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Book Club: Read Lying Under the Apple Tree
Lying Under the Apple Tree - a selection of Novel Laureate Alice Munro's best short fiction from the past fifteen years is one of our Book Club selections this week - and here's a chance to enjoy one of her stories - The Love of a Good Woman...
For the last couple of decades, there has been a museum in Walley, dedicated to preserving photos and butter churns and horse harnesses and an old dentist’s chair and a cumbersome apple peeler and such curiosities as the pretty little porcelain-and-glass insulators that were used on telegraph poles.
Also there is a red box, which has the letters D. M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST printed on it, and a note beside it, saying, “This box of optometrist’s instruments though not very old has considerable local significance, since it belonged to Mr. D. M. Willens, who drowned in the Peregrine River, 1951. It escaped the catastrophe and was found, presumably by the anonymous donor, who dispatched it to be a feature of our collection.”
The ophthalmoscope could make you think of a snowman. The top part, that is—the part that’s fastened onto the hollow handle. A large disk, with a smaller disk on top. In the large disk a hole to look through, as the various lenses are moved. The handle is heavy because the batteries are still inside. If you took the batteries out and put in the rod that is provided, with a disk on either end, you could plug in an electric cord. But it might have been necessary to use the instrument in places where there wasn’t any electricity.
The retinoscope looks more complicated. Underneath the round forehead clamp is something like an elf’s head, with a round flat face and a pointed metal cap. This is tilted at a forty-five-degree angle to a slim column, and out of the top of the column a tiny light is supposed to shine. The flat face is made of glass and is a dark sort of mirror.
Everything is black, but that is only paint. In some places where the optometrist’s hand must have rubbed most often, the paint has disappeared and you can see a patch of shiny silver metal.
This place was called Jutland. There had been a mill once, and some kind of small settlement, but that had all gone by the end of the last century, and the place had never amounted to much at any time. Many people believed that it had been named in honor of the famous sea battle fought during the First World War, but actually everything had been in ruins years before that battle ever took place.
The three boys who came out here on a Saturday morning early in the spring of 1951 believed, as most children did, that the name came from the old wooden planks that jutted out of the earth of the riverbank and from the other straight thick boards that stood up in the nearby water, making an uneven palisade. (These were in fact the remains of a dam, built before the days of cement.) The planks and a heap of foundation stones and a lilac bush and some huge apple trees deformed by black knot and the shallow ditch of the millrace that filled up with nettles every summer were the only other signs of what had been here before.
There was a road, or a track, coming back from the township road, but it had never been gravelled, and appeared on the maps only as a dotted line, a road allowance. It was used quite a bit in the summer by people driving to the river to swim or at night by couples looking for a place to park. The turnaround spot came before you got to the ditch, but the whole area was so overrun by nettles, and cow parsnip, and woody wild hemlock in a wet year, that cars would sometimes have to back out all the way to the proper road.
The car tracks to the water’s edge on that spring morning were easy to spot but were not taken notice of by these boys, who were thinking only about swimming. At least, they would call it swimming; they would go back to town and say that they had been swimming at Jutland before the snow was off the ground.
It was colder here upstream than on the river flats close to the town. There was not a leaf out yet on the riverbank trees—the only green you saw was from patches of leeks on the ground and marsh marigolds fresh as spinach, spread along any little stream that gullied its way down to the river. And on the opposite bank under some cedars they saw what they were especially looking for—a long, low, stubborn snowbank, gray as stones.
Not off the ground.
So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.
The tracks that they didn’t notice came right through the ditch—in which there was nothing growing now, there was only the flat dead straw-colored grass of the year before. Through the ditch and into the river without trying to turn around. The boys tramped over them. But by this time they were close enough to the water to have had their attention caught by something more extraordinary than car tracks.
There was a pale-blue shine to the water that was not a reflection of sky. It was a whole car, down in the pond on a slant, the front wheels and the nose of it poking into the mud on the bottom, and the bump of the trunk nearly breaking the surface. Light blue was in those days an unusual color for a car, and its bulgy shape was unusual, too. They knew it right away. The little English car, the Austin, the only one of its kind surely in the whole county. It belonged to Mr. Willens, the optometrist. He looked like a cartoon character when he drove it, because he was a short but thick man, with heavy shoulders and a large head. He always seemed to be crammed into his little car as if it was a bursting suit of clothes.
The car had a panel in its roof, which Mr. Willens opened in warm weather. It was open now. They could not see very well what was inside. The color of the car made its shape plain in the water, but the water was really not very clear, and it obscured what was not so bright. The boys squatted down on the bank, then lay on their stomachs and pushed their heads out like turtles, trying to see. There was something dark and furry, something like a big animal tail, pushed up through the hole in the roof and moving idly in the water. This was shortly seen to be an arm, covered by the sleeve of a dark jacket of some heavy and hairy material. It seemed that inside the car a man’s body—it had to be the body of Mr. Willens— had got into a peculiar position. The force of the water—for even in the millpond there was a good deal of force in the water at this time of year— must have somehow lifted him from the seat and pushed him about, so that one shoulder was up near the car roof and one arm had got free. His head must have been shoved down against the driver’s door and window. One front wheel was stuck deeper in the river bottom than the other, which meant that the car was on a slant from side to side as well as back to front. The window in fact must have been open and the head sticking out for the body to be lodged in that position. But they could not get to see that. They could picture Mr. Willens’s face as they knew it—a big square face, which often wore a theatrical sort of frown but was never seriously intimidating. His thin crinkly hair was reddish or brassy on top, and combed diagonally over his forehead. His eyebrows were darker than his hair, thick and fuzzy like caterpillars stuck above his eyes. This was a face already grotesque to them, in the way that many adult faces were, and they were not afraid to see it drowned. But all they got to see was that arm and his pale hand. They could see the hand quite plain once they got used to looking through the water. It rode there tremulously and irresolutely, like a feather, though it looked as solid as dough. And as ordinary, once you got used to its being there at all. The fingernails were all like neat little faces, with their intelligent everyday look of greeting, their sensible disowning of their circumstances.
“Son of a gun,” these boys said. With gathering energy and a tone of deepening respect, even of gratitude. “Son of a gun.”
It was their first time out this year. They had come across the bridge over the Peregrine River, the single-lane double-span bridge known locally as Hell’s Gate or the Death Trap—though the danger had really more to do with the sharp turn the road took at the south end of it than with the bridge itself.
There was a regular walkway for pedestrians, but they didn’t use it. They never remembered using it. Perhaps years ago, when they were so young as to be held by the hand. But that time had vanished for them; they refused to recognize it even if they were shown the evidence in snapshots or forced to listen to it in family conversation.
They walked now along the iron shelf that ran on the opposite side of the bridge from the walkway. It was about eight inches wide and a foot or so above the bridge floor. The Peregrine River was rushing the winter load of ice and snow, now melted, out into Lake Huron. It was barely back within its banks after the yearly flood that turned the flats into a lake and tore out the young trees and bashed any boat or hut within its reach. With the runoff from the fields muddying the water and the pale sunlight on its surface, the water looked like butterscotch pudding on the boil. But if you fell into it, it would freeze your blood and fling you out into the lake, if it didn’t brain you against the buttresses first.
The river could be counted on every year to sweep off and deposit elsewhere a good number of surprising or cumbersome or bizarre or homely objects.
Cars honked at them—a warning or a reproof—but they paid no attention. They proceeded single file, as self-possessed as sleepwalkers. Then, at the north end of the bridge, they cut down to the flats, locating the paths they remembered from the year before. The flood had been so recent that these paths were not easy to follow. You had to kick your way through beaten-down brush and jump from one hummock of mud-plastered grass to another. Sometimes they jumped carelessly and landed in mud or pools of leftover floodwater, and once their feet were wet they gave up caring where they landed. They squelched through the mud and splashed in the pools so that the water came in over the tops of their rubber boots. The wind was warm; it was pulling the clouds apart into threads of old wool, and the gulls and crows were quarrelling and diving over the river. Buzzards were circling over them, on the high lookout; the robins had just returned, and the red-winged blackbirds were darting in pairs, striking bright on your eyes as if they had been dipped in paint.
“Should’ve brought a twenty-two.”
“Should’ve brought a twelve-gauge.”
They were too old to raise sticks and make shooting noises. They spoke with casual regret, as if guns were readily available to them.
They climbed up the north banks to a place where there was bare sand. Turtles were supposed to lay their eggs in this sand. It was too early yet for that to happen, and in fact the story of turtle eggs dated from years back—none of these boys had ever seen any. But they kicked and stomped the sand, just in case. Then they looked around for the place where last year one of them, in company with another boy, had found a cow’s hipbone, carried off by the flood from some slaughter pile. The river could be counted on every year to sweep off and deposit elsewhere a good number of surprising or cumbersome or bizarre or homely objects. Rolls of wire, an intact set of steps, a bent shovel, a corn kettle. The hipbone had been found caught on the branch of a sumac—which seemed proper, because all those smooth branches were like cow horns or deer antlers, some with rusty cone tips.
They crashed around for some time—Cece Ferns showed them the exact branch—but they found nothing.
It was Cece Ferns and Ralph Diller who had made that find, and when asked where it was at present Cece Ferns said, “Ralph took it.” The two boys who were with him now—Jimmy Box and Bud Salter—knew why that would have to be. Cece could never take anything home unless it was of a size to be easily concealed from his father.
They talked of more useful finds that might be made or had been made in past years. Fence rails could be used to build a raft, pieces of stray lumber could be collected for a planned shack or boat. Real luck would be to get hold of some loose muskrat traps. Then you could go into business. You could pick up enough lumber for stretching boards and steal the knives for skinning. They spoke of taking over an empty shed they knew of, in the blind alley behind what used to be the livery barn. There was a padlock on it, but you could probably get in through the window, taking the boards off it at night and replacing them at daybreak. You could take a flashlight to work by. No—a lantern. You could skin the muskrats and stretch the pelts and sell them for a lot of money.
This project became so real to them that they started to worry about leaving valuable pelts in the shed all day. One of them would have to stand watch while the others went out on the traplines. (Nobody mentioned school.)
This was the way they talked when they got clear of town. They talked as if they were free—or almost free—agents, as if they didn’t go to school or live with families or suffer any of the indignities put on them because of their age. Also, as if the countryside and other people’s establishments would provide them with all they needed for their undertakings and adventures, with only the smallest risk and effort on their part.
Another change in their conversation out here was that they practically gave up using names. They didn’t use each other’s real names much anyway—not even family nicknames such as Bud. But at school nearly everyone had another name, some of these having to do with the way people looked or talked, like Goggle or Jabber, and some, like Sorearse and Chickenfucker, having to do with incidents real or fabulous in the lives of those named, or in the lives—such names were handed down for decades—of their brothers, fathers, or uncles. These were the names they let go of when they were out in the bush or on the river flats. If they had to get one another’s attention, all they said was “Hey.” Even the use of names that were outrageous and obscene and that grown-ups supposedly never heard would have spoiled a sense they had at these times, of taking each other’s looks, habits, family, and personal history entirely for granted.
And yet they hardly thought of each other as friends. They would never have designated someone as a best friend or a next-best friend, or joggled people around in these positions, the way girls did. Any one of at least a dozen boys could have been substituted for any one of these three, and accepted by the others in exactly the same way. Most members of that company were between nine and twelve years old, too old to be bound by yards and neighborhoods but too young to have jobs—even jobs sweeping the sidewalk in front of stores or delivering groceries by bicycle. Most of them lived in the north end of town, which meant that they would be expected to get a job of that sort as soon as they were old enough, and that none of them would ever be sent away to Appleby or to Upper Canada College. And none of them lived in a shack or had a relative in jail. Just the same, there were notable differences as to how they lived at home and what was expected of them in life. But these differences dropped away as soon as they were out of sight of the county jail and the grain elevator and the church steeples and out of range of the chimes of the courthouse clock.
On their way back they walked fast. Sometimes they trotted but did not run. Jumping, dallying, splashing, were all abandoned, and the noises they’d made on their way out, the hoots and howls, were put aside as well. Any windfall of the flood was taken note of but passed by. In fact they made their way as adults would do, at a fairly steady speed and by the most reasonable route, with the weight on them of where they had to go and what had to be done next. They had something close in front of them, a picture in front of their eyes that came between them and the world, which was the thing most adults seemed to have. The pond, the car, the arm, the hand. They had some idea that when they got to a certain spot they would start to shout. They would come into town yelling and waving their news around them and everybody would be stock-still, taking it in.
