The Agonist

They went away in the old blue Plymouth, Wren and her grandparents. Her grandfather peered angrily over the dashboard as he drove. Every day they made the drive into town for the noon Mass; it was almost the only place they went any more. Mass, the grocery store, the beauty parlor. If Wren’s grandmother wanted to go somewhere, Wren’s grandfather had to carry her there in the car. Nobody in Memphis knew how to drive, Wren’s grandfather said. They didn’t tell you they were going to turn. They didn’t signal with their arm out the window. You had to look for some little blinking light, and by the time you saw it, it was almost too late. The Plymouth had manual steering, and her grandfather dragged the wheel this way and that as though he meant to wrestle the car to the ground.

They passed the Esso filling station, the last outpost of Wren’s neighborhood, and bumped over railroad tracks. Fleetingly Wren saw the leafy corridor the track ran through, May-green, gold-lit, full of stirring shadows in the spring daylight, not a place in itself but a secret going-away to some other, more real place. Always, no matter how many times she crossed those tracks, this flash of secretness made the hair stand up on her arms. From your car at the crossing, if you looked fast enough, you glimpsed that green tunnel curving into mystery. Then you left it behind.

Even so, Wren thought, today the secret feeling seemed to go with her. Right now, as she rode in that car, her fourth-grade class was taking their Monday spelling test. She was not taking the test. She was not wearing her blue-and-green plaid gym jumper over her Peter-Pan-collared gym shirt and black stretch shorts. She was wearing regular shorts, with yellow smiley faces printed all over them, and a matching smiley t-shirt, as if this were a vacation. She had not brushed her hair Her mother had not thought to tell her to brush it, and now it hung down her back in rough waves, with tangles underneath that would hurt to comb out. She might have dreamed school; it felt that unreal. When she was at school, all she wanted was to be not at school. But now that she was not at school, something in her longed, just a little, for the vanilla smell of the ditto sheet on which the week’s test would be printed out in purple. Meanwhile, the familiar streets of East Memphis, blinding in the early-afternoon light, were sliding by, strange to her all over again because she did not usually see them at this time on a weekday.

Wren’s father liked blues music, songs about trains. Often he played them for Wren while she ate her breakfast or did her homework, sometimes when she didn’t want to hear a song. He was like that, singing to you, urging his gift on you so you couldn’t refuse it. This was one of the things Wren’s mother couldn’t stand. She liked to say no. There was a song he liked to sing, about someone catching a train to Vicksburg. Where was Vicksburg?. Wren didn’t know. It was somewhere away at the end of that May-green tunnel of leaves the trains ran through. Going to Vicksburg, the song said. Going to Vicksburg in the cool of the evening. Her father liked to whisper that phrase, under the voice of the guitar that went on and on like a train’s wheels, carrying him someplace in his mind, until her mother told him to knock it off.

“A few days,” Wren’s mother had said, tapping her cigarette into the red metal ashtray. They had had a whole set of these ashtrays, red, yellow, green, and blue, metal trays with beanbag bottoms that kept them anchored to a tabletop. Suddenly, though, this red one was the only ashtray left in the world. “Maybe a week. Just till I get everything figured out.”

Wren had looked about her at boxes, empty bookshelves, the cabinet that had housed her father’s stereo, a glowing entity of knobs and dials, bearing the mystical name MARANTZ. The piano was gone. Her rmother had said that it was cheaper to buy another one than to move the one she had.

“Why can’t I figure everything out, too?” Wren said.

Her mother had turned on her then, the way she did sometimes. “Because you can’t.”

She had seemed animated just then, alight with something that might have been anger or might have been joy. She was ferocious, Wren had thought. That was it. She had been dumping books into boxes as if she meant the books harm. She shook back her long hair, so straight it sliced the air as it swung.

“I know, Grandaddy,” Wren’s grandmother said. “Let’s us stop at the TG&Y.”

“What on earth do you need at the Tee, Gee, And Why, Virginia?” That was her grandfather’s way of talking, to turn single letters into whole words.

