Kate Riley is not the sort of heroine we meet in most American novels. Self-centered, shape-shifting, driven from one man to another and one city to the next, she is all too real but not at all the loyal and steady homebody of idealized womanhood. When we first encounter her, Kate is about to undergo exploratory brain surgery for a condition she herself has fabricated. Sobered by the gravity of the procedure, she commences a journey of memory that takes us back to the Saskatchewan village where she grew up and to the singular event that altered her forever and irrevocably set the course of her life.
From her childhood, in which she was held captive to a mother gone mad, through her adult life, which unfolds as a mesmerizing sequence of men, abandoned children, and perpetual movement, Kate’s story is one of desperation and remarkable invention, a strangely American tale, narrated by one of our most original writers.
About the Author
Lynn Stegner is the author of four novels, including Undertow, Fata Morgana, and Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. The manuscript for Because a Fire Was in My Head won the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Award for Best Novel of 2005. The book became a Literary Ventures Selection as well as a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection. Stegner currently teaches fiction writing in Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and lives in Point Reyes Station with her husband, writer Page Stegner, and their daughter, Allison.
Read an Excerpt
Because a Fire Was in My Head
By LYNN STEGNER
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2007 Lynn Stegner
All right reserved.
They were stopped on a hill at a red light, Kate Riley and a man.
There was always a man. Did it matter which? Perhaps it might have mattered if she had been willing. Or not afraid.
They were stopped on a steep hill, the red light at the top crowning the intersection, with several cars in front, so that theirs-it was new and dark-tilted sharply up toward the summit. Until she glanced to her left there were the usual sounds of afternoon traffic in the town of Monterey. The sun was out, a temperate day, an ordinary moment from the flow of impersonal and familiar time. Until she saw the young woman there was sound, the calico busyness of suburban scene, the smell of new leather, the man beside her, his hand resting lightly atop her-she could not see his face, but she noted with satisfaction the space filled in by his shape. He had just concluded a long sentence with her name as its caboose-Kate-gently rocking at the end, a reassuring lilt that, to some extent, she knew she did not need, even while she took pleasure in its small ritualized caress. Then it all vanished, or it dropped its claims, ceased to move; the camera had stopped forward action, and the moment fell from above like a single pebble into her hand.
On the sidewalk to her left was a young woman. She alone went on, lived on. A black Labrador sat beside the woman, alert, watching the traffic, his nose lifted slightly, his head shifting one way then another-he seemed to be hoping that someone would come along to help. The young woman was slender, even ... cadaverous. Her left hipbone jutted out and up at a distorted angle, and the modern, hip-hugging slacks she wore struck a sad note of complicity-she was blind and could neither see and enjoy her conformity with the fashion of the day, nor realize how slightly, fatally it missed the mark. Someone else-not family, Kate could not imagine a family-a friend or a store clerk perhaps, had chosen the clothing for her. Kate could not imagine a family because of the dignity; dignity of that sort was self-generated and independent. Dignity could not be borrowed, it was wrung from the smallest of acts repeated over time.
The cropped shirt revealed a swath of tummy, flat and pale, not unattractive-men liked looking without being seen, yes, Kate thought, even the man sitting next to me, all of them. The young woman's hair had been cut with ease of care-or utility-in mind. The eye locations were shadowed, like charcoal smudges, and sunken in against the nose in the way that was typical of people blind from birth. It was as if the muscles surrounding the eyes, having never been called to action, retreated permanently. With her left hand she gripped the animal's heavy leather harness as she tugged a plastic bag over her right hand, using her teeth in the end. There was something wrong with the arm ... it kept springing up, bending inward, like a wing that did not want to be extended. Finally she half-knelt, half-squatted on the curb, all awkward limbs and angles; this girl had more than simple blindness to deal with. But there was something exciting, even aesthetic about her distortions-a figure in a dream by Picasso. In fact, the whole thing became a marvelous, lurid dance, and Kate was completely transfixed by the sightless cadaver with her one wing and her dog so true.
Kate glanced ahead, up the hill; the light had still not changed.
In the town of Monterey dogs had to be leashed; they had to be cleaned up after by their owners. The first was a municipal code, and the second simply a local code of conduct encouraged by discreet signs and the occasional plastic bag dispenser in parks and along popular walkways. The young woman's Seeing Eye dog had defecated in the gutter. It had never crossed Kate's mind, or she had never associated this natural function with Seeing Eye dogs who were immune, like priests and nuns and doctors, to the imaginings and degradations of the public eye.
The stools left by the Labrador were round and hard, and these attributes, combined with the steep slope, had sent them rolling downhill about four or five feet.
Her hand sheathed in the plastic made a sweep of the gutter-nothing. Again, she swept the area where she knew her dog had hunched moments earlier and where she naturally estimated his leavings should be found. Beside her the Labrador waited, perhaps embarrassed by what he had done, confused by her actions, worried. But Kate could see that he trusted his mistress, despite the long delay, or that he was at least willing to put up with things as they were.
The light would never change ...
