Excerpt

Ultraviolet

Suzanne Matson

September 7, 2018 
The following is from Suzanne Matson's novel, Ultraviolet. The novel focuses on the lives of three women over three generations: Elsie, a missionary's wife, her restless daughter Kathryn, and Kathryn's daughter Samantha. Suzanne Matson is a novelist and poet. Her writing has been shortlisted for the PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts, and teaches at Boston College.

Portland, 1953

They finally save enough to buy a two-bedroom house on Wygant Street on the northeast side of Portland. From there Carl can drive easily to the shipyards or a downtown building job, and Kay can walk to Eighty-second Street or Sandy Boulevard for a bus or electric car line. Their first married home was an upstairs apartment in a rambling old house in northwest; stepping outside, there was nothing but an alley and parking strip. Now they have a backyard, small but theirs. Kay sits on a chaise lounge in warm weather with her coffee, watching their cocker spaniel, Penny, run after robins and squirrels, or merely circle the territory, nose down and investigating. Most days her neighbor Dixie will appear at the fence with her own coffee cup and come in through the gate, her dog, Mugs, at her feet.

No Dixie so far today. Penny comes over to push her nose against her and Kay pats the chaise. She hops up, treading on Kay’s thighs and belly, getting garden dirt on her housecoat.

“Oof, not there, you fat thing. I forgot how heavy you’re getting.”

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They took her back to the breeder for a sire and now she is going to be a mamma. The breeder will help them find buyers. The puppies will bring in a little extra money, but Kay also wanted the fun of taking care of them for a few weeks.

Penny sits up, alert, her eyes intent on the side of the house. Then she hops down, barking excitedly.

“Hello there!” Dixie calls, appearing around the corner. Instead of a housecoat she wears pedal pushers and a sleeveless blouse. Mugs shoots in, a black Scottie, and Penny begins the chase—copper after coal until they stir the pot the other way, coal after copper. Kay privately thinks her dog is the beauty of the two—her silky ears and tail streaming back like a fleet little arrow. She told Carl that she worried Penny wouldn’t slow down enough in her condition, but he said, “Nature will tell her what to do.” He’d grown up around animals. He’d know.

“Where have you been already?” Kay asks, nodding at Dixie’s clothes.

“Drove Jimmy to work. I need the car for a doctor’s appointment later.”

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“Where’s your coffee? I’ll get you a cup.”

Dixie wrinkles her nose, angling the second chaise closer and plopping down. “Makes me sick now.” She takes out her pack of Kools and offers one to Kay, who shakes her head.

“I’ve had my second of the morning already.”

“You’re so disciplined. I don’t know how you keep to only six. The doctor told me it would be fine if I held it to a pack—so that’s my discipline!” She laughs, lighting her cigarette and blowing out a long stream of smoke. “Anything to help me keep my weight down. He said no more than fifteen pounds total and I’ve already gained three! Can you imagine? And I’ve got six blinkety-blank months left!”

Kathryn squints at her. “You don’t look like you’ve gained.”

Dixie settles back in the chaise, her eyes closed against the sun.

“All in my boobs so far. Jimmy thinks that’s great. I certainly don’t see how I could have gained even that since I can’t keep a thing down.”

“How about tea instead? Or lemonade?”

Without opening her eyes, Dixie raises her finger, as if Kay has made a good point.

“Lemonade, please. Anything lemony seems to help.”

“Saltines?”

“Oh, yes, please. You’re an angel, Kay.”

Coming in from the sun to the dimness of the kitchen, Kay sees spots for a few seconds. She arranges Dixie’s lemonade and crackers on a little round painted tray, a wedding present from one of Carl’s cousins—people she couldn’t even pick out of a crowd now. Someone made a record at their wedding reception, and half the messages wishing them well were spoken in Finnish. Only her brother Russell and his wife, Bertha, and their children represented her own family. Paul and Beulah couldn’t afford the trip, and her father and stepmother were lecturing about their missionary years somewhere in Wisconsin at the time, going from church to church. Carl said it wasn’t their fault if Kay had invited them only three weeks before the date. She conceded this to be true, but then kept forgetting it, holding their absence as evidence against them.

While inside, she takes a couple of aspirin for her toothache. She isn’t eating much, either, because chewing is such an ordeal.