“Well, you know, we can find us some kind of little teen-einsy something.”

Wren bounced on the back seat. “Last time I was in there with Mama, they had a monkey in the pet part.”

“I’m not buying a monkey,” said her grandfather.

“Maybe they’ll have a little stuffed-animal monkey,” said her grandmother, but Wren didn’t want a monkey. Instead, in the makeup aisle, she fingered the eyeshadow crayons with longing. Blue, her mother wore, and some of her older cousins. She wondered what it would feel like to draw that blue on her own skin.

“Darling, that’s not for little girls,” her grandmother called. “Looky, I found this thing.” Peeping around the end of the aisle, she held up a troll doll with a hard plastic dent for a navel, a gush of green hair. “Don’t you think he’s right cute? Or ugly, I’m not sure which,” she added, holding him at arm’s length and squinting through her cat-eye glasses.

“Come on, Virginia.” Wren’s grandfather stood at the checkout counter consulting his pocket watch: gold, with a thin lid that sprang open at some secret touch of his thumbnail.

There was nothing Wren wanted in all the TG&Y. The monkey was sold, or dead. She accepted the troll doll, watched it be paid for, and carried it dutifully out to the parking lot in the palm of her hand.

“I declare, the toys get funnier and funnier-looking,” her grandmother said. “Car, Grandaddy!”

“I see it, doll baby.”

They drove south, out Getwell road, going away from town toward Mississippi. Gradually the neighborhoods gave way to fields, here and there a little house held up, it looked like, by the tar paper tacked to its outside. If she lay back and shut her eyes, Wren could feel when they turned into their own road: an easing down, a sigh beneath the wheels, trees passing over. As the tires ground on gravel, she heard Sad Sack, the old dog, baying close to the house. She opened her eyes and saw the pond, scummy in the early heat, where she couldn’t play because of snakes. She saw where the drive forked toward the barn lot. One last mule still stood in the fringed shade of a mimosa. Who fed the mule? She didn’t know. It just stood there, always. In the loop the driveway made in front of the house, a black Chevrolet like an overgrown beetle sat parked, as it had been Wren’s whole life. Now, wagging and whining, Sad Sack emerged from his dusty spot beneath the forsythia. Climbing from the car, Wren patted his bony head. He rolled his bloodshot eyes at her, and his houndy smell stayed on her hand.

“Where are the baby wrens?” she asked her grandmother. Every year a pair of wrens nested in the grille of the black Chevrolet. Wren believed that this was why nobody drove it. On her last visit, three weeks earlier, her grandmother had taken her out on tiptoe to see the pocket of sticks, grass, and moss, the tiny heads peeping out.

“Oh, darling, they’ve flown, flown away,” her grandmother said, singsong. Everything she said was a lullaby. She took Wren’s hand. “Your daddy loved those wrens, when he was a little boy.”

“And he named me Wren.” Of all the cousins she was the only one not named after a saint. The family was full of Anns, Michaels, Catherines, Stephens, Margarets, Cecilias, Lawrences, Dominics. There was a Mary Elizabeth as well, and a John Francis, though nobody called him that. He answered to Bud. Even she, come to think of it, was Wren Marie. The priest would not have baptized a plain Wren, so her mother said, with the hard look on her face. If her grandfather had to say her name, that was what he said, Wren Marie. Otherwise she was just she and *her. *

Stepping down the long front porch, fitting her feet exactly to the herringbone pattern of the bricks, she imagined her father not as a grown-up man whose hair hung too long and curly over his forehead, but as a child coming home. He would slam the heavy front door behind him. He would hear the punch bowl jingle among its glasses on the dining-room sideboard, the golden murmur of the clock chimes, though the clock never told the time. He would smell the old-house smell. “Damp,” her mother said. “That basement floods.”

