The Ablative of Place Where, by Charles Brooks

…why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order.
(Thomas Hardy: Tess of the d’Urbervilles)


After the invocation the preacher raised his voice. “We want to give a special welcome to the two fine servicemen sittin’ with the Glover family. Would you please stand up and tell us your names and where you’re from?”

A black-haired, blue-eyed soldier in artillery corps uniform rose to his feet at once. “Corporal Francis X. Murphy Junior. Syracuse, New York.”

When he sat down, the man at his side, dark of hair, eyes, and skin, popped up. “Corporal Bernie Abrams. Syracuse, New York.”

Once the visitors had introduced themselves, the service slipped back into its customary grooves.

An uneasiness about the military guests nagged Helen Glover. Her parents had volunteered for the hospitality program from a sense of duty. For a family out in Oklahoma often invited the Glovers’ own son, stationed at the nearby army base, and that compelled them to make a gesture in return. But what had been sent them? — a Catholic and a Jew! Adherents of faiths which Mr. and Mrs. Glover viewed as mistaken, Catholicism being, in their estimation, much farther from the truth than Judaism.

That’s not all either, Helen mused instead of listening to the sermon. Frank Murphy is the most gorgeous man I’ve ever seen. He looks like Robert Taylor, and even better. Whether he visits us again or not, my life will be different from now on. I hope that he will come again, but since he’s Catholic, I don’t see how anything could everwork out between us.

After the benediction, as the Glover party started down the steep front steps, Frank Murphy offered Helen his arm. When she took it, a kind of electricity streaked through her body. She remembered how, as a little girl, she had once taken hold of an electric fence out in the country. It had needed both her parents plus the tenant farmer to pull her free of it.

* * *

“No, sir,” Mr. Glover stated with emphasis. “We’d never allow our daughter to sign a document like that. Agreeing to have her children brought up as Cath’lics.”

“I’d certainly never try to enforce it, Mr. Glover. It’s just so my family wouldn’t…make problems.” Francis X. Murphy’s cheeks blazed crimson.

“Frank, I like you a lot. So does the little woman. But you don’t seem to understand: The signin’ itself would be dishonest. An abomination in the sight of the Lord.”

The two men strolled slowly about the Glovers’ backyard. Despite the blustery March wind, the sunshine warmed them pleasantly.

“And anyway,” the older man went on, “don’t you realize that we all have direct access to God’s grace? ‘And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.’ That means that from the day of the Crucifixion on, we’ve all been face to face with the Lord, without priests in between. We’d be mighty happy to welcome you into the fellowship of the Baptist Church, Frank.”

“I couldn’t do that, Mr. Glover. You know, the priests get hold of us when we’re just babies. They burn the Catholic faith into us like a glaze on pottery. It won’t come off.”

“Tsk, tsk, Frank. Nothing’s beyond God’s grace.”

They plodded a long round in silence. In the flower beds daffodils and white narcissus stood swollen on the brink of blooming.

“Mr. Glover, you know I’m crazy about Helen. As far as I’m concerned, we can be married in her church. She doesn’t have to sign anything…. But maybe they won’t accept me.”

“Of course they’ll accept you. So will Helen’s mother and myself. Who knows, Frank, this may be the first step toward a major change in your life.”

Mr. Glover wrapped his arm about the younger man’s shoulders and led him briskly through the kitchen door.

* * *

Helen straightened her corsage and climbed into the Dodge coupe. A stylish net encased her ash-blonde hair; her green eyes sparkled. Frank twitched with impatience to be off.

A scrawny boy appeared at Helen’s window. “Miss Glover, I mean Miz Murphy, on behalf of your Latin II class, I hereby present you with this small token of our esteem.”

The former teacher accepted the package, obviously a plate of some kind. “My thanks to all of you. Keep working hard now, just like you always did for me.”

Housekeeper Ava succeeded the boy. Today, for the wedding festivities, she had donned her black silk uniform and white cap. She handed the bride a pottery sugar dish; a loop of brown paper tape held the top in place.

“Helen, it’s just some dirt out o’ the backyard. But it’s Sissipahaw County. It’s where you’re from. Keep it with you up there in the North.”

Helen seized the broad hand. “I will, Ava. I’ll write as soon as I get there.” Her voice trembled and she abandoned the rest of whatever she had wanted to say.

At length the coupe headed up Main Street and began its long journey northward. Just beyond the city limit, Frank pulled onto the shoulder. He and Helen slid out, removed the string of tin cans from the back bumper, and wiped the lipsticked words “JUST MARRIED” from the rear window. The maple trees on the roadside glowed scarlet and gold.

“It’s hard to believe the war’s only been over for two months,” Helen said.

“It sure is,” Frank rejoined. “Seems like it all happened a hundred years ago. But the war’s made all things new, like it says in the Bible. It’s a new world now, Helen. For everybody.” He squeezed his bride’s hand. “But especially for you and me.”

