Betsey Osborne discusses her book, The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe, in which a stubborn 65-year-old botany professor must cope when his wife, who served as buffer to the world for him, becomes bedridden.
Betsey Osborne has worked at Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Grand Street. A writer-in-the-schools for Teachers College, she has also taught at the college, high school and junior high school levels. She received her bachelor's degree in English from Harvard and a master of fine arts in fiction from Columbia, where she edited the program's literary journal. The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe is her first novel.
I thought one of the most moving parts of the passage was when Mr. Metcalfe learns that his daughter has thrown away the hand-carved wooden crib that served for his children, himself, his brothers and sister, and his own father before that. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a heartbreaking image because it means so much to Mr. Metcalfe yet his daughter declares that, Ã¢â‚¬Å“We didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even try to sell it. We left it for the garbage men.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Thanks Bob. Is this on? Is this all... Well thank you Bob, thanks Earl and thank verymuch to Books Inc., its great to be here and also I don't know where they are, but mysister-in-law Sandra, my brother Christopher for putting, supplying everything and Janefor supplying the wine and for all of you foe coming. So here we go. I'm gonna start fromthe beginning. I'll read and then I'll skip ahead, but I'll let you know when I'm gonna dothat. And, can everyone hear me? Good? Very Good. One. "Uncus Metscalfe's rally hadbeen stolen. There was a time, not so long ago, when he had ridden his bicycleeverywhere in all but the most in climate weather. Now he rode locally for errands andoccasionally a mile or so for pleasure. No doubt it would turn up. It had disappearedbefore and unless the thief were equipped with a wrench to lower the seat, he, or she hisdaughter Fauna would probably add, wanting the fairer sex to be equally considered, evenin matter of thievery, in all likelihood wouldn't be able to reach the pedals. Uncus was sixand a half feet tall, tall even for a Metcalfe. He wasn't as put out by the absence of hisbicycle as he might have been earlier in the fall. He had promised his wife he would put itaway at the first snow, which the chill temperature indicated, could be any moment. Hecould see it as a seasonal shift. Besides, its the several block walk from his house to hisoffice often put him in a contemplative mood. He turned on to Sparta's Main street andlooked across at the triangle of land occupied by the Laconia avenue shopping center.Before urban renewal, there had been a Flying A gas station at the tip with morepracticality, Johnson's Office Supply and Wells' Dry Goods anchoring the two corners.The new indoor mall seemed to specialize in whimsy. It was occupied by stores like DerKlackas, filled with coo coo clocks and water bed where house. No one Uncus knew hadeither a coo coo clock or a water bed. As absurd as those shops were, at least they werestill downtown and independent. With its big chain stores, the boxed mall on the outskirtsof town had stiffened off much of the commercial vitality. If that continued, Sparta properwould be a ghost town. The sidewalks were virtually empty, no one walked more thanhalf a block anymore, they were tethered cars. Even he and Margaret no longer made duewith just one. He had his Jeep, she had her station wagon. He nodded to the pharmacist ashe passed Fommer's Drug, which had been there since his childhood, though the sodafountain had been discontinued. Soon no doubt, the store would be shuttered completely,unable to compete with the lower prices and vaster array of choices on the outskirts oftown. Quality of service and product seem to be irrelevant. The physical upheaval andnear abandonment of the heart of Sparta over the last forty years were in sharp contrast tothe occasional hiccup in his own life, which was absorbed with little fuss by the resilientstasis he had achieved. Farther up the street, outside the old jewelry store, Uncus saw ayoung woman with torn camouflage pants and crew cut, she looked ready for the army.Bleached spikes radiated from her head like the filaments from an exotic flower. She wasapparently engaged in conversation with someone he couldn't see, someone standing inthe recess of