeezed her knees between his thumb and fingers until she cried with delight.
“You were already where you wanted to be when you were little, suspended in eternity. Why do you ask so much of yourself now?”
Ellen stood and turned to face her father. For some reason, she imagined he would be wearing his tan jacket and a blue shirt underneath it. But no one was there. Only the door she had closed behind her.
She sat again in her chair. Holding her knees with both hands, she was coming to know what the ancients meant by angels. They meant beings who are closer to the living after they die than they were before, messengers who still desire to make something right.
Since his death, her father had already spoken to her twice. In a dream, he had called her on the phone. “You don’t have to take the trip,” he said. “Don’t push yourself.” He had meant she did not need to go to the conference in Vancouver when she was still recovering from the flu. And she didn’t go. Another time, in church, during a prayer he had said, “I’m still with you.” Once, her father’s spirit passed through her in the kitchen when she was chopping green peppers on the wooden cutting board. She felt as if he got hung up at her wrist because her left hand jerked involuntarily. “Hi, Dad,” she said. “You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that. I’ve got a knife, you know.” When her hand steadied, she spoke again. “Mom really misses you.” And she had turned as she had in her office, believing she would see him.
Six months since the stroke and Ellen no longer questioned her father’s presence. Sitting in her office she was becoming grateful for his death. Not that she did not weep often and literally hold herself and rock in a sadness larger than the ocean she had crossed as a girl.
At the moment, however, she was annoyed.
“Why did you leave?” she asked. She did not mean Why did you die? She meant she wasn’t through with the conversation at hand. “What do you mean I ask so much of myself? You asked so much of me. Remember! I need some absolution. I think I lost something. Was I too ambitious? I don’t know. Tell me.” Her voice was rising, and she wondered too late if her colleague in the next office could hear her.
Ellen let her eyes rest in the branches of a tree outside her window. Perhaps she sat for fifteen minutes, maybe only two or three. And then she felt a movement, like a shift in a lock, unloosening something in her most interior self. Ellen breathed deeply. Her shoulders relaxed. “He’s telling her to ease up.” Now she was almost whispering. “Maybe I could ease up on my students. They have their losses too. Maybe we still have time.” Her father had said she lived in eternity.
Ellen began to wish she had had a grandfather, someone she had known as a girl and who had died before her father. James and Ben were her grandfathers’ names. But they were dead before she was born, and growing up as she had in Africa, she might not have known them anyway. Ellen realized that what she had needed for a long time was an ancestor. How are you going to manage with only living people as guides, people swayed by the heat or a deadline, people who believed time ran out? No wonder Nigerians revered their ancestors. How much can the living know? The idea swelled up in her, large and green. It was preposterous to wish for people dead. What was more preposterous was to be so alone when the dead—your “late” father, as Nigerians would say—could provide so much perspective.
She began to laugh.
“How can I tell anyone?”
When Ellen arrived home that evening—for she had been held up in the department by a student and was much later than she had expected to be and with daylight savings time and the fact that her watch had stopped two weeks ago—she wasn’t aware of the hour. Her husband was in the yard. Martin was seldom home before six o’clock. A man who sleeps late and eats breakfast at two-thirty in the afternoon does not make it home promptly by six. And Martin was seldom out in the yard unless she coaxed him. She was the gardener. But there he was, bent over the day lilies.
“What are you doing?” she called; she felt slightly atremble, remembering Richard.
“Straightening these,” he answered, without lifting his head.
The day lilies were on a hill. She started to walk down toward her husband, who was still speaking but without looking up. She needed to get closer to him and forget Richard.
“The dog next door got out and decided to roll in them.”
She saw that the bright yellow lilies were bent as if a small lioness had crouched there. The orange ones, further down the hill and about which she cared much less, still held their heads high.
Martin looked up at his wife and smiled, and she saw him in rich shades of late afternoon, where the colors had deepened as after a rain. A strip of light was falling on his right wrist and down onto his pants leg. She was grateful for him as you are when someone you love gets off an airplane. I’ll be okay, then, she thought.
“Why are you home so early?” She took a few steps closer, carefully planting her heeled shoes on the incline. Really, she just wanted to hear their voices together in the open air.
“To see you,” he said, his eyes wrinkled up because he was looking into the late sun behind her. His tie was relaxed and the first button of his blue shirt undone, exposing the strong lines of his neck. She saw a bird’s feather nestled in his hair.
And then he was bent over again.
“I know you like the yellow ones,” he added. “What do you call them?”
“But do the yellow ones have a special name?”
“I don’t remember.” She looked down on his bent back. When had he cared to ask her the names of flowers? She felt impatient. Didn’t he realize there was something important to talk about?
“I thought I would cut some of the stems that got broken and put them in a vase.” Martin was working assiduously with his pocketknife, attempting to gather the yellow flowers.
“They’re day lilies, not like the ones we saw yesterday. These won’t last,” Ellen lamented.
“The day isn’t over,” he answered, looking up, and heading in her direction, bearing before him a choir of yellow flowers.
He was so close to being right.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.