He would see the olive-wood crucifix over the living-room door. Mimi, his grandmother, Wren’s great-grandmother, who though she was dead now had been an avid traveler, had brought that crucifix back from a trip to the Holy Land, years and years ago, before her father was born. Now he was thirty. “A thirty-year-old child,” her mother said. Wren had studied the world map on the wall at school, but she had never found the place named *Holy Land. *

She ran now into the dark, paneled den and marched her hand down the keys of the old upright piano, to hear it rumble. This was another of her mother’s irritations, that piano. “Why they can’t get that thing tuned,” she said. Her sentence dangled meaningly. “It’s not a bad piano. Why let it go to rot like that?” She couldn’t bear to hear Wren play “Chopsticks” on it, or “Heart and Soul,” the two songs anybody could play without thinking. Wren’s mother could play many other things besides “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.” Wren’s mother said that playing those two songs did not mean you could play the piano. It meant only that you could play “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul.”

Wren’s grandfather had carried her blue suitcase into the back room. She heard the toilet flush, water running. After a moment he re-emerged into the den, an unlit cigar in his hand. Across the dim room the two of them regarded each other. Soon Wren would be as tall as her grandfather; he was a short man. He parted his thick white hair neatly in the middle and flattened it down with hair tonic. When he combed it, the comb’s marks stayed there, like plowed furrows. He wore his baggy trousers high on his torso, his crisp plaid shirt tucked firmly in.

“Well, now,” he said to her.

She smiled at him a little uncertainly. What exactly the right answer to Well, now, might be, she had never discerned.

“It’s about that time,” he said. “Do you want a Co-Cola? Grandmama’s in the kitchen.”

“I’ll go see what she’s doing,” said Wren. Her mother had told her to be helpful. Anyway, helpfulness eased her out of conversation with her grandfather. She went through the spidery unlit pantry, stacked with newspapers and Jim Beam boxes, and into the kitchen where her grandmother stood before the refrigerator, holding open its door as if it were her dance partner.

“Grandaddy wants his drink,” her grandmother said. “Can I fix you something? Some juice?”

“Grandaddy said I could have Coke. I can get it myself,” Wren told her. “I can help cook supper, too.”

“Can you, now? That stove is hot. Does your mother let you touch the stove at home?”

“I can make a grilled cheese. I can make hotdogs. I can make Jello and boil the water.”

“Don’t you go spilling that hot water on you, darling. It would burn, burn, if it touched you. It would hurt.”

“I know,” said Wren. “One time I picked up a sparkler on the wrong end. It was all finished, but I guess I wanted to hold it again. I was six,” she added contemptuously.

“Well, just so you don’t get burned any more.”

With her glass of Coke crisping and popping in its ice, Wren followed her grandmother back to the den. She watched how her grandmother walked, stiff-legged and hustling, though she moved slowly, carrying the drink. Her grandmother’s knees did not bend much. Everything about her was straight up-and-down, all but the two little points above the high-waisted belt of her flowered dress. Though she was no taller than Wren’s grandfather, her body didn’t sink into itself the way his did, head and shoulders riding a cushion of stomach, but instead rose from her waist like a plant trying to unfurl a new shoot. If Wren were to turn on the pantry light, she would see her grandmother’s scalp glow pink through her frosting of white hair.

Compared with her friends’ grandparents, who were old, Wren’s grandparents were old-old. Her father was their youngest child, their seventh, the baby and the only boy. His closest sister was nine years older than he was. Wren had cousins older than her parents. At Christmas when they were all together, the teenaged and college cousins went upstairs -- to play, they said. Wren could have told on them. They snuck bottles from the pantry up to the haunted room, with its bronze door knocker like a woman’s hand. They smoked cigarettes with their heads out the dormer windows. The haunted room was called haunted because Mimi, their great-grandmother, had died in one of the matched twin beds with scrolled headboards. If Wren sat on one of the beds, the older cousins cried, “That’s the one, Wren! That’s the bed where Mimi died. You think her ghost wants you sitting on top of her like that?” But if she moved to the other bed, someone was sure to say, “Nope, it was that one.”

“Do you want to go upstairs and play?” Wren’s grandmother asked now.