They crossed the bridge the same way as always, on the shelf. But they had no sense of risk or courage or nonchalance. They might as well have taken the walkway.
Instead of following the sharp-turning road from which you could reach both the harbor and the square, they climbed straight up the bank on a path that came out near the railway sheds. The clock played its quarter-after chimes. A quarter after twelve.
This was the time when people were walking home for dinner. People from offices had the afternoon off. But people who worked in stores were getting only their customary hour—the stores stayed open till ten or eleven o’clock on Saturday night.
Most people were going home to a hot, filling meal. Pork chops, or sausages, or boiled beef, or cottage roll. Potatoes for certain, mashed or fried; winter-stored root vegetables or cabbage or creamed onions. (A few housewives, richer or more feckless, might have opened a tin of peas or butter beans.) Bread, muffins, preserves, pie. Even those people who didn’t have a home to go to, or who for some reason didn’t want to go there, would be sitting down to much the same sort of food at the Duke of Cumberland, or the Merchants’ Hotel, or for less money behind the foggy windows of Shervill’s Dairy Bar.
Those walking home were mostly men. The women were already there—they were there all the time. But some women of middle age who worked in stores or offices for a reason that was not their fault—dead husbands or sick husbands or never any husband at all—were friends of the boys’ mothers, and they called out greetings even across the street (it was worst for Bud Salter, whom they called Buddy) in a certain amused or sprightly way that brought to mind all they knew of family matters, or distant infancies.
Men didn’t bother greeting boys by name, even if they knew them well. They called them “boys” or “young fellows” or, occasionally, “sirs.”
“Good day to you, sirs.”
“You boys going straight home now?”
“What monkey business you young fellows been up to this morning?” All these greetings had a degree of jocularity, but there were differences. The men who said “young fellows” were better disposed—or wished to seem better disposed—than the ones who said “boys.” “Boys” could be the signal that a telling off was to follow, for offenses that could be either vague or specific. “Young fellows” indicated that the speaker had once been young himself. “Sirs” was outright mockery and disparagement but didn’t open the way to any scolding, because the person who said that could not be bothered.
When answering, the boys didn’t look up past any lady’s purse or any man’s Adam’s apple. They said “Hullo” clearly, because there might be some kind of trouble if you didn’t, and in answer to queries they said “Yessir” and “Nosir” and “Nothing much.” Even on this day, such voices speaking to them caused some alarm and confusion, and they replied with the usual reticence.
At a certain corner they had to separate. Cece Ferns, always the most anxious about getting home, pulled away first. He said, “See you after dinner.”
Bud Salter said, “Yeah. We got to go downtown then.”
This meant, as they all understood, “downtown to the Police Office.” It seemed that without needing to consult each other they had taken up a new plan of operation, a soberer way of telling their news. But it wasn’t clearly said that they wouldn’t be telling anything at home. There wasn’t any good reason why Bud Salter or Jimmy Box couldn’t have done that. Cece Ferns never told anything at home.
Cece’s father’s name was Cece Ferns, too. It was a well-known and generally an affectionately known name in Walley
Cece Ferns was an only child. His parents were older than most boys’ parents, or perhaps they only seemed older, because of the disabling life they lived together. When he got away from the other boys, Cece started to trot, as he usually did for the last block home. This was not because he was eager to get there or because he thought he could make anything better when he did. It may have been to make the time pass quickly, because the last block had to be full of apprehension.
His mother was in the kitchen. Good. She was out of bed though still in her wrapper. His father wasn’t there, and that was good, too. His father worked at the grain elevator and got Saturday afternoon off, and if he wasn’t home by now it was likely that he had gone straight to the Cumberland. That meant it would be late in the day before they had to deal with him.
Cece’s father’s name was Cece Ferns, too. It was a well-known and generally an affectionately known name in Walley, and somebody telling a story even thirty or forty years later would take it for granted that everybody would know it was the father who was being talked about, not the son. If a person relatively new in town said, “That doesn’t sound like Cece,” he would be told that nobody meant that Cece.
“Not him, we’re talking about his old man.”
They talked about the time Cece Ferns went to the hospital—or was taken there—with pneumonia, or some other desperate thing, and the nurses wrapped him in wet towels or sheets to get the fever down. The fever sweated out of him, and all the towels and sheets turned brown. It was the nicotine in him. The nurses had never seen anything like it. Cece was delighted. He claimed to have been smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol since he was ten years old.
And the time he went to church. It was hard to imagine why, but it was the Baptist church, and his wife was a Baptist, so perhaps he went to please her, though that was even harder to imagine. They were serving Communion the Sunday he went, and in the Baptist church the bread is bread but the wine is grape juice. “What’s this?” cried Cece Ferns aloud. “If this is the blood of the Lamb then he must’ve been pretty damn anemic.”
Preparations for the noon meal were under way in the Fernses’ kitchen. A loaf of sliced bread was sitting on the table and a can of diced beets had been opened. A few slices of bologna had been fried—before the eggs, though they should have been done after—and were being kept slightly warm on top of the stove. And now Cece’s mother had started the eggs. She was bending over the stove with the egg lifter in one hand and the other hand pressed to her stomach, cradling a pain.
Cece took the egg lifter out of her hand and turned down the electric heat, which was way too high. He had to hold the pan off the burner while the burner cooled down, in order to keep the egg whites from getting too tough or burning at the edges. He hadn’t been in time to wipe out the old grease and plop a bit of fresh lard in the pan. His mother never wiped out the old grease, just let it sit from one meal to the next and put in a bit of lard when she had to.
When the heat was more to his liking, he put the pan down and coaxed the lacy edges of the eggs into tidy circles. He found a clean spoon and dribbled a little hot fat over the yolks to set them. He and his mother liked their eggs cooked this way, but his mother often couldn’t manage it right. His father liked his eggs turned over and flattened out like pancakes, cooked hard as shoe leather and blackened with pepper. Cece could cook them the way he wanted, too.
None of the other boys knew how practiced he was in the kitchen— just as none of them knew about the hiding place he had made outside the house in the blind corner past the dining-room window, behind the Japanese barberry.
His mother sat in the chair by the window while he was finishing up the eggs. She kept an eye on the street. There was still a chance that his father would come home for something to eat. He might not be drunk yet. But the way he behaved didn’t always depend on how drunk he was. If he came into the kitchen now he might tell Cece to make him some eggs, too. Then he might ask him where his apron was and say that he would make some fellow a dandy wife. That would be how he’d behave if he was in a good mood. In another sort of mood he would start off by staring at Cece in a certain way—that is, with an exaggerated, absurdly threatening expression—and telling him he better watch out.
“Smart bugger, aren’t you? Well, all I got to say to you is better watch out.”
Then if Cece looked back at him, or maybe if he didn’t look back, or if he dropped the egg lifter or set it down with a clatter—or even if he was sliding around being extra cautious about not dropping anything and not making a noise—his father was apt to start showing his teeth and snarling like a dog. It would have been ridiculous—it was ridiculous—except that he meant business. A minute later the food and the dishes might be on the floor, and the chairs or the table overturned, and he might be chasing Cece around the room yelling how he was going to get him this time, flatten his face on the hot burner, how would he like that? You would be certain he’d gone crazy. But if at this moment a knock came at the door— if a friend of his arrived, say, to pick him up—his face would reassemble itself in no time and he would open the door and call out the friend’s name in a loud bantering voice.
“I’ll be with you in two shakes. I’d ask you in, but the wife’s been pitching the dishes around again.”
He didn’t intend this to be believed. He said such things in order to turn whatever happened in his house into a joke.
Cece’s mother asked him if the weather was warming up and where he had been that morning.
“Yeah,” he said, and, “Out on the flats.”
She said that she’d thought she could smell the wind on him.
“You know what I’m going to do right after we eat?” she said. “I’m going to take a hot-water bottle and go right back to bed and maybe I’ll get my strength back and feel like doing something.”
That was what she nearly always said she was going to do, but she always announced it as if it was an idea that had just occurred to her, a hopeful decision.
Bud Salter had two older sisters who never did anything useful unless his mother made them. And they never confined their hair arranging, nail polishing, shoe cleaning, making up, or even dressing activities to their bedrooms or the bathroom. They spread their combs and curlers and face powder and nail polish and shoe polish all over the house. Also they loaded every chair back with their newly ironed dresses and blouses and spread out their drying sweaters on towels on every clear space of floor. (Then they screamed at you if you walked near them.) They stationed themselves in front of various mirrors—the mirror in the hall coat stand, the mirror in the dining-room buffet, and the mirror beside the kitchen door with the shelf underneath always loaded with safety pins, bobby pins, pennies, buttons, bits of pencils. Sometimes one of them would stand in front of a mirror for twenty minutes or so, checking herself from various angles, inspecting her teeth and pulling her hair back then shaking it forward. Then she would walk away apparently satisfied or at least finished—but only as far as the next room, the next mirror, where she would begin all over again just as if she had been delivered a new head.
Right now his older sister, the one who was supposed to be good-looking, was taking the pins out of her hair in front of the kitchen mirror. Her head was covered with shiny curls like snails. His other sister, on orders from his mother, was mashing the potatoes. His five-year-old brother was sitting in place at the table, banging his knife and fork up and down and yelling, “Want some service. Want some service.”
He got that from their father, who did it for a joke.
Bud passed by his brother’s chair and said quietly, “Look. She’s putting lumps in the mashed potatoes again.”
He had his brother convinced that lumps were something you added, like raisins to rice pudding, from a supply in the cupboard.
His brother stopped chanting and began complaining.
“I won’t eat none if she puts in lumps. Mama, I won’t eat none if she puts lumps.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” Bud’s mother said. She was frying apple slices and onion rings with the pork chops. “Quit whining like a baby.”
“It was Bud got him started,” the older sister said. “Bud went and told him she was putting lumps in. Bud always tells him that and he doesn’t know any better.”
“Bud ought to get his face smashed,” said Doris, the sister who was mashing the potatoes. She didn’t always say such things idly—she had once left a claw scar down the side of Bud’s cheek.
Bud went over to the dresser, where there was a rhubarb pie cooling. He took a fork and began carefully, secretly prying at it, letting out delicious steam, a delicate smell of cinnamon. He was trying to open one of the vents in the top of it so that he could get a taste of the filling. His brother saw what he was doing but was too scared to say anything. His brother was spoiled and was defended by his sisters all the time—Bud was the only person in the house he respected.
“Want some service,” he repeated, speaking now in a thoughtful undertone.
Doris came over to the dresser to get the bowl for the mashed potatoes. Bud made an incautious movement, and part of the top crust caved in.
“So now he’s wrecking the pie,” Doris said. “Mama—he’s wrecking your pie.”
“Shut your damn mouth,” Bud said.
“Leave that pie alone,” said Bud’s mother with a practiced, almost serene severity. “Stop swearing. Stop tattle-telling. Grow up.”
Jimmy’s father was crippled—the result of a polio attack when he was twenty-two years old.
Jimmy Box sat down to dinner at a crowded table. He and his father and his mother and his four-year-old and six-year-old sisters lived in his grandmother’s house with his grandmother and his great-aunt Mary and his bachelor uncle. His father had a bicycle-repair shop in the shed behind the house, and his mother worked in Honeker’s Department Store.
Jimmy’s father was crippled—the result of a polio attack when he was twenty-two years old. He walked bent forward from the hips, using a cane. This didn’t show so much when he was working in the shop, because such work often means being bent over anyway. When he walked along the street he did look very strange, but nobody called him names or did an imitation of him. He had once been a notable hockey player and baseball player for the town, and some of the grace and valor of the past still hung around him, putting his present state into perspective, so that it could be seen as a phase (though a final one). He helped this perception along by cracking silly jokes and taking an optimistic tone, denying the pain that showed in his sunken eyes and kept him awake many nights. And, unlike Cece Ferns’s father, he didn’t change his tune when he came into his own house.
