DEGREE OF FREEDOM
Each of a number of independently variable factors affecting the range of states in which a system may exist, in particular, a direction in which independent motion can occur or each of a number of independent factors required to specify a system at equilibrium.
WINTER, PRESENT DAY
It was the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires outside her window that finally snapped her back into consciousness. In that brief moment before truly awakening, she forgot who she was, where she was, why she had to be there. Her eyes were crusted together, sticky as she rubbed them. Moments passed before the reality set in, as a steady stream of hump-backed women with casserole dishes covered in festive plastic wrap jolting her into a cruel reality.
Rubbing the crust out of her eyes, she rolled out of bed, acutely aware of the unexpected weight of various body parts. Hands, breasts, legs, gut, everything suddenly weighed a foreign amount far superior to whatever she’d been walking around for the past thirty years. Bleary-eyed, she fumbled with her bedroom door before spilling into the hallway. A chorus of gasps greeted her as she staggered upright. A symphony of, “Lord have mercy, as I live and breathe,” “Oh, my gracious,” and “Bless Pat,” filled the room.
August startled, having not expected to find the hump-backed women in her father’s house. Suddenly, she was aware of how awful she must look.
The living area was flanked with plump women and men dressed in their best jeans and bank-sponsored t-shirts, the occasional “church dress,” peppered in here and there. Someone clutched the Bible. Sitting in the center of the group, neatly in a row, August spotted her younger brother, her great aunt, and her mother dressed in black and perched carefully on a microfiber couch. The room was drowning in flowers and casseroles. White carnations, white lilies, white roses. A six-pack of Michelob Ultra. Buried in the middle of the group is an unremarkable casket. The lid is closed. August stumbled forward, suddenly dizzy.
“Well, well,” Abigail hummed, “Lord have mercy on us all.”
The site of her mother in the house she had abandoned so long ago was not one August had been prepared for. “Hi? …Mom?”
The living room congregation stared back at her. It had been a dozen years since August stood inside this house, longer since she’d heard these voices. She had forgotten the telltale north-central North Carolinian accent, a dialect stuck somewhere between speech impediment and making-you-work-for-it-just-because.
“Holy fuck, sis,” Mark emerged from the crowd. “Was this the week it was supposed to happen?”
August instantly felt 14 again, her top too big, her pants too baggy, her experience insignificant.
Berta, the grandmother she suspected might have been the one in the casket, pinched Mark in the back of the arm as she had when they were younger.
The crowd started to swell towards her, one of them opening their soft, plump arms to grip her in an unsolicited hug. Caught in the embrace, a few of the congregation planted a series of unwelcome wet kisses somewhere on her face. They were cooing, muttering, sniffling. Someone in the back of the crowd recited the Lord’s Prayer.
“You must be so heartbroken.”
“He was such a good man.”
“He thought so much of you.”
August was overwhelmed with human interaction. From within the arms of the fifth stranger to grab her into a veritable bear hug, she gulped, “What the hell is all of this?” The crowd loosened around her. “Where’s Dad?”
Berta snorted and crossed her tanned, freckled arms across her flattening chest.
“Oh sweetie! No one’s told you?” Another stranger with pillowy arms waddled towards her, cupping the back of her head and pushing it toward her NASCAR-t-shirt clad bosom. She shook her head back and forth, holding August’s against her chest. “No one’s told her, poor thing.”
From the bosom, August could see Mark shrug. She didn’t blame him. Whatever was happening, it had been at least twelve years since she spoke to anyone in the family. Casket notwithstanding, it would have been a bumpy reentry anyhow.
“Dad’s dead, August.” Mark matter-of-factly stated, his face doing her no favors in the way of apologizing. “We’re having a wake.”
Still locked into this woman’s embrace, now being gently rocked, she pressed her brother. “Are you fucking serious?”
“Language, August,” Berta snapped.
“Serious as the heart attack that took him out,” Abigail replied, crossing her arms across her chest and looking casually around the room. “Please be respectful. We are here to mourn the dead, August Conrad, not show off our illicit vocabulary.”
August was uncertain what to react to first. The death. The censorship. The born-again Baptist’s congregating in her father’s living room. The gross display of insincere support. The patriarch of her family passing away with absolutely no notification from the remaining bunch. The casket. She opted for the latter.
