The only problem, really, with having married paleontologist Gambrill P. Hatch was that Molly had to listen to his jokes for the rest of her life, and like some men of science, his jokes were either of the facile, cereal box type, or they were so obscure that only other scientists would laugh. He liked to concoct riddles whose answers had no apparent appeal, and he especially loved wordplays on his own last name.
“Down the Hatch,” he’d say, bringing Molly a cocktail, a glass of wine, or a fizzy remedy.
“I cannot tell a lie, I chopped the chives (or celery or nuts or fruit) with my little Hatch-et!” he’d declare, as he helped Molly cook.
But Molly loved her husband and she would always smile or laugh for him, keeping to herself the nagging thought that in trading her maiden name, Manor, for Hatch, she had tumbled a bit downscale.
She also loved being allowed to accompany him on field trips. Though he had been to China, Australia, and Arabia on early digs, by the time Molly met him he was focused on the New World Tropics, and she followed him to Panama and Brazil. He and his team would forge ahead like a group of excited Shakespeare mechanicals, and she would trail after, watching their dancing outlines sparkle as the hot sun met their shovels and picks, chisels and sifters. She was entrusted with Hatch’s notebook and magnifying glass, and she carried a notebook of her own as well.
Once, the group had enlisted her help in making a plaster jacket to protect a particular fossil on its bumpy ride home, but mostly she sat apart on a rock or ledge, wearing a long leather skirt with dust in its creases and deciding the love-fates of the team members. She would doodle in her notebook, and romanticize herself as Agatha Christie following her archeologist-husband Max.
For the last ten years, though, as Canal excavations became more extensive and the teams added computer experts for digital documentation, Molly found the field trips crowded and even tedious, and she stayed home. Hatch always returned brimming with news about where the most “fossiliferous” deposits were, or which biodiversity was being threatened and what the Smithsonian guys were saying about it - and this provided a sort of intellectual suspense, spanning the time between his absence and the inevitable resumption of Hatch jokes, which she decidedly had not missed.
She did miss being the team’s immediate audience, jotting down their “finds” with a dusty pencil, cheering them on, lending an emotional shoulder. And so, to fill the void, Molly developed the habit of many lonely wives - redecorating the house. If Hatch’s team was finding and designing information about a fossil organism’s life and environment, then she would find and design the environment he returned to and that they would live in. She began with swapping out the lamps, then the tables and sofa, and then had the old wallpaper scraped off (that was a dusty job) and replaced with a sleek paint.
If Hatch had paid attention, he would have seen four or five different color schemes parade through the house over the years, with attendant furniture, all of which was now stacked high in the attic, into which he never went. The only thing he would have climbed “up” a ladder for would be to trim a Christmas tree, or to clean leaves and spiders from the eaves. To make a “find,” one naturally went “down” into the layers of ground. And even if he had gone into the attic, he would have been blind to the layers of furniture there, as in the tale of the primitive fishermen who did not see an enemy ship approach, never having envisioned anything like that in their environment before.
This time Hatch returned with a basket full of oyster fossils and the exciting fact that “99 per cent of species that ever lived are now extinct.”
“Did you know,” he asked his wife, “that the rings on an oyster shell are its life-count? Like the rings in a tree trunk.”
“No, I didn’t know that,” Molly said. “But I painted the bathroom a sort of shell color while you were gone.”
“That’s nice,” Hatch said. “When the rings are thin on the fossil we know that the environment was not favorable for the oyster.”
“How’s that?” Molly asked, pulling one of her older tablecloths over a mahogany dining table that had been delivered that morning, and patting it down. Was she trying to hide the new purchase from him, she wondered. No, she was merely protecting the table from the chalky basket he’d brought home and was rifling through. He would not, in any event, notice that the table was new.
“See this one,” he said, holding up a fossil whose rings were as thin as wedding bands. “This oyster struggled for survival.”
“How is that?” Molly asked again, this time paying attention.
“Oh, too warm, maybe. Or too cold.”
Later that night the couple warmed themselves with fire and wine (“down the Hatch”), and they did not question their union, and they were content.
On Hatch’s next field trip, when Molly could not reach the furniture delivery company on the phone to determine what time they were coming, she impatiently pushed a stuffed leather reading chair up into the attic by herself. It was of very pale leather and definitely the wrong color for her new scheme for the den. She maneuvered it to the top of the stairs, but as she pulled open the attic door a fat spiral of stacked furniture came tumbling down and knocked her and the leather chair off balance and on down the stairs.
She felt the wind knocked out of her, and lay still for a few minutes. Then she picked herself up carefully and went down the further stairs to the main floor. For some reason she felt she should continue down to the basement before going outside to wait for the delivery truck. There in the basement she was surprised to find many, many utility tables and shelving units. She could barely fit through the thin spaces between them. They were riddled with vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, chunks of geological matter, rock slabs split by chisels and hammers, sifters with sediment still clinging inside, and along the floor were a few pairs of steel-toe boots caked with mud.
