Rockers on a front porch
#56: Doris Betts 1994
Novel Reading, June 16, 2022
Doris Betts reads from her novel, Souls Raised from the Dead, at the 1994 Festival of Faith & Writing. This particular chapter involves a quick-witted conversation between the two grandmothers of the main character, Mary Grace, who is currently in the hospital.
- Souls Raised from the Dead by Doris Betts
Heidi Groenboom: [00:00:05] Today on Rewrite Radio, Doris Betts reads from her novel Souls Raised From The Dead at the 1994 Festival of Faith & Writing. This particular chapter involves a quick-witted conversation between the two grandmothers of the main character, Mary Grace.
My name is Heidi Groenboom, and I am a Senior Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Doris Betts was a short story writer, novelist, essayist and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received the UNC Putnam Book Prize in 1954 for her first book, The Gentle Insurrection; also, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Creative Writing, and the North Carolina Award and Medal in 1975. Violet, a film adaptation of her most widely reprinted short story called "The Ugliest Pilgrim," won Best Live Action Short at the 54th Academy Awards. And now, please enjoy Doris Betts from the 1994 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Doris Betts: Since we have horses and are up early feeding them every morning, I was up at the usual time this morning. And, I've had the pleasure of walking around the campus and trying to imagine what it is like to be in a place where ducks wander around like sparrows, they were quite wonderful early in the morning.
And you know that there is a horse on the cover of the novel because Mary Grace is at that horse-crazy age. Because last night was rather serious, I'm going to read from a somewhat lighter section. It's hard to read from a novel. I don't like to have to explain everything and have to say, “Well, you know, uh, Joe is really the first cousin once removed, who married.”-- it's a bit like soap operas, where you have to get the cast of characters straight.
But in this case, I think that it's early enough in the novel, so that you will be able to follow the plot. I hear my buttons banging on this thing. That's going to be an irritation. Isn't it? Let me, let me roll up my sleeves and read.
Where we are, in fact, is that Mary Grace has had a fall from a horse. And she has been taken to the hospital to make sure that she doesn't suffer any real injury. And in that process, although it's not quite known yet, there's the first jumping of a rabbit in which you begin to get a hint that she is not well. Her grandmother Tacey Thompson is at the center of this particular episode.
Tacey–I mentioned last night–was a scene stealer of the book. Tacey is in her sixties; she is the serious church goer in the family. She has worked very hard to get her son and husband to attend church, but they at the moment are not doing so. And, she has now found that Mary is in the hospital. It is a Sunday morning, and Tacey has decided that they'd better try to contact Mary's runaway mother, who has indeed left home with another man because Mary might honestly be sick. And that means that she is going to have to go from Chapel Hill over to Durham and contact the Broom family–the other grandparents for whom she really has great distaste. They are just not nice people.
So here we are. She is getting ready to leave the hospital room. Mary is resting. Her father is there. She is getting ready to leave the room, and she has told them that she has to make Sunday school on time.
“There were advantages in having a set routine of church attendance when your husband and son did not. “Why,” she thought, “I could have committed adultery 52 times a year with no suspicion at home.” Just a polite question about the sermon text. Today, she was not going to church. Halfway to Durham, she bought an area mat, but had trouble reading the tiny names of streets. When she stopped for gasoline, the attendant marked the way to Cromwell Street: “But ma'am,” he said, “I don't know which way the house numbers run.”
She thanked him warmly, knowing her hat and Sunday clothes had triggered his good manners. Doubtless, he knew he should not have been at work on the Sabbath day. Anyway, she would have no trouble locating number 906, as it said in the Durham telephone book, because today, today she moved under the power of a vision. Yes. A vision.
[00:05:18] Nowadays people reduce the sources of dreams to bad conscience or salami, or–even more indigestible–something insensitive Daddy had done 40 years before. But Tacey Grover Thompson reared on the Old Testament, believed in Jehovah over Freud. The same Jehovah who came in the night to wrestle Jacob or warn Samuel. And last night in dreams, Jehovah had showed her a woman in a long green dress sweeping a city street, sweeping it endlessly, despite passing trucks and cars and buses, even a horse-drawn wagon now and then. It was a wonder so much traffic did not run the woman down as she darted among the wheels. Sweeping. And behind bumpers. Sweeping.
Then came a large flatbed truck which Tacey could see turning into the street. It was loaded with children who were standing in a thick pack, perhaps kindergarten age. They must have been riding to a country picnic. As the truck turned the corner, the massive their bodies swayed and staggered. She saw that those at the back were being pushed to the edge.