* * *

A chill lay over the narrow room at the Wahoo Roadside Inn and Trailer Court. If the dilapidated establishment housed other clients as well, it had chosen to hide them completely. The only sound that reached the couple was the faint swish of tires on the wet highway beyond the parking lot.

Frank went at their first lovemaking with deadly earnestness, as though he were executing an onerous duty. In neither word nor movement did he express the slightest tenderness. The iron bedstead creaked mightily under his efforts, and his wiry body hair scratched his wife as he moved about on top of her. She had been surprised, almost repulsed, by her husband’s hairiness, for it seemed to degrade him to the level of a lower primate.

Every one of his thrusts hurt her and, even worse, ripped another of her roots out of wonted reality. When finally he lay panting at her side, Helen felt like a plant torn from its native soil and underway to be transplanted in a foreign one. The past existed no more, the present was the Wahoo Roadside Inn, and the future lay shrouded in the grayish indistinctness of Syracuse, New York.

* * *

Clothilde Murphy peered at her daughter-in-law with barely disguised hatred. “Don’t you care for my chocolate pudding?”

“It’s not that, Mrs. Murphy,” Helen replied. “The rest was so good, I just don’t have room for dessert.”

“Well, you don’t seem to like my cooking very much.”

“Cut it, Mom,” Frank snapped.

“That’s enough, Clo,” added Frank Senior.

Clothilde said no more. Her chin trembled from the exertion that it cost her.

Six Murphys sat around the dining table, flanked by a china closet on one side and a sideboard on the other. The veneer on the furniture bore a vague resemblance to oak. From a fake gilt frame over the buffet, Pope Pius XII surveyed the room with sorrowful eyes; sugary religious prints filled most of the remaining wall space. Plaster statuettes of selected saints and other pious objects crowded the sideboard and had even invaded the china closet.

“We’ll be working overtime again tonight,” Frank Senior remarked.

“What kind of family life are we supposed to have?” Clothilde wailed. “You and Young Frank working yourselves to death and never at home?”

“It’s the boom, Mom. The whole country’s getting rich. We got the opportunity; we better take it.”

“It won’t last,” the father appended.

“I’m hoping it will. Anyway, Helen and me’ll be wanting a place of our own. The more money I can save, the sooner we can get out of your way.”

“Out of our way! Like our own son was in our way!” Clothilde’s face congested. “The other girls are married and gone. And Little Clothilde and Bernadette here will be out on their own before you know it. Then your father and me can move into St. Joseph’s Home and call it a day.”

Five lunchers finished their pudding in silence.

After coffee Helen washed some clothes and started to hang them out on the roof deck. No sooner had she pinned a pair of silk panties to the line than her mother-in-law descended on her like a Fury. “We don’t do things like that up here. You want to disgrace me before my neighbors?”

“I don’t understand you, Mrs. Murphy.”

“You hang underwear and stuff like that inside a pillowcase. Not just bare like that. It’s not decent.”

“Not decent! What in the world are you talking about?” Helen set down her laundry basket and folded her arms.

“Maybe down South where you come from they got different ideas about—”

“Stop it!”

Frank put his arm around his wife’s waist. His mother, furious at his display of loyalty, stalked back into the apartment.

Little Clothilde stuck her head out the door. “Helen?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Will you help Bernadette and me with our Latin homework?”

“If Frank doesn’t need me, I’ll be glad to.”

“Go on. Me and Dad’ll have to be leaving for the plant soon, anyhow.”

The two youngest members of the Murphy family shared a stark white room like a nun’s cell. Only an iron crucifix over each pillow broke the bareness of the walls.

Helen sat on one bed, the sisters on the other. After an hour of work together, the girls were eager to continue. In their view their teacher at parochial school kicked the Latin language around like a carcass, but their sister-in-law brought it to life again.

“All right,” Helen said. “So much for the ablative of cause. Now what about the ablative of place where, Bernadette?”

“Well, if you put a place name in the ablative case, it tells where things happen. The verb tells what happens.”

“An example, Clothilde?”

Media urbe laborat. He works in the middle of the city.”

“Fine. Do the two of you…have a sense of place?”

“What’s that?” Bernadette asked.

“That the place where you live, where you do things, is somehow important?”

“Well, we’ve spent all our lives in Syracuse, so we don’t know anything else. We’ve lived in a lot of different apartments, though.”

“Were you attached to any of those apartments? To a section of the city? Would you be sorry to leave Syracuse?”

The sisters glanced at each other. Little Clothilde spoke: “Not really. I mean, you do the same things wherever you are, don’t you?”

Helen turned the page of the textbook to the next part of the lesson. These girls will never understand what I mean by a sense of place, she reflected. They grew up in dreary apartment blocks without gardens, with unsociable neighbors who don’t exchange greetings in the corridors. Yet they make concessions to these same distant folks by hanging out their underwear inside pillow slips!

In the wings of her consciousness, the thought of Sissipahaw County threatened to surge forward. She bit her lip and plunged into the ablative of time.

