I'm used to this, waking up in the middle of the night and unable to
fall asleep again. And here in _____ Bay or _____ Beach this insomnia
is probably exacerbated because for this night, as well as for upcoming
nights, there's the added anxiety of sleeping in unfamiliar beds in
unfamiliar rooms. But I've stopped battling sleeplessness; I've conceded
to that demon. No more do I lie awake and analyze why I'm lying awake.
Now I just get up. At home, I sit at my pine desk with my exams graded,
with my yellow legal pads and mechanical pencils, with my gooseneck
halogen lamp, with a brass honeybee paperweight. I sit there each night
So here I sit likewise in this motel room. I'm wearing my flannel pajamas
(pastel blue with navy piping, hospital like, yes, but on sale: 40%
off). Here I sit in the room's one chair, a chair with a dangerous and
sordid history maybe, maybe dragged from a shipwreck off Pacific cliffs
to furnish this room (its upholstered cushion, orange woven wool, reeks
of brine). Here I sit near narrow windows with a view of the lot where
my beige Ford Fiesta is parked. From this second story angle the Fiesta
resembles a giant bunion pad with wheels. Maybe I should have opted
for a Camry (the rental agency had a line-up of them, each candy red
glistening in the sun, very nice), but I'm fond of a deal and ended
up with this clunky Fiesta.
I flew into the Seattle/Tacoma airport this afternoon. How pretty the
earth framed in the jet's oval window: green fields, snowy slopes, rivers
like threads from this altitude. But next to me was an awful man, a
Russian boozed on mini bottles of Tanqueray gin. He was crowding my
armrest. I wanted to call him either a moose sphincter or an amoeba
fart, but I held my tongue. Instead, in my leaden now, now, children,
let's behave voice, let's act like humans voice, I suggested to Mr.
Russian that he consult the stewardess concerning the airline's policy
on armrest crowding. He got off my armrest, then offered me a wintergreen
Certs. This was not a courtesy; he gestured with a wave that my breath
was noxious to him. I was glad as hell to get off that flight.
I claimed my baggage (an ancient but durable brown suitcase) from the
rattling carousel and hurried to the Thrifty booth for my beige Fiesta
(the name Thrifty thrills me, makes my heart go pitter-patter). I then
drove west following the route I'd studied on maps; I drove until I
reached _____ Bay or _____ Beach (these villages of coastal Washington
have similar identities, are easily confused). I checked into the Economy
Lodge here. Yes, the Economy Lodge, the un-neon, un-glitzy sign beckoning
to me, the idea of economy delighting me as much as the idea of thrift.
I am undeniably cheap. Tight-fisted, penny-pinching. But there's no
shame in this. On the contrary, there is genuine joy in securing a discount.
Those who share this love of frugality understand this; parsimony is
a kind of cult.
The room is boxy, with rough, pea-green carpet, a lumpy double bed under
a blushing chenille spread, a sink with a cracked basin and a foxed
mirror, a mildew-caulked tub, and mineral-encrusted faucets. When the
heating unit clicks on there's a baffling, acrid odor, vaguely vomit-like.
But there is this decent pair of windows with hinged upper sections.
I'm unable to see the ocean from this room, but I can hear it; I hear
the slurp of surf through these flop-open windows. It's enough for me.
After I checked in, I ate a satisfactory dinner (steamed cod and boiled
carrots) in a café across the road, then inspected but did not purchase
a slice of lemon meringue pie. In the room once more, I scrubbed my
face and neck, flossed and brushed my teeth, changed into my flannel
nightwear, watched the evening news and local weather on the TV bolted
to the wall, then went to bed. But, of course and as usual, I woke up
around 3 AM. During these many months of insomnia, I've doodled on scraps
of paper, I've done crossword puzzles. But these activities have proven
futile and wasteful; they have not prevented the wee hours' terrible
conclusions from coming (these hours are wee, but they're also raw,
cutting, unsettling). So I've recently resolved to use this sleeplessness,
to apply these hours to a project.