the doorway. He wanted to hurry by, the girl looked upset, agitated, butinstead he found himself slowing down. As he approached, she grew quite. With outmeaning to, he turned to see to whom she had been talking. "Hello Mr. Metcalfe" the girlin the alcove said. He hadn't anticipated being greeted by name. Though in a town thissize and given his families prominence, he was used to it. He nodded. She had on a t-shirtcovered only by an apron with some kind of donut stitched on it. Collins' Jewelers waslong gone. Was the new shop a bakery? Uncus looked around surreptitiously. The wordspainted along the bottom of the store window, "hot coffee", "warm bagels", "coolcustomers", "cold cash", provided a clue. He wondered why he hadn't noticed the placebefore and was disconcerted he had walked right past his own office building,(unidentified), with out the faintest inclination to turn in and was now faced with a youngwoman whose name flickered at the edge of his memory. Uncus looked back at the spikyhaired girl, but she didn't look remotely familiar. She had an earring in her nose, coolcustomers indeed. "How are you Mr. Metcalfe? Here for some bagels?" The aproned girlstared at him, not in an unfriendly way, she was smiling, but more as though she hadexhausted conversation of the type reserve for people over the age of twenty-five. Sheturned to the door, "come on in", she said, "its cold out here." Something about the tilt ofher head and her composure jogged his memory. She was the granddaughter and greatgranddaughter of his father's business partners. She was Joe Stevenson's girl. He wassurprised that he hadn't seen the likeness immediately. Above his desk hung an oilpainting of old Mr. Stevenson, his son, and Uncus' father in the heyday of Laconia FarmWorks. She had come to his father's Christmas parties, he tried to will her name into hismemory. Anna maybe? No. That didn't sound right. Miss Stevenson was going to have todo. A bell jingled when she pushed open the door. As eager as he was to get to his office,he followed her into the shop, unwilling to reveal that he over shot his building. TheStevenson girl turned around and ducking past Uncus, caught the door before it closed,setting it off again. "Come back in Alex", she said, "I'll just be a minute". Uncus foundhimself staring again as the army girl stepped in the door. "Oh" the Stevenson girl said,"sorry Mr. Metcalf, this is Alex Miller, she's Betty Dellerfield's stepdaughter." "Hello",Uncus said. He had forgotten that Betty had married. "She'll be a sophomore at Mott nextyear, like me" the girl nodded, silent. Mott College, that explained her outfit. All girls,women, he could hear his daughter correcting him, college in the next town over fromLaconia, where Uncus was a Botany professor at Wright University. The local youngstersweren't quite so outlandish. He offered his hand and he shook it. Her solid grip surprisedand impressed him. He liked a little umpf in a handshake. "Pleased to meet you", he said.The room was as humid as the university greenhouses. Uncus' glasses started to fog up. Ifhe took them off, he wouldn't be able to see. Removing them also reeked havoc with hisastigmatism. If he left them on it would take longer for the glass to defog. Both optionsmade for a fuzzy world, which he disliked. Sometimes at night after he'd taken his glassesoff, he could still feel their weight on his nose. He would run his hands down his face tosee if they were still there. When he knew perfectly well they were folded on the nightstand next to him. Now he kept them on his nose and squinted, trying to see what was on(unidentified). "What would you like?", the Stevenson girl asked from behind thecounter, "a dozen bagels?" Uncus frowned, better than donuts he supposed. Slowly theshop came into focus. "Why not Miss Stevenson", Uncus said. "Hannah." "I beg yourpardon?" "Hannah, its Hannah Stevenson, Mr. Metcalfe. That's my name", she smiledbriefly. "Mixed?" "That would be fine", he said wondering what on earth he'd do with adozen bagels. Does Margaret like bagels? "He wasn't sure he did". "Would you like me tochoose", she asked, though she was looking over his shoulder as she spoke. HE studiedthe wire bins. They looked like extra deep in baskets loaded with seeded tufts of bread."Why don't you", Uncus said. He could feel himself get warm. The Stevenson girl was inher t-shirt behind the counter. She'd also donned a paper cap. He was bundled up for thechill outside. A dozen bagels. Margaret would think he was daft. His grandchildren