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Learning to Drive

Charlotte lay awake all night listening to the clock in the downstairs hallway. Every quarter hour it squeezed out a chime within a long and predictable sequence of sounds that became more distinct as the night wore on: a wheeze, a cough, a running start, and finally, a pause and a failure of nerve, and then a little song--another quarter hour is coming, another is gone, another is coming, another is gone. She pictured the old, dead quarter hours piling up, then sliding off the pile and disappearing into endless Time where quarter hours didn't count. Quarter hours were mere human constructions, temporary units fabricated by mankind for convenience in daily life, like minutes, though more important than minutes, since clocks didn't chime every minute--and for that she was very grateful. There was an infinite number of units of time, as many as you could think of names for, each one folded inside the other, their inward progression stretching beyond the mind's eye, to the outer edge of knowing, all of them ticking, relentlessly beating, like her own heart.

She decided to drown them. She gathered them into Melvin's fishing net and lowered them into a dark pool, watching as the flimsy little units cascaded gently toward the muck at the bottom. Just before they landed, she reversed the net and whipped it out of the water. Success! None had stuck! They were all gone, or nearly all. Just one was left; it clung to the net, its delicate green wings twitching, ticking, relentlessly beating. . . . She was doomed; she would never sleep. Her skin prickled; her long, heavy braid pulled at her scalp. She listened to Melvin breathing peacefully beside her, to the quiet little snort at the bottom of each breath that signaled his blissful oblivion. Across the hall, their two small sons slept on, two soldiers of sleep marching through the night. It was always she, the lone female, who had to carry the whole nocturnal consciousness of the household, she alone who watched and prayed, and waited for the dawn.

Insomnia had been a way of life in Charlotte's family. Her mother and two older sisters were always prowling the house at night in search of sleep, a loosely knit pack stalking the same elusive prey. Their mother read from Mrs. Eddy's works, her flowered bathrobe tucked tightly around her legs as she sat curled up on the couch, head resting on her hand under the glow of the lamp. Rosey, the oldest, read romantic novels, while Kitty, the middle child, did puzzles. (Kitty was always alert and cheerful no matter what the hour and could easily do anagrams after midnight.) Charlotte, the baby of the family, was last to join in their forays. At first she snacked, like any child let loose in an unsupervised kitchen. Later, she got out her crayons and sat alone at the long, polished table in the dining room, creating the same little scene over and over again: a house with a high-pitched roof and a garden in front (always drawn from the same perspective), a standard lollipop-shaped tree (with nests), a row of tall flowers marching alongside the walkway through the garden, two happy clouds, and a flock of V-shaped birds in the far distance. After she had made a few of these pictures, so full of goodwill and brave resolve despite the dark shadows in the corners of the room, her fatigue would take over and her flowers would wilt, the tree would list, her birds in flight would start to wobble, and Charlotte would awake with her face on the paper. As she groped her way back to bed, feeling vaguely ashamed that her staying power was so slight, she would always vow to do better next time.

Their father was the only one in the family who had a normal relationship with sleep: Jerome Baird took it for granted, looked forward to it, cherished his sleeping garb. He would doze off after meals or during his daughters' impromptu recitals and incoherent dramas, waking up just long enough to announce his intention of retiring, yawning and stretching as he locked the doors and made his sleepy way upstairs, carrying a book they all knew he would never stay awake long enough to read, and inspiring them all with envy.

After her youngest child was born, Charlotte had suffered a bout of insomnia so severe that she actually became physically ill. It was a time in her life that she still looked back on with apprehension; nevertheless, she was grateful for it, too, because it had led her back to Christian Science. Baird was only four at the time, the baby just a few weeks old. She had truly lost her wits, hardly knowing who she was. (At one point she even considered the possibility that she was someone else, an older woman who suffered from numbness in all her extremities and who rode buses in endless loops around the city.) The children needed all of her attention, yet she found it impossible to focus. She would wander off in search of a diaper and find herself in the basement, looking for a broom, or wake up at night, ravenous, and begin baking, then leave the batter to collapse in the bowl while she went to look up the fifth monarch of England in her college history text. Perversely, a sinister idea began to take hold: She would die if she slept, if she let go. In the wink of an eye she would go from constant, unwavering, unblinking consciousness to absolute extinction.

She became painfully aware of her pulse, coming to regard it as a fragile lifeline. Her heart skipped beats. Her skin went from its normal lightly freckled pallor to a dead papery white. She grew thinner and more angular. Her small flat face, grown luminous with anxiety, became a white disk lost in a cloud of red hair; her fingernails cracked; she bumped into things. Her sisters called daily, asking for updates on her condition. She couldn't make decisions; she felt angry at the baby. She felt afraid. Melvin worried about her safety and the safety of the children, and he hired a girl, Gretel, to stay in the house with her when he was gone. He was just starting his souvenir business then and was spending a lot of time in Vermont taking his "scenics," which is what he called his seasonal photographs.

He claimed she was a hazard to them all, and she agreed, yet she couldn't seem to gain control of her actions. He even suggested that she cut her hair--she had never cut it, not once, not even when the craze for bobs overtook her sisters. It tumbled down over her back, a luscious coppery waterfall that reached well below her waist. There was so much of it, people turned to stare at her on the street, dazzled by all that hair. It influenced everything she did--the careful way she turned her head; the pretty way she perched instead of sat, with her back held straight; the peculiar way she walked, at the same time awkward and graceful, like a heron picking its way from rock to rock along a shallow river. And of course, wherever she went, she left it behind her--on people's furniture, on their clothes, in their mouths--and in her own house, on her own clothes. She came across the long red strands a hundred times in the course of a day, like her own secret tracks; if she ever committed a murder, she had once told Melvin, she would have to wear a hair net.