But, of course, it wasn’t his own house. His wife had married him after he was crippled, though she had got engaged to him before, and it seemed the natural thing to do to move in with her mother, so that the mother could look after any children who came along while the wife went on working at her job. It seemed the natural thing to the wife’s mother as well, to take on another family—just as it seemed natural that her sister Mary should move in with the rest of them when her eyesight failed, and that her son Fred, who was extraordinarily shy, should continue to live at home unless he found some place he liked better. This was a family who accepted burdens of one kind or another with even less fuss than they accepted the weather. In fact, nobody in that house would have spoken of Jimmy’s father’s condition or Aunt Mary’s eyesight as burdens or problems, any more than they would of Fred’s shyness. Drawbacks and adversity were not to be noticed, not to be distinguished from their opposites.
There was a traditional belief in the family that Jimmy’s grandmother was an excellent cook, and this might have been true at one time, but in recent years there had been a falling off. Economies were practiced beyond what there was any need for now. Jimmy’s mother and his uncle made decent wages and his aunt Mary got a pension and the bicycle shop was fairly busy, but one egg was used instead of three and the meat loaf got an extra cup of oatmeal. There was an attempt to compensate by overdoing the Worcestershire sauce or sprinkling too much nutmeg on the custard. But nobody complained. Everybody praised. Complaints were as rare as lightning balls in that house. And everybody said “Excuse me,” even the little girls said “Excuse me,” when they bumped into each other. Everybody passed and pleased and thank-you’d at the table as if there was company every day. This was the way they managed, all of them crammed so tight in the house, with clothes piled on every hook, coats hung over the banister, and cots set up permanently in the dining room for Jimmy and his uncle Fred, and the buffet hidden under a load of clothing waiting to be ironed or mended. Nobody pounded on the stairsteps or shut doors hard or turned the radio up loud or said anything disagreeable.
Did this explain why Jimmy kept his mouth shut that Saturday at dinnertime? They all kept their mouths shut, all three of them. In Cece’s case it was easy to understand. His father would never have stood for Cece’s claiming so important a discovery. He would have called him a liar as a matter of course. And Cece’s mother, judging everything by the effect it would have on his father, would have understood—correctly— that even his going to the Police Office with his story would cause disruption at home, so she would have told him to please just keep quiet. But the two other boys lived in quite reasonable homes and they could have spoken. In Jimmy’s house there would have been consternation and some disapproval, but soon enough they would have admitted that it was not Jimmy’s fault.
Bud’s sisters would have asked if he was crazy. They might even have twisted things around to imply that it was just like him, with his unpleasant habits, to come upon a dead body. His father, however, was a sensible, patient man, used to listening to many strange rigmaroles in his job as a freight agent at the railway station. He would have made Bud’s sisters shut up, and after some serious talk to make sure Bud was telling the truth and not exaggerating he would have phoned the Police Office.
It was just that their houses seemed too full. Too much was going on already. This was true in Cece’s house just as much as in the others, because even in his father’s absence there was the threat and memory all the time of his haywire presence.
“Did you tell?”
They walked downtown, not thinking about the way they were going.
They turned onto Shipka Street and found themselves going past the stucco bungalow where Mr. and Mrs. Willens lived. They were right in front of it before they recognized it. It had a small bay window on either side of the front door and a top step wide enough for two chairs, not there at present but occupied on summer evenings by Mr. Willens and his wife. There was a flat-roofed addition to one side of the house, with another door opening toward the street and a separate walk leading up to it. A sign beside that door said D. M. WILLENS, OPTOMETRIST. None of the boys themselves had visited that office, but Jimmy’s aunt Mary went there regularly for her eyedrops, and his grandmother got her glasses there. So did Bud Salter’s mother.
The stucco was a muddy pink color and the doors and window frames were painted brown. The storm windows had not been taken off yet, as they hadn’t from most of the houses in town. There was nothing special at all about the house, but the front yard was famous for its flowers. Mrs. Willens was a renowned gardener who didn’t grow her flowers in long rows beside the vegetable garden, as Jimmy’s grandmother and Bud’s mother grew theirs. She had them in round beds and crescent beds and all over, and in circles under the trees. In a couple of weeks daffodils would fill this lawn. But at present the only thing in bloom was a forsythia bush at the corner of the house. It was nearly as high as the eaves and it sprayed yellow into the air the way a fountain shoots water.
The forsythia shook, not with the wind, and out came a stooped brown figure. It was Mrs. Willens in her old gardening clothes, a lumpy little woman in baggy slacks and a ripped jacket and a peaked cap that might have been her husband’s—it slipped down too low and almost hid her eyes. She was carrying a pair of shears.
They slowed right down—it was either that or run. Maybe they thought that she wouldn’t notice them, that they could turn themselves into posts. But she had seen them already; that was why she came hastening through.
“I see you’re gawking at my forsythia,” said Mrs. Willens. “Would you like some to take home?”
What they had been gawking at was not the forsythia but the whole scene—the house looking just as usual, the sign by the office door, the curtains letting light in. Nothing hollow or ominous, nothing that said that Mr. Willens was not inside and that his car was not in the garage behind his office but in Jutland Pond. And Mrs. Willens out working in her yard, where anybody would expect her to be—everybody in town said so—the minute the snow was melted. And calling out in her familiar tobacco-roughened voice, abrupt and challenging but not unfriendly—a voice identifiable half a block away or coming from the back of any store.
“Wait,” she said. “Wait, now, I’ll get you some.”
She began smartly, selectively snapping off the bright-yellow branches, and when she had all she wanted she came towards them behind a screen of flowers.
“Here you are,” she said. “Take these home to your mothers. It’s always good to see the forsythia, it’s the very first thing in the spring.” She was dividing the branches among them. “Like all Gaul,” she said. “All Gaul is divided into three parts. You must know about that if you take Latin.”
“We aren’t in high school yet,” said Jimmy, whose life at home had readied him, better than the others, for talking to ladies.
“Aren’t you?” she said. “Well, you’ve got all sorts of things to look forward to. Tell your mothers to put them in lukewarm water. Oh, I’m sure they already know that. I’ve given you branches that aren’t all the way out yet, so they should last and last.”
They said thank you—Jimmy first and the others picking it up from him. They walked toward downtown with their arms loaded. They had no intention of turning back and taking the flowers home, and they counted on her not having any good idea of where their homes were. Half a block on, they sneaked looks back to see if she was watching.
She wasn’t. The big house near the sidewalk blocked the view in any case.
The forsythia gave them something to think about. The embarrassment of carrying it, the problem of getting rid of it. Otherwise, they would have to think about Mr. Willens and Mrs. Willens. How she could be busy in her yard and he could be drowned in his car. Did she know where he was or did she not? It seemed that she couldn’t. Did she even know that he was gone? She had acted as if there was nothing wrong, nothing at all, and when they were standing in front of her this had seemed to be the truth. What they knew, what they had seen, seemed actually to be pushed back, to be defeated, by her not knowing it.
Two girls on bicycles came wheeling around the corner. One was Bud’s sister Doris. At once these girls began to hoot and yell.
“Oh, look at the flowers,” they shouted. “Where’s the wedding? Look at the beautiful bridesmaids.”
Bud yelled back the worst thing he could think of.
“You got blood all over your arse.”
Of course she didn’t, but there had been an occasion when this had
really been so—she had come home from school with blood on her skirt. Everybody had seen it, and it would never be forgotten.
He was sure she would tell on him at home, but she never did. Her shame about that other time was so great that she could not refer to it even to get him in trouble.
They realized then that they had to dump the flowers at once, so they simply threw the branches under a parked car. They brushed a few stray petals off their clothes as they turned onto the square.
Saturdays were still important then; they brought the country people into town. Cars were already parked around the square and on the side streets. Big country boys and girls and smaller children from the town and the country were heading for the movie matinee.
It was necessary to pass Honeker’s in the first block. And there, in full view in one of the windows, Jimmy saw his mother. Back at work already, she was putting the hat straight on a female dummy, adjusting the veil, then fiddling with the shoulders of the dress. She was a short woman and she had to stand on tiptoe to do this properly. She had taken off her shoes to walk on the window carpet. You could see the rosy plump cushions of her heels through her stockings, and when she stretched you saw the back of her knee through the slit in her skirt. Above that was a wide but shapely behind and the line of her panties or girdle. Jimmy could hear in his mind the little grunts she would be making; also he could smell the stockings that she sometimes took off as soon as she got home, to save them from runs. Stockings and underwear, even clean female underwear, had a faint, private smell that was both appealing and disgusting.
He hoped two things. That the others hadn’t noticed her (they had, but the idea of a mother dressed up every day and out in the public world of town was so strange to them that they couldn’t comment, could only dismiss it) and that she would not, please not, turn around and spot him. She was capable, if she did that, of rapping on the glass and mouthing hello. At work she lost the hushed discretion, the studied gentleness, of home. Her obligingness turned from meek to pert. He used to be delighted by this other side of her, this friskiness, just as he was by Honeker’s, with its extensive counters of glass and varnished wood, its big mirrors at the top of the staircase, in which he could see himself climbing up to Ladies’ Wear, on the second floor.
“Here’s my young mischief,” his mother would say, and sometimes slip him a dime. He could never stay more than a minute; Mr. or Mrs. Honeker might be watching.
Words that were once as pleasant to hear as the tinkle of dimes and nickels had now turned slyly shaming.
They were safely past.
They turned into this alley and soon a lot of new noise reached them, opposing the street noise.
In the next block they had to pass the Duke of Cumberland, but Cece had no worries. If his father had not come home at dinnertime, it meant he would be in there for hours yet. But the word “Cumberland” always fell across his mind heavily. From the days when he hadn’t even known what it meant, he got a sense of sorrowful plummeting. A weight hitting dark water, far down.
Between the Cumberland and the Town Hall was an unpaved alley, and at the back of the Town Hall was the Police Office. They turned into this alley and soon a lot of new noise reached them, opposing the street noise. It was not from the Cumberland—the noise in there was all muffled up, the beer parlor having only small, high windows like a public toilet. It was coming from the Police Office. The door to that office was open on account of the mild weather, and even out in the alley you could smell the pipe tobacco and cigars. It wasn’t just the policemen who sat in there, especially on Saturday afternoons, with the stove going in winter and the fan in summer and the door open to let in the pleasant air on an in-between day like today. Colonel Box would be there—in fact, they could already hear the wheeze he made, the long-drawn-out aftereffects of his asthmatic laughter. He was a relative of Jimmy’s, but there was a coolness in the family because he did not approve of Jimmy’s father’s marriage. He spoke to Jimmy, when he recognized him, in a surprised, ironic tone of voice. “If he ever offers you a quarter or anything, you say you don’t need it,” Jimmy’s mother had told him. But Colonel Box had never made such an offer.
Also, Mr. Pollock would be there, who had retired from the drugstore, and Fergus Solley, who was not a half-wit but looked like one, because he had been gassed in the First World War. All day these men and others played cards, smoked, told stories, and drank coffee at the town’s expense (as Bud’s father said). Anybody wanting to make a complaint or a report had to do it within sight of them and probably within earshot.
Run the gauntlet.
They came almost to a stop outside the open door. Nobody had noticed them. Colonel Box said, “I’m not dead yet,” repeating the final line of some story. They began to walk past slowly with their heads down, kicking at the gravel. Round the corner of the building they picked up speed. By the entry to the men’s public toilet there was a recent streak of lumpy vomit on the wall and a couple of empty bottles on the gravel. They had to walk between the refuse bins and the high watchful windows of the town clerk’s office, and then they were off the gravel, back on the square.
“I got money,” Cece said. This matter-of-fact announcement brought them all relief. Cece jingled change in his pocket. It was the money his mother had given him after he washed up the dishes, when he went into the front bedroom to tell her he was going out. “Help yourself to fifty cents off the dresser,” she had said. Sometimes she had money, though he never saw his father give her any. And whenever she said “Help yourself” or gave him a few coins, Cece understood that she was ashamed of their life, ashamed for him and in front of him, and these were the times when he hated the sight of her (though he was glad of the money). Especially if she said that he was a good boy and he was not to think she wasn’t grateful for all he did.
They took the street that led down to the harbor. At the side of Paquette’s Service Station there was a booth from which Mrs. Paquette sold hot dogs, ice cream, candy, and cigarettes. She had refused to sell them cigarettes even when Jimmy said they were for his uncle Fred. But she didn’t hold it against them that they’d tried. She was a fat, pretty woman, a French Canadian.