My project? I'm putting together the story of oxygen. Nothing lengthy,
nothing fancy. Just a pamphlet or booklet printed and bound at Kinko's
with a brick red or jade green cover. I've drafted one version, but
its language is too technical, so when I pick it up again (when I go
home and if), I'll deliberately dumb it down, eliminate the unreadable
aspects. Perhaps it should become a children's book with illustrations
(not done by me, I cannot draw); perhaps I should create a character,
a bunny, for example, a large brown bunny, erudite, with pointed, attentive
ears, wire-rimmed bifocals, and halitosis. This science bunny would
hop, hop, hop through the story of oxygen. Perhaps he could hop through
the stories of every element, through the entire periodic table.
Oxygen: my insomniac project. This is my focus. Or things like this:
reading science journals, biographies of great people (FDR, Jefferson,
Julius Caesar) and non-fiction (battle of Verdun, history of Apartheid).
This is better for me and easier for me. I am more cerebral than corporeal
and that's how it is and I am okay with it. I have become entirely sexless.
There are rumors and dumb jokes in the teachers' lounge, of course,
but I ignore them. I do not care. But I have had a beau or two. Two
exactly. Specimen A: Russell, a classmate from college, a medical student,
a future doctor of nephrology, intelligent, but whose fidelity was a
bit if and maybe. Specimen B: Louis, a loan officer whose painful timidity
charmed me but who, after eighteen months, informed me that he could
not love an ice cube, but that I qualified for 6.5% financing.
So...Oxygen, featuring _____, the science crazy bunny. Oxygen! Symbolized
by the simple and elegant letter O. O, which is useful as zero too.
O, the shape of the mouth when expressing amazement, as in, "O, Louis,
how cruel!" O, the first figure scrawled by babies with crayons, around
and around. O, hooked into loops in primary school penmanship lessons.
O, quick padding for the lyric-deficient songwriter. O, O, O! Isn't
this lovely? How this element, the most necessary and happily the most
abundant, is represented by this letter O, so meaningful on its own?
I wax poetic perhaps (I've always wanted to wax poetic), but there is
genuine poetry in such things.
I ponder too (ponder and wax: I'm caught doing both lately, especially
in these dead, dark hours) on the man who identified the element oxygen.
I'll mention him in my story, of course. Joseph Priestly, English amateur
scientist, through various experiments in his home lab, isolated oxygen
in 1774 (I'll have him illustrated with a high collar and shoe buckles,
with _____ assisting him, clasping a glass beaker in his fuzzy paws).
In a footnote of fairness, I'll add that a Swedish scientist, Carl Wilhelm
Scheele, was simultaneously performing similar tests in his own laboratory
and also identified oxygen. But it is Priestly who is generally given
In my sudden enthusiasm for my project, I now display in my classroom
a reproduction of a portrait of Mr. Priestly alongside the previously
hung portraits of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. Though Priestly
is not quite of the same ilk as those others (he really was an amateur,
with no formal schooling, his tests crude), I nonetheless have included
him in that line-up of cardboard likenesses thumb-tacked above the chalkboard.
He was a plain-faced man, with thin, inexpressive lips, but with eyes
blazing with curiosity. Am I waxing poetic again? Forgive me. Is it
possible to wane poetic? I'll attempt that.
I am, in fact, a teacher. I've taught physical science at Belker High
in Chandler, Arizona for twenty-two years. I have always been strict
and demanding, but recently, actually rather suddenly, since my mother's
death, I've relaxed my standards. I suppose this is wise, for my own
sanity if nothing else. There is less pressure now on students to struggle,
to ruminate over problems. What's wrong with you, Miss Winston? There's
no such thing as an actual attention span, Miss Winston! Breathe, Beth.
Inhale. Exhale. There. Better. But let me add that my pedagogical method
has been further undermined of late by the younger crop of teachers
fresh from graduate school who, instead of following me and the other
veterans, reject proven paths and lead their already span-less students
into utter chaos!
Inhale. Exhale. Calm down, Miss Winston. Calming down.
One of the newest of the new teachers is a young woman named Debby.
She is predictably blond; she flounces and bounces. "Science is fun!"
she squealed to her 9th grade biology class on day one of the fall term.