Though she began screaming, no matter how loud she screamed or how fast she ran, she could move very little, and her voice strangled. Her whole body agonized with effort–one step of croak. Slowly and silently, the first children fell and rolled. The woman in green swept them easily toward the curb. They rolled so lightly, like tumbleweeds that the struggling Tacey wanted to believe them false children, air-filled for effect. Especially since there was no blood, but they kept flying from the truck as it moved down the street, bouncing off pavement and being steadily swept aside like huge, but weightless dust motes.
And Tacy recognized the faces of some. Although there was more to the dream, Tacey remembered only this scene. She had been still running and screaming through it when she woke this morning and managed to get some sound out of her mouth at last: “Broom.” (That's the name of the other parents.)
“Nothing, Andrew, go back to sleep,” she thought. And said to him softly, “Broom. The Broom grandparents. Maybe ‘green’ rhymed on purpose with Christine–Mary's mother–or maybe it stood for leaves and spring time.”
She could not for certain remember whether one of the children had been Mary Grace. They seemed much younger–five or six–blowing out of that truck, like fat white thistles. But definitely it was a vision, meaning that she must find the Brooms, perhaps even Christine. She had gotten up and dressed, waking Andrew only to say that she would go first by the hospital and then to church.
He said, “I meant to go with you to visit Mary.”
“It's better this afternoon,” she said.
Against the pillow, his pink unfolded face was itself childlike. Had it been worn by one of those boys tossed from the truck, so for the little children. She bent closer. Andrew, now 68, would die ahead of her. She had always known that. By now, she had expected him also to know, and at last, become concerned for his soul. He was not. By habit, she said to his closed eyes “Coming to church?”
And without movement, he said, “Not today.”
She could imagine how many middle aged and older women were at this very moment saying and hearing the same. Very early, the first Easter morning, only women had climbed out of bed to go together to the empty tomb. [laughter]
Now, mostly women sat in the pews of Damascus Baptist Church, and sometimes they–like Tacey–must wonder if Christ had risen and like the other men departed from this place also.
[00:10:09] I'm going to have her drive on into Durham, and she enters the neighborhood where it does have signs that say, “Household repairs, keys, duplicated cheap, and good Lord, Madame Georgette Palmist.”
With tongue against her teeth, she taught several disappointed and disapproving noises. After parking at the curb, she walked to the Broom's front door. Through the mess, she could see a short hall with stacked cardboard boxes. Tacey knocked. A human voice, far away, said a word or two, probably profane. But nobody came. Nor to her second knock. She caught hold of the handle and banged the screen door against latch and frame.
That noise brought a frizzy head, poking out one doorway into the hall. Tacey recognized the hair color, that of an overripe peach. “Georgia Broom, you get out of bed and let me in.”
The fat woman stepped squinting into the hallway. “Who's that?” Her nightgown with crooked hem was a shade lighter than her hair.
“It’s Tacey Thompson, Frank's mother. And I need to talk to you.”
“Is it morning?”
“What does your palm say?”
Georgia brooms snapped up bright and evened the straps of her gown. “It's you, all right. Anytime you did talk, it was sharp like that. My Palm don't tell time. You wait on the porch.”
With Kleenex, Tacey wiped out a rocker and sat. Eyes on the blue sky, “Lord, you might as well forgive me for being a snob; it's what they call a besetting sin.” [laughter]
Not that her own Grovers hadn't been poor themselves, uneducated, rural. The older ones as far below her present level of taste as she was below that of people who liked opera and poetry. But the Brooms fell below them all. Below average. Below common. Below tacky. The Brooms were trashy.
Wasn't it just Virgil Broom to hire out to fix houses while living in this unpainted rec. And to cut door keys, even if his own door was tied shut with a string. It was no wonder that for Christine, who had been so unexpectedly neat about her own person and surroundings, the trashiness had had to seek some other outlet.
Again, Tacey flung an ashamed look skyward, “As we forgive the trespasses of others”
Georgia Broom's idea of dressing for company was to put on a cotton robe stamped with improbable violet blossoms, two feet wide. She squawked the screen door, shut behind her and without a word pulled up a second rocker and set it in motion with Tacey’s, who immediately broke rhythm.
“It's been a while,'' said Georgia, placidly rocking, “What's the emergency? Who discusses dreams with a paid Palm reader?”
“Mostly. I just want Christine's telephone number.”
“And why is that?”
“Mary Grace is in Memorial Hospital, nothing serious, but I thought her mother might like to call her.”
“So you drove all the way to Durham instead of calling me, and the hospital with what that's not serious?
“She fell off a horse. They're just doing a general physical and some tests while she's in there.”
“Tests for what?” Georgia broom put her bare feet on the flaking yellow banister. She must have been about Tacey’s age, but she looked older and fatter, like someone who had one dark night agreed to let time and mortality have their way. The only resistance was her defiant pink hair, but even that looked accidental, something she had put on his carelessly as the outlandish robe, something made of tangled yarn and tossed overnight on a closet shelf.