They bought some licorice whips, black and red. They meant to buy some ice cream later when they weren’t so full from dinner. They went over to where there were two old car seats set up by the fence under a tree that gave shade in summer. They shared out the licorice whips.
Captain Tervitt was sitting on the other seat.
Captain Tervitt had been a real captain, for many years, on the lake boats. Now he had a job as a special constable. He stopped the cars to let the children cross the street in front of the school and kept them from sledding down the side street in winter. He blew his whistle and held up one big hand, which looked like a clown’s hand, in a white glove. He was still tall and straight and broad-shouldered, though old and white-haired. Cars would do what he said, and children, too.
At night he went around checking the doors of all the stores to see that they were locked and to make sure that there was nobody inside committing a burglary. During the day he often slept in public. When the weather was bad he slept in the library and when it was good he chose some seat out-of-doors. He didn’t spend much time in the Police Office, probably because he was too deaf to follow the conversation without his hearing aid in, and like many deaf people he hated his hearing aid. And he was used to being solitary, surely, staring out over the bow of the lake boats.
His eyes were closed and his head tilted back so that he could get the sun in his face. When they went over to talk to him (and the decision to do this was made without any consultation, beyond one resigned and dubious look) they had to wake him from his doze. His face took a moment to register—where and when and who. Then he took a large old-fashioned watch out of his pocket, as if he counted on children always wanting to be told the time. But they went on talking to him, with their expressions agitated and slightly shamed. They were saying, “Mr. Willens is out in Jutland Pond,” and “We seen the car,” and “Drownded.” He had to hold up his hand and make shushing motions while the other hand went rooting around in his pants pocket and came up with his hearing aid. He nodded his head seriously, encouragingly, as if to say, Patience, patience, while he got the device settled in his ear. Then both hands up— Be still, be still—while he was testing. Finally another nod, of a brisker sort, and in a stern voice—but making a joke to some extent of his sternness—he said, “Proceed.”
Cece, who was the quietest of the three—as Jimmy was the politest and Bud the mouthiest—was the one who turned everything around.
“Your fly’s undone,” he said.
Then they all whooped and ran away.
Their elation did not vanish right away. But it was not something that could be shared or spoken about: they had to pull apart.
Cece went home to work on his hideaway. The cardboard floor, which had been frozen through the winter, was sodden now and needed to be replaced. Jimmy climbed into the loft of the garage, where he had recently discovered a box of old Doc Savage magazines that had once belonged to his uncle Fred. Bud went home and found nobody there but his mother, who was waxing the dining-room floor. He looked at comic books for an hour or so and then he told her. He believed that his mother had no experience or authority outside their house and that she would not make up her mind about what to do until she had phoned his father. To his surprise, she immediately phoned the police. Then she phoned his father. And somebody went to round up Cece and Jimmy.
A police car drove into Jutland from the township road, and all was confirmed. A policeman and the Anglican minister went to see Mrs. Willens.
“I didn’t want to bother you,” Mrs. Willens was reported to have said. “I was going to give him till dark.”
She told them that Mr. Willens had driven out to the country yesterday afternoon to take some drops to an old blind man. Sometimes he got held up, she said. He visited people, or the car got stuck.
Was he downhearted or anything like that? the policeman asked her. “Oh, surely not,” the minister said. “He was the bulwark of the choir.” “The word was not in his vocabulary,” said Mrs. Willens.
Something was made of the boys’ sitting down and eating their dinners and never saying a word. And then buying a bunch of licorice whips. A new nickname—Deadman—was found and settled on each of them. Jimmy and Bud bore it till they left town, and Cece—who married young and went to work in the elevator—saw it passed on to his two sons. By that time nobody thought of what it referred to.
The insult to Captain Tervitt remained a secret.
Each of them expected some reminder, some lofty look of injury or judgment, the next time they had to pass under his uplifted arm, crossing the street to the school. But he held up his gloved hand, his noble and clownish white hand, with his usual benevolent composure. He gave consent.
II. HEART FAILURE
“Glomerulonephritis,” Enid wrote in her notebook. It was the first case that she had ever seen. The fact was that Mrs. Quinn’s kidneys were failing, and nothing could be done about it. Her kidneys were drying up and turning into hard and useless granular lumps. Her urine at present was scanty and had a smoky look, and the smell that came out on her breath and through her skin was acrid and ominous. And there was another, fainter smell, like rotted fruit, that seemed to Enid related to the pale-lavender-brown stains appearing on her body. Her legs twitched in spasms of sudden pain and her skin was subject to a violent itching, so that Enid had to rub her with ice. She wrapped the ice in towels and pressed the packs to the spots in torment.
“How do you contract that kind of a disease anyhow?” said Mrs. Quinn’s sister-in-law. Her name was Mrs. Green. Olive Green. (It had never occurred to her how that would sound, she said, until she got married and all of a sudden everybody was laughing at it.) She lived on a farm a few miles away, out on the highway, and every few days she came and took the sheets and towels and nightdresses home to wash. She did the children’s washing as well, brought everything back freshly ironed and folded. She even ironed the ribbons on the nightdresses. Enid was grateful to her—she had been on jobs where she had to do the laundry herself, or, worse still, load it onto her mother, who would pay to have it done in town. Not wanting to offend but seeing which way the questions were tending, she said, “It’s hard to tell.”
“Because you hear one thing and another,” Mrs. Green said. “You hear that sometimes a woman might take some pills. They get these pills to take for when their period is late and if they take them just like the doctor says and for a good purpose that’s fine, but if they take too many and for a bad purpose their kidneys are wrecked. Am I right?”
“I’ve never come in contact with a case like that,” Enid said.
Mrs. Green was a tall, stout woman. Like her brother Rupert, who was Mrs. Quinn’s husband, she had a round, snub-nosed, agreeably wrinkled face—the kind that Enid’s mother called “potato Irish.” But behind Rupert’s good-humored expression there was wariness and withholding. And behind Mrs. Green’s there was yearning. Enid did not know for what. To the simplest conversation Mrs. Green brought a huge demand. Maybe it was just a yearning for news. News of something momentous. An event.
Of course, an event was coming, something momentous at least in this family. Mrs. Quinn was going to die, at the age of twenty-seven. (That was the age she gave herself—Enid would have put some years on it, but once an illness had progressed this far age was hard to guess.) When her kidneys stopped working altogether, her heart would give out and she would die. The doctor had said to Enid, “This’ll take you into the summer, but the chances are you’ll get some kind of a holiday before the hot weather’s over.”
“Rupert met her when he went up north,” Mrs. Green said. “He went off by himself, he worked in the bush up there. She had some kind of a job in a hotel. I’m not sure what. Chambermaid job. She wasn’t raised up there, though—she says she was raised in an orphanage in Montreal. She can’t help that. You’d expect her to speak French, but if she does she don’t let on.”
Enid said, “An interesting life.”
“You can say that again.”
“An interesting life,” said Enid. Sometimes she couldn’t help it—she tried a joke where it had hardly a hope of working. She raised her eyebrows encouragingly, and Mrs. Green did smile.
But was she hurt? That was just the way Rupert would smile, in high school, warding off some possible mockery.
“He never had any kind of a girlfriend before that,” said Mrs. Green.
They did not really expect him to respond to these pleading overtures. But what joy if he had.
Enid had been in the same class as Rupert, though she did not mention that to Mrs. Green. She felt some embarrassment now because he was one of the boys—in fact, the main one—that she and her girlfriends had teased and tormented. “Picked on,” as they used to say. They had picked on Rupert, following him up the street calling out, “Hello, Rupert. Hello, Ru-pert,” putting him into a state of agony, watching his neck go red. “Rupert’s got scarlet fever,” they would say. “Rupert, you should be quarantined.” And they would pretend that one of them—Enid, Joan McAuliffe, Marian Denny—had a case on him. “She wants to speak to you, Rupert. Why don’t you ever ask her out? You could phone her up at least. She’s dying to talk to you.”
They did not really expect him to respond to these pleading overtures. But what joy if he had. He would have been rejected in short order and the story broadcast all over the school. Why? Why did they treat him this way, long to humiliate him? Simply because they could.
Impossible that he would have forgotten. But he treated Enid as if she were a new acquaintance, his wife’s nurse, come into his house from anywhere at all. And Enid took her cue from him.
Things had been unusually well arranged here, to spare her extra work. Rupert slept at Mrs. Green’s house, and ate his meals there. The two little girls could have been there as well, but it would have meant putting them into another school—there was nearly a month to go before school was out for the summer.
Rupert came into the house in the evenings and spoke to his children. “Are you being good girls?” he said.
“Show Daddy what you made with your blocks,” said Enid. “Show Daddy your pictures in the coloring book.”
The blocks, the crayons, the coloring books, were all provided by Enid.
She had phoned her mother and asked her to see what things she could find in the old trunks. Her mother had done that, and brought along as well an old book of cutout dolls which she had collected from someone— Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose and their many outfits. Enid hadn’t been able to get the little girls to say thank you until she put all these things on a high shelf and announced that they would stay there till thank you was said. Lois and Sylvie were seven and six years old, and as wild as little barn cats.
Rupert didn’t ask where the playthings came from. He told his daughters to be good girls and asked Enid if there was anything she needed from town. Once she told him that she had replaced the lightbulb in the cellarway and that he could get her some spare bulbs.
“I could have done that,” he said.
“I don’t have any trouble with lightbulbs,” said Enid. “Or fuses or knocking in nails. My mother and I have done without a man around the house for a long time now.” She meant to tease a little, to be friendly, but it didn’t work.
Finally Rupert would ask about his wife, and Enid would say that her blood pressure was down slightly, or that she had eaten and kept down part of an omelette for supper, or that the ice packs seemed to ease her itchy skin and she was sleeping better. And Rupert would say that if she was sleeping he’d better not go in.
Enid said, “Nonsense.” To see her husband would do a woman more good than to have a little doze. She took the children up to bed then, to give man and wife a time of privacy. But Rupert never stayed more than a few minutes. And when Enid came back downstairs and went into the front room—now the sickroom—to ready the patient for the night, Mrs. Quinn would be lying back against the pillows, looking agitated but not dissatisfied.
“Doesn’t hang around here very long, does he?” Mrs. Quinn would say. “Makes me laugh. Ha-ha-ha, how-are-you? Ha-ha-ha, off-we-go. Why don’t we take her out and throw her on the manure pile? Why don’t we just dump her out like a dead cat? That’s what he’s thinking. Isn’t he?”
“I doubt it,” said Enid, bringing the basin and towels, the rubbing alcohol and the baby powder.
“I doubt it,” said Mrs. Quinn quite viciously, but she submitted readily enough to having her nightgown removed, her hair smoothed back from her face, a towel slid under her hips. Enid was used to people making a fuss about being naked, even when they were very old or very ill. Sometimes she would have to tease them or badger them into common sense. “Do you think I haven’t seen any bottom parts before?” she would say. “Bottom parts, top parts, it’s pretty boring after a while. You know, there’s just the two ways we’re made.” But Mrs. Quinn was without shame, opening her legs and raising herself a bit to make the job easier. She was a little birdboned woman, queerly shaped now, with her swollen abdomen and limbs and her breasts shrunk to tiny pouches with dried-currant nipples.
“Swole up like some kind of pig,” Mrs. Quinn said. “Except for my tits, and they always were kind of useless. I never had no big udders on me, like you. Don’t you get sick of the sight of me? Won’t you be glad when I’m dead?”
“If I felt like that I wouldn’t be here,” said Enid.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Mrs. Quinn. “That’s what you’ll all say. Good riddance to bad rubbish. I’m no use to him anymore, am I? I’m no use to any man. He goes out of here every night and he goes to pick up women, doesn’t he?”
“As far as I know, he goes to his sister’s house.”
“As far as you know. But you don’t know much.”
Enid thought she knew what this meant, this spite and venom, the energy saved for ranting. Mrs. Quinn was flailing about for an enemy. Sick people grew to resent well people, and sometimes that was true of husbands and wives, or even of mothers and their children. Both husband and children in Mrs. Quinn’s case. On a Saturday morning, Enid called Lois and Sylvie from their games under the porch, to come and see their mother looking pretty. Mrs. Quinn had just had her morning wash, and was in a clean nightgown, with her fine, sparse, fair hair brushed and held back by a blue ribbon. (Enid took a supply of these ribbons with her when she went to nurse a female patient—also a bottle of cologne and a cake of scented soap.) She did look pretty—or you could see at least that she had once been pretty, with her wide forehead and cheekbones (they almost punched the skin now, like china doorknobs) and her large greenish eyes and childish translucent teeth and small stubborn chin.