"Science is fun!" This jubilant yelp cut through the accordion curtain
drawn to halve one room into a pair and interrupted my preparatory remarks
to my own students. Eyes lifted, ears perked up. What? What did we hear?
Science is fun? I quit my speech and snapped my fingers. "Children,"
I announced (since adolescents hate being called children I do it frequently),
"Science is not fun. Science is serious and complex. Science is rigorous.
Do these men look like they're having fun?" I jabbed the rubber tip
of my steel pointer at the cardboard portraits of the great scientists.
While I waited for an answer I wondered how to rid the school of perky
Debby next door, maybe with a fizzing, fruit-flavored tablet of cyanide
plopped in her morning can of Fresca? Moments passed and a girl piped
up with, "Einstein had fun."
"O?" I answered, packing the solo syllable (and the symbol of my dear
element) with practiced sarcasm.
"On those TV ads," the girl said. "Rent-To-Own. Where he was like confused
by the choice of appliances, you know, like ovens."
There was a hush in my classroom then. The students, sophomores, had
heard of my wrath, of my pen quick to ink detention slips. "She's old-fashioned."
"She's like from another century." I admit that I don't come off very
well with my students, but I'm not there to be a pal, a chum. I am there
to teach them procedure, discipline, and awe. Yes, awe. Precious awe.
I am discouraged by their obvious contempt of awe. But I glanced at
my cardboard heroes and I imagined Darwin's awe at the spectacle of
finches and tortoises as he prowled the Galapagos Islands; I imagined
Einstein's awe as he cracked the formula for energy while clerking at
a patent office in Bern. And, of course, I imagined the eccentric Joseph
Priestly, with his tubes and flames and apparatuses, identifying a gas
then unrecognized. Awe. I inhaled. I exhaled. I returned to my opening
remarks. I was letting things slide.
As further proof of my recent laxity, I've chosen to use my so-called
"personal days" which have been accumulating in a kind of time bank.
The principal of Belker, Lester Lieber, informed me during the pre-semester
potluck that I'd better "use up" these days because that's what they're
designed for, for "using up."
"And what exactly is 'using up?'" I asked.
"Listen, Miss Winston," he said. "These personal days are going to be
wiped soon. Wiped! So please use them up. You're entitled to call in
sick every once in a while. Even if you're not sick. You can call in
sick if you want an extra Friday to go camping."
" I don't go camping."
"Okay, not camping. But whatever it is you enjoy doing. Nobody really
knows what you enjoy doing. If I did, I wouldn't have suggested camping.
The point is, Miss Winston, I want you to use up your personal days.
Because I guarantee they will be wiped. Wiped!"
I blinked at Principal Lieber. He has a gleaming, yellowish skull with
a rim of dark brown hair and he always wears sagging cardigans; he resembles
a bottle of hazelnut liqueur. He continued, "And since your mother's
That. That. "Okay," I said.
"Okay. I'll 'use up' my personal days."
"Great. That's wonderful," said Principal Lieber who was suddenly sweating
not bullets but torpedoes. This amused me. Had I made him nervous? How
funny. "And don't worry, we'll find a proper substitute."
"Okay," I said again, then I walked past him to the folding table of
casseroles and buffalo wings (my lime gelatin with wedges of pineapple
was a mild success, I noticed). I scooped another plop of Mrs. Alba's
macaroni salad onto my plate. As I stood there eating, observing my
colleagues hug and mug, I realized that an extended rest - an escape
- was not such an awful idea. But I could not picture my pale flab horizontal
on a white beach near sparkling blue water. Beached whale alert! Colleagues
spend holidays climbing peaks or rafting canyons. They've never asked
me to join them; I'd decline though, wouldn't I? Those activities involve
groups and groups are generally bad for me. I'm not skilled in unstructured
chitchat; I mumble and verbally stumble. Witty banter eludes me; it
won't wait for dissection and analysis. So I've come to this damp and
isolated seaside village for my little trip. The gloom and the gray
My name is Beth Winston. Beth is not, as is commonly assumed by those
filling in a form, such as the sleepy clerk of this Economy Lodge, an
abbreviated version of Elizabeth. No, it's simply Beth, a tidy and pragmatic
name. I am a woman on the verge of fifty, graying but not entirely gray,
with ample flesh on a sturdy frame; I wear plain clothing and sensible
shoes; I am acutely astigmatic and require thick glasses. I have buckteeth
and, as previously mentioned, chronic foul breath. I am not attractive.