* * *

Clothilde Murphy stepped onto the roof deck. Her rabbit-like features wore an unconvincing expression of regret. “Well, I am sorry about that.”

“About what, Mrs. Murphy?”

“I was dusting in the hallway. Thought I’d give Young Frank’s room a going over while I was at it. To save you the trouble, you know. And I broke something.” A kind of evil glee shimmered around the edges of her deadpan face.

“What…was it?”

“That plate your Latin class gave you. Must not’ve been secure on the hook. Fell down while I was dusting it.”

“Maybe it can be put back together.”

“No, it just shattered. I already put the pieces down the chute.”

Helen felt something ignite inside her and took pains to smother it.

“That’s not all,” Clothilde went on. “It fell on that little pottery dish of yours and knocked it off the table. I had to throw those pieces out too. Left a lot of dirt on the floor. I took that up with the vacuum.”

The woman glared at her daughter-in-law, expecting an outburst that would justify a tantrum on her own part. But Helen denied her the pleasure. “These things happen, Mrs. Murphy. There’s no use getting upset about them, is there?”

Clothilde tramped inside without another word.

Helen leaned on the railing and gazed out over the drab rooftops, the sterile streets of the neighborhood. Although the calendar signaled May, no perfume in the air, nothing visible or audible suggested spring. No vibrancy of renewal charged the atmosphere. In any event, the seasons made no difference to the dull, constricted scope of the Murphy family’s life. Sometimes she feared that she would suffocate in it.

The sense of being uprooted tormented her, as it had, without respite, since her wedding night. She clutched the railing. Without grounding, she could flap around dangerously in the wind. She could be sucked away into the sky, into unbounded space, and cease to be anywhere. Sensations of nausea shook her as she hurried into the flat.

* * *

At bedtime she discovered a book on the double bed in Frank’s room: the Summa contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the original language. Just what I need, she thought. She put it there, of course. She’s determined to convert me to the family’s faith. To her, the Baptist Church is a hotbed of heresy. She’s all but come out and said she doesn’t consider our marriage valid.

Curiosity prompted her to open the volume and begin to read, but after three pages she shut the book and switched off the lamp.

When Frank got home from work, day had already broken. As usual, he proceeded to sexual relations with his wife directly after his shower. Without preliminaries, tenderness, or words, almost brutally matter-of-fact in manner, he seemed to consider it a conjugal duty which had to be performed each and every day. Both of them being slaves to this necessity, neither his own feelings nor hers mattered in the least.

Frank did not rest his full body weight on Helen. He propped himself up in part with his right elbow. His left hand grasped the edge of the bedside table, the fingers tightly closed on St. Thomas Aquinas.

And yet, she thought, he does love me in his way. She stroked the back of his head as he labored. “Frank, I —”

“Later,” he growled. But later he fell sound asleep.

* * *

The squeaking of the swing soothed her like a lullaby. Butterflies and bees swarmed lazily about the gardenia bushes lining the front porch of the Glover residence.

Ava lowered a tray with lemonade and cookies onto the wicker table. “Helen, it’s grand you came home to have your baby. Those cities up North aren’t healthy. Ever’body knows that.”

“I came home, period, Ava. I’m not going back.”

“You broke up with Mr. Frank?”

“Not so much with him. With the whole situation.”

“His family?”

“His mother’s a witch but the rest of them are fine. Real nice, even.”

“And the town?”

“It was like…Ava, do you remember the time we found a trailing arbutus in the woods at the farm? We brought it home and tried to make it grow in the back yard, but it died. There was something it needed that it didn’t get here. That’s the way it was with me in Syracuse.”

“Mr. Frank’s been telephonin’ like crazy. Don’t you think you oughta talk to him?”

“I will in a day or two. I have to gather my thoughts first.”

“And that baby’s gon’ be here before long. If it’s a boy, he’s gon’ look like his daddy—the best-lookin’ man that ever come through these parts. If it’s a girl, well, she’ll be as pretty as her mother, and that’s sayin’ plenty!”

“I’ll be content if the baby’s healthy. Boy or girl, and whatever it looks like.”

“Let me get you some more lemonade, honey.” Ava closed the screen door quietly behind her and disappeared into the house.

Helen leaned back in the gently rocking swing. She had never felt better in her life. The very heaviness of her body reassured her: It meant that she could not be dragged off into the hideous vacuum of space.

Her bulging abdomen, her child, held her fast on the surface of the earth. And even after the baby had left her body, it would keep her from fluttering off into sidereal disaster. For both the child and its mother would put down deep new roots in the one medium that could nurture them: the rich red clay of Sissipahaw County.


Charles Edward Brooks was born in North Carolina. He holds advanced degrees from Duke University and the University of Lausanne and fellowship in the Society of Actuaries. His work has appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review, Menacing Hedge, North Dakota Quarterly, The pacificREVIEW, SEEMS, Xavier Review, and many other publications. In addition to original writing, he is active as a literary translator, working in English, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. He lives in Switzerland.


%d bloggers like this: