Thieves by Beth Kephart
In her essay “Thieves,” Beth Kephart begins with two parallel situations—what the family called her mother’s “accident,” which left her legs permanently damaged, and her own recent accident, which left her with a broken ankle. The two women lie on couches, and their two situations are distilled into parallel elements: “Couch / Blanket / Arrangement.” But that was “Then” and this is “Now.” “I was just a few weeks into my freshman year of college when my mother’s life was rearranged,” Kephart says in her author’s note. Kephart arranges and rearranges her on the couch, and arranges and rearranges words on the page, “chasing a pattern” that eludes her.
She starts without props. “I write her without a photograph beside me.” But even straightforward description “defies” her (“Her eyes defying color”). She lists what her mother liked. She places her mother on the couch, but is unable to reconstruct the story that landed her on the couch, “mostly hearsay.” She still has unanswered questions. She can’t fully describe the thieves who stole her mother’s purse and were never apprehended. She can only imagine the accident, her mother’s legs pinned under the getaway car. She can’t begin to fathom all that was stolen from her mother. The essay becomes a meditation on unknowability. “A couch, a blanket, an arrangement—these shared elements created parallels, touchstones. Except. Not really.”
In her essay “The Art of the Suppose” in the anthology Getting to the Truth, Kephart writes, “The truth is incomplete, rubbed off, rubbed down, permeated, bullet-holed, twisted, more than the facts themselves, but reliant, at least in part, on the facts. We are most trusted as memoirists when we acknowledge our difficulty, our trying, our perilous attempts at knowing. We are most close to the truth, when we admit how nearly impossible the truth so often is.” —CRAFT
You could call the color of the upholstery rust, but it was rust chasing a pattern.
Harshly fibered, it was never quite white.
She couldn’t arrange herself after what they’d done to her.
It started then.
I write her without a photograph beside me. Her eyes defying color. Her skin nourished by jars of sweet-stinking Pond’s. Her dark hair luxuriously whitening. Pretty teeth, though she liked her tea, she liked chocolate swirls in ice cream, she liked the gravy she made while the turkey was resting, and she had a fine nose, a proportionate face, a wardrobe indebted to Nan Duskin, Bloomingdale’s, Barneys. She wore diamond-encrusted pins in the shapes of starfish, angels, nonsense flowers. Or she wore them and she will wear them, but not during the year I’m writing of.
The story that precedes the couch will always be, to me, mostly hearsay. She travels to Boston with my father for a reunion party. She is in a dress store, in a changing room, her purse on the floor by her feet. Stockinged feet. Swish nylons. A thief ambling through the store, itching for action, veers now toward the changing rooms and sees his chance and takes it. Crouches. Reaches. Grabs. Runs.
Her purse in his hands.
In her swish-swish feet now she’s running—through the store, into the street, where a getaway car is waiting (is this an alley? is this a thoroughfare? doesn’t anybody see? won’t anybody tell me?). Through the open window on the passenger’s side, she lunges for her purse—bent at the waist, arms extending, the handles of her purse nearly in her hands; I cannot imagine this any other way. By the force of his hands, his dirty thief hands, she is smacked away from what belongs to her. Shoved. Down. Away. To the hard asphalt ground. Now she is a body in the street beneath the crush of the thief’s getaway. She is rolled by the car. She is crushed.
Who calls the ambulance? Who calls my father? Who sits with my mother beneath the blare of the siren? Who tells her what her future now will be? Who writes out the report? Who sketches the faces of the thief and his driver, who will never be found, who stole, when they stole from her, the pin she had carried to Boston to wear at the reunion—safer in her purse than in the hotel room, she’d thought, safer, because she herself was on watch, because she would never let anything happen to anything over which she’d been put in charge. Who stole from her what mattered more: the easy movement of her legs. Her dance. Her run. Her life before what now became the endless groan of pain.
Its black leather has been faded by the sun. It hides pennies in its seams, and dust. The dust of spider eggs and centipede legs and anything else I might, while lying here, day and night, imagine.
Soft as a long-haired cat, though it is snow-bunny white. Soft as a bunny, too. Now I imagine that. A white bunny in white snow, twitching, zagging, gone. The pliable imagination, chasing what it wants.
To elevate the mound of my broken right ankle in its two-ton elephant boot there are two pillows. To assist with the swelling there is an ineffective bag of ice. To keep me warm in the cool of night, even though it is August, even though it is not cool but very, very hot, there is the softness of the blanket.
It happens now.
The proximate cause of my broken ankle is a series of unfortunate events. Blame enough to go around, but that cannot be the point. The point is that I’ve been marooned, told to rest and elevate. I’ve wrenched both thumbs with the damned crutches by breaking the rules. I’ve flipped some switch in my left hip by hopping on the good foot. I’ve crushed a finger in an attempt to do an iota of a thing for myself, and so now I sit, I lie, on the fading black couch amid the dust I imagine as itch beneath a blanket soft and white.
I sit, I lie, and memory rises, memory merges. My marooned mother. My marooned self.
There was an ottoman in matching patterned rust. The ottoman had wheels. On the ottoman I sat. Squeaking closer toward her. Squeaking back.
Folded in half it covered her toe to waist. Unfolded it scraped up to her neck. I folded it. I unfolded it. I never got it right.
There was no suitable arrangement.
It was the fall of my freshman year at a city campus, and every Friday I came home. I don’t remember now where my younger sister was—how she disappeared, how she was never near when I was there, it says every single thing about us today that we have never talked about it. My brother, two years my senior and the genius in the family, was in his junior university year, solving algorithms. It was my father who picked me up at the train each Friday afternoon and drove me home, down the streets, up the drive, reporting as he drove: no progress, no progress, no progress. My mother’s legs had become protuberant legs. Bulged. Distended. Her nerves sent all the wrong messages. There weren’t bones to set. There weren’t pills to take. There was crush. There was swell. There was the hurt no one could tame, for which she had no words, just: pain.
I’d hurry in through the front door and down the hall. I’d drop my bag of books and papers, turn left. I’d hurry again through the long green kitchen and into the family room with its bay window of dying plants hung in macrame baskets, its glass-fronted bookcase, its brick fireplace, its rusted couch, its ottoman. The squeak of the ottoman wheels.
I search my memory. I scrape until it stings. She doesn’t hello back.
My mother bought me this black couch where I now lie. She bought me the living room rug. She bought me many things that are now long gone, and she is gone, and memory rises, melds. Sometimes we couldn’t see each other for all the things. Sometimes the things were the only way we knew to talk to one another.
When the snow-bunny blanket falls to the floor I twist to reach it. I struggle to snap it back across my raised legs, up to my waist, now to my chin. I am too hot. I am too cold. I am so tired wide awake. The nights are forever. The days are forevermore. Memory is atmosphere, and in the deep night, two birds sing. A fox prowls. There goes the rabbit.
In my imagination I rearrange my protuberant elephant leg, the ice, the pillows, again the blanket. In my imagination I am waiting. In my imagination my mother opens the front door to this house and walks the short distance of the hall and turns toward the black couch that she bought and says, Hello. In my imagination she is not angry at me for what the thieves did to her. In my imagination she’s glad to see me.
I brought her Termini Brothers biscotti. I brought her apples. I brought her F. Scott. I brought her campus stories. I brought her news of the amateur research I had done on nerve death and nerve rebirthing. I would not arrive empty-handed and I would not be who or what she wanted, until it seemed to me that I was those thieves, the ones who took from her what would always be taken.
Who could receive her anger? Who could withstand it?
Lying on my couch I remember her lying on her couch, remembering—playing it over and over and over in her mind, trying to reverse fate’s course. Undoing Boston. Undoing the diamond-encrusted pin. Undoing the dress shop. Undoing the first thief. Undoing the swish of her feet. Undoing her reach for the purse through the open window of the getaway. Or that is what I imagine, alone as I am with the proximate causes of my own protuberance, the sound of the snap of my bone in my ear, the seismic shift in the loose stone in the wall where I’d stood, the series of unfortunate circumstances, the yes’s I said yes to, the no’s I should have said, that had led me to the wall in the first place, where I should not have been, please take it back, reverse this. My mother never told me the story of Boston. What I had was my father’s kernel version, and the puff of my imagination, and the nothing I could do to fix it, what can we ever do to fix it?
From the couch she couldn’t reach the dying plants. She couldn’t reach the neighborhood, the tennis courts, the church, her friends. From the couch she couldn’t drive her car or shop Nan Duskin. From the couch she couldn’t forget.
Harsh. Impurely white. And silent.
Did it really begin then, my sense of failure as a daughter? Did the way she looked at me contain the way she saw me? Or was she seeing something else as she lay on that couch and I sat on that ottoman, the rust in the patterns chasing something? Someone else? The face of the first thief, the heat of his breath, the animal in him that shoved her to the ground, as if he had not already stolen more than any thief has an actual right to? Was I to blame for how she blamed the life she now had for not being the life she had wanted?
So easily in reach if only fate (call it what you want to call it) had not intervened?
At a certain hour in the dark more birds sing. More squirrels take to the roof overhead. More bugs chirr. At a certain hour I cannot repair the distance now between us.
It falls away; I retrieve it. It falls. I want it back.
Where was she to have put her rage? How was I to hold it?
When my father sold that house, he sold that couch, but she’s still lying on it. The blanket to her knees, the blanket to her chin, there could never have been a good arrangement.
Rust will always chase its own patterns. Thieves will crouch to thieve. Daughters will lie in the dark yet wishing for a way to unbreak what has been broken.
BETH KEPHART is the award-winning author of three dozen books in multiple genres, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, cofounder of Juncture Workshops, and a widely published essayist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays, We Are the Words: The Memoir Master Class, and the picture book Beautiful Useful Things: What William Morris Made. Her handmade books are available through her Etsy shop BINDbyBIND.
Featured image by Samuel Ryde courtesy of Unsplash