Cutting it, he had argued, would help her sleep; it wouldn't pull at her in the night and wake her up. It had frightened her, hearing him say that. When they were so in love--when they filled the whole world for each other, when it wasn't big enough to contain them--he had called her long hair his ocean, his heaven, his coppery earth.

At his insistence, she made an appointment with a doctor in downtown Syracuse. Young Dr. Jericho listened to her story, examined her cursorily, and concluded that she needed to relax.

"I'm trying to relax," she told him. "I'm trying to sleep. I'm trying everything."

He snapped her file shut. "Not everything, Mrs. McGuffey. You are a young and beautiful woman. Why not try enjoying life? Ask your husband to take you to the movies."

The movies! How dare he! Here she was, desperate, half out of her mind, and he told her to go to the movies! Walking back to the bus stop on Genesee Street after her appointment, she passed a Christian Science reading room and paused to look through the plate-glass window. She had not considered herself a Scientist since her marriage to Melvin ten years earlier, when she was a student and living at home with her sister Rosey and her father, a classics professor and the author of two slim volumes of poetry written in strict and regular recurrence of quantitatively long and short syllables.

The Bible and the Science and Health lay open side by side on a green velvet cloth. Passages from the current week's lesson had been underlined in powder-blue marker on both their pages. The underlined passage in the Science and Health was well known to Charlotte and featured the Porter, a curious figure who had accrued special significance in her imagination as a child:

Stand porter at the door of thought. Admitting only such conclusions as you wish realized in bodily results, you will control yourself harmoniously. . . . The issues of pain or pleasure must come through mind, and like a watchman forsaking his post, we admit the intruding belief, forgetting that through divine help we can forbid this entrance.

Her father had had an ancient model train set that he kept hidden in his bedroom--perhaps not exactly hidden, but it had seemed so to Charlotte, since why else would a grown-up keep such a thing to himself? He kept it on his big desk in a corner of the bedroom, covered up by a woven white shawl of his wife's, along with his Science books and periodicals and stacks of "Home Forum" pages from the Monitor. When she was sure she was alone in the house, Charlotte had sometimes stolen into his room to look at the little figures, at the gloomy station house, the corroding tracks and bridges and railroad cars. The little figures that belonged to the set were dark and mysterious and made of a hard rubber material: Among them were a conductor, an engineer, a flagman, a flagman's wife (they had the same startled expression), and a porter, whose red trousers sported a military crease. His face was creamy brown, and on his shoulder was a curious lump of deteriorating rubber with a long cinnamon-colored tail, and in her imagination, Charlotte had construed it to be a sweet little monkey who whispered naughty things.

Standing at the window, feeling the mesmerizing pull of Mrs. Eddy's soothing, familiar words, made softer and sweeter by the velvet cloth beneath the book, Charlotte had been seized by a powerful longing for her mother. Charlotte was ten at the time of her mother's death; protected by her family's belief that disease and death were essentially illusions, and that the inevitable outcome of every sickness was the good health her family members took for granted, she had remained unaware of much of the drama taking place in the house during her mother's illness. Her mother's bewildering behavior toward the end was enveloped in mist. Only certain smells brought her mother back, and the image of her strong, beautiful hands.

Charlotte remembered the peace she'd felt as she sat with her family in the little church they attended on Sundays, the quiet rustling of people's clothes at the Wednesday evening testimonial services, the lilt in her sister Kitty's voice as she read aloud to her family from Mrs. Eddy's works on Sunday evenings.

When Charlotte was twenty and newly married and just barely starting on a life of her own, Kitty was already a licensed Christian Science practitioner. She had completed all of her classes at the Mother Church in Boston at the exceptionally young age of thirty-two and had started a small practice out of her home. Kitty had always had an advanced understanding. Even as a child, she had been a dedicated Scientist, performing healing ceremonies on squashed bugs and droopy baby birds, giving testimonies in church in her reedy little girl's voice, sitting beside their mother's bed in the dark and praying with her whenever she got one of her nervous spells.

The reading room was very clean and nearly deserted. A Mrs. Helen Wade Rounds was on duty that day, wearing an expensive-looking maroon suit with a loose-fitting jacket that was held in place by only one button, as if there were other, more ineffable forces at work to keep it closed. She had looked up, smiling, and handed Charlotte a copy of Mrs. Eddy's book. "Take this," she had said. "This will help."

After reading the first three pages on the living-room couch, Charlotte had fallen fast asleep. Hours later she woke in the darkness to the smell of baking potatoes as Melvin, in the kitchen with the children, prepared their supper. She lay there a long time, enveloped in a delicious drowsiness, and listened to their voices--Baird's high-pitched, childish tones, Mel's low somber ones, Hoskins's erratic infant sounds--and was filled with gratitude for God's power to heal, and for heavenly sleep.

When she went back to the reading room the next day to thank Mrs. Rounds, the white-haired woman behind the desk said she'd never heard of her. After the testimonial service Charlotte attended the following Wednesday, the usher shook his head solemnly. No, he didn't know of her. Charlotte took it as a sign and came to think of it as part of her healing: the visitation of Mrs. Rounds, with her one button, her soft, powdery skin, her utter confidence. In her writings, Mrs. Eddy defined angels as God's representatives, and that seemed like a perfect description of Helen Wade Rounds: She had materialized out of nowhere at just the right time, offering Mrs. Eddy's healing words at the exact moment when Charlotte needed them, and then simply disappeared.

Learning to Drive
by by Mary Hays

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1400031907
  • ISBN-13: 9781400031900