The children came into the room obediently if unenthusiastically.
Mrs. Quinn said, “Keep them off of my bed, they’re filthy.”
“They just want to see you,” said Enid.
“Well, now they’ve seen me,” said Mrs. Quinn. “Now they can go.” This behavior didn’t seem to surprise or disappoint the children. They looked at Enid, and Enid said, “All right, now, your mother better have a rest,” and they ran out and slammed the kitchen door.
“Can’t you get them to quit doing that?” Mrs. Quinn said. “Every time they do it, it’s like a brick hits me in my chest.”
You would think these two daughters of hers were a pair of rowdy orphans, wished on her for an indefinite visit. But that was the way some people were, before they settled down to their dying and sometimes even up to the event itself. People of a gentler nature—it would seem—than Mrs. Quinn might say that they knew how much their brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and children had always hated them, how much of a disappointment they had been to others and others had been to them, and how glad they knew everybody would be to see them gone. They might say this at the end of peaceful, useful lives in the midst of loving families, where there was no explanation at all for such fits. And usually the fits passed. But often, too, in the last weeks or even days of life there was mulling over of old feuds and slights or whimpering about some unjust punishment suffered seventy years earlier. Once a woman had asked Enid to bring her a willow platter from the cupboard and Enid had thought that she wanted the comfort of looking at this one pretty possession for the last time. But it turned out that she wanted to use her last, surprising strength to smash it against the bedpost.
“Now I know my sister’s never going to get her hands on that,” she said.
And often people remarked that their visitors were only coming to gloat and that the doctor was responsible for their sufferings. They detested the sight of Enid herself, for her sleepless strength and patient hands and the way the juices of life were so admirably balanced and flowing in her. Enid was used to that, and she was able to understand the trouble they were in, the trouble of dying and also the trouble of their lives that sometimes overshadowed that.
But with Mrs. Quinn she was at a loss.
It was not just that she couldn’t supply comfort here. It was that she couldn’t want to. She could not conquer her dislike of this doomed, miserable young woman. She disliked this body that she had to wash and powder and placate with ice and alcohol rubs. She understood now what people meant when they said that they hated sickness and sick bodies; she understood the women who had said to her, I don’t know how you do it, I could never be a nurse, that’s the one thing I could never be. She disliked this particular body, all the particular signs of its disease. The smell of it and the discoloration, the malignant-looking little nipples and the pathetic ferretlike teeth. She saw all this as the sign of a willed corruption. She was as bad as Mrs. Green, sniffing out rampant impurity. In spite of being a nurse who knew better, and in spite of its being her job—and surely her nature—to be compassionate. She didn’t know why this was happening. Mrs. Quinn reminded her somewhat of girls she had known in high school—cheaply dressed, sickly looking girls with dreary futures, who still displayed a hardfaced satisfaction with themselves. They lasted only a year or two—they got pregnant, most of them got married. Enid had nursed some of them in later years, in home childbirth, and found their confidence exhausted and their bold streak turned into meekness, or even piety. She was sorry for them, even when she remembered how determined they had been to get what they had got.
Mrs. Quinn was a harder case. Mrs. Quinn might crack and crack, but there would be nothing but sullen mischief, nothing but rot inside her.
Worse even than the fact that Enid should feel this revulsion was the fact that Mrs. Quinn knew it. No patience or gentleness or cheerfulness that Enid could summon would keep Mrs. Quinn from knowing. And Mrs. Quinn made knowing it her triumph.
Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Her mother said that the part of nursing her father objected to was the familiarity nurses had with men’s bodies.
When Enid was twenty years old, and had almost finished her nurse’s training, her father was dying in the Walley hospital. That was when he said to her, “I don’t know as I care for this career of yours. I don’t want you working in a place like this.”
Enid bent over him and asked what sort of place he thought he was in. “It’s only the Walley hospital,” she said.
“I know that,” said her father, sounding as calm and reasonable as he had always done (he was an insurance and real-estate agent). “I know what I’m talking about. Promise me you won’t.”
“Promise you what?” said Enid.
“You won’t do this kind of work,” her father said. She could not get any further explanation out of him. He tightened up his mouth as if her questioning disgusted him. All he would say was “Promise.”
“What is all this about?” Enid asked her mother, and her mother said, “Oh, go ahead. Go ahead and promise him. What difference is it going to make?”
Enid thought this a shocking thing to say, but made no comment. It was consistent with her mother’s way of looking at a lot of things.
“I’m not going to promise anything I don’t understand,” she said. “I’m probably not going to promise anything anyway. But if you know what he’s talking about you ought to tell me.”
“It’s just this idea he’s got now,” her mother said. “He’s got an idea that nursing makes a woman coarse.”
Enid said, “Coarse.”
Her mother said that the part of nursing her father objected to was the familiarity nurses had with men’s bodies. Her father thought—he had decided—that such familiarity would change a girl, and furthermore that it would change the way men thought about that girl. It would spoil her good chances and give her a lot of other chances that were not so good. Some men would lose interest and others would become interested in the wrong way.
“I suppose it’s all mixed up with wanting you to get married,” her mother said.
“Too bad if it is,” said Enid.
But she ended up promising. And her mother said, “Well, I hope that makes you happy.” Not “makes him happy.” “Makes you.” It seemed that her mother had known before Enid did just how tempting this promise would be. The deathbed promise, the self-denial, the wholesale sacrifice. And the more absurd the better. This was what she had given in to. And not for love of her father, either (her mother implied), but for the thrill of it. Sheer noble perversity.
“If he’d asked you to give up something you didn’t care one way or the other about, you’d probably have told him nothing doing,” her mother said. “If for instance he’d asked you to give up wearing lipstick. You’d still be wearing it.”
Enid listened to this with a patient expression.
“Did you pray about it?” said her mother sharply.
Enid said yes.
She withdrew from nursing school; she stayed at home and kept busy. There was enough money that she did not have to work. In fact, her mother had not wanted Enid to go into nursing in the first place, claiming that it was something poor girls did, it was a way out for girls whose parents couldn’t keep them or send them to college. Enid did not remind her of this inconsistency. She painted a fence, she tied up the rosebushes for winter. She learned to bake and she learned to play bridge, taking her father’s place in the weekly games her mother played with Mr. and Mrs. Willens from next door. In no time at all she became—as Mr. Willens said—a scandalously good player. He took to turning up with chocolates or a pink rose for her, to make up for his own inadequacies as a partner.
She went skating in the winter evenings. She played badminton.
She had never lacked friends, and she didn’t now. Most of the people who had been in the last year of high school with her were finishing college now, or were already working at a distance, as teachers or nurses or chartered accountants. But she made friends with others who had dropped out before senior year to work in banks or stores or offices, to become plumbers or milliners. The girls in this group were dropping like flies, as they said of each other—they were dropping into matrimony. Enid was an organizer of bridal showers and a help at trousseau teas. In a couple of years would come the christenings, where she could expect to be a favorite godmother. Children not related to her would grow up calling her Aunt. And she was already a sort of honorary daughter to women of her mother’s age and older, the only young woman who had time for the Book Club and the Horticultural Society. So, quickly and easily, still in her youth, she was slipping into this essential, central, yet isolated role.
But in fact it had been her role all along. In high school she was always the class secretary or class social convener. She was well liked and high-spirited and well dressed and good-looking, but she was slightly set apart. She had friends who were boys but never a boyfriend. She did not seem to have made a choice this way, but she was not worried about it, either. She had been preoccupied with her ambition—to be a missionary, at one embarrassing stage, and then to be a nurse. She had never thought of nursing as just something to do until she got married. Her hope was to be good, and do good, and not necessarily in the orderly, customary, wifely way.
At New Year’s she went to the dance in the Town Hall. The man who danced with her most often, and escorted her home, and pressed her hand good night, was the manager of the creamery—a man in his forties, never married, an excellent dancer, an avuncular friend to girls unlikely to find partners. No woman ever took him seriously.
“Maybe you should take a business course,” her mother said. “Or why shouldn’t you go to college?”
Where the men might be more appreciative, she was surely thinking. “I’m too old,” said Enid.
Her mother laughed. “That only shows how young you are,” she said.
She seemed relieved to discover that her daughter had a touch of folly natural to her age—that she could think twenty-one was at a vast distance from eighteen.
“I’m not going to troop in with kids out of high school,” Enid said. “I mean it. What do you want to get rid of me for anyway? I’m fine here.” This sulkiness or sharpness also seemed to please and reassure her mother. But after a moment she sighed, and said, “You’ll be surprised how fast the years go by.”
That August there were a lot of cases of measles and a few of polio at the same time. The doctor who had looked after Enid’s father, and had observed her competence around the hospital, asked her if she would be willing to help out for a while, nursing people at home. She said that she would think about it.
“You mean pray?” her mother said, and Enid’s face took on a stubborn, secretive expression that in another girl’s case might have had to do with meeting her boyfriend.
“That promise,” she said to her mother the next day. “That was about working in a hospital, wasn’t it?”
Her mother said that she had understood it that way, yes.
“And with graduating and being a registered nurse?”
So if there were people who needed nursing at home, who couldn’t afford to go to the hospital or did not want to go, and if Enid went into their houses to nurse them, not as a registered nurse but as what they called a practical nurse, she would hardly be breaking her promise, would she? And since most of those needing her care would be children or women having babies, or old people dying, there would not be much danger of the coarsening effect, would there?
“If the only men you get to see are men who are never going to get out of bed again, you have a point,” said her mother.
But she could not keep from adding that what all this meant was that Enid had decided to give up the possibility of a decent job in a hospital in order to do miserable backbreaking work in miserable primitive houses for next to no money. Enid would find herself pumping water from contaminated wells and breaking ice in winter washbasins and battling flies in summer and using an outdoor toilet. Scrub boards and coal-oil lamps instead of washing machines and electricity. Trying to look after sick people in those conditions and cope with housework and poor weaselly children as well.
“But if that is your object in life,” she said, “I can see that the worse I make it sound the more determined you get to do it. The only thing is, I’m going to ask for a couple of promises myself. Promise me you’ll boil the water you drink. And you won’t marry a farmer.”
Enid said, “Of all the crazy ideas.”
That was sixteen years ago. During the first of those years people got poorer and poorer. There were more and more of them who could not afford to go to the hospital, and the houses where Enid worked had often deteriorated almost to the state that her mother had described. Sheets and diapers had to be washed by hand in houses where the washing machine had broken down and could not be repaired, or the electricity had been turned off, or where there had never been any electricity in the first place. Enid did not work without pay, because that would not have been fair to the other women who did the same kind of nursing, and who did not have the same options as she did. But she gave most of the money back, in the form of children’s shoes and winter coats and trips to the dentist and Christmas toys.
Her mother went around canvassing her friends for old baby cots, and high chairs and blankets, and worn-out sheets, which she herself ripped up and hemmed to make diapers. Everybody said how proud she must be of Enid, and she said yes, she surely was.
“But sometimes it’s a devil of a lot of work,” she said. “This being the mother of a saint.”
Then came the war, and the great shortage of doctors and nurses, and Enid was more welcome than ever. As she was for a while after the war, with so many babies being born. It was only now, with the hospitals being enlarged and many farms getting prosperous, that it looked as if her responsibilities might dwindle away to the care of those who had bizarre and hopeless afflictions, or were so irredeemably cranky that hospitals had thrown them out.
One night when he came the house was in darkness, except for a candle burning on the kitchen table.
This summer there was a great downpour of rain every few days, and then the sun came out very hot, glittering off the drenched leaves and grass. Early mornings were full of mist—they were so close, here, to the river—and even when the mist cleared off you could not see very far in any direction, because of the overflow and density of summer. The heavy trees, the bushes all bound up with wild grapevines and Virginia creeper, the crops of corn and barley and wheat and hay. Everything was ahead of itself, as people said. The hay was ready to cut in June, and Rupert had to rush to get it into the barn before a rain spoiled it.
