The Insistence of Memory: An Excerpt

Enjoy this preview excerpt from The Insistence of Memory, by Susan Quilty.

Chapter One

The ceiling is smooth and white above Joanne’s head. Shadows play on the wall as light filters in through the partially drawn shades. Joanne doesn’t notice the worn paperback that is spread open, its pages bent, less than a foot from her head. She doesn’t notice the book light, fallen forgotten on the floor, still shining faintly in the morning light.

While her eyes skim the surface of the ceiling, Joanne’s inward gaze focuses on the blue pickup truck from her fragmented dreams. She sees it driving away, in stages, down a long dirt road. She knows Jeff sits behind the wheel. Every night, driving away.

The images blur as little-girl chatter filters in from the bedroom down the hall. The truck loses shape. The road fades away. Joanne can’t make out the words, but she knows the familiar cadence. There’s a lilting quality to the conversation, a rise and fall that’s almost like a song. As Joanne listens, she wonders if she did that to them. To her daughters. She wonders if their speech patterns have been affected by the years of poems, fables, and nursery book rhymes. She wonders if she had the right to fill their heads with fairy tales.

When she reaches the kitchen, Joanne’s socks—Jeff’s socks—pad softly against the yellowing linoleum. The mottled gray and white wool bags and pools around her feet. The sewn red lines rest loosely crooked across her toes, while floppy heels stick out along the backs of her ankles. The heavy socks are too warm for late spring, but she wears them every night. She wears them because they were Jeff’s. Keeping him close, even as she dreams of him driving away.

Breakfast is a practiced routine by now. There are no thoughts as Joanne lays out the table: two ceramic bowls, two metal spoons, two glasses of juice, a box of cereal, and the milk. She puts on a pot of strong coffee and fishes a cold bagel out of a paper bag on the counter. She looks at the bagel, sniffs it, feels its cornmeal-dusted texture, and puts it back in the bag uneaten. She stares at the brown paper bag for several long, slow breaths.

The bag sits in a ray of sunlight. Crumpled folds take on greater depth in the slanting light, while Joanne’s restless eyes mindlessly follow their maze of soft creases.

She is pouring her second cup of coffee when the girls tumble into the kitchen. They are laughing as they cross the threshold but stop when they catch sight of Joanne. Smiles pass uncertainly between mother and daughters. There was a time, not long ago, when the girls would have ambled over for hugs and kisses. Now they are wary. There is hesitation, just inside the doorway, before they take their usual places at the table.

Joanne watches her daughters with a new detachment.

The same straight hair trails down both of their backs. The same dark eyes assess the world around them. They are identical, in appearance if not in temperament, but they have always been unique in Joanne’s eyes. Until lately. Now she has begun to see them as one unit. One responsibility to be fed, and clothed, and tucked into bed.

The girls are somewhat small for their eight years, but they have a way of filling the room, of filling the house, with more than their physical size. Everything about them is larger to Joanne. More significant than Joanne herself has become. It happened gradually, she thinks, or maybe it happened all at once. Maybe it began the day they came home from the hospital, or the moment they took their first breaths, or in the instant when she first felt their fluttery movements inside her body.

“You always get the blue bowl,” Sarah grumbles while watching Ruthie pour cereal. True to form, Ruthie quickly offers to switch.

“Not after you’ve touched it,” Sarah scowls, while taking the cereal box from her sister’s hands.

Ruthie, more sensitive these past weeks, blinks back tears and quietly waits for Sarah to finish with the milk before filling her own bowl. In another time, Joanne would have stepped in. She would have scolded Sarah and encouraged Ruthie to stand up for herself. She wants to step in now, but the unformed words get lost in her throat. By the time she feels ready to speak, the moment has passed. The girls are eating together and softly giggling over a quiet conversation. The argument short-lived and already forgotten.

Their words are barely audible now and Joanne wonders if their whispers are for her benefit. She turns away to pack their lunches. Breathing to steady herself for the next several minutes of active mothering.

No matter how early the girls get up in the mornings, they are rarely waiting at the curb when the school bus arrives. Today is no exception. Ruthie waits impatiently by the front door, glancing down the street every few seconds, while Sarah ties her shoe with no sense of urgency. Joanne stands quietly beside them, a lunchbox in each hand. She’s not prodding them along, the way she once did, but their pace, prodded or not, has not changed.

And then, all at once, the wait is over. Ruthie yanks open the front door, snatches her lunchbox, calls a hasty goodbye, and hurries down the front path. She hits the sidewalk just as the yellow bus pulls to a stop before their house, and she glances back with a look of anxious desperation. Sarah ambles behind, lunchbox swinging at her side. Joanne can’t see Sarah’s face, but she knows it is calm, unconcerned about making the bus driver wait. For the second time this morning, she wants to reprimand Sarah, shame her even, but the idea is too big. It takes too much effort.

Both girls are on the bus now and the door cranks shut. A cool breeze blows gently across the front porch as Joanne pulls her flannel bathrobe a little tighter. She could go back inside the house, but she doesn’t. She feels compelled to stand on the porch until the bus drives out of sight. It’s a tradition she will not change. One small moment that feels almost the same.

With the morning light reflecting off the dark windows, Joanne cannot see inside the school bus. She has no way of knowing if the girls are looking out at her, or if they are even sitting on this side of the bus. Yet she steps to the edge of the front porch as the bus begins to roll away. She raises her hand in a silent wave, feeling the smile stretch encouragingly across her face. Her eyes go slightly out of focus and her mind, for a moment, mercifully forgets everything else. Joanne waves until the school bus is out of sight, then lowers her hand and wonders what she will do until it returns.

Continue in The Insistence of Memory…

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