The Natural History of Uncas Metcalfe

A Novel

Betsey Osborne

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

Uncas Metcalfe’s Raleigh had been stolen. There was a time, not so long ago, when he’d ridden his bicycle everywhere, in all but the most inclement weather. Now he rode locally, for errands, and, occasionally, a mile or so for pleasure. No doubt it would turn up. It had disappeared before, and unless the thief were equipped with a wrench to lower the seat, he---or she, his daughter Fauna would probably add, wanting the fairer sex to be equally considered even in matters of thievery---in all likelihood wouldn’t be able to reach the pedals. Uncas was six and a half feet tall, tall even for a Metcalfe. He wasn’t as put out by the absence of his bicycle as he might have been earlier in the fall; he had promised his wife he would put it away at the first snow, which the chill temperature indicated could be any moment. He could see it as a seasonal shift. Besides, the several-block walk from his house to his office often put him in a contemplative mood.

He turned onto Sparta’s main street and looked across at the triangle of land occupied by the Laconia Avenue Shopping Center. Before urban renewal, there had been a Flying A gas station at the tip, with more practicality---Johnson’s Office Supply and Wells’s Dry Goods---anchoring the two corners. The new indoor mall seemed to specialize in whimsy. It was occupied by stores like Der Klockhaus (filled with cuckoo clocks) and Water Bed Warehouse; no one Uncas knew had either a cuckoo clock or a water bed. As absurd as those shops were, at least they were still downtown and independent. With its big chain stores, the box mall on the outskirts of town had siphoned off much of the commercial vitality. If that continued, Sparta proper would be a ghost town. The sidewalks were virtually empty. No one walked more than half a block anymore; they were all tethered to their cars. Even he and Margaret no longer made do with just one: he had his Jeep; she had her station wagon. He nodded to the pharmacist as he passed Fulmer’s Drug, which had been there since his childhood, though the soda fountain had been discontinued. Soon, no doubt, the store would be shuttered completely, unable to compete with the lower prices and vaster choices on the outskirts of town. Quality of service and product seemed to be irrelevant. The physical upheaval and near abandonment of the heart of Sparta over the last forty years were in sharp contrast to the occasional hiccup in his own life which was absorbed with little fuss by the resilient stasis he had achieved.

Farther up the street, outside the old jewelry store, Uncas saw a young woman; with torn camouflage pants and crew cut, she looked ready for the army. Bleached spikes radiated from her head like the filaments from an exotic flower. She was, apparently, engaged in conversation with someone he couldn’t see, someone standing in the recess of the doorway. He wanted to hurry by---the girl looked upset, agitated---but instead he found himself slowing down. As he approached, she grew quiet. Without meaning to, he turned to see to whom she’d been talking.

“Hello, Mr. Metcalfe,” the girl in the alcove said.

He hadn’t anticipated being greeted by name, though in a town this size and given his family’s prominence, he was used to it. He nodded; she had on a T-shirt covered only by a white apron with some kind of doughnut stitched on it. Collins’s Jewelers was long gone. Was the new shop a bakery? Uncas looked around surreptitiously. The words painted along the bottom of the store window---hot coffee warm bagels cool customers cold cash---provided a clue. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed the place before, and was disconcerted to realize he had walked right past his own office building, the Menelaus, without the faintest inclination to turn in, and was now faced with a young woman whose name flickered at the edge of his memory. Uncas looked back at the spiky-haired girl, but she didn’t look remotely familiar. She had an earring in her nose. Cool customers, indeed.

“How are you, Mr. Metcalfe? Here for some bagels?” The aproned girl stared at him; not in an unfriendly way---she was smiling---but more as though she’d exhausted conversation of the type reserved for people over the age of twenty-five. She turned to the door. “Come on in,” she said. “It’s cold out here.” Something about the tilt of her head, and her composure, jogged his memory. She was the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of his father’s business partners. She was Joe Stephenson’s girl; he was surprised he hadn’t seen the likeness immediately---above his desk hung an oil painting of old Mr. Stephenson, his son, and Uncas’s father in the heyday of Laconia Farm Works. She had come to his father’s Christmas parties. He tried to will her name into his memory. Anna, maybe. No, that didn’t sound right. Miss Stephenson was going to have to do.

A bell jingled when she pushed open the door. As eager as he was to get to his office, he followed her into the shop, unwilling to reveal that he’d overshot his building. The Stephenson girl turned around and, ducking past Uncas, caught the door before it closed, setting the bell off again. “C’mon back in, Alex,” she said. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Uncas found himself staring again, as the army girl stepped in the door.