Kate thought about mentioning what she was witnessing to the man beside her, but even before the thought had concluded she decided that she did not want him to see it. Who would want to share so remarkable a moment? But she could not share it, either. It was like trying to call out in the middle of a dream-the effort was overwhelming. She felt paralyzed by the narrative.
Now the young woman dropped clumsily to both knees, the one normal arm and hand still linked to the dog's rectangular harness, and the other, the wing fluttering out beyond the safety of the gutter into the actual lane where cars, which had turned right from the cross street above, were now passing with the swift, carefree momentum of descent. Down down down they rushed toward her innocent arm ... and just below, out of reach, the three brown stools sat like three blind mice.
Christ, let it go, Kate Riley thought, just let it go. Surely, you are not required ... you may excuse yourself.
The light changed. Time resumed, gathering its skirts and fleeing before them. The car surged forward, the seat pressing itself with the sudden authority of the present tense into Kate's body. You are here, it said, now, it asserted. But she thought that she would look back, she felt sure that she would look back, she even wondered if some part of her, some imagined, allegorical remnant of Kate Riley would ask that they stop ... and she would get out of the car, cross over, be the one the dog waited for, the person who was going to help. And Kate was aware, she marveled, that she did not look back. She felt herself to be in a kind of shock. She could not even turn her head. That was the thing that surprised her most-that she could not even make herself look back, there was so little will left, there was so little will left ...
Because it was Kate who was in the grip of her own momentum, it was she who sped down down down into the broken wings of innocents.
Are you afraid? His question as they passed under the green light, which hung like heavy mistletoe over their heads. She kissed him. Brave Kate. Or perhaps it was only that she was aware of behaving bravely. She was pretty that day-on the thinner side of things-and felt not only that it was safe, but that she deserved to bestow a kiss. She was important, too; that day she was more important than he, more important than anyone they passed. Even the blind girl.
And they arrived at the hospital precisely on time.
June 3rd, 1970. Before the days of CT-scans and MRIS. Before they could look inside without making an actual entry, without making themselves an instrument of scientific faith.
His first name was Jim ... he was important, they were all so important, but she could not even remember his last name.
It was a small Catholic hospital with a reputation for decent, workmanlike medicine. Jim had urged something more cutting-edge, a large medical center with a university attached, but Kate insisted on the unpretentious, and since she knew that he secretly approved of that, and as it wasn't his brain about to be probed-she couldn't help but note-he acquiesced. The sixties had only just concluded; faded bumper stickers continued to announce small is beautiful. And though she had never been a child of the sixties, had never been rich enough or idle enough to indulge in it, Jim, her newest one, had the philosopher's fondness for pretty ideas.
Under the hospital porte-cochere, he turned off the engine and strode with a masculine sense of purpose inside, long legs, arms pumping easily back and forth. She liked the way he walked, for that day she was his purpose. Five minutes later at her door stood Jim with a nurse pushing a wheelchair. Kate made some jocular remark-it's not my legs, it's my head that hurts-and they smiled, relieved and impressed-brave Kate-and said their lines, reaffirming that today was her day, today Kate Riley was special and everything about Kate overruled, and from everything Kate would be excused. It was just as she had fantasized it, the whole thing, the whole wonderful farce, and so real that, now more often than not, she found herself believing it.
Most of the rooms they passed were doubles, a vinyl accordion wall separating patients, but an entire room had been reserved for Riley comma Kate. The airy, wash-worn, hospital gown lay waiting on the coverlet, along with a shrink-wrapped plastic tub containing a cup, straws, toothbrush and paste, comb, hospital socks with a white rubber chevron pattern on their soles, the kind they make for toddlers, a turquoise aspirator, some brochures, and the ubiquitous bean-shaped vomit dish. Jim placed her overnight duffel bag near the bed and said, "I'll be right back." She felt a sudden hollowing in her stomach-was he going to make a call? Now? Was he actually going to place a call now to the office? Would the new secretary be there, Sandra in her summer sandals? Did she know, she must know, about the headaches, the blackouts, the exploratory surgery? They all must know. Surely he was excused ... somewhere she had heard that thought before, somewhere recently ...
"Can't it wait?" she asked. "My head, it feels as if a horse has kicked me."
Jim was a modern-day ascetic, lean and haphazardly clothed, but clean, very clean, with eyes that were always gazing a little too deeply for comfort, especially at that moment as he tried to be intensely comforting. He was so sincere that, under different circumstances, she would have laughed.
"I thought you were off this deadline ... didn't they get someone else to do the piece? You promised ..."
"Kate. I'm just going to the restroom."
She stared back at him. He was the purest of them all. "Oh you ."
By the time he returned she had already changed into the gown, arranging herself with poignant neatness beneath the covers, like a little girl waiting to be tucked in.
"My hair," she said, not really thinking of it yet-cueing it up.
"It will grow back, exactly as it is now," he said, lifting the cool heavy mass, rolling his hand back and forth beneath it, then he must have checked himself; it would not do to appreciate her hair today, he seemed to realize. And again Kate remembered why she liked this man.
