Purity in Oakland

Monday

"Oh pussycat, I'm so glad to hear your voice," the girl's mother said on the telephone. "My body is betraying me again. Sometimes I think my life is nothing but one long process of bodily betrayal."

"Isn't that everybody's life?" the girl, Pip, said. She'd taken to calling her mother midway through her lunch break at Renewable Solutions. It brought her some relief from the feeling that she wasn't suited for her job, that she had a job that nobody could be suited for, or that she was a person unsuited for any kind of job; and then, after twenty minutes, she could honestly say that she needed to get back to work.

"My left eyelid is drooping," her mother explained. "It's like there's a weight on it that's pulling it down, like a tiny fisherman's sinker or something."

"Right now?"

"Off and on. I'm wondering if it might be Bell's palsy."

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"Whatever Bell's palsy is, I'm sure you don't have it."

"If you don't even know what it is, pussycat, how can you be so sure?"

"I don't know -- because you didn't have Graves' disease? Hyperthyroidism? Melanoma?"

It wasn't as if Pip felt good about making fun of her mother. But their dealings were all tainted by moral hazard, a useful phrase she'd learned in college economics. She was like a bank too big in her mother's economy to fail, an employee too indispensable to be fired for bad attitude. Some of her friends in Oakland also had problematic parents, but they still managed to speak to them daily without undue weirdnesses transpiring, because even the most problematic of them had resources that consisted of more than just their single offspring. Pip was it, as far as her own mother was concerned.

"Well, I don't think I can go to work today," her mother said. "My Endeavor is the only thing that makes that job survivable, and I can't connect with the Endeavor when there's an invisible fisherman's sinker pulling on my eyelid."

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"Mom, you can't call in sick again. It's not even July. What if you get the actual flu or something?"

"And meanwhile everybody's wondering what this old woman with half her face drooping onto her shoulder is doing bagging their groceries. You have no idea how I envy you your cubicle. The invisibility of it."

"Let's not romanticize the cubicle," Pip said.

"This is the terrible thing about bodies. They're so visible, so visible."

Pip's mother, though chronically depressed, wasn't crazy. She'd managed to hold on to her checkout-clerk job at the New Leaf Community Market in Felton for more than ten years, and as soon as Pip relinquished her own way of thinking and submitted to her mother's she could track what she was saying perfectly well. The only decoration on the gray segments of her cubicle was a bumper sticker, AT LEAST THE WAR ON THE ENVIRONMENT IS GOING WELL. Her colleagues' cubicles were covered with photos and clippings, but Pip herself understood the attraction of invisibility. Also, she expected to be fired any month now, so why settle in.

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"Have you given any thought to how you want to not-celebrate your not-birthday?" she asked her mother.

"Frankly, I'd like to stay in bed all day with the covers over my head. I don't need a not-birthday to remind me I'm getting older. My eyelid is doing a very good job of that already."

"Why don't I make you a cake and I'll come down and we can eat it. You sound sort of more depressed than usual."

"I'm not depressed when I see you."

"Ha, too bad I'm not available in pill form. Could you handle a cake made with stevia?"

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"I don't know. Stevia does something funny to the chemistry of my mouth. There's no fooling a taste bud, in my experience."

"Sugar has an aftertaste, too," Pip said, although she knew that argument was futile.

"Sugar has a souraftertaste that the taste bud has no problem with, because it's built to report sourness without dwelling on it. The taste bud doesn't have to spend five hours registering strangeness, strangeness! Which was what happened to me the one time I drank a stevia drink."

"But I'm saying the sourness does linger."

"There's something very wrong when a taste bud is still reporting strangeness five hours after you had a sweetened drink. Do you know that if you smoke crystal meth even once, your entire brain chemistry is altered for the rest of your life? That's what stevia tastes like to me."

"I'm not sitting here puffing on a meth stem, if that's what you're trying to say."

"I'm saying I don't need a cake."

"No, I'll find a different kind of cake. I'm sorry I suggested a kind that's poison to you."

"I didn't say it was poison. It's simply that stevia does something funny -- "

"To your mouth chemistry, yeah."

"Pussycat, I'll eat whatever kind of cake you bring me, refined sugar won't kill me, I didn't mean to upset you. Sweetheart, please."

No phone call was complete before each had made the other wretched. The problem, as Pip saw it -- the essence of the handicap she lived with; the presumable cause of her inability to be effective at anything -- was that she loved her mother. Pitied her; suffered with her; warmed to the sound of her voice; felt an unsettling kind of nonsexual attraction to her body; was solicitous even of her mouth chemistry; wished her greater happiness; hated upsetting her; found her dear. This was the massive block of granite at the center of her life, the source of all the anger and sarcasm that she directed not only at her mother but, more and more self-defeatingly of late, at less appropriate objects. When Pip got angry, it wasn't really at her mother but at the granite block.

Excerpted from "Purity" by Jonathan Franzen. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Franzen. All rights reserved.