“Oh,” the Stephenson girl said. “Sorry. Mr. Metcalfe, this is Alex Miller. She’s Betty Delafield’s stepdaughter.”

“Hello,” Uncas said. He had forgotten that Betty had married.

“She’ll be a sophomore at Mott next year.”

The girl nodded, silent.

Mott College---that explained her outfit. It was an all-girls (women, he could hear his daughter correcting him) college in the next town over from Laconia, where Uncas was a botany professor at Wright University. The local youngsters weren’t quite so outlandish. He offered his hand and she shook it. Her solid grip surprised and impressed him. He liked a little oomph in a handshake. Most young people looked puzzled when you offered your hand. She looked him in the eye, too, which was another surprise.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. The room was as humid as the university greenhouses; Uncas’s glasses started to fog up. If he took them off, he wouldn’t be able to see; removing them also wreaked havoc with his astigmatism. If he left them on, it would take longer for the glass to defog. Both options made for a fuzzy world, which he disliked. Sometimes at night, after he had taken his glasses off, he could still feel their weight on his nose. He would run his hand down his face to see if they were still there, when he knew perfectly well they were folded on the nightstand next to him. Now, he kept them on his nose and squinted, trying to see what was on offer.

“What would you like?” the Stephenson girl asked from behind the counter. “A dozen bagels?”

Uncas frowned. Better than doughnuts, he supposed. Slowly the shop came into focus.

“Why not, Miss Stephenson?” Uncas said.


“I beg your pardon?”

“Hannah. It’s Hannah Stephenson, Mr. Metcalfe. That’s my name.” She smiled briefly. “Mixed?”

“That would be fine,” he said, wondering what on earth he’d do with a dozen bagels. Did Margaret like bagels? He wasn’t sure he did.

“Would you like me to choose?” she asked, though she was looking over his shoulder as she spoke.

He studied the wire bins. They looked like extra-deep in-baskets, loaded with seeded tufts of bread.

“Why don’t you?” Uncas said. He could feel himself get warm. The Stephenson girl was in her T-shirt behind the counter; she’d also donned a paper cap. He was bundled up for the chill outside. A dozen bagels. Margaret would think he was daft. His grandchildren were expected today. The bagels could be for them. He felt his shoulders ease. “Hannah, were you in my daughter Fauna’s class?”

“She’s older than me. I remember her though. Doesn’t she have a kid?”

Than I, Uncas thought. Older than I. “She and Doug have three children. Or as I like to think of them, three grandchildren.” And a fourth on the way, but he’d save that information.

“Wow. Three. My mother was saying that Doug was coming back. We live across the street. It’s been weird having that house empty.” Hannah wiped her forehead on the sleeve of her T-shirt.

“That’s right. They’re scheduled to arrive from Illinois today. They’ll spend a few days with us and then they’ll be your responsibility.”

Hannah looked puzzled but then smiled. “Oh, because they’ll be across the street,” she said. “I get it.”

Uncas recalled the time he’d seen Delores Fletcher, his son-in-law’s mother, in that house. She had had a few too many, as usual. “What’s that?” he said, cocking his ear toward Mr. Stephenson’s granddaughter.

“Baker’s dozen, Mr. Metcalfe. You get one more. Do you want me to choose that too?”

“Make it a cinnamon raisin, please.” He himself didn’t care for fruit in bread or in chicken or ham or in any dish except dessert or oatmeal, but his grandchildren would like the raisins. That seemed to be the kind of thing they thrived on.

“That’ll be six dollars even, Mr. Metcalfe.”

Uncas tried to contain his surprise. These were big-city prices for glorified bread. Still he supposed it was too late to refuse to buy. This would teach him not to miss his building. He handed the girl a ten and a one; he would get a five-dollar bill in change; he preferred to limit the number of ones crowding his wallet.

“This is too much, Mr. Metcalfe. It’s six dollars. You gave me---oh, I get it.”

Uncas relaxed himself into patience. All the time in the world for her to figure out a simple math problem.

“Jeez, sorry, Mr. Metcalfe. No fives today.”

Hannah counted out five singles into his hand. As he left the shop Uncas saw Alex sitting at a table in the corner. She looked glum, at odds with her bright spiky hair, which seemed cheery against the gray cold. It was mysterious what governed the temperaments of the young. At so far a remove from mortality, her distress seemed luxurious, an indulgence.