“Thank you, my dear.” Dixie nibbles a saltine. She holds it up to show the little corner she’s eaten. “So far, so good!” she says cheerfully. “But if I make a run for your bathroom, you’ll know why.”

“You poor thing. Isn’t it supposed to get better anytime now?”

“Let’s hope,” Dixie says. “They say twelve weeks, and I’ve just cleared that.”

Kay has never made it to the twelfth week of pregnancy; by the eighth or ninth she bleeds. She has a new prescription that’s supposed to change that. The first few times she miscarried, they still lived in rented rooms in the northwest part of town. She thought the new house would change her luck, but it happened again, last winter. Dixie doesn’t know her history. She would have preferred never talking about it, even to the doctor or Carl, just hugging it to herself as a private grief between her and her lost babies, extending to a line of five of them now.

“How about going out later?” Dixie is asking.

“What time?”

“Leave at eleven? We can shop after my appointment, and eat if either of us feels like it. Between my morning sickness and your toothache, we’ll certainly be cheap lunch dates.”

Dixie is waiting in the car in her driveway when Kay emerges from her house. It’s good to have a reason to put on real clothes instead of housecoats or pedal pushers or shorts. They’re both dressed in circle skirts they sewed together at Dixie’s house. She has the bigger table to spread patterns on, and they take turns at her machine, sewing one thing or another almost every week. Together they puzzle over instructions for tricky pleats or notched collars, and they mark each other’s hems and pin in adjustments to seams. While one of them stitches, the other one makes the tuna sandwiches, or changes the records, and they chatter about how they’ll take turns minding each other’s babies and how the kids will get on the school bus together. Kay lets Dixie take the lead in those discussions now. When Dixie presses to know when she and Carl are going to start a family so their children can be matched in age, Kay says they need to save a little more, get out of the financial hole of the last strike.

As Dixie backs out of the drive, Kay laughs, pointing. “There they are.”

Penny and Mugs are framed by their respective living room windows, watching them leave. The two houses are identical in layout, Dixie and Jimmy’s white with black trim, Kay and Carl’s green with white. Every house on the street is of the same tiny cottage design—carport, two steps to the front door, living room window and a window from one of the bedrooms facing the street—though the various tree plantings and shrubbery are beginning to sprout up and change the pattern-book appearance. But Kay likes the general sameness. There’s something reassuring about it, all the couples starting out together. There are babies everywhere Kay looks these days—in the advertisements, on the television programs. She and Carl and Dixie and Jimmy watched together—with all of America, it seemed—the night Lucy gave birth to Ricky Jr. in an episode last winter, the same night the real Lucille Ball was giving birth in a Los Angeles hospital. That was a pretty neat trick. They howled over Lucy standing there in her enormous maternity smock, moaning, “Ricky, this is it,” sending Ricky and Fred and Ethel into panicked collisions and paroxysms and tangled telephone cords and suitcases springing open.

“Their first married home was an upstairs apartment in a rambling old house in northwest; stepping outside, there was nothing but an alley and parking strip. Now they have a backyard, small but theirs.”

There is a rosy baby on the pamphlet for her desPLEX tablets, and a quote from a study that says, “under stilbestrol treatment the habitual aborter enjoys the same outlook for a living baby as does the average gravida.” She has that sentence memorized, and has looked up gravida, which led her to para. She is a multigravida. And a nullipara. As soon as they have a baby, she and Carl will join the others on her block moving through the same milestones and sharing the same worries. They won’t fall aside into some status that makes the others uncomfortable talking in front of them about Dr. Spock and growth charts and first steps. Sometimes on a Friday one of the neighbors will get on the telephone and invite the others over. They’ll walk to the hosts’ place with a bottle of wine, or a foil-covered tray of cocktail wieners, or a casserole. The babies will be parked in the living room and hall in their strollers and the toddlers will careen around the furniture grabbing on to skirts and trouser legs that might or might not belong to their parents, ash- trays being lifted above their heads.

Sometimes she thinks she can feel the desPLEX working inside her, because she is actually late on her period right now. She pictures her womb as a newly welcoming nest, fortified somehow by the drug. If they can’t have a baby she won’t be able to bear watching Dixie and the others raise theirs. They’ll have to move from the Wygant Street house with small square rooms she and Carl painted themselves, the curtains she sewed and hung, the fence for Penny he built. But where would they move? The babies are everywhere.