I was the eldest child of Mark and Ida Winston of Miami, Arizona. Miami
is a small mining town east of Phoenix and my birthplace.
My family, which once included a younger brother named Oliver, lived
in a modest, pale yellow house. Behind the house my father kept a neat
garden of tomatoes, green beans, pattypan squash. He collected the vegetables
in a round brown basket and as he knelt to the earth to pinch things
from it, he hummed (he was a musician as well, had played clarinet with
a Phoenix jazz trio). In the evenings, for fun, he read philosophy (Nietzsche,
Sartre); he alternated this with issues of National Geographic (articles
on Inca sacrifice, grizzly bears fishing for salmon, Roman coins dug
up in London suburbs). His keen, curious mind was wasted in his job
as foreman of a factory for copper pipes, wiring, and tubing. But he
was happy, a man who fit into happiness.
As for my mother, she made the home my father provided for, but she
wasn't dismissed as an ordinary hausfrau. She was a woman of exceptional
beauty, with plum-black hair, creamy skin, and eyes of ink. She was,
according to my father, a gazelle, a flash flood, a nova. Obviously,
he adored her. He'd rescued her from a war-ravaged village in Italy
where he'd fought in 1944, a reluctant GI. He brought her home, taught
her English, gave her what he could afford of America. In turn, she
gave him children, first me (who had, she decided, "old world features,"
a throwback to the scowling, shawl-shouldered woman in a grainy sepia
photograph she'd held onto), then Oliver, a bright, beautiful boy, a
marvel, dark like her, breathtaking like her. She was a fine mother,
her discipline measured, her love limitless. I vividly recall the summer
Oliver and I inventoried the insects in the area: grasshoppers and crickets,
moths and butterflies, beetles and scorpions. We created a booklet (not
unlike my pending Oxygen); I wrote the text describing each specimen
and Oliver sketched their likenesses with colored pencils. Because she
loved us and wanted to show her enthusiasm, our mother assisted though
she grew squeamish when, with copper tongs, I plunged a bug into a jar
of formaldehyde, stilling its legs, its wings. She hated that instant,
but she loved us enough to endure it. She had too much love in her;
she had an excess of love to give.
And Oliver. Lovely Ollie. Whom I still miss. He'd have crossed into
his forties by now if what happened hadn't happened. Everyone claimed
later that they'd noticed nothing, no symptoms of sadness. He was always
a quiet, contemplative boy, but not sullen or brooding, and certainly
not like the smug brats in my classes with their pierced bits, idiotic
music, baggy pants. Ollie was a gem. He was effortlessly sweet and equally
good. I loved him. So did my father and my mother. How could we have
suspected that he'd hang himself in the cellar? He was too young to
have suffered from a failed romance (girls at his school had caught
his attention, but he was still boy-frightened of them); he didn't have
adult concerns (debts, unemployment). I suppose now that his was a case
of severe chemical imbalance; maybe he was a tad mad. Nobody understood
these things. The unseen turmoil in his funny, precious brain engulfed
him, I guess. I'm still guessing.
Our mother found him. She used the cellar for drying wild herbs and,
in rainy or cold weather, laundry too. Bundles of rosemary and lemongrass
swung from nails across the joists of the cellar's ceiling (the house
proper's floor grid); as well, on hangers, there were my father's work
shirts (tan shirts with his name embroidered in red thread above the
breast pocket), and the family's linen and undergarments, including
my mother's disturbingly enormous brassieres. An unspoken rule prohibited
me and Oliver from entering the cellar; this was our mother's realm,
mysterious and private. Then Oliver, just fifteen, violated this forbidden
zone (a calculated choice, I believe, not haphazard, he was too clever).