As Uncas retraced his steps to the Menelaus, he tried to remember himself at Hannah and her friend’s age. His own dark moods had seemed to increase as he grew older. Otherwise, not much had changed. He still had suits that he had worn just after he’d graduated from Wright. True, he wasn’t yet married then, but he had already decided to go into botany and to stay in Sparta. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, Uncas had been born and raised in Sparta. And like his forebears he was staunchly proud to be a Spartan. But they had all been successful businessmen---first scythes, and then harvesters and balers; Uncas was the first Metcalfe professor. Not to go into the family business (“Four generations and you won’t make it a fifth?” his father had said more than once), yet to remain in Sparta, were, he continued to feel, the decisions that had shaped his life. It would have been easy enough to move to Laconia, where the university was. Margaret might have liked it better---the town was more cosmopolitan. But by twenty-three, Uncas Metcalfe had decided to stay in Sparta, come what may. In a way, it hadn’t even seemed like a decision. A move to Laconia might have been perceived as turning his back on his family, cowering even; it was enough to roil the seas with a change in profession. At Wright, he was the only member of his department who didn’t live within walking distance of the campus, and he found he liked that distinction. In recent years, he made the trip to the university less often, choosing instead to work out of what had been his father’s in-town office; he found he preferred the nearness of home and the pokiness of Sparta. In his experience, people, like plants, grew best in their native soil.

He climbed the stairs of the Menelaus and considered that it was one of the few downtown buildings that had escaped the wrecking ball. The bank that had provided ballast for the bottom floor was now a restaurant, but the upstairs offices had remained untouched. Maybe a little too untouched. The elevator was a temperamental old box. Two years ago, half an hour trapped with the third-floor dentist’s receptionist had convinced him forever after to take the stairs.

He sat at his rolltop desk. Contemplating nativity, he slid down into his chair and extended his long legs onto the writing slide, which he sometimes used as a footrest. Would his daughter and her family flourish upon their return? Had uprooting his wife from Boston put her at a disadvantage? His eyes were closed---he had drifted off---when the phone rang.

“Uncas, Floyd Brewster here. Glad to track you down. There’s been a little accident. Nothing to worry about, but they took Margaret to the hospital. Elsie tells me a table at the book fair fell and clipped her calf and then she---Well, now, the doctors can tell you.”

Uncas took a moment to focus. Margaret was hurt, that much was clear, but he couldn’t tell how hurt. “She’s in the emergency room?”

“I expect so. Now, Uncas, I can pick you up. You won’t want to be riding your bicycle. I’m down here at the shop, but I can find someone to cover.”

“No, no, Floyd. The Raleigh’s gone missing again. I’ll head right there on foot. The walk will do me good.”

“Now, Uncas, it’s started to snow, and it’s probably a lot windier than it was when you sat down at your desk.”

Uncas looked out of his window. The snow was swirling about, like some half-crazed nor’easter tumbleweed. But so far nothing was sticking. The hospital was less than half a mile away. He’d be fine walking. “This won’t stick. I’ll be fine walking. I appreciate your call.”

“If you say so. Goodbye, now. Let us know if we can be of help.”

Uncas stretched and was alarmed to find that his heart had quickened. His palms were sweating, though the room was drafty and cool. She’s as hardy as pachysandra, he told himself; she’ll be walking around in days.

As he was leaving the Menelaus Building, the wind caught the door and slammed it open. Snow blew in, and Uncas instinctively closed his eyes: this was going to be a hell of a walk. He forced the door closed, and bent his bare head resolutely against the wind; his new hat, the one Margaret had knitted him for his birthday, would have come in handy. More than that, he wished he had a companion, a dog to walk with him. It was about four-thirty and the light had begun to fade as Uncas made his way north along Seneca Street.

Hut, two three four, hut, two three four. There it was---left over from his stint in the army (six months in New Jersey just before the war came to a close). It had been a short time, but the twenty-mile marches and the precise execution involved in making one’s bed or shining one’s shoes had made their impression. More than forty years later, the voice of martial discipline prodded him along.

He slowed as he passed the firehouse, in front of which was a bronze statue of an earlier Uncas Metcalfe, who had died two days after Uncas himself was born. Caught in a web of traffic (the new east-west highways sandwiched the firehouse), the statue of his grandfather, known to his family as U.M. the Fifth, still conveyed enormous dignity. He had been a cabinet member during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency and had introduced conservation measures long before the environment had become the cause of the moment. He’d been a zealous advocate and the force behind many of the state’s preserved areas, but he was also a thin-skinned man, who bore grudges, yet held himself above retaliation. He had been respected, but not loved. Uncas hurried along---try as he might to avoid their pull, he was often caught in these eddies of nostalgia.

