By Barbara E. Murphy
Jill is a stockbroker, my nurse practitioner begins, and I listen with attention not just because I’m a sucker for a story and will give any once-upon-a-time a chance to pick up steam but because this is an assessment—a test, really, but no one uses that word anymore—of my alertness and mental acuity. I’ve heard it referred to as The Montreal Test. This session is part of the protocol covered by my new health insurance, the kind of insurance that kicks in when you hang up your spurs or cleats depending on whether you rode or ran or sat—as I did, at conference tables or a desk—and move into the post-work phase of your life.
Jill, meanwhile, has fallen in love with and marries Jack and they move (from where, we aren’t told, though it’s the sort of detail that interests me) to Chicago. About him, we learn only that he is dazzlingly handsome. Really, that’s how he’s described. No more information than that and I risk distraction to wonder who wrote this? A doctor? A psychologist? Male or female? Before or after the recent election? And why does the stock market continue to do so well anyway? Not that dazzlingly handsome isn’t force enough to sway a woman to change her life. It is and dazzle can last a surprisingly long time but almost only if it comes with a good sense of humor and one or two other traits like skill at working the remotes and possession of a valid passport.
What come next are two children. We don’t learn whether they are twins or singletons, adopted or birthed by Jill. Did she have any trouble conceiving? Did Jill have an easy pregnancy or pregnancies? We don’t know her age or whether her insurance covered everything. We do learn that Jill left her job to stay home with her kids—we assume they switched to Jack’s insurance—and my nurse practitioner is silent on how Jill felt about stepping out of the work world. Was she happy beyond reason as a fulltime mother? Did she miss the companionship of her fellow brokers? The thrill of the buy and sell? And Jack: who knows what he was up to except it must have been pretty good work since he’s now supporting a family of four.
The story takes a turn when the kids become teenagers and Jill makes the decision to go back to work. Were she here, were she real, I could ask her to reconsider and hold out for a few more years. Driving them to middle school soccer practice is one thing; watching them get behind the wheel of your or, worse, their own car going who knows where is quite something else. They are about to start hanging out with those kids you told them to avoid, the ones whose parents are telling them not to hang out with your kids.
Risking further distraction—I know I’m going to have to recount this tale or answer some relevant questions—I can’t help but wonder if Jill returns to a diminished salary, how severely she is suffering the mom penalty after her absence from the workforce; I wonder if her technical skills have kept up, if she still thrills to the chase of the market.
And how does the change in family income affect the Jill-Jack household? Do they take more vacations, send the kids to private school, or does the money just get swallowed up and assert itself as the new normal? I’m guessing Door Three.
Jill’s return to the market marks the end of the story as told to me.
I am asked by my now slightly embarrassed practitioner—Jess, is her name —what Jill’s profession is, what made her leave work and when did she feel safe enough—my words, not Jess’s—to return to work. Then the trick question: what state does Jill live in? Funny how this remains exclusively Jill’s story. Maybe Jack’s fading dazzle lessens his role in the drama. The kids remain nameless and absent to us.
My recall is excellent, at least in this particular setting. And, I shine again as I name—freestyle, this time—twenty animals, zoo or farm categories both allowed. Jess does not seem interested in the fact that I cannot always recall the first names of my favorite poets, and increasingly I remember what I once knew as whole in fragments as if the world is repackaging itself in haiku not seamless narrative.
But the world is not seamless and it veers more toward lyrical than narrative. Stories don’t seem to proceed the way they used to: beginning, middle, then the earned ending. Most days, it seems to be all middle but with a blessedly generous supply of chances to begin again. And even the adventures you thought had ended—a career, a first marriage, your children’s childhoods—haven’t exactly finished. Jill will figure this out, too.
BARBARA E. MURPHY is a poet and essayist whose work had appeared in publications including The Threepenny Review, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, and The New York Times. Her poetry collection Almost Too Much was published by Cervena Barva Press. She was a college president for twenty years in the Vermont State Colleges system.