wereexpected today. The bagels could be for them. He felt his shoulders ease. "Hannah, wereyou in my daughter Fauna's class?" "She's older than me. I remember her though. Doesn'tshe have a kid?" Then I, Uncus thought, older than I. "She and Doug have three children.Or as I like to think of them, three grandchildren. And a forth on the way", but he'd savethat information. "Wow, three. My mother was saying that Doug was coming back. Welive across the street. Its been weird having that house empty. Hannah wiped her foreheadon the sleeve of her t-shirt. "That's right. They're scheduled to arrive from Illinois today.They'll spend a few days with us and then they'll be your responsibility." Hannah lookedpuzzled, but then smiled, "Oh, because they'll be across the street", she said, "I get it."Uncus recalled the time he'd seen Dolores Fletcher, his son-in-law's mother in that house.She'd had a few too many as usual. "What's that he said?" cocking his ear towards Mr.Stevenson's granddaughter. "Baker's dozen, Mr. Metcalfe. You get one more. Do youwant me to choose that too?" "Make it a cinnamon raisin, please." He himself didn't carefor fruit in bread, or in chicken, or ham, or in any dish except for dessert or oatmeal, buthis grandchildren would like the raisins. That seemed to be the kind of thing they thrivedon. That'll be six dollars even Mr. Metcalfe." Uncus tried to contain his surprise. Thesewere big city prices for glorified bread. Still, he supposed it was too late to refuse to buy.This would teach him not to miss the building. He handed the girl a ten and a one. Hewould get a five dollar bill in change. He preferred to limit the number of ones crowdinghis wallet. "This is too much Mr. Metcalfe. Its six dollars you gave me. Oh. I get it."Uncus relaxed himself into patience, all the time in the world for her to figure out asimple math problem. "Geez, sorry Mr. Metcalfe. No fives today. Hannah counted outfive singles into his hand. As he left the shop, Uncus saw Alex sitting at a table in thecorner. She looked glum, at odds with her bright spiky hair which seemed cheery againstthe gray cold. It was mysterious what governed the temperaments of the young. At so fara move from mortality, her distress seemed luxurious and indulgence." Now I'm going toskip ahead to he, Fauna does return and he gets a call when he gets to his office that hiswife is laid up in the hospital, a book table at a fair has fallen on her and so she's in thehospital and we pick him up the next day when he's going to visit her for the second timeand he has stopped off at the book fair to bring her some books. "Uncus heard thefirehouse sirens signal noon as the automatic glass doors swung open and ushered himinto Sparta Memorial. The hallway smelled of hospital food, potent and sickly all at once.When he walked into the room, Fauna was lifting the round cover off of a thin sandwich.Slices of pink cold cuts between white bread. His wife and middle child looked up at thesame moment with the same impassive expression. He knew they expected him to hispresence seemed to barely register. Fauna continued unloading the tray before greetinghim. His wife said hello after taking a bite of her sandwich. In Margaret's case it didn'tmean that she wasn't glad he was here, but that she reserved her outward enthusiasm forthe unknown commodity. Had Uncus been an orderly or a nurse's aide, someone Margarethad never laid eyes on, he would have been greeted like a valued customer. Fauna had inher high school days, accused her mother of being warmer to shop clerks than to her ownchildren. But Uncus had experienced Margaret's true frostiness at a much closer range.The chill one morning after he'd drunk too much, her swing in mood from teasing to coldwhen he wouldn't be jollied out of the blackness that sometimes weighed on him. She hada code of behavior and if you stumbled, she retreated in cool disappointment. 'I'm sorry'would be met with 'I should think you would be'. When Fauna complained about andwhat was evidence here could be seen in comparison as simply reserve. 'We were justdiscussing what beds and stuff Fauna might take from the attic", Margaret said, 'it seemsa lucrative garage sale has striped them of the basics.' Fauna looked a little embarrassed,'Well, it seems stupid to cart second hand junky stuff back and forth from across thecountry. I mean, I knew we'd need some of it, but it didn't seem worth it.' Uncus hoped nofamily furniture had been sold to strangers. He tried to remember what she'd been given.Fauna turned back to her mother, 'Here's what I think we need: a couple of single beds forTommy and Janie and some small bureaus if you have them. We'll get a new couch with apull out bed for the television/guest room and I'll have to look into a crib for Nick,although I don't know how long he'll stand for that.' 