So, Hatch had claimed the basement, even as she had claimed the attic. Well, that was fair, wasn’t it?
She went out the basement door to the back yard and circled around to the front door to wait in the fresh air for the new easy chair. Sitting on the concrete stoop, she was about eye-level with a yew bush, its fleshy berries pink-red against flat evergreen rows.
The truck drove up. When the workers got out, she climbed into the front seat to rest. She was still not in full breath from her fall. She rested her head against the truck seat leather - it was pale like that of the chair she was discarding. She must have dozed then, and when she woke the workers were driving the truck, and she was far from her house.
“Where are we going?” she asked them.
“We’ll drop you at the field,” said one of the men. Over his tee shirt he wore a blue flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and Molly noticed idly that his arm hair was dark even though his hair and eyebrows were already white.
“What field?” Now Molly wriggled her body around and looked in the back of the truck. Her furniture, all four rounds of it, was there. The men stopped the truck at a field with a baseball diamond. Tall lights made the field look unusually bright. The men backed the truck up to home plate, slid the door open, and brought out Molly’s furniture which they stacked into a huge pull cart.
“Good luck, and may God be with you,” they said.
“What? I can’t take all this stuff with me!”
“You have to,” the workers said.
“No! That isn’t how it works,” she protested.
“Wishful thinking,” the workers said.
“This can’t be right,” Molly persisted. “You Can’t Take It with You,” she quoted.
“It’s You Must Take It with You.” They closed up the back hatch of the truck and turned to leave.
“But how will I…” Molly stepped forward, and realized that the only way she could move her spirit was to push the cart of furniture along with her.
“Can I sell it to somebody?” she called to them.
“No one needs furniture here,” they said.
Molly nearly fainted in despair.
“You might be able to trade it,” the older, white-haired one called to her, waving his arm above his head.
He tooted the horn, and drove down the road.
Molly pushed with all her might and got the cart onto the infield. The bases around her were lined with pearls and jewels and she understood why the field was so extraordinarily bright. On the pitcher’s mound was a giant metal trash bin in the shape of a treasure chest. She trudged with her furniture a little closer and saw a woman there, leaning against the bin and panting from exhaustion. Her pale wrist was attached by a diamond leash to a heavy jewelry box on the ground near her feet. She was still in early morning jogging clothes, and her free hand was pressed against her heart. There was a swath of bent grass behind her indicating she had dragged her jewelry across the field.
The woman pulled a strong breath and spoke to Molly.
“Some purgatory, eh?”
“What?” said Molly, afraid to find out anything more.
“Oh, did you just get here?” The woman looked Molly over and saw the furniture cart. “You’re at the wrong station.”
“The furniture redemption center is down the road. About a mile, I guess. I passed it on my way here…”
The woman opened the lid of the giant bin and poured the contents of her box into it. Long strands of sapphire and scattered fire opals flashed and fell, ropes of pearls, miles of gold, blue topaz, emeralds green as the field. Gems, bars, and rings fell and fell as Molly watched. There has to be enough there to buy a small city, or change the status of an entire 3rd world country, she thought. It glints like Hatch’s fossil chisels in the Panama sun.
“Bye,” she called to the woman, and turned her furniture cart around.
“Be glad you’ve only got a mile,” the woman said.
Molly worked her way slowly to the redemption center, down the same road the truck had traveled after dropping her off. It was lined on either side with yew bushes, like the one she’d stared at from her porch just an hour ago.
She remembered the landscape man warning her of its toxicity the day he had planted it.
“One bush is enough to kill a horse, miss. Keep your dogs away from this one.”
She and Hatch had never had dogs but she was aware of yew from a trip they had taken to the British Isles one summer. Not work-related but a vacation, still they kept bumping into scientists at every turn. It seemed that yew trees held poetic meaning for the ancients: time, death, renewal. Of course Hatch had busied himself over possible fossils of these eco-organisms, but Molly loved the fact that the other scientists were on a quest for a biological understanding of a romantic myth. It was a sort of reverse echo of the romantic love she felt for her literal-minded spouse.
Funny to remember this now, and not in all the years she’d sat on the porch next to the bush. Time, death, renewal. She pushed her tall spiral of tables, lamps, and wobbling chairs with a vigor that would have sent her heart bursting before. Only a mile. Could she do it? Could she divest?
When Hatch returned from his field trip he found Molly’s body at the bottom of the attic stairs and immediately called 911, though from her pallor he knew it was too late. He held his magnifying glass up to her lips - no breath, the spirit had gone out of her. The attic door was hanging open, but why he did not know, as it was empty inside. For days he climbed the stairs and entered the attic as he imagined she must have, and searched every nook and cranny for clues. Nothing, it was empty.