“And nobody called me?” Her voice was shrill, and she regretted that she had already revealed her weakness.
Still seated, Abigail replied. “Are you implying we should have waited for you to pick up your phone so we could ask you to come home before mourning the loss of your father?”
August squeezed her eyes shut. “Does anyone in this room even know him?” She continued with the outrage, growing more upset as no one in the collective seemed to respond to her.
“I hardly find it appropriate to bicker over something so petty in a time like this, August,” Abigail calmly delivered. “A man near and dear to all of us has passed away and we are here to remember him—” The group mutters an Amen! “To remember and honor and bid farewell to a great man who loved this community and loved his family and worked every single day of his life all the way until the moment he died. I apologize if you feel left out, but frankly, you haven’t exactly made an effort to check in with us.”
Another spirited, “Amen!” and even a “Hallelujah!” escaped the group.
“And that’s your decision, of course. You decided to run off to New York City and contemplate when we would all be taken from this planet by Elijah or Jesus or Allah or whatever spaghetti monster in the sky your generation is praying to these days, and while you were plotting all of our deaths, your father was busy dying. And we can’t hold that against you. You’re an adult now. You’ve made your position and your priorities quite clear.”
“And no one told me.” August’s voice grew softer. How had it happened? When had it happened? What was he doing? Was he alone? Was he sad? Was he sick? Had Abigail rejoiced? Was Mark even sober enough to react? And who the hell had stripped her bedroom of its personality?
The woman squeezed August tighter. She was incapable of tears, but she appreciated the physical pressure that might have been the only thing keeping her from actually exploding.
“I’m sorry, Gus. You haven’t exactly been easy to get hold of,” Mark said, staring her square in the face. “It happened a few days ago. We decided to hold a wake. There’s been a lot of casserole.”
“Not nearly enough gin,” Berta quipped.
Another woman from the group stepped out and placed a hand on Berta’s shoulder. Berta Conrad was incapable of death. The long-lasting matron of the family, Berta has somehow survived the death of not only three husbands, but now both of her sons as well. August firmly believed, however unscientifically, that she was simply too vile to die.
“Hope you packed something black,” Mark grimaced, moving towards the makeshift casserole buffet.
August released the woman, thanked her for the support. She had to get out of there. As she turned to leave the room, she noticed Abigail staring at her, expressionless, the way she had when watching the news over a TV dinner of dark, limp green beans and country-fried steak, the way she had when August found her taping back together her rejection letters from her top three colleges, the way she had when her only romantic interest unceremoniously left her.
“Glory be to God!” the group began, closing the circle around the casket and carrying on as if she’d never shown up in the first place. As if she’d never belonged.
Abigail Conrad, née Abigail Robinson Clay, spent her youth running through tobacco fields. Her trio of aunts Martha, Marigold, and Margaret had raised her since birth, when her mother, the only sister whose name didn’t begin with “M”, disappeared in the middle of the night while Abigail was just a baby. It was the 50s back then, and in North Carolina at that, where you just didn’t talk about unpleasant things. As far as Abigail was concerned, growing up with three middle-aged women who smelled like warm bread and rosewater was just as normal – better, even – than a family made up of a distant mother and a father who came home late smelling like dried tobacco and stale whiskey, like so many of her friends’. Martha, Marigold, and Margaret were notoriously unwed, and childless, yet somehow managed to thrive on their tobacco and hog farm and still find the time to bake bread every Sunday for the pastor. No one would say it aloud, but they were all certain Margaret was canoodling with the Pastor on the weekdays, though he never did take them up on the offer to come over for dinner.
The aunts were a well-oiled machine when it came to running the farmhouse. Martha, the homelier of the three, cooked all of the meals, coordinated shopping, and handled domestic matters. Marigold managed the farmhands and the finances. She never ate meat, and always came home with sticky black tar on her hands from yanking leaves off the tobacco plants. Margaret, of course, was the wilder one. Rumor had it she had been engaged at least twice before, and while she never went through with any of the marriages, she had amassed quite the collection of diamond rings. It made sense that she was the sister proud to roll up her sleeves, and charge into the tobacco house to shoot the snakes that always crept in, which those days, was pretty frequently. The house ran smoothly, and everyone had a job to do. Abigail spent many nights sitting over a plate of farm-fresh pork loin with gravy begging the aunts to give her a job, to let her help out, but they only laughed and piled on more gravy. They insisted she just enjoy being a child while she still could.
On Sundays, they dressed her up in pale yellow dresses and socks with the ruffles on them beneath her patent leather Mary-Janes and hauled her into town to sit in the front pew during the pastor’s sermon. Margaret always insisted she sit on her lap, even when she was way too big. Abigail never really paid attention to the sermon. Pastor Willis wasn’t one of those gentle, soft-spoken kind of pastors. He was the kind who jumped up and down and turned red in the face and spit, accidentally, when he preached. He warned of hellfire and damnation and sinners and the aunts just nodded their heads with the gloved hands in their laps. Margaret sometimes got a little excited and let out a shrill, “Amen!”
Afterward, they shared tea cakes and coffee with the rest of the congregation in the church library that was starkly white against the shelves of burgundy canvas-bound books Abigail assumed were backup hymnals. Despite the vitriol, the group was generally light-hearted. Everyone hugged.
The last Sunday Abigail sat on Margaret’s lap was followed by an accidental run-in on the farm. She had been older then, slenderer than her earlier childhood. Her socks rarely stayed up on their own anymore, the baby fat around her ankles finally started to displace to more northern regions of her body. After the service, after the drive, Abigail spilled out of the car and told the aunts she would be in later to help with lunch. They’d started letting her cook, though they insisted she not worry about such things. Abigail was old enough to know she was horrible in the kitchen. Negligent. Careless. Uninspired. She wanted to do something else, but what, she was unsure.
That afternoon, she walked her usual path around the corner of the tobacco farm, the stalks, once dwarfing her, now easily just a foot or so taller than she. At the edge of the field, she heard a shriek and went to investigate. Beyond the tobacco fields lay a modest, white-washed wooden shed. When she was younger, the aunts told her to stay away, but she was older now, she had what Margaret referred to as “mosquito bites” beneath her shirt. Abigail approached the white shack and pushed in the door. There stood two of the farm hands, aprons smeared with blood, arms full with a hog one of them had just slaughtered. She was still pink, and Abigail noticed for perhaps the first time the little blonde hairs that covered her back. The men strung her up, pierced the backs of her legs with large metallic hooks dangling from the ceiling. Abigail watched until they were done, the four of them crammed into the 8x8 foot pine box.
“You probably shouldn’t tell them,” one of the farm hands said. Abigail just nodded and backed away.
Abigail was raised by a very simple principle: take care of yourself. When she was thirteen and got caught kissing William Carpenter, the only black boy in town, they had appended that rule to also include, “Don’t get caught.”
That night, lying in bed on her back with the covers pulled gingerly up to her collarbones, she got her first period. And unlike the hog in the shack, her blood was viscous and nearly black. She had backaches for days.
Abigail kept it secret initially, but when the aunts noticed the toilet paper supply was dwindling and the stubborn stains in her sheets, they knew. The aunts, bold as they were, had not discussed who among them would have the talk with Abigail about womanhood and menstruation. They hoped they had a few more years, but like her mother, Abigail apparently was an earlier bloomer. When they finally built up the courage to talk to her about it, approaching her room with a cup of tea and a hand-illustrated book one of them had checked out from the church library, her first cycle had ended and she had already moved on. What they would not understand was her relationship with blood, and more importantly its implication, would forever be colored with curiosity, not repulsion or fear.
In the 70s, Abigail attended a Christian university in Providence. The first woman in her family to attend college, or even care about it, the aunts had gifted her with a rape whistle and a homemade quilt. She used neither, and spent her college years growing out her hair, burning her bras, and ruining every meal she tried to make. While in the library studying for her Italian final, she bumped into Mitchell Conrad, a graduate student at the business school with a penchant for building things. He’d been distracting her, trying to impress her with his uncanny ability to build a tower out of books and pencils at the library table. Eventually she caved, pulling one of the pencils from the tower and giving him her dorm’s phone number. Back then, there were women manning the entrance of the girls’ dormitory, and when Mitchell came to pick her up, every single girl at Kelvin Hall knew about it.
They split a pitcher of Miller Lite at Dunphey’s Pub up the street where the air was thick with cigarette smoke. Abigail drank Mitchell under the table on their first date, and proudly walked him back home to his own dorm, where his roommates punched him in the arm, pantsed him, and left him in the hallway for the night.