Behind his chair there was a window and through its upper half she could see yellow California hills studded with live oaks, blue sky, a single cloud stretched and flattened by the wind off the sea, and the sea itself, just a slim wedge of blue-gray. She would remember that scene, the colors, the one long cloud, for the rest of her life. If she lay down partially she did not have to see through the lower half of the window where a cemetery spread in tufted, green undulations down to the river that flowed to the nearby sea, though even then, during that first hour in the hospital, she did not feel its genuine weight, its very real pull, and avoiding it was a matter of pretense-part of the show.
Later on a nurse came in carrying a white enamel tray, and in it, several items: scissors, a razor, tweezers, electric clippers, a tub of antiseptic shaving gel, a rubber band, a clear plastic bag, a tiny paper cup containing a single pill. "Would you like a sedative? It helps to relax."
Kate looked at the neatly folded towel draped over the nurse's forearm like a barmaid's, and smiled. "No."
"Yes," said Jim at the same time. They laughed. "Well, I need one," he added, still smiling in a way that was meant to be boyish and pleasing.
When Kate had moved to the stool and the plastic smock was snapped around her neck, Jim rose. They had agreed beforehand that he would go away during the haircut, and while he fished out the new hat-a light blue cashmere beret-she brushed her hair into a single bundle and bound it with the rubber band. Then he stepped outside the door and waited. Arrangements had already been made with a wig man over the hill who worked quickly and expertly with human hair. Jim was to take the hair to him immediately, then return. By the time she was released from the hospital in a week the wig would be ready-or at least that was the plan.
"I'm sorry," said the nurse.
"Well ..." Kate offered a light, ecclesiastical shrug, accepting fate with the equanimity of a nun.
"It's beautiful hair."
"My grandmother's," she murmured as if in a dream. Then she closed her eyes as the scissors made their way through the thick bundle. The sound of the scissors laboring, a slick chunking sound, was unique in all the world. Then it was over. The nurse placed the hair carefully in the plastic bag, and handed it out to Jim who departed without a word.
"Do you want to see?" the nurse asked as she took her seat again.
"Yes." In her excitement Kate grabbed the mirror. "Oh." She pulled what was left of her hair out to the side, shook her head, and tugged again at the dark ragged halo. "It's perfect, perfectly awful ... I look like, well now, who do I look like?" Fiddling with the clippers in the tray, the nurse seemed to understand that she was audience, not participant. "That blind girl with her choppy hair, that's who I look like. How strange. I wonder what it would be like to be blind." And then she thought about that as a possibility.
The nurse was staring at her.
"I'm ready," Kate said.
Again with the scissors until it was uniformly short, then out came the clippers, which clacked sharply before settling into a steady buzz, mowing front to back, front to back, the cold fingertips of the tines vibrating and the clumps of hair dropping like small furry animals she was giving birth to, one after another, except that there was nothing to them, they were all hair.
Now the nurse-her nametag said Betty-plump, motherly Betty would not allow the mirror. "Let me use the razor first, Mrs. Riley. Your head has a nice shape." Against Kate's naked scalp her palms were warm and intimate, and she seemed proud of her work as she spread the shaving gel and drew the razor about, making short orderly paths. A warm wet towel at the end, some antiseptic lotion, and Nurse Betty was finished.
"I think I'd like to be alone," Kate said in a quivery voice, "seeing for the first time."
Betty offered an understanding nod, "Of course," sweeping up the bodiless fur creatures, letting the door close behind her with a distinctly soft regret.
On the tray table the mirror lay face down; Kate picked it up and looked, instantly casting her gaze to the yellow hills, the one long cloud, then down at the squares of gray linoleum, crawling back up to her hand holding the mirror, to the mirror itself, irresistibly turning it. "You."
She was thirty-nine, and it was the first time she had seen her face, not as someone who owns it or possesses it, but as a witness to a true, if strangely static, event. When you had no hair it wasn't your scalp you noticed, it was your face. And hers was a tired face, a hard face, a face she did not recognize except as someone she had seen once long ago on a street or in a crowd. Or maybe in that distant doctor's office ... maybe that was the last time Kate could bear to see the woman she was. The eyes looked smaller, the lips thin and drawn down, the wrinkles were determined, there for the duration, and not at all evanescent as she had made them for so long through the eyes of others. A face of certain experience-those words came to mind. Even the dimples-small depressions that a veteran actress had practiced into their very existence-strained for an old recognition-the recognition that there had been someone innocent once, just a girl with dimples.
And at the same time, Kate Riley knew this face, she knew it like a dull pain in a place one hopes to be able to forget. She knew it and hated everything about it and there could be no forgiveness, none.
In redemption she was not interested, only in the moment freed of the past, all tethers neatly cut away. What would it be like? Who could imagine such a thing? The rarefaction, the light like the black at the center of the sun, and no memories, and without them, no one to have remembered them. No Kate.
Excerpted from Because a Fire Was in My Head by LYNN STEGNER Copyright © 2007 by Lynn Stegner. Excerpted by permission.
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