He came into the house later and later in the evenings, having worked as long as the light lasted. One night when he came the house was in darkness, except for a candle burning on the kitchen table.
Enid hurried to unhook the screen door.
“Power out?” said Rupert.
Enid said, “Shhh.” She whispered to him that she was letting the children sleep downstairs, because the upstairs rooms were so hot. She had pushed the chairs together and made beds on them with quilts and pillows. And of course she had had to turn the lights out so that they could get to sleep. She had found a candle in one of the drawers, and that was all she needed, to see to write by, in her notebook.
“They’ll always remember sleeping here,” she said. “You always remember the times when you were a child and you slept somewhere different.”
He set down a box that contained a ceiling fan for the sickroom. He had been into Walley to buy it. He had also bought a newspaper, which he handed to Enid.
“Thought you might like to know what’s going on in the world,” he said.
She spread the paper out beside her notebook, on the table. There was a picture of a couple of dogs playing in a fountain.
“It says there’s a heat wave,” she said. “Isn’t it nice to find out about it?” Rupert was carefully lifting the fan out of its box.
“That’ll be wonderful,” she said. “It’s cooled off in there now, but it’ll be such a comfort to her tomorrow.”
“I’ll be over early to put it up,” he said. Then he asked how his wife had been that day.
Enid said that the pains in her legs had been easing off, and the new pills the doctor had her on seemed to be letting her get some rest.
“The only thing is, she goes to sleep so soon,” she said. “It makes it hard for you to get a visit.”
“Better she gets the rest,” Rupert said.
This whispered conversation reminded Enid of conversations in high school, when they were both in their senior year and that earlier teasing, or cruel flirtation, or whatever it was, had long been abandoned. All that last year Rupert had sat in the seat behind hers, and they had often spoken to each other briefly, always to some immediate purpose. Have you got an ink eraser? How do you spell “incriminate”? Where is the Tyrrhenian Sea? Usually it was Enid, half turning in her seat and able only to sense, not see, how close Rupert was, who started these conversations. She did want to borrow an eraser, she was in need of information, but also she wanted to be sociable. And she wanted to make amends—she felt ashamed of the way she and her friends had treated him. It would do no good to apologize—that would just embarrass him all over again. He was only at ease when he sat behind her, and knew that she could not look him in the face. If they met on the street he would look away until the last minute, then mutter the faintest greeting while she sang out “Hello, Rupert,” and heard an echo of the old tormenting tones she wanted to banish.
But when he actually laid a finger on her shoulder, tapping for attention, when he bent forward, almost touching or maybe really touching—she could not tell for sure—her thick hair that was wild even in a bob, then she felt forgiven. In a way, she felt honored. Restored to seriousness and to respect.
Where, where exactly, is the Tyrrhenian Sea?
She wondered if he remembered anything at all of that now.
She separated the back and front parts of the paper. Margaret Truman was visiting England, and had curtsied to the royal family. The King’s doctors were trying to cure his Buerger’s disease with vitamin E.
She offered the front part to Rupert. “I’m going to look at the crossword,” she said. “I like to do the crossword—it relaxes me at the end of the day.”
Rupert sat down and began to read the paper, and she asked him if he would like a cup of tea. Of course he said not to bother, and she went ahead and made it anyway, understanding that this reply might as well be yes in country speech.
“It’s a South American theme,” she said, looking at the crossword. “Latin American theme. First across is a musical . . . garment. A musical garment? Garment. A lot of letters. Oh. Oh. I’m lucky tonight. Cape Horn!
“You see how silly they are, these things,” she said, and rose and poured the tea.
If he did remember, did he hold anything against her? Maybe her blithe friendliness in their senior year had been as unwelcome, as superior-seeming to him, as that early taunting?
Rupert couldn’t have imagined anything but farming this farm.
When she first saw him in this house, she thought that he had not changed much. He had been a tall, solid, round-faced boy, and he was a tall, heavy, round-faced man. He had worn his hair cut so short, always, that it didn’t make much difference that there was less of it now and that it had turned from light brown to gray-brown. A permanent sunburn had taken the place of his blushes. And whatever troubled him and showed in his face might have been just the same old trouble—the problem of occupying space in the world and having a name that people could call you by, being somebody they thought they could know.
She thought of them sitting in the senior class. A small class, by that time—in five years the unstudious, the carefree, and the indifferent had been weeded out, leaving these overgrown, grave, and docile children learning trigonometry, learning Latin. What kind of life did they think they were preparing for? What kind of people did they think they were going to be?
She could see the dark-green, softened cover of a book called History of the Renaissance and Reformation. It was secondhand, or tenthhand— nobody ever bought a new textbook. Inside were written all the names of the previous owners, some of whom were middle-aged housewives or merchants around the town. You could not imagine them learning these things, or underlining “Edict of Nantes” with red ink and writing “N.B.” in the margin.
Edict of Nantes. The very uselessness, the exotic nature, of the things in those books and in those students’ heads, in her own head then and Rupert’s, made Enid feel a tenderness and wonder. It wasn’t that they had meant to be something that they hadn’t become. Nothing like that. Rupert couldn’t have imagined anything but farming this farm. It was a good farm, and he was an only son. And she herself had ended up doing exactly what she must have wanted to do. You couldn’t say that they had chosen the wrong lives or chosen against their will or not understood their choices. Just that they had not understood how time would pass and leave them not more but maybe a little less than what they used to be.
“ ‘Bread of the Amazon,’ ” she said. “ ‘Bread of the Amazon’?”
Rupert said, “Manioc?”
Enid counted. “Seven letters,” she said. “Seven.”
He said, “Cassava?”
“Cassava? That’s a double s? Cassava.”
Mrs. Quinn became more capricious daily about her food. Sometimes she said she wanted toast, or bananas with milk on them. One day she said peanut-butter cookies. Enid prepared all these things—the children could eat them anyway—and when they were ready Mrs. Quinn could not stand the look or the smell of them. Even Jell-O had a smell she could not stand.
Some days she hated all noise; she would not even have the fan going. Other days she wanted the radio on, she wanted the station that played requests for birthdays and anniversaries and called people up to ask them questions. If you got the answer right you won a trip to Niagara Falls, a tankful of gas, or a load of groceries or tickets to a movie.
“It’s all fixed,” Mrs. Quinn said. “They just pretend to call somebody up—they’re in the next room and already got the answer told to them. I used to know somebody that worked for a radio, that’s the truth.”
On these days her pulse was rapid. She talked very fast in a light, breathless voice. “What kind of car is that your mother’s got?” she said.
“It’s a maroon-colored car,” said Enid.
“What make?” said Mrs. Quinn.
Enid said she did not know, which was the truth. She had known, but she had forgotten.
“Was it new when she got it?”
“Yes,” said Enid. “Yes. But that was three or four years ago.”
“She lives in that big rock house next door to Willenses?”
Yes, said Enid.
“How many rooms it got? Sixteen?”
“Did you go to Mr. Willens’s funeral when he got drownded?”
Enid said no. “I’m not much for funerals.”
“I was supposed to go. I wasn’t awfully sick then, I was going with Herveys up the highway, they said I could get a ride with them and then her mother and her sister wanted to go and there wasn’t enough room in back. Then Clive and Olive went in the truck and I could’ve scrunched up in their front seat but they never thought to ask me. Do you think he drownded himself?”
Enid thought of Mr. Willens handing her a rose. His jokey gallantry that made the nerves of her teeth ache, as from too much sugar.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so.”
“Did him and Mrs. Willens get along all right?” “As far as I know, they got along beautifully.”
“Oh, is that so?” said Mrs. Quinn, trying to imitate Enid’s reserved tone. “Bee-you-tif-ley.”
Enid slept on the couch in Mrs. Quinn’s room. Mrs. Quinn’s devastating itch had almost disappeared, as had her need to urinate. She slept through most of the night, though she would have spells of harsh and angry breathing. What woke Enid up and kept her awake was a trouble of her own. She had begun to have ugly dreams. These were unlike any dreams she had ever had before. She used to think that a bad dream was one of finding herself in an unfamiliar house where the rooms kept changing and there was always more work to do than she could handle, work undone that she thought she had done, innumerable distractions. And then, of course, she had what she thought of as romantic dreams, in which some man would have his arm around her or even be embracing her. It might be a stranger or a man she knew—sometimes a man whom it was quite a joke to think of in that way. These dreams made her thoughtful or a little sad but relieved in some way to know that such feelings were possible for her. They could be embarrassing, but were nothing, nothing at all compared with the dreams that she was having now. In the dreams that came to her now she would be copulating or trying to copulate (sometimes she was prevented by intruders or shifts of circumstances) with utterly forbidden and unthinkable partners. With fat squirmy babies or patients in bandages or her own mother. She would be slick with lust, hollow and groaning with it, and she would set to work with roughness and an attitude of evil pragmatism. “Yes, this will have to do,” she would say to herself. “This will do if nothing better comes along.” And this coldness of heart, this matter-of-fact depravity, simply drove her lust along. She woke up unrepentant, sweaty and exhausted, and lay like a carcass until her own self, her shame and disbelief, came pouring back into her. The sweat went cold on her skin. She lay there shivering in the warm night, with disgust and humiliation. She did not dare go back to sleep. She got used to the dark and the long rectangles of the net-curtained windows filled with a faint light. And the sick woman’s breath grating and scolding and then almost disappearing.
If she were a Catholic, she thought, was this the sort of thing that could come out at confession? It didn’t seem like the sort of thing she could even bring out in a private prayer. She didn’t pray much anymore, except formally, and to bring the experiences she had just been through to the attention of God seemed absolutely useless, disrespectful. He would be insulted. She was insulted, by her own mind. Her religion was hopeful and sensible and there was no room in it for any sort of rubbishy drama, such as the invasion of the devil into her sleep. The filth in her mind was in her, and there was no point in dramatizing it and making it seem important. Surely not. It was nothing, just the mind’s garbage.
In the little meadow between the house and the riverbank there were cows. She could hear them munching and jostling, feeding at night. She thought of their large gentle shapes in there with the money musk and chicory, the flowering grasses, and she thought, They have a lovely life, cows.
It ends, of course, in the slaughterhouse. The end is disaster.
For everybody, though, the same thing. Evil grabs us when we are sleeping; pain and disintegration lie in wait. Animal horrors, all worse than you can imagine beforehand. The comforts of bed and the cows’ breath, the pattern of the stars at night—all that can get turned on its head in an instant. And here she was, here was Enid, working her life away pretending it wasn’t so. Trying to ease people. Trying to be good. An angel of mercy, as her mother had said, with less and less irony as time went on. Patients and doctors, too, had said it.
And all the time how many thought that she was a fool? The people she spent her labors on might secretly despise her. Thinking they’d never do the same in her place. Never be fool enough. No.
Miserable offenders, came into her head. Miserable offenders.
Restore them that are penitent.
The last bit of jam had been left to grow fuzz in the jar
So she got up and went to work; as far as she was concerned, that was the best way to be penitent. She worked very quietly but steadily through the night, washing the cloudy glasses and sticky plates that were in the cupboards and establishing order where there was none before. None. Teacups had sat between the ketchup and the mustard and toilet paper on top of a pail of honey. There was no waxed paper or even newspaper laid out on the shelves. Brown sugar in the bag was as hard as rock. It was understandable that things should have gone downhill in the last few months, but it looked as if there had been no care, no organization here, ever. All the net curtains were gray with smoke and the windowpanes were greasy. The last bit of jam had been left to grow fuzz in the jar, and vile-smelling water that had held some ancient bouquet had never been dumped out of its jug. But this was a good house still, that scrubbing and painting could restore.
Though what could you do about the ugly brown paint that had been recently and sloppily applied to the front-room floor?
When she had a moment later in the day she pulled the weeds out of Rupert’s mother’s flower beds, dug up the burdocks and twitch grass that were smothering the valiant perennials.
She taught the children to hold their spoons properly and to say grace.
Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat. . .
She taught them to brush their teeth and after that to say their prayers.
“God bless Mama and Daddy and Enid and Aunt Olive and Uncle Clive and Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.” After that each added the name of the other. They had been doing it for quite a while when Sylvie said, “What does it mean?”
Enid said, “What does what mean?” “What does it mean ‘God bless’?”