Six months later they were engaged. Four months after that they had a modest wedding in the basement of her childhood church, a ceremony officiated by the same pastor who Aunt Margaret still hadn’t managed to hook. Their reception was catered by the neighborhood grandmothers, an array of casseroles and pies. Not a drop of alcohol was to be found. After they cut the cake and smeared sugary frosting on each other’s faces, Mitchell received word that his father had passed away. They left their reception, made their way to Dunphey’s, and drank several pitches of beer. Abigail tore the wedding dress Aunt Martha had sewn for her. Too drunk at the time to be concerned, she tore off much of the skirt and left it behind on the floor beneath her barstool where it would eventually be tossed out with the rest of the dirty wet napkins.
They stumbled home, chilly in the early May air. Abigail briefly regretted tearing off the bottom half of her wedding dress. They spent the night on top of the covers in their Holiday Inn hotel room, neither talking nor touching, just letting the alcohol metabolize through their systems. The next day, Mitchell buried his father. After the funeral, Mitchell made love to Abigail for the first time on the floor of his father’s empty living room, a tiny little house with a big front yard.
He’d held his breath at first. A silhouette of her body was perceptible only by the low glimmer from the oil lamp.
Minutes before she had lain across the wool blanket and pulled him down next to her. The space had become foreign in those moments, the familiar artifacts removed. There was only the flickering lamp, the splintering floor, the nettling blanket. There was only skin left chapped and dry with the early May chill.
It was necessary that he run fingers run along her bone structure, the skin, the lips, if for no other reason than to know the shape of her face. If only to be closer to her, to feel that life underneath. But in times like those when all she was to him was impenetrable flesh on a graying floor, he was restricted to visual worship alone.
She was art, not woman, and he studied her so.
For months before he had been curiously longing to touch a much less risqué part of her; he would have been pleased with an elbow or a foot. Maybe even a finger or two. In the few nights leading up to the funeral, Mitchell had dreamt of that elbow specifically, casually lying beside him on a queen-sized bed, provocatively eyeing him from beneath the sheets while he constructed some subtle way to get close to her skin. And now she was there, they were there, the newlyweds with cheap gold rings around their fingers. He had wanted to experience every painful, erotic inch of her body in slow motion.
He had been tracing the movement of her tongue against her teeth and the way her unimpressively thin lips curved around the sighs that she exhaled just before she'd torn off her shirt and the alarm in his head had flashed. Originally, he imagined that her unveiling, that their consummation, would have been a gradual process involving a calendar full of pre-planned moments, of teasers with knees and backs that could only exacerbate the pure hunger he had for her flesh. She had held out so long before their marriage, he thought he’d have to wait forever. He had planned on disposable conversations, a litany of questions posed make her think that he was interested in her and not that curve in her collarbone and the way it caught various degrees of darkness. He had not, on the contrary, planned to take her on the naked floors of the house his dead father had built only hours after putting him six feet under, but the feeling of being there, of being with her, of having put away a man in the daylight, he could not help himself.
The touch, the trajectory of his body would spark an atomic fusion of embryonic proportions, one that would create the first child she does not want. As he got to work, as he tugged on the tongue of her belt, the stubborn lips of her zipper, with every metal tooth that pried open, she began to come apart. The heart-racing present took precedence, notch by notch. Her existence lay in the inaudible threat made from those metallic teeth. There were only bare legs, uneven breath, and the snag in the blanket as he pushed himself into her.
There was only touch.
With every thrust, he buried himself between the folds of her skin, the sweat between her thighs. With every inch Abigail began to fall apart.
When it is over, he will live for that touch, the tangible reassurance that he existed and that it was good. When it is over, he will have forgotten about the elbow and the teeth and the tongue; he will be the only one concerned with the inherited house and the wife and the life growing within.
When it is over, she will be confused, resentful, shut off. Once a woman of purpose and independence and drive, she found herself the object, the recipient, the possession. She will not have wanted the child, to be its vessel, to belong in that way to another living thing.
There will only be touch.
As her entire existence dissolved to that of tangible, automated reality, Abigail Robinson Clay Conrad simply performed as she had been fated to do, as they all would eventually, to find a way to hide that deepening emptiness that would plague them for so long.