A nurse directed him to Margaret’s room, from which he heard a familiar laugh, not his wife’s. It didn’t surprise him that she would already have a visitor. Margaret was well liked in Sparta---had been ever since she arrived over thirty years ago. He answered his own earlier question: she was a rare, blossoming transplant. At Sparta Memorial, there were several nurses, doctors, and aides who had attended her nursery school. The parents of her charges had been the doctors once upon a time, but their children were grown and were now the doctors and lawyers and, sad to say, layabouts of Sparta. A visit to the hospital or to the grocery store or dentist’s office often led to an encounter with a former graduate of Miss Margaret’s and to the claim that the nursery school had been their favorite, most influential schooling. But this laugh was too familiar to be a casual acquaintance. It was doubly confusing because it had the cadence of his wife’s. Uncas closed his eyes for a second: it sounded like Margaret when he had first known her. He opened his eyes and saw his grandson Nik poking his head into the hallway. Of course. It was Fauna’s laugh he had heard.

“It’s Pup-pup, Mommy. Pup-pup had his eyes closed.”

Nik, the youngest of his daughter’s children (until March, when number four was due), ran toward Uncas and grabbed him around the knees, and then ran off.

Uncas heard Fauna’s voice. “Poppy, sweetie. His name is Poppy. You can say that now.”

Uncas approached the room with trepidation. Suddenly it seemed thoughtless to have walked instead of taking Floyd up on his offer. He hadn’t rushed to the hospital as quickly as he might have. Margaret wouldn’t care, he was sure, but he felt a little uneasy around Fauna.

“Dad, glad you could make it. What did you do, crawl? You look like you got lost in a blizzard.”

Uncas looked at his wife, whose leg was in traction. Tears, which he tried to blink away, came to his eyes. How helpless she looked.

“Oh, that’s all right. There was no rush. Your father would have been sitting around with nothing to do. No sense in both of us being stuck in this dreary place.”

This was lovely practical Margaret, Uncas thought. He gingerly kissed her and sat down in the nearby chair. Fauna lifted Nik off her lap and came around the bed to kiss Uncas hello; she looked aggrieved already. Margaret looked off. She was slurring her words as she described the accident. A table had buckled; the legs gave way and one of the ends had caught her calf and then somehow landed on her ankle and then an avalanche of textbooks---algebra of all the rotten things, she said, and Fauna laughed---had pinned her to the ground, facedown.

“And other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”

Uncas was surprised there was no laugh from his wife. He looked closer and realized she had gone abruptly to sleep. They must have her on painkillers, he thought.

He turned to Fauna who was saying something in a low voice.

“...bad, Dad, really bad. I got here and she looked terrified, like they were going to amputate her leg or something. I tried to reassure her, but kept getting funny looks from the doctors. God, they’re all about eleven years old, and they have zero bedside manner. I couldn’t get any information. They kept saying I had to wait until the chief surgeon got here. Even Charley Bisgrove wouldn’t give me a straight answer. Five minutes later she’s in traction, and they’re telling her it’s a precaution and pumping her with painkillers. Now they say she has nothing to worry about, and we didn’t even know what she had to worry about to begin with.”

Fauna was exhausting, Uncas thought. He longed for coolheaded Marcia, his eldest child. She’d be a little less sensitive, have a little less information, and be a little less aggressive with these poor doctors. Uncas believed in letting the doctors run their own show.

“How did you know your mother was here? When did you arrive?” Uncas asked.

Fauna laughed. “Well, aren’t we filled with questions all of a sudden? Mom left a note saying she was down at the book sale, thinking the kids might get a kick out of it---”

“Where are the other children? And Doug?”

“---no way were Janey and Tommy getting back in the car, so Doug stayed with them while Nik and I drove down. We took your car. I couldn’t bear getting back into our loaded station wagon. When I got there, they were putting Mom into the ambulance. Talk about scary. I called Doug when I got here and tried to find your office number, but I can never remember what it’s listed under. It’s some joke, isn’t it?”

“It’s listed under Tiger Lily.”

“Right, that pamphlet.”

He had produced a monograph on the flower years ago in Cambridge as part of a fellowship, and, too, the character in Peter Pan had been his father’s favorite.

“I finally called the Menelaus Café,” Fauna said. “But they said you’d already left the building. How’d you find out?”

“Floyd Brewster called. Mrs. Brewster was running the sale.”

“Juicy, juicy, juicy, juicy,” Nik said, bumping his head against Fauna’s leg.

“That’s not how you ask, sweetie.”