*

“How long has it been bothering you?” the dentist asks her, peering in with his hand mirror and little hooked tool, his forehead momentarily blotting the bright overhead light from her eyes. He lifts his hands away so she can answer.

“Off and on for weeks.” She is embarrassed to say months, but Carl’s union was on walkout last winter, and the strike pay wouldn’t have covered a visit to the dentist, especially since she knew what she was going to hear. She needs more work than a single extraction.

“Well, that molar is going to have to go. I see you’ve already lost one on the other side. There’s a lot of decay back there and you’ll need several visits and some restorative work.”

“That will be expensive.”

“Mmm.” He pokes and prods some more. Nearly everywhere his instrument goes makes Kay wince. Her teeth have always been soft. Her mother blamed the lack of good dentistry in India for the many fillings she had to have when they returned to the States.

He positions her chair vertically and tilts the light away from her eyes. He has a kind face with rimless spectacles and close-cropped gray hair. She got his name from Dixie, who swears by him. “At the very least, Mrs. Anderson, I’d recommend two partial dentures. But I don’t think that would be the end of your problems; the upper anterior teeth show decay inside at the gum line, and if you lose one, you would need bridgework. You could save a considerable amount of money and future dental work by getting a full upper denture now. I think you can get along with a partial lower denture. The lower anterior teeth are intact.” Kay can barely listen as he goes on detailing the options and cost. They don’t have money for any of it. She does hear the price difference between the upper denture and the possibility of bridgework, though. She also hears him say that her new front teeth won’t have the over- bite that her natural teeth do, so she’ll have an improved appearance. She doesn’t smile a lot in photographs; her teeth make her self-conscious.

She can pay for the dentures over time. Or Carl’s sister, Vera, would probably lend her the money if she asks; she made them the loan for the down payment on the house. Vera is widowed, and moved to Portland from Indianapolis, living on her own in a downtown apartment. Her husband had a flourishing trucking business, which Vera sold after his death, investing the proceeds. She tried to make them a gift of the Wygant house down payment, but Kay insisted on a repayment schedule, which she incorporated into her monthly budgeting. Now this. Dr. MacIntyre says she can pay twenty-two dollars a month over a year. If Carl works steadily, it can be done. Or if she miscarries again, she’ll go back to work.

They discuss the timing. He knows from taking her health history that she is pregnant. She has not been back to Dr. Schirmer yet to confirm this, and has not even told Carl, for fear of getting his hopes up, but she is privately sure. She also has a nervous confidence that this baby might stay. Eight weeks and no cramping.

There are two ways of going about the dentures. The conventional way fits the dentures after the full mouth extractions have completely healed. The second method, the so-called immediate dentures, are manufactured while back extractions heal. Some weeks later, on the day of the front extractions, the denture is fitted and worn home.

“Definitely the second method,” Kay says. “I won’t be without teeth. I’ll die first.”

“Most women your age say that,” he says. “With the immediate dentures, you might need several appointments to adjust the fit. Your bite might feel off at first until we can correct it. After full healing, you might need the denture plate relined when the mouth tissue is completely back to normal. Or you might even elect to make a new upper denture with a more precise fit, and keep the first pair as a backup, which eventually you’d probably want to have anyway.”

Kay considers. Yes, absolutely a backup. If the denture breaks, is she to be toothless until a dentist can make her a new one? She’ll pay the first one off then add payments for the second one with the precise fit. And never a day without her teeth. Perfect teeth. Filmstar teeth.

They take a wax impression that very day. Then he numbs her and extracts her aching back tooth. She makes an appointment for the rest of the back extractions, and one after that, in another month, for her front extractions and dentures. She signs the contract for her installment plan.

“I think you’ve made the right decision, Mrs. Anderson. This whole process will be done before your pregnancy is well along. One less thing to worry about. And by the way, congratulations.”

“Thank you.” How strange that he is the first person beside herself to know. Easier that he’s a stranger. If it doesn’t last, she’ll report later that it was all about nothing. “And you know what they say,” he adds.

“No, what, Doctor?”

“Gain a child, lose a tooth.” He laughs. “I think you should prepare for a big family.”

__________________________________

From Ultraviolet. Used with permission of Catapult Books. Copyright © 2018 by Suzanne Matson.




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