Freedom by Jonathan Franzen Book Excerpt
The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times. According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital. His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him in the Times ("arrogant," "high-handed," "ethically compromised") with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill—the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, "Hey, you guys, you know what?" Patty frightened nobody, but she'd been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfedupon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.
In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else's children's sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it.
For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee. She was one of the few stay-at-home moms in Ramsey Hill and was famously averse to speaking well of herself or ill of anybody else. She said she expected to be "beheaded" someday by one of the windows whose sash chains she'd replaced. Her children were "probably" dying of trichinosis from pork she'd undercooked. She wondered if her "addiction" to paint-stripper fumes might be related to her "never" reading books anymore. She confided that she'd been "forbidden" to fertilize Walter's flowers after what had happened "last time." There were people with whom her style of self-deprecation didn't sit well—who detected a kind of condescension in it, as if Patty, in exaggerating her own minor defects, were too obviously trying to spare the feelings of less accomplished homemakers. But most people found her humility sincere or at least amusing, and it was in any case hard to resist a woman whom your own children liked so much and who remembered not only their birthdays but yours, too, and came to your back door with a plate of cookies or a card or some lilies of the valley in a little thrift-store vase that she told you not to bother returning.
It was known that Patty had grown up back East, in a suburb of New York City, and had received one of the first women's full scholarships to play basketball at Minnesota, where, in her sophomore year, according to a plaque on the wall of Walter's home office, she'd made second-team all-American. One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots. Whole seasons passed without her setting foot outside St. Paul, and it wasn't clear that anybody from the East, not even her parents, had ever come out to visit. If you inquired point-blank about the parents, she would answer that the two of them did a lot of good things for a lot of people, her dad had a law practice in White Plains, her mom was a politician, yeah, a New York State assemblywoman. Then she would nod emphatically and say, "Yeah, so, that's what they do," as if the topic had been exhausted.
Carol Monaghan was the only other mother on Barrier Street who'd been around as long as Patty. She'd come to Ramsey Hill on what you might call a patronage-exchange program, having been a secretary to somebody high-level in Hennepin County who moved her out of his district after he'd made her pregnant. Keeping the mother of your illegitimate child on your own office payroll: by the late seventies, there were no longer so many Twin Cities jurisdictions where this was considered consonant with good government. Carol became one of those distracted, break-taking clerks at the city license bureau while somebody equivalently well-connected in St. Paul was hired in reverse across the river. The rental house on Barrier Street, next door to the Berglunds, had presumably been included in the deal; otherwise it was hard to see why Carol would have consented to live in what was then still basically a slum. Once a week, in summer, an empty-eyed kid in a Parks Department jumpsuit came by at dusk in an unmarked 4x4 and ran a mower around her lawn, and in winter the same kid materialized to snow-blow her sidewalk.
By the late eighties, Carol was the only non-gentrifier left on the block. She smoked Parliaments, bleached her hair, made lurid talons of her nails, fed her daughter heavily processed foods, and came home very late on Thursday nights ("That's Mom's night out," she explained, as if every mom had one), quietly letting herself into the Berglunds' house with the key they'd given her and collecting the sleeping Connie from the sofa where Patty had tucked her under blankets. Patty had been implacably generous in offering to look after Connie while Carol was out working or shopping or doing her Thursday-night business, and Carol had become de pen dent on her for a ton of free babysitting. It couldn't have escaped Patty's attention that Carol repaid this generosity by ignoring Patty's own daughter, Jessica, and doting inappropriately on her son, Joey ("How about another smooch from the lady-killer?"), and standing very close to Walter at neighborhood functions, in her filmy blouses and her cocktail-waitress heels, praising Walter's home-improvement prowess and shrieking with laughter at every thing he said; but for many years the worst that Patty would say of Carol was that single moms had a hard life and if Carol was sometimes weird to her it was probably just to save her pride.
And Patty was undeniably very into her son. Though Jessica was the more obvious credit to her parents—smitten with books, devoted to wildlife, talented at fl ute, stalwart on the soccer field, coveted as a babysitter, not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it, admired even by Merrie Paulsen—Joey was the child Patty could not shut up about. In her chuckling, confiding, self-deprecating way, she spilled out barrel after barrel of unfiltered detail about her and Walter's difficulties with him. Most of her stories took the form of complaints, and yet nobody doubted that she adored the boy. She was like a woman bemoaning her gorgeous jerky boyfriend. As if she were proud of having her heart trampled by him: as if her openness to this trampling were the main thing, maybe the only thing, she cared to have the world know about.
"He is being such a little shit," she told the other mothers during the long winter of the Bedtime Wars, when Joey was asserting his right to stay awake as late as Patty and Walter did.
"Is it tantrums? Is he crying?" the other mothers asked.
"Are you kidding?" Patty said. "I wish he cried. Crying would be normal, and it would also stop."
"What's he doing, then?" the mothers asked.
Merrie Paulsen wasn't entertained by Patty's storytelling. Late in the evening, loading dinner-party dishes into the dishwasher, she remarked to Seth that it was hardly surprising that Joey should be confused about the distinction between children and adults—his own mother seemed to suffer from some confusion about which of the two she was. Had Seth noticed how, in Patty's stories, the discipline always came from Walter, as if Patty were just some feckless bystander whose job was to be cute?
"I wonder if she's actually in love with Walter, or not," Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. "Physically, I mean."
"The subtext is always 'My son is extraordinary,'" Merrie said. "She's always complaining about the length of his attention span."
"Well, to be fair," Seth said, "it's in the context of his stubbornness. His infinite patience in defying Walter's authority."
"Every word she says about him is some kind of backhanded brag."
"Don't you ever brag?" Seth teased.
"Probably," Merrie said, "but at least I have some minimal awareness of how I sound to other people. And my sense of self-worth is not bound up in how extraordinary our kids are."
"You are the perfect mom," Seth teased.
"No, that would be Patty," Merrie said, accepting more wine. "I'm merely very good."
"Oh-ho did that not go over well with Walter," she told the other mothers. "That's how the teenagers all talk to each other now," the mothers said. "It's a rap thing."
"That's what Joey said," Patty told them. "He said it was just a word and not even a bad word. And of course Walter begged to differ. And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wal-ter, Wal-ter, don't-get into-it, point-less to argue,' but, no, he has to try to explain how, for example, even though 'boy' is not a bad word, you still can't say it to a grown man, especially not to a black man, but, of course, the whole problem with Joey is he refuses to recognize any distinction between children and grownups, and so it ends with Walter saying there won't be any dessert for him, which Joey then claims he doesn't even want, in fact he doesn't even like dessert very much, and I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wal-ter, Wal-ter, don't-get into-it,' but Walter can't help it—he has to try to prove to Joey that in fact Joey really loves dessert. But Joey won't accept any of Walter's evidence. He's totally lying through his teeth, of course, but he claims he's only ever taken seconds of dessert because it's conventional to, not because he actually likes it, and poor Walter, who can't stand to be lied to, says, 'OK, if you don't like it, then how about a month without dessert?' and I'm thinking, 'Oh, Wal-ter, Wal-ter, this-isn't going-to end-well,' because Joey's response is, 'I will go a year without dessert, I will never eat dessert again, except to be polite at somebody else's house,' which, bizarrely enough, is a credible threat—he's so stubborn he could probably do it. And I'm like, 'Whoa, guys, time-out, dessert is an important food group, let's not get carried away here,' which immediately undercuts Walter's authority, and since the whole argument has been about his authority, I manage to undo anything positive he's accomplished."
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