Enid made eggnogs, not flavoring them even with vanilla, and fed them to Mrs. Quinn from a spoon. She fed her a little of the rich liquid at a time, and Mrs. Quinn was able to hold down what was given to her in small amounts. If she could not do that, Enid spooned out flat, lukewarm ginger ale.
The sunlight, or any light, was as hateful as noise to Mrs. Quinn by now. Enid had to hang thick quilts over the windows, even when the blinds were pulled down. With the fan shut off, as Mrs. Quinn demanded, the room became very hot, and sweat dripped from Enid’s forehead as she bent over the bed attending to the patient. Mrs. Quinn went into fits of shivering; she could never be warm enough.
“This is dragging out,” the doctor said. “It must be those milkshakes you’re giving her, keeping her going.”
“Eggnogs,” said Enid, as if it mattered.
Mrs. Quinn was often now too tired or weak to talk. Sometimes she lay in a stupor, with her breathing so faint and her pulse so lost and wandering that a person less experienced than Enid would have taken her for dead. But at other times she rallied, wanted the radio on, then wanted it off. She knew perfectly well who she was still, and who Enid was, and she sometimes seemed to be watching Enid with a speculative or inquiring look in her eyes. Color was long gone from her face and even from her lips, but her eyes looked greener than they had in the past—a milky, cloudy green. Enid tried to answer the look that was bent on her.
“Would you like me to get a priest to talk to you?”
Mrs. Quinn looked as if she wanted to spit.
“Do I look like a Mick?” she said.
“A minister?” said Enid. She knew this was the right thing to ask, but the spirit in which she asked it was not right—it was cold and faintly malicious.
No. This was not what Mrs. Quinn wanted. She grunted with displeasure. There was some energy in her still, and Enid had the feeling that she was building it up for a purpose. “Do you want to talk to your children?” she said, making herself speak compassionately and encouragingly. “Is that what you want?”
“Your husband? Your husband will be here in a little while.”
Enid didn’t know that for sure. Rupert arrived so late some nights, after Mrs. Quinn had taken the final pills and gone to sleep. Then he sat with Enid. He always brought her the newspaper. He asked what she wrote in her notebooks—he noticed that there were two—and she told him. One for the doctor, with a record of blood pressure and pulse and temperature, a record of what was eaten, vomited, excreted, medicines taken, some general summing up of the patient’s condition. In the other notebook, for herself, she wrote many of the same things, though perhaps not so exactly, but she added details about the weather and what was happening all around. And things to remember.
“For instance, I wrote something down the other day,” she said. “Something that Lois said. Lois and Sylvie came in when Mrs. Green was here and Mrs. Green was mentioning how the berry bushes were growing along the lane and stretching across the road, and Lois said, ‘It’s like in “Sleeping Beauty.”’ Because I’d read them the story. I made a note of that.”
Rupert said, “I’ll have to get after those berry canes and cut them back.”
Enid got the impression that he was pleased by what Lois had said and by the fact that she had written it down, but it wasn’t possible for him to say so.
One night he told her that he would be away for a couple of days, at a stock auction. He had asked the doctor if it was all right, and the doctor had said to go ahead.
That night he had come before the last pills were given, and Enid supposed that he was making a point of seeing his wife awake before that little time away. She told him to go right into Mrs. Quinn’s room, and he did, and shut the door after him. Enid picked up the paper and thought of going upstairs to read it, but the children probably weren’t asleep yet; they would find excuses for calling her in. She could go out on the porch, but there were mosquitoes at this time of day, especially after a rain like the afternoon’s.
She was afraid of overhearing some intimacy or perhaps the suggestion of a fight, then having to face him when he came out. Mrs. Quinn was building up to a display—of that Enid felt sure. And before she made up her mind where to go she did overhear something. Not the recriminations or (if it was possible) the endearments, or perhaps even weeping, that she had been half expecting, but a laugh. She heard Mrs. Quinn weakly laughing, and the laughter had the mockery and satisfaction in it that Enid had heard before but also something she hadn’t heard before, not in her life—something deliberately vile. She didn’t move, though she should have, and she was at the table still, she was still there staring at the door of the room, when he came out a moment later. He didn’t avoid her eyes— or she his. She couldn’t. Yet she couldn’t have said for sure that he saw her. He just looked at her and went on outside. He looked as if he had caught hold of an electric wire and begged pardon—who of?—that his body was given over to this stupid catastrophe.
The next day Mrs. Quinn’s strength came flooding back, in that unnatural and deceptive way that Enid had seen once or twice in others. Mrs. Quinn wanted to sit up against the pillows. She wanted the fan turned on.
Enid said, “What a good idea.”
“I could tell you something you wouldn’t believe,” Mrs. Quinn said. “People tell me lots of things,” said Enid.
“Sure. Lies,” Mrs. Quinn said. “I bet it’s all lies. You know Mr. Willens was right here in this room?”
Mrs. Quinn had been sitting in the rocker getting her eyes examined and Mr. Willens had been close up in front of her with the thing up to her eyes, and neither one of them heard Rupert come in, because he was supposed to be cutting wood down by the river. But he had sneaked back. He sneaked back through the kitchen not making any noise—he must have seen Mr. Willens’s car outside before he did that—then he opened the door to this room just easy, till he saw Mr. Willens there on his knees holding the thing up to her eye and he had the other hand on her leg to keep his balance. He had grabbed her leg to keep his balance and her skirt got scrunched up and her leg showed bare, but that was all there was to it and she couldn’t do a thing about it, she had to concentrate on keeping still.
Rupert jumped out of the chair so it was still rocking, and he started picking up all the things...
So Rupert got in the room without either of them hearing him come in and then he just gave one jump and landed on Mr. Willens like a bolt of lightning and Mr. Willens couldn’t get up or turn around, he was down before he knew it. Rupert banged his head up and down on the floor, Rupert banged the life out of him, and she jumped up so fast the chair went over and Mr. Willens’s box where he kept his eye things got knocked over and all the things flew out of it. Rupert just walloped him, and maybe he hit the leg of the stove, she didn’t know what. She thought, It’s me next. But she couldn’t get round them to run out of the room. And then she saw Rupert wasn’t going to go for her after all. He was out of wind and he just set the chair up and sat down in it. She went to Mr. Willens then and hauled him around, as heavy as he was, to get him right side up. His eyes were not quite open, not shut either, and there was dribble coming out of his mouth. But no skin broke on his face or bruise you could see—maybe it wouldn’t have come up yet. The stuff coming out of his mouth didn’t even look like blood. It was pink stuff, and if you wanted to know what it looked like it looked exactly like when the froth comes up when you’re boiling the strawberries to make jam. Bright pink. It was smeared over his face from when Rupert had him facedown. He made a sound, too, when she was turning him over. Glug-glug. That was all there was to it. Glug-glug and he was laid out like a stone.
Rupert jumped out of the chair so it was still rocking, and he started picking up all the things and putting each one back where it went in Mr. Willens’s box. Getting everything fitted in the way it should go. Wasting the time that way. It was a special box lined with red plush and a place in it for each one of his things that he used and you had to get everything in right or the top wouldn’t go down. Rupert got it so the top went on and then he just sat down in the chair again and started pounding on his knees.
On the table there was one of those good-for-nothing cloths, it was a souvenir of when Rupert’s mother and father went up north to see the Dionne Quintuplets. She took it off the table and wrapped it around Mr. Willens’s head to soak up the pink stuff and so they wouldn’t have to keep on looking at him.
Rupert kept banging his big flat hands. She said, Rupert, we got to bury him somewhere.
Rupert just looked at her, like to say, Why?
She said they could bury him down in the cellar, which had a dirt floor.
“That’s right,” said Rupert. “Where are we going to bury his car?”
She said they could put it in the barn and cover it up with hay.
He said too many people came poking around the barn.
Then she thought, Put him in the river. She thought of him sitting in his car right under the water. It came to her like a picture. Rupert didn’t say anything at first, so she went into the kitchen and got some water and cleaned Mr. Willens up so he wouldn’t dribble on anything. The goo was not coming up in his mouth anymore. She got his keys, which were in his pocket. She could feel, through the cloth of his pants, the fat of his leg still warm.
She said to Rupert, Get moving.
He took the keys.
They hoisted Mr. Willens up, she by the feet and Rupert by the head, and he weighed a ton. He was like lead. But as she carried him one of his shoes kind of kicked her between the legs, and she thought, There you are, you’re still at it, you horny old devil. Even his dead old foot giving her the nudge. Not that she ever let him do anything, but he was always ready to get a grab if he could. Like grabbing her leg up under her skirt when he had the thing to her eye and she couldn’t stop him and Rupert had to come sneaking in and get the wrong idea.
Over the doorsill and through the kitchen and across the porch and down the porch steps. All clear. But it was a windy day, and, first thing, the wind blew away the cloth she had wrapped over Mr. Willens’s face.
Their yard couldn’t be seen from the road, that was lucky. Just the peak of the roof and the upstairs window. Mr. Willens’s car couldn’t be seen.
Rupert had thought up the rest of what to do. Take him to Jutland, where it was deep water and the track going all the way back and it could look like he just drove in from the road and mistook his way. Like he turned off on the Jutland road, maybe it was dark and he just drove into the water before he knew where he was at. Like he just made a mistake.
He did. Mr. Willens certainly did make a mistake.
The trouble was it meant driving out their lane and along the road to the Jutland turn. But nobody lived down there and it was a dead end after the Jutland turn, so just the half mile or so to pray you never met anybody. Then Rupert would get Mr. Willens over in the driver’s seat and push the car right off down the bank into the water. Push the whole works down into the pond. It was going to be a job to do that, but Rupert at least was a strong bugger. If he hadn’t been so strong they wouldn’t have been in this mess in the first place.
Rupert had a little trouble getting the car started because he had never driven one like that, but he did, and got turned around and drove off down the lane with Mr. Willens kind of bumping over against him. He had put Mr. Willens’s hat on his head—the hat that had been sitting on the seat of the car.
Why take his hat off before he came into the house? Not just to be polite but so he could easier get a clutch on her and kiss her. If you could call that kissing, all that pushing up against her with the box still in one hand and the other grabbing on, and sucking away at her with his dribbly old mouth. Sucking and chewing away at her lips and her tongue and pushing himself up at her and the corner of the box sticking into her and digging her behind. She was so surprised and he got such a hold she didn’t know how to get out of it. Pushing and sucking and dribbling and digging into her and hurting her all at the same time. He was a dirty old brute.
She went and got the Quintuplets cloth where it had blown onto the fence. She looked hard for blood on the steps or any mess on the porch or through the kitchen, but all she found was in the front room, also some on her shoes. She scrubbed up what was on the floor and scrubbed her shoes, which she took off, and not till she had all that done did she see a smear right down her front. How did she come by that? And the same time she saw it she heard a noise that turned her to stone. She heard a car and it was a car she didn’t know and it was coming down the lane.
They made a horrible smell and the smell made her sick. That was the whole beginning of her being sick.
She looked through the net curtain and sure enough. A new-looking car and dark green. Her smeared-down front and shoes off and the floor wet. She moved back where she couldn’t be seen, but she couldn’t think of where to hide. The car stopped and a car door opened, but the engine didn’t cut off. She heard the door shut and then the car turned around and she heard the sound of it driving back up the lane. And she heard Lois and Sylvie on the porch.
It was the teacher’s boyfriend’s car. He picked up the teacher every Friday afternoon, and this was a Friday. So the teacher said to him, Why don’t we give these ones a lift home, they’re the littlest and they got the farthest to go and it looks like it’s going to rain.
It did rain, too. It had started by the time Rupert got back, walking home along the riverbank. She said, A good thing, it’ll muddy up your tracks where you went to push it over. He said he’d took his shoes off and worked in his sock feet. So you must have got your brains going again, she said.
Instead of trying to soak the stuff out of that souvenir cloth or the blouse she had on, she decided to burn the both of them in the stove. They made a horrible smell and the smell made her sick. That was the whole beginning of her being sick. That and the paint. After she cleaned up the floor, she could still see where she thought there was a stain, so she got the brown paint left over from when Rupert painted the steps and she painted over the whole floor. That started her throwing up, leaning over and breathing in that paint. And the pains in her back—that was the start of them, too.