He carried a kitchen chair down the cellar stairs, anchored a rope around
the joists, slipped his neck into a loop, pulled the rope taut, further
secured it with a scout-taught knot, then kicked the yellow chair away.
There he hung for half a day with the tan uniforms shoulder to shoulder
like files, with the cloying sprigs.
"His Sunday shoes," my mother said later. "That's what I noticed when
I came down the stairs. And how still he was. His body not pivoting.
Doesn't the air circulate? Then I saw the chair knocked sideways onto
the floor. But it was his shoes I noticed first. His feet nearly together.
His toes pointed down. As if he were on tiptoe."
That's the sum of what my mother told me. I wanted other blanks filled.
Did she scream? Did she faint? Who cut Oliver down? Who brought his
body up? I wasn't there. I was away at college. I've since forgotten
what else I wanted to know. But what lingers, what echoes still? As
if he were on tiptoe. As if he were on tiptoe.
My father telephoned me and I hurried home from Tempe. I wanted and
was willing to suspend my semester, but my parents insisted that I return
to school within a day of the burial. This seemed insane and callous,
but they wanted to push on, to rush through the dark tunnel of those
days. The funeral was mercifully brief (the clergy available was a sincere
young priest with facial tics). I remember the morning was ultra-green
and luminous and breezy; I remember the overwhelming grotesqueness of
putting this boy's body into the damp ground.
When we came home, we splintered for the remainder of the day. My father
shed his suit in exchange for dungarees and boots and he went for a
long walk in the forest. I went up to Oliver's room. I wanted to box
up his belongings - brushes, art paper, trays of watercolor - and perhaps
find a clue, find something out-of-kilter. But there was nothing unusual,
nothing wrong, and no note of why in his schoolboy handwriting.
Later, a pick-up pulled up to the house. I recognized the vehicle by
the empty hives stacked in its bed. This was Mr. Unger who owned Miami's
Honey Farm. I was unaware that he knew our family and was curious why
he'd come here, why, if he wanted to mourn with us, he didn't come to
the funeral like other townspeople. I watched through Ollie's window
screen as Mr. Unger came up the cement walk dividing our lawn. He was
angular yet fluid, weathered, shy-seeming; he wore a celery-colored
canvas coat and faded jeans. He was carrying an object, something shiny
and golden, not a jar of honey as I initially thought, but the brass
bee I now use as a paperweight.
I heard the kitchen door open and slam, then my mother appeared below
me. "No, John," she said. "Go."
"I'm going to grieve," said Mr. Unger, his voice frail. "I want to grieve
like I'm supposed to."
My mother didn't respond to this. I assumed this was because she was
as confused as I was by Mr. Unger's reaction. He was just an acquaintance,
nothing more to us; he was a solitary man, marginal, with a reputation
for odd behavior (coaxing his bees with lullabies). Why was he so deeply
and obviously pained by Ollie's death? I became angry as I gazed down
at him and my mother. I suddenly felt greedy about Ollie's absence.
His absence belonged to us as a family; it was not properly the possession
of the community.
"Yes. Okay," my mother finally said. "Now go, John. Please. Before Mark...please."
Mr. Unger offered her the brass bee and she lifted it calmly from his
cupped palms. He drifted back to his pick-up and drove away.
Near dusk, when I came down from Oliver's room, I noticed the bee on
a shelf of our oak dish-hutch. In retrospect, this placement, so impudent,
seemed dangerous. My mother said to me, "Never mind that, Beth. Okay?"
And my father never mentioned the bee. I've recently realized he was
steeped with tact.
I withdrew from a program to study fossils in Canada that summer and
I came home. It was a predictably hushed summer though some routine
was reestablished. My father continued with his warehouse duties, but
in the evening found solace with his philosophers (he was on a Danish
kick then, I believe). My mother, who hadn't visibly changed, who was
still dazzling, had nonetheless disconnected within. She began chattering
to me about the war; she described severed limbs floating in bloody
gutters, the harsh winters, the lice, the Allied bombers "growling like
empty stomachs." But when I asked her help with cosmetics, fashion,
and hair, she refused me. I was actually half-glad; I was only showing
interest for her sake.