'What happened to father's crib",Margaret asked. 'Fauna's face wrinkled, 'I don't know why I let you talk me into takingthat thing to Illinois. It was rickety and seemed designed to sever kids fingers. We didn'teven try to sell it. We left it for the garbage men' 'Oh, Faun, you didn't', Margaret said.Uncus inwardly winced as his fear was confirmed. It had been a fine old crib. At eachcorner, there had been a hand carved pine cone with worm patched where his father andthen Uncus' brothers and sister and then Uncus himself, as well as his own children, hadas it were, nursed. He expected to see future generations launch from its confines. Thelack of respect he sometimes saw in his progeny was a great disappointment. 'Yep, I'msorry, but I did', Fauna said, 'the safety regulations, even for your own grandchildrenmean nothing to you people?' 'But', Margaret persisted, 'it wasn't your to give away, muchless throw away.' Fauna shrugged, 'I thought it was mine. I thought you'd given it to me. Itdidn't occur to me that you'd want it back. I didn't know you and dad were considering.Do you have some news you'd like to share?', she patted her own extended belly. Uncuschecked his irritation. Fauna's sense of humor escaped him. She must see that Margaretwas upset, that the crib meant something to her. 'I wish you hadn't', Margaret said. 'But Idid', Fauna replied. Margaret turned to Uncus. 'What news of life in the free world' Uncustook his wife's cue and switched gears. He feigned consideration of the question. 'Well, Ibring you tidings and books courtesy of Elsie and all the woman down at the annual Muirlibrary book sale. Elsie was kind enough to feed the meter for your car this morning andsaid she'd be up to visit this afternoon. Margaret rolled her eyes. Fauna stood up quickly,'I bet', she said, 'Mrs. Brewster called Doug, the Fletcher boy.' Uncus was bewildered. Hisdaughter's outburst rarely failed to take him off guard. They were what reminded him thatshe was only twenty-two years old, not her defiance over throwing out his old crib, or herimpertinence in implying that Margaret was pregnant. 'Elsie had called Doug the Fletcherboy, but that's who he was. And I bet you just nodded as though that were aninappropriate way for her to refer to your son-in-law.' 'He has a name, but the womancan't let go. I dumped her pot head son after going out with him for two days and its like,oh, i don't know', Fauna was looking at him as though she was waiting for a response, butUncus didn't know what to say. 'Lord reticent taciturn pleads his case, never mind', Faunasaid. Lord Reticent Taciturn, Uncus thought, an affectionate nickname given to him byhis wife and turned on his ear by his children. 'Oh, and Dad, the doctor, Charlie Bizgrovewas here, mom won't be out for a few days. He wants to talk to you.' 'Little Charlie?',Uncus asked. 'There's only one practicing Dr. Bizgrove. His father retired', Fauna said.The nurse at the desk has a question about insurance and I'm late to meet Doug and thekids. She turned to Margaret, 'I'll be back later this afternoon, Mom, while the kids arenapping.' On her way out, Fauna stopped and looked at him, 'Sorry about that outburst,but Mrs. Brewster really frys my... she gets on my nerves.' She kissed him on the cheekbriefly, 'is there anything I can pick up for you Mom, besides a crib?' 'No, I don't thinkso.' Damned, Uncus thought. If she was going to ask Fauna for anything. But then shedid. 'If the mail comes in time, and oh, the newspaper' Uncus stepped farther into theroom with books. With his free hand he lifted the paper that had been resting on top ofthe books, 'Oh, here's the Gazette.' 'Bless you my angel husband, you didn't make thefront page, I'll phone Steve immediately', Margaret gave a snort of laughter. Steve(unidentified) was the editor of the Sparta Gazette and a recent widower who had movedto Sparta with his wife about a dozen years ago. He'd seen the paper through somedifficult times, not the least of which was its absorption by a chain. Even so he coveredlocal news with the attention to detail that some people reserve for their annual Christmasletter. No doubt, Margaret would appear in the weekly hospital round up, thestethoscope." Thank you very much.