Wren shook her head: not this time. Not alone.

In his brown wing chair, her grandfather was drinking his drink and reading the paper. The cigar, still unlit, peeped from his breast pocket. Later he would go outside to talk to the dog and smoke it. Now he looked up from the paper. “Say no ma’am to your grandmother.”

“No ma’am,” Wren whispered. Tears pricked her eyes. To hide them she lay on her stomach on the oval rag rug, so walked-on nobody could tell that it hadn’t always been dust-colored. Dust was what it smelled like, too, when she bent her face to it.

“Get up out of that dirt,” her grandfather said, “and sit on the sofa.”

“Grandaddy,” said her grandmother.

“Virginia, she’s got to mind.”

To show that she could mind as well as anybody, Wren leaped up from the floor, upsetting her drink.

“Oh, oh, oh,” said her grandmother, like an excitable little dog. “Oh, let me just get a rag.”

“Wren Marie can get a rag.” Her grandfather returned to his paper. Wren, minding or helpful, or maybe both at once, went into the kitchen and ran water on a sponge.

At five o’clock the news came on. After the old Latin grace they sat down at a card table in the den to eat and watch. Supper was cube steak with gravy, tater tots, macaroni and cheese, green jello salad with cottage cheese and crushed pineapple mixed in. Wren’s grandparents drank iced coffee with their meal, and Wren drank more Coca-Cola. The news bored her; it was full of something the President had done. With a sigh she went on eating tater tots and watching a reporter in a trench coat stand in front of of the White House.

After supper, to show how helpful she was, Wren carried their plates to the kitchen. She stood beside her grandmother at the long white porcelain sink, drying as the clean wet dishes were handed her.

“You should get a dishwasher,” she told her grandmother.

“I have one.” Her grandmother poked her.

“Well, but a real one.”

“I don’t think I could get used to one of those machines.”

In this way too her grandparents were unlike other people. They disliked things they didn’t already know about. Her grandmother could work any crossword puzzle, could write a poem that rhymed, could correct your grammar and say, “Quelle heure est-il?” in French. But she could not, for example, run a washing machine. She had tried once. “Granddaddy and I went to one of those washeterias,” she habitually told the grandchildren as a funny story. “In we went with all our dirty clothes, our towels and things, and there was this wall of machines all going around and around, and not a soul to help you figure it out.” The punchline of the story was that they had turned around and walked back out again, and now sent everything, even their underwear, to the dry cleaner’s. Of course she never said the word underwear. It was Wren’s mother who said that, with a shake of her head.

“How did the clothes get clean before?” Wren always wanted to know, but nobody had ever been able to tell her.

So there was no washing machine at her grandparents’, and no dishwasher either, that didn’t have two hands and a mind of its own. They continued to drive their old car with its heavy manual steering and the gear shift on the column, instead of something new. “Hatchback, or some such nonsense,” her grandfather said darkly. They did not go to Macdonalds, where you had to approach a counter and order from a wall-mounted menu. They avoided many complications by staying home.

Also, in the evenings, they insisted on saying the rosary, all five decades, out loud, beneath the picture of the Blessed Mother that Mimi had painted long ago, when she was a girl in Mobile, at school with the nuns. This image of a romantic young lady in blue, one pale hand patting her pinkly Immaculate Heart, had hung above the den fireplace as long as anyone now living could remember. The aunts and uncles groaned when they forgot and overstayed their visits and were stuck at rosary time. The cousins, those that could, escaped upstairs. Sometimes Wren went with them, joining their silent creep away from the edges of the room and out into the safety of the pantry or the entrance hall. The punch bowl or the clock might protest, but you could tiptoe, holding in your laughter, up the stairs and past the linen closet, to make a show of knocking on the haunted room’s door with the brass knocker like a woman’s hand. Of course you had to knock quietly, to be admitted with gusts of suppressed hilarity by whichever cousins had gotten there first.