Also that summer, late, late at night (in the wee hours I'm again familiar
with now), after I was supposedly deeply asleep, I would hear music
sounding softly from the main room. I would creep to the landing and
cautiously peer down through the railings. My parents danced to a warped
45, the only recording of the Gila Trio, my father's clarinet breathy
and wavering in an achingly slow version of East Of The Sun, West Of
The Moon. They clung to each other and shuffled in a circle on the Navajo
rug. I should have crawled back to my room, but I didn't. I waded through
the music with them, through the disc's static crunch. One night, when
the song had ended and the record player's arm was bumping the spinning
spindle, I watched my mother detain my father in a stilling embrace
and I heard her whisper to him, "Don't mourn hard, Mark. You don't need
to mourn hard. This is not required of you."
How bizarre, how beautiful: this was my reaction. I guessed this was
a refugee's pragmatism, a method of coping, what to advise when one's
village is shelled into oblivion. Move on. Move forward. Obviously,
I grasped nothing then. Chemistry and physics, yes. Algorithms and complex
equations, yes. But the subjects of love, betrayal, and passion perplexed
me, dumbfounded me. It's just lately, during this bout of insomnia,
that I've come to understand my mother's meaning, what she was begging
of my father. Oliver himself would have been amused by the idea of being
the beekeeper's flesh and blood. He wouldn't have been bothered in the
least. That's how Ollie was.
With that brass honeybee, I've kept as well that scarred 45 of the Gila
Trio. The record rests in its original sleeve - indigo blue with a chrome
moon and in whimsical lettering the musicians' names - wedged between
some textbooks in my Chandler home. These are the only items I saved
when I sold the house in Miami a few months ago. My mother had continued
living there after my father's death nine years June (he died, I'll
add, within three months of John Unger whose funeral, unsurprisingly,
was sparsely attended and who, according to my mother, was buried in
his beekeeper's suit, including his veiled hood and his gloves). My
mother's mind further faltered after these men's deaths; she jabbered
incomprehensibly, but was occasionally lucid, enough so to hurl insults
when I suggested a nursing home. Her physical health failed as well;
her lungs seemed to wilt, her joints locked. She decayed like my father's
beloved garden, which, untended, had become a tangle of wild vines and
And now I'm in this motel room in _____ Bay or _____ Beach. I'm awake
and listening to the distant hiss and crush of surf through the flop-down
windows. A hesitant drizzle has begun; I glance down into the parking
lot and notice moisture gathering on the Fiesta's hood. What more to
do but make these observations? Consider again my oxygen pamphlet? Have
I mentioned oxygen's role in water, vital water? Urge O to cozy up with
a pair of hydrogen pals and then, splish-splash, have a bath. Maybe
I'll ask the scholarly bunny, _____, to chaperone the bashful molecules.
Wouldn't that be cute? And what else. What if I outlined the industrial
or medical uses of oxygen? How it flows from a pharmaceutical cylinder
through a transparent rubber hose and into the nostrils of a decrepit
old woman? Again, I'll bring in _____, show him casually shining his
spectacles while blindly stepping on the oxygen hose with his fuzzy
foot, show the old woman gasping and choking. That's dark, I suppose,
but a skilled illustrator could make it quite humorous.
Maybe coffee will be available in the lobby soon, in styrofoam cups
with powdered creamer and carcinogenic sweetener. Maybe the early shift's
staff will also unwrap a tray of lousy little muffins. Maybe I should
have spent more money and checked into a better hotel, with rooms less
pungent, less crusty, perhaps directly on the water. But I can hear
the ocean from here, right? I hear waves slapping the shore, the rocks.
Those windows there, up there, open an inch: I position this precarious
chair under the windows and I cautiously climb up. I balance with fingertips
against the panes of glass and bring my eyes level with the upper sections
of the windows. There's the ocean, the surface just becoming blue, the
waves like orange hems. I rise on the balls of my feet and I'm on tiptoe
now just like Oliver, on tiptoe just like Ollie when he kicked away
the yellow chair and the rope closed around his pencil neck. Like an