by Cooper Stimson ’13
As a girl of seven, Temple Belshaw spent a sticky afternoon in Renfrow, Vermont setting up a long, precarious arrangement of dominoes throughout the house; she would later come to regard this as foreshadowing her entire life. The black, red-spotted dominoes featured identical carvings of a Chinese dragon on the back. She began with just a few on the floor of her cozy upstairs bedroom, and the sweat on her fingers stuck to the dominoes, generating several false starts. Once the project really got going, Temple still did not divine the scope of the thing that was to be–not until she had spiraled her way out of her room and to the top of the stairs. Her understanding of the matter was that this was a crossroads–to carry on, or to concede–and Temple knew then that she would not rest until this was a masterpiece.
Her mother Doretta disagreed, and while she allowed the dominoes to be left standing, she told Temple that she would still need to go to bed on time. The dominoes spent the night in their corrugated curves; Temple tiptoed between them to bed, holding her night dress up so as not to disturb them, and in the morning she changed her clothes standing on the bed so as to minimize the danger. On the hardwood pew of their small town church she sat uncharacteristically still, her mind abuzz with swirls and curves and Rube Goldberg monstrosities. The rest of the day was spent on the careful standing of her black monoliths and the designing of the type of workarounds that her future grandson would one day call kludges. The day was boilingly hot, and Temple’s south-facing room not unlike an oven. When Doretta brought up an electric fan to cool Temple’s room, Temple carried the trailing cord behind her like a bride’s train, and that night she was lulled to sleep by two things: the gentle breeze of the fan, and the thought of the perfect, fragile monument she was creating. Even with the dominoes and the fan, sleep was hard to find on these hot summer nights. The air lay over Temple’s face like a thick wool blanket soaked in warm water. For hours she simply planned the next day; the possibilities stretched before her like forks in the Trail, unaware of the coming tragedy.
Three quarters of a minute before a quarter past three that night, Temple was woken by the thunderous sound of a gigantic deck of cards being stylishly shuffled–or so it seemed. With her pulse galloping in her ears she reached for where her blanket lay in its discarded croissant-shape at her feet and pulled it swiftly up to her chin. Down the hall that felt as distant as Boston, she heard her mother call out something precisely indistinct–but Temple would not move, not until Doretta came in, asking what was that. Then Temple managed to sit up, as Doretta lit the lamp, and only then did Temple see her toppled dominoes.
She shrieked and in her frenzy to reach them she tumbled out of bed onto the hard floor. Doretta patted her shoulder, and still she sobbed. “It wasn’t perfect yet,” Temple choked, rocking herself and leaning her head back so the tears wouldn’t collect and drip off the tip of her nose. She didn’t need to go downstairs to see; she knew it was all ruined, and that it was probably because of that stupid fan blowing them over. It wasn’t perfect yet.
As Doretta left to go back to sleep, she told her daughter something that would stick with her for years: “Belshaws don’t take pride in accomplishments; we take pride in the striving. Be a Belshaw, child.” Over a decade later, Temple would have the words typed onto a sheet of paper tacked to her wall in her dormitory:
“Be a Belshaw, child.”
She wasn’t sure what it meant to her, exactly, but she knew that it belonged to her. It was a gift, and she would find that perfect use for it.
The next day, Lamont Belshaw came home from his business trip. Temple was cleaning up all the dominoes, placing them in boxes and putting them in the attic, when his car pulled onto the gravel. Temple’s tiredly flowery dress was scuffed with dust, and her father’s white shirt was wrinkled, with the top button absent. The sound of the door brought Temple downstairs; Doretta was in her study upstairs, working with the window open. Temple hugged her father like a girl of seven often would, with a lunging affection. Lamont even cracked a smile as he ruffled his daughter’s straw hair. She reminded him of smiles.
Upstairs, Doretta did look up from her work when Lamont opened the door to her study. The room was sparse, a white-painted space with a plain desk sitting near the window, at which sat his dearly beloved wife. She was working longhand, the typewriter sitting unused—Lamont knew that the typewriter only was taken up for the second draft, it was her way. She looked up and smiled absently.
“I am. How’s work?”
“Your collar is missing a button, dear.”
Her window was open and the sunlight and wind poured rapturously in; the bare room was but a canvas to the energy of the air that swam in rivers around her. Lamont loved seeing her working; she was like a puppet brought to life by a hand, all animated and gestural. Too many days he spent knowing that she sat in circuitous frustration at this same desk; the swirling vigor of her creative spell could not banish the stink of bitterness that the room seemed to have absorbed, that seemed to reside in the very paint and in the small spaces between the floorboards. There was more missing in the room than just a collar-button. He strode near her and she pecked his cheek before turning back to her pencil and pages. Today seemed to be a productive day; he asked her what she was writing because he knew that explaining it helped her to keep focused on what she was really trying to say.
“It’s a romance, Belshaw,” she said. “You remember those. A romance of an affluent widow and mother, falling in love with a man who looks exactly like her late husband. But he is a scheming, duplicitous brute, and only seeks her hand for the money that would come with it. He secretly plans to frame her child for a crime and send him away to military school.”
“That sounds fascinating,” Lamont told her.
“It isn’t—not yet, anyway. Where it gets really interesting is when she discovers his family! He’s already a married man in the next state, leading a double life. His name isn’t even Nick, it’s Richard.” She waited for his reaction, although she tried not to show it.
“What a scoundrel he sounds to be!”
“Well, I like writing scoundrels.”
“You like scoundrels?” Lamont asked half-interestedly, tapping his knuckles lightly on the wall.
“I do not like scoundrels. They are scoundrels. Why must you tap so?” She set her pen down sharply and turned in her chair.
“Looking for studs,” Lamont said.
“In the walls, I’m looking for studs in the wall here–to hang a lamp.”
“I have plenty of light here at the window, Belshaw. The noise of installation would prove more trouble than light should warrant.”
“It would allow you to work at night–”
“Oh, so I may stay up waiting for you? I’d rather sleep.”
“Fine. Fine, Doretta. I shall leave you to your work, then.”
He withdrew, the same force of suction that seemed to pull him also closing the door. The noise didn’t make Doretta jump, but it made her ink jump out of its pot–Lamont knew it must be a story she cared about because that was the only time she pulled out her treasured dip pen–and splatter like dominoes across the page. Through her open bedroom door, Temple watched her father stand outside the door, leaning against its frame, tracing what might have been words across the grain of the aging wood.