When the cousins were there, Wren, the youngest, was borne along on their currents. But when she was alone with her grandparents, she liked to sit in the den, all dark except for the candle on the mantel, mysterious. She liked to hold a rosary from the tangled collection her grandmother kept in a bowl beneath the Mary picture, and to say the prayers as they ticked over, miles on an odometer. Though she knew the prayers by heart, they always felt novel, like visiting itself. At home they never prayed, not out loud for other people to hear.

But it wasn’t time for the rosary yet. The light still hung in the sky. Just now she was finishing the dishes and hearing her grandmother call her to come outside. A mockingbird sang in the rambling rose. She went out the kitchen door, patting Sad Sack who rose from the porch, whining and wagging as always, and into the back yard. She took her grandmother’s hand to hear the bird, but after a moment she pulled free. She ran away across the grass, damp to her bare feet.

“Darling? Where are your shoes?” her grandmother called after her. “You’ll get hookworm, running around this old country yard.”

But Wren didn’t listen. She ran past the clothesline and the smokehouse to the gate. Beyond the gate were the woods, full now of crickets tuning up, birds tuning down. They were full too of snakes and poison ivy. She could not go into them. But she could hang on the gate and look into the trees where the first darkness was gathering.

Her grandfather stood on the back porch, smoking his cigar and patting Sad Sack. In the twilight, with the house light behind him and his head wreathed in smoke, he looked a figure of mystery, a short fat fairy king. Doubling back, Wren cannoned into her grandmother, who said, “Oof,” and put her arms around her.

Before prayers Wren played alone in the back bedroom. She hated to admit that she still played with toys, but these toys, in their baskets that lived on the deep windowsills, were her oldest friends. They had belonged to her aunts, her father, all the cousins before her. For now nobody else wanted them, and they were hers. She played with the little hard-rubber farm animals, pigs, sheep, and chickens. All their feet ended in pedestals as if they were toy statues, not toy versions of actual animals. The chickens were as tall as the sheep.

When she tired of the animals, she played paper dolls. Betsy McCall and her friends, plus various mismatched others, made a kind of family. It was mostly a girl and lady family, but there was a father, a heavy, glossy cardboard gentleman with pomaded hair, a tight-fitting white undershirt, and polka-dotted boxers. Different ladies took turns being the mother and dressing the little girls.

The night was settling down like a bird on its nest. Looking up from the bed where she knelt with her paper dolls, Wren could see straight through the window to the sky’s clear blue underside. The peeper frogs in the trees were raising their whistling song. The light from the hall made a yellow slice on the floor, and her grandfather was calling her for the rosary. “Wren Marie! Prayahs!”

On quiet bare feet she came through her grandparents’ pass-through room with the spindle bed, through another little hall where a broken radio in a mahogany case had stood in silence all her life, and into the den. They had turned off the lamps. Her grandmother was lighting the candle in its etched-glass globe on the mantel. Wren slipped onto the footstool by the fireless hearth, and her grandmother put a plastic rosary into her hand. In the dark the beads glowed green-white, a foxfire light she shaded by curling her palm around it.

“Monday,” her grandfather said. “The Joyful Mysteries. For a special intention.” He cleared his throat and raised his rosary’s heavy crucifix to his forehead. “In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. I believe in God . . .”

Wren sat, hardly listening. Special intention meant a prayer you didn’t want to name aloud. She thought of all the things she too didn’t want to name aloud, or couldn’t. There was her mother, alone in the house where they all three had lived, slamming things into boxes with that fierce set to her mouth as if she wanted their life to be broken. There was her father, who yesterday morning had hugged her hard and long before she left for school, and had not been home for supper. There was the corner of the living room where his guitar had stood. There was that feeling she had, of a railroad track vanishing into its tunnel of leaves, taking its secrets with it. She imagined the train on its unseen way, going to Vicksburg, with green all around it and shadows breathing out softness.

Glancing up out of her thoughts, she saw that her grandmother was crying. In the shivering candlelight the tears made shiny tracks down her powdered cheeks and dropped onto her hands, lumpy with blue veins, and onto the tarnished silver rosary that had been her wedding present.