Georgia said, “Is she really sick?”
Pity and grief, which swam up, filled Tacey to the edges: “I don't know.”
Georgia rocked, relentless.
“Maybe,” Tacey said, “I'm afraid of the possibility.”
[00:15:04] They move nervously in the two chairs while traffic went by. Perhaps every 10th car, Tacey thought, contained a church goer lost in the stream of travelers, water skiers, picnickers.
Aloudn, she said, “Mary hasn't looked well all spring.”
“At the school play, she looked all right.”
So, Tacey thought, you did come after all, the balcony may be, which was half dark. She said, “That was April.”
“I know when it was.” She leaned forward to finger a hard callus along her big toe, “But the doctor hasn't said much yet?”
“Tina's living down in Jacksonville. I believe Frank said that, but he only had a general delivery address.”
Georgia stood up and checked that her front zipper was pulled to her throat: “I'll get her number.”
“You've spoken with her recently?”
“Last month. It was Virgil's birthday.” (Virgil is the husband, Virgil broom.)
Some joke, thought Tacey, watching Georgia in her broad Iris blossoms fade into the dark house. Virgil was her second husband, a toucher, a feeler–the kind of stepfather girls wished had never been born at all. She caught herself. Missing church, one time she decided has robbed me of all charity.
Then Georgia carried back to her, the phone number scrawled on a torn newspaper margin, obviously from a household where there was never a blank sheet of paper anywhere.
“And I added my number too,” Georgia said, “if anything's really wrong, you call me.”
Accepting the paper, Tacey was glad for her Sunday hat, and the way it's ornamental fruit would bob and click as she nodded and got to her feet, thinking “You rattled old bitch.”
On the steps though, she turned slowly back, “Georgia Broom, what in the world do you know about reading poems?”
“What do you care?”
She swayed against the untrustworthy rail, “I have these dreams,”
Georgia shrugged, and went back to rocking.
“Mary Grace used to sleepwalk,” Tacey said, “and once,” she whispered as Georgia began to nod, “Once, Frank was hurt at school, and I knew it. This baseball hit him here. And at home, my ribs snapped in like a stave in a basket.”
Tacey moved up a step and extended her left hand, “Read mine,”
Georgia stretched it as if flesh were rubber. “The doctors can say, Hmm, what else? Long life, too long. You'll outlive some.”
“Outlive who besides Andrew?”
Tasty gasped, when again, her hand was reached out and pressed thin as pie-dough between the plump fingers. She saw that Georgia was wearing dime store glass finger rings, one-size fits all, set in gold-colored aluminum, “No money problems. This is a hard year for you and the year and the next one. And after that, nothing.”
“Nothing important. You'll likely die easy yourself. Hardly knowing it.”
“I want to know it,” Tacey snatched back her hot hand.
“Well, now that you've been warned, you'll get false alarms.”
She had done harm. Her kind always did harm. “Thank you, Georgia. What's the charge?” Tacey snapped open her pocket book
“Watching you, that was my price.”
In a flood, Tacey saw how her snobbery had always offended, had hurt. How by discomfort, Georgia had earned fair spectator rights the next decade, or so could see why any pain of Tacey Thompson’s would feed a Broom appetite.
“Too late,” she blurted, “I'm sorry.”
And then hurried to her car and raked its gears badly, getting away.
And I'm going to skip and just read one more short page, so we will make our time.
She does call Christine, who doesn't behave very well on the phone and doesn't take the illness very seriously. And she can't help thinking that there is something really wrong with Mary.
And then I read this next two or three paragraphs:
Later that week, Tacey was to meditate on how many entries her Bible concordance had for blood and heart, but none for kidney. Though Jehovah above all had to know how Adam had really been made of one quarter dust, no argument, but three quarters water.
[00:20:08] On Wednesday morning, while Andrew was staying with Mary in her hospital room, she had listened like a recording machine while Dr. Seagroves explained that humans could only survive on land because their cells were laived in a kind of soup that the kidney kept constant.
The doctor she saw preferred to go on talking of systems to sketch the little suspended organs in their matching cushions of fat. To brag about 2 million nephrons, anything, but to speak to her and Frank directly about Mary Grace Thomspon.
Acute problems, the doctor said we're in some ways to be preferred, but chronic symptoms, he said, were often lowkey by their very nature. Patients just felt tired. They got pale or silently anemia. They were passing more water at night, but then there were the growing pains of early adolescents, such vague complaints, he said rarely brought a patient in.
“Chronic, what exactly?” Frank finally broke in.
The doctor said it as fast as possible: “Chronic Renal Failure.”
That last word ‘failure’ batted against the office walls, like a bird trapped indoors.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.