When I told my mother in my sophomore year that I wanted to focus my furious ambitions in archaeology, she looked bitterly disappointed for a moment. "Oh, Willie," she'd said then. "There is nothing left in this world for you to discover, honey. Why look backward when you can look forward?" I talked for hours then, of the intensity of wonder when you blew away the dust and found an ancient skull in your hand, when you held the flint knives and saw the chisel marks made by long-dead hands. Like so many people who have long ago burnt through all of their own passion, my mother recognized mine, and longed for it. Archaeology would take me into the great world, into deserts and tundras, as far away from Templeton as I believed she had always wanted me to be. By now, her ego and a good portion of what inheritance she had left were invested in this dream: me as intrepid explorer of bone and potsherds, tunneling into the vastness of prehistory. Now, in the lightening dawn, she looked at me. A motorboat was speeding across the lake at top throttle, and its whine rose even to us, set two acres back on glowing, overgrown lawn.
"Oh, Willie," said my mother now. "Are you in trouble," and it was a statement, not a question.
"Vi?" I said. "I messed up big-time."
"Of course," she said. "Why else would you find yourself in Templeton? You can hardly stand to come back once a year for Christmas."
"Goddamn it, Vi," I said, and I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs and rested my head on the table.
My mother looked at me and then sighed. "Willie," she said. "I'm sorry. I'm so tired. Tell me now what happened so I can get some sleep, and we'll deal with it later."
I looked at her, then had to look down at the table. I traced designs in the waxy residue of its surface. And then I told her one version of the story, vastly abridged.
"Well, Vi," I said. "It looks like I'm pregnant. And it's maybe Dr. Primus Dwyer's."
My mother held her fingers over her mouth. "Oh, heaven help us," she said.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But, Vi, there's more." I said it in one exhale, in a great whoosh. I told her that I also tried to run over his wife with a bush plane, and she was the dean of students, and it was probable that charges of attempted manslaughter would prevent me from returning to Stanford again.
I held my breath and waited for the knuckled sting of the back of her hand.
Despite Vi's hippie mores, it was not uncommon in my childhood for us to get to this point in our battles, panting and narrow-eyed, stalemated across the table. And once or twice, for my greatest sins, she did send her hand across to settle it all with a smack.
But she didn't hit me now, and it was so silent I could hear the two hundred-year-old grandfather clock in the dining room as the pendulum clicked, clicked, clicked. When I looked up, Vi was shaking her head. "I can't believe it," she said, pushing her tea farther from her with one finger.
"I raised you to be exceptional, and here you are, a fuckup. Like your stupid fuckup mother." Her face wobbled and grew red.
I tried to touch her arm, but she snatched it away, as if mere contact with me could burn her. "I'm going to take a few pills," she said, standing.
"I'm going to sleep for as long as I can sleep. And when I wake up, we're dealing with this." She moved heavily to the door. With her back still toward me, she paused. "And oh, Willie, your hair. You had such beautiful hair," she said and moved away. I could hear her footsteps on every creaking floorboard in the old house, up the grand front stairway, far away over the hall and into the master bedroom.
Excerpted from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. Copyright (c) 2008 Lauren Groff. All rights reserved. Published by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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