Her grandfather saw, too. “Oh, God, Virginia,” he said.

After a silence, he went on without pausing, “Our Father who art in Heaven hallowed be Thy name Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven . . .”

Her grandmother did not answer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Wren said it for her. She heard her own voice as something separate from herself, hard and dry as her mother’s face, saying the words about trespass, forgiveness, temptation, evil.

“Well,” her grandfather said when at last the prayers were over, “I guess we’ll watch the news. Virginia, put Wren Marie to bed.”

“I’m nine,” Wren wanted to say. “Nobody puts me to bed any more.” But she let her grandmother, more silent than usual, take her hand and lead her to the back bedroom.

Her grandmother said, “We didn’t measure you, darling, yet, did we?”

“You measured me last time I was here,” said Wren. “That was three weeks ago. Do you think I’ve grown since then?”

“You never can tell,” said her grandmother, opening the closet door where everyone’s height was recorded: Wren’s father’s, the aunts’, all the cousins, written on the edge of the door, on its inside, in black pencil. By now the door was a confusion of names, dates, and numbers, but if she looked carefully, Wren could find herself, her own name ascending among the others as she grew.

“Jump up and stand against the door, now,” her grandmother said. Wren stood straight while the mark was made by her head. She stepped aside, and her grandmother unrolled the measuring tape. “Four feet, ten and a half inches,” she proclaimed. “You were only four feet ten and a quarter last time.” She wrote Wren’s name, the date, and the new height on the door.

“You are growing, just fine. A tall girl.” She hugged Wren tight and saw her into bed. Then she went out, leaving the door open. In another moment the television boomed from the den. Wren wriggled a little between the sheets. Then, remembering, she reached up for her troll doll, which she had stood on the windowsill beside the plastic farm animals. She didn’t like him all that much, he hadn’t been really what she wanted, but now that the lights were out she feared that in his plastic nakedness he might be cold. She settled him beneath her pillow and was instantly asleep.

It was a thin sleep, filled with shards of dream. In one fragment she came to her own house, to find it empty and dark, all its belongings taken away. They had forgotten her in the haste of their moving. Moonlight shone through the naked windows. From room to empty room she went, calling out some name. She kept seeing a closed door, light showing beneath it. Was someone at home after all? Someone she knew, or a stranger? Try as she might, she could never reach that room. There was always another dark room, a hallway, something she had to go through to get to it. Somehow she never got through. No matter what she did, the lighted room retreated, always a little farther away.

She dreamed, too, other smaller things. She dreamed morning sun on the kitchen floor, her father singing “Hello Dolly,” accompanying himself on a ukulele. Her mother at the piano, gathering music like water in her hands. Evening on the backyard grass, fireflies hanging in the shadow of the apple tree. Herself in bed, her own bed. Voices in the hall outside.

She strained so hard to hear those voices that she woke up. For a moment she wondered where she was. Then, smelling the country night and the musty old house, she knew. Everything had fallen silent. Only the spring frogs, outside, unseen, spoke a language she didn’t know. Somewhere in the woods an owl called, rasping and querulous. Another owl answered it. The hall light was gone from the floor. In their own room, door ajar, her grandparents snored decorously in their spindle bed. Darkness lay like a weight on her heart.

Then, from far away, she heard the rain begin. It came like a slow train, bumping, starting, its wheels whispering on a weedy track, its wind blowing the tall grasses.

“Going to Vicksburg,” she whispered to herself.

The rushing, rustling, bumping noise came nearer. Suddenly it was all around her. From inside it she could hear all its drippings, spatterings, clicks, murmurs, a thousand feet pattering past, a thousand voices. Each voice cried out in a different tongue. Each said one word: Peace. A green coolness sighed at the open window. In bed, Wren sighed, too. The world was turning, taking her with it. Outside it was raining, raining, raining. Soon the night would be washed away. She pulled the covers to her chin and slept again without dreams.