After Nik said please, Fauna took out a carton of apple juice and tore the straw off the side and poked it in the hole provided. Minutes, it seemed, after Fauna and her family arrived these very cartons littered the refrigerator; half-drunk boxes, precariously balanced on the shelves of the refrigerator, tipped over as soon as you opened the door. Uncas didn’t remember them from his own children’s growing up; they had used tin mugs and had been taught not to waste food. The bagels. He had forgotten the bagels.

“This is funny, Poppy. Having breakfast for supper.”

Uncas looked at Janey, who was smearing butter on her bagel. At Uncas’s insistence they had stopped at his office and fetched his baker’s dozen. Doug had scrambled several eggs in the large frying pan. Uncas could taste the butter they had sat in, and imagined it clogging his arteries. He wasn’t complaining---he was impressed by Doug’s efficiency and speed. It had been six o’clock by the time Margaret was settled in her room. They’d left her passed out, a result, the doctor had said, of exhaustion and the painkillers.

“What did the doctors say, Mr. M.?” Doug asked.

“Doug, we’re about to be neighbors. Why don’t you call me Uncas?”

He hadn’t talked to Margaret about this, but it seemed silly for a grown man to call another grown man “Mr. M.” It made Uncas feel foolish and always had. When the issue first came up, when Fauna and Doug were married five years ago, he was barely eighteen and Margaret had announced (what a summer!) that she was damned if she were going to let a child call her by her first name. Doug’s mother, who had come to the wedding recently divorced, had made things a little awkward by insisting that everyone, including her own son, call her Delores.

“Okay, thanks, Mr. M. I’ll call you Uncas.” Doug paused. “I mean thanks, Uncas. Fauna and I are looking forward to living here again; I mean in Sparta, not with you and Mrs. M.”

There was a long silence while they ate their bagels and eggs---no Margaret around to say, Please call me Margaret. Tommy tugged at his bagel with his teeth, trying to tear off a bite, and suddenly burst into tears.

“Tommy, sweetie, I think you’re tired,” Fauna said. She turned to Doug. “Would you mind, Mr. F.? I’ll bring Nik up in a minute.”

The two older children went upstairs without protest. Nik climbed into Fauna’s lap. “Pup-pup, where’s Granny?”

“It’s Poppy,” Fauna said.

“The boy can call me Pup-pup.”

Uncas saw the surprised look on Fauna’s face and realized he’d sounded sharper than he’d meant to. But really, what earthly difference did it make? Pup-pup was no more absurd than Poppy.

“I thought you preferred Poppy.”

Uncas realized he shouldn’t have said anything in front of the child. Fauna had always been quick to take offense, and now she had people---well, children---to fight for. Children were a different business once they had children of their own.

“Okay, Nikky, my love,” Fauna said, “give your grandfather a kiss good night.” Her gentle voice, her patience with her children---as if they were customers---held none of the irritability that Uncas thought characteristic of his younger daughter. “I’ll come down and help you with the dishes once the kids are squared away,” she said.

As Uncas cleared the table, he thought of Margaret. He wondered why she had been looking at textbooks of all things; why she had gone to the sale to begin with. They’d probably donated a hefty percentage of the books, and what they hadn’t were probably library discards, and she’d likely read at least every mystery the Muir Library had to offer. Since moving to Sparta she’d borrowed ten books a week and just run through them, turning them in for ten more every Tuesday. But textbooks?

The doctor said she would probably only be at the hospital one night, possibly two if they decided against a cast, but she’d be laid up for at least a couple of weeks at home. He said he didn’t want her to put any weight on the leg. In a way it was good timing. Fauna was here. Uncas cut off the chewed ends of the children’s bagels and opened the drawer he thought contained the wax paper and such; after two more tries he found the resealable bags and put into one the reclaimed remains of the half-eaten bagels. He was surprised at how much he knew about the kitchen---where things were. He’d always fixed himself and his children breakfast, but he hadn’t done much cleaning up. At the end of their meals at home he’d watch Margaret tidy things away while they’d talk about their day. There was a beauty to the economy of her movements. She’d put the leftovers in bags or plastic containers, then carry the dishes to the sink, where they got a quick rinse before they were put in the dishwasher; wooden-handled knives and the like were carefully washed by hand, soaped up first and then rinsed under a thin hot stream. She wasn’t a water waster, either.

“Jeez, Dad, you’ve really made progress. I wasn’t positive you knew what room you were in.”

“You see, Fauna, you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

That was it. He and Margaret had been able to adapt before. Her being laid up in bed would be no different. He could certainly fend for himself when it came to lunch. That just left dinner.

“Have you been over to see the progress at Delores’s house?” he asked.

“It’s Doug’s and my house now. And when would I have had time to see it? I barely had time to---”

Copyright © 2006 by Betsey Osborne