After she got the floor painted she just about quit going into the front room. But one day she thought she had better put some other cloth on that table. It would make things look more normal. If she didn’t, then her sister-in-law was sure to come nosing around and say, Where’s that cloth Mom and Dad brought back the time they went to see the Quints? If she had a different cloth on she could say, Oh, I just felt like a change. But no cloth would look funny.
So she got a cloth Rupert’s mother had embroidered with flower baskets and took it in there and she could still smell the smell. And there on the table was sitting the dark-red box with Mr. Willens’s things in it and his name on it and it had been sitting there all the time. She didn’t even remember putting it there or seeing Rupert put it there. She had forgot all about it.
She took that box and hid it in one place and then she hid it in another. She never told where she hid it and she wasn’t going to. She would have smashed it up, but how do you smash all those things in it? Examining things. Oh, Missus, would you like me to examine your eyes for you, just sit down here and just you relax and you just shut the one eye and keep the other one wide open. Wide open, now. It was like the same game every time, and she wasn’t supposed to suspect what was going on, and when he had the thing out looking in her eye he wanted her to keep her panties on, him the dirty old cuss puffing away getting his fingers slicked in and puffing away. Her not supposed to say anything till he stops and gets the looker thing packed up in his box and all and then she’s supposed to say, “Oh, Mr. Willens, now, how much do I owe you for today?”
And that was the signal for him to get her down and thump her like an old billy goat. Right on the bare floor to knock her up and down and try to bash her into pieces. Dingey on him like a blowtorch.
How’d you’ve liked that?
Then it was in the papers. Mr. Willens found drowned.
They said his head got bunged up knocking against the steering wheel.
They said he was alive when he went in the water. What a laugh.
Enid stayed awake all night—she didn’t even try to sleep. She could not lie down in Mrs. Quinn’s room. She sat in the kitchen for hours. It was an effort for her to move, even to make a cup of tea or go to the bathroom. Moving her body shook up the information that she was trying to arrange in her head and get used to. She had not undressed, or unrolled her hair, and when she brushed her teeth she seemed to be doing something laborious and unfamiliar. The moonlight came through the kitchen window—she was sitting in the dark—and she watched a patch of light shift through the night, on the linoleum, and disappear. She was surprised by its disappearance and then by the birds waking up, the new day starting. The night had seemed so long and then too short, because nothing had been decided.
She got up stiffly and unlocked the door and sat on the porch in the beginning light. Even that move jammed her thoughts together. She had to sort through them again and set them on two sides. What had happened—or what she had been told had happened—on one side. What to do about it on the other. What to do about it—that was what would not come clear to her.
The cows had been moved out of the little meadow between the house and the riverbank. She could open the gate if she wanted to and go in that direction. She knew that she should go back, instead, and check on Mrs. Quinn. But she found herself pulling open the gate bolt.
The cows hadn’t cropped all the weeds. Sopping wet, they brushed against her stockings. The path was clear, though, under the riverbank trees, those big willows with the wild grape hanging on to them like monkeys’ shaggy arms. Mist was rising so that you could hardly see the river. You had to fix your eyes, concentrate, and then a spot of water would show through, quiet as water in a pot. There must be a moving current, but she could not find it.
Then she saw a movement, and it wasn’t in the water. There was a boat moving. Tied to a branch, a plain old rowboat was being lifted very slightly, lifted and let fall. Now that she had found it, she kept watching it, as if it could say something to her. And it did. It said something gentle and final. You know. You know.
WHEN the children woke up they found her in bountiful good spirits, freshly washed and dressed and with her hair loose. She had already made the Jell-O crammed with fruit that would be ready for them to eat at noon. And she was mixing batter for cookies that could be baked before it got too hot to use the oven.
“Is that your father’s boat?” she said. “Down on the river?”
The doctor phoned when she was giving the children their lunch — Jell-O and a plate of cookies sprinkled with colored sugar
Lois said yes. “But we’re not supposed to play in it.” Then she said, “If you went down with us we could.” They had caught on at once to the day’s air of privilege, its holiday possibilities, Enid’s unusual mix of languor and excitement.
“We’ll see,” said Enid. She wanted to make the day a special one for them, special aside from the fact—which she was already almost certain of—that it would be the day of their mother’s death. She wanted them to hold something in their minds that could throw a redeeming light on whatever came later. On herself, that is, and whatever way she would affect their lives later.
That morning Mrs. Quinn’s pulse had been hard to find and she had not been able, apparently, to raise her head or open her eyes. A great change from yesterday, but Enid was not surprised. She had thought that great spurt of energy, that wicked outpouring talk, would be the last. She held a spoon with water in it to Mrs. Quinn’s lips, and Mrs. Quinn drew a little of the water in. She made a mewing sound—the last trace, surely, of all her complaints. Enid did not call the doctor, because he was due to visit anyway later that day, probably early in the afternoon.
She shook up soapsuds in a jar and bent a piece of wire, and then another piece, to make bubble wands. She showed the children how to make bubbles, blowing steadily and carefully until as large a shining bladder as possible trembled on the wire, then shaking it delicately free. They chased the bubbles around the yard and kept them afloat till breezes caught them and hung them in the trees or on the eaves of the porch. What kept them alive then seemed to be the cries of admiration, screams of joy, rising up from below. Enid put no restriction on the noise they could make, and when the soapsud mixture was all used up she made more.
The doctor phoned when she was giving the children their lunch — Jell-O and a plate of cookies sprinkled with colored sugar and glasses of milk into which she had stirred chocolate syrup. He said he had been held up by a child’s falling out of a tree and he would probably not be out before suppertime. Enid said softly, “I think she may be going.”
“Well, keep her comfortable if you can,” the doctor said. “You know how as well as I do.”
Enid didn’t phone Mrs. Green. She knew that Rupert would not be back yet from the auction and she didn’t think that Mrs. Quinn, if she ever had another moment of consciousness, would want to see or hear her sister-in-law in the room. Nor did it seem likely that she would want to see her children. And there would be nothing good about seeing her for them to remember.
She didn’t bother trying to take Mrs. Quinn’s blood pressure anymore, or her temperature—just sponged off her face and arms and offered the water, which was no longer noticed. She turned on the fan, whose noise Mrs. Quinn had so often objected to. The smell rising from the body seemed to be changing, losing its ammoniac sharpness. Changing into the common odor of death.
She went out and sat on the steps. She took off her shoes and stockings and stretched out her legs in the sun. The children began cautiously to pester her, asking if she would take them down to the river, if they could sit in the boat, or if they found the oars could she take them rowing. She knew enough not to go that far in the way of desertion, but she asked them, Would they like to have a swimming pool? Two swimming pools? And she brought out the two laundry tubs, set them on the grass, and filled them with water from the cistern pump. They stripped to their underpants and lolled in the water, becoming Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose.
“What do you think,” said Enid, sitting on the grass with her head back and her eyes shut, “what do you think, if a person does something very bad, do they have to be punished?”
“Yes,” said Lois immediately. “They have to get a licking.”
“Who did it?” said Sylvie.
“Just thinking of anybody,” said Enid. “Now, what if it was a very bad thing but nobody knew they did it? Should they tell that they did and be punished?”
Sylvie said, “I would know they did it.”
“You would not,” said Lois. “How would you know?”
“I would’ve seed them.”
“You would not.”
“You know the reason I think they should be punished?” Enid said. “It’s because of how bad they are going to feel, in themselves. Even if nobody did see them and nobody ever knew. If you do something very bad and you are not punished you feel worse, and feel far worse, than if you are.”
“Lois stold a green comb,” Sylvie said.
“I did not,” said Lois.
“I want you to remember that,” Enid said.
Lois said, “It was just laying the side the road.”
Enid went into the sickroom every half hour or so to wipe Mrs. Quinn’s face and hands with a damp cloth. She never spoke to her and never touched her hand, except with the cloth. She had never absented herself like this before with anybody who was dying.
When she opened the door at around half past five she knew there was nobody alive in the room. The sheet was pulled out and Mrs. Quinn’s head was hanging over the side of the bed, a fact that Enid did not record or mention to anybody. She had the body straightened out and cleaned and the bed put to rights before the doctor came. The children were still playing in the yard.
“July 5. Rain early a.m. L. and S. playing under porch. Fan off and on, complains noise. Half cup eggnog spoon at a time. B.P. up, pulse rapid, no complaints pain. Rain didn’t cool off much. R.Q. in evening. Hay finished.
“July 6. Hot day, vy. close. Try fan but no. Sponge often. R.Q. in evening. Start to cut wheat tomorrow. Everything 1 or 2 wks ahead due to heat, rain.
“July 7. Cont’d heat. Won’t take eggnog. Ginger ale from spoon. Vy. weak. Heavy rain last night, wind. R.Q. not able to cut, grain lodged some places.
“July 8. No eggnog. Ginger ale. Vomiting a.m. More alert. R.Q. to go to calf auction, gone 2 days. Dr. says go ahead.
“July 9. Vy. agitated. Terrible talk.
“July 10. Patient Mrs. Rupert (Jeanette) Quinn died today approx. 5 p.m. Heart failure due to uremia. (Glomerulonephritis.)”
Enid never made a practice of waiting around for the funerals of people she had nursed. It seemed to her a good idea to get out of the house as soon as she decently could. Her presence could not help being a reminder of the time just before the death, which might have been dreary and full of physical disaster, and was now going to be glossed over with ceremony and hospitality and flowers and cakes.
Also, there was usually some female relative who would be in place to take over the household completely, putting Enid suddenly in the position of unwanted guest.
Mrs. Green, in fact, arrived at the Quinns’ house before the undertaker did. Rupert was not back yet. The doctor was in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea and talking to Enid about another case that she could take up now that this was finished. Enid was hedging, saying that she had thought of taking some time off. The children were upstairs. They had been told that their mother had gone to heaven, which for them had put the cap on this rare and eventful day.
Mrs. Green was shy until the doctor left. She stood at the window to see him turn his car around and drive away. Then she said, “Maybe I shouldn’t say it right now, but I will. I’m glad it happened now and not later when the summer was over and they were started back to school. Now I’ll have time to get them used to living at our place and used to the idea of the new school they’ll be going to. Rupert, he’ll have to get used to it, too.”
This was the first time that Enid had realized that Mrs. Green meant to take the children to live with her, not just to stay for a while. Mrs. Green was eager to manage the move, had been looking forward to it, probably, for some time. Very likely she had the children’s rooms ready and material bought to make them new clothes. She had a large house and no children of her own.
“You must be wanting to get off home yourself,” she said to Enid. As long as there was another woman in the house it might look like a rival home, and it might be harder for her brother to see the necessity of moving the children out for good. “Rupert can run you in when he gets here.”
Enid said that it was all right, her mother was coming out to pick her up.
“Oh, I forgot your mother,” said Mrs. Green. “Her and her snappy little car.”
She brightened up and began to open the cupboard doors, checking on the glasses and the teacups—were they clean for the funeral?
“Somebody’s been busy,” she said, quite relieved about Enid now and ready to be complimentary.
Mr. Green was waiting outside, in the truck, with the Greens’ dog, General. Mrs. Green called upstairs for Lois and Sylvie, and they came running down with some clothes in brown paper bags. They ran through the kitchen and slammed the door, without taking any notice of Enid.
“That’s something that’s going to have to change,” said Mrs. Green, meaning the door slamming. Enid could hear the children shouting their greetings to General and General barking excitedly in return.
She had to knock on the door now. She had to wait to be asked in.
Two days later Enid was back, driving her mother’s car herself. She came late in the afternoon, when the funeral would have been well over. There were no extra cars parked outside, which meant that the women who had helped in the kitchen had all gone home, taking with them the extra chairs and teacups and the large coffeepot that belonged to their church. The grass was marked with car tracks and some dropped crushed flowers.
She had to knock on the door now. She had to wait to be asked in.
She heard Rupert’s heavy, steady footsteps. She spoke some greeting to him when he stood in front of her on the other side of the screen door, but she didn’t look into his face. He was in his shirtsleeves, but was wearing his suit trousers. He undid the hook of the door.
“I wasn’t sure anybody would be here,” Enid said. “I thought you might still be at the barn.”
Rupert said, “They all pitched in with the chores.”
She could smell whiskey when he spoke, but he didn’t sound drunk.
“I thought you were one of the women come back to collect something you forgot,” he said.
Enid said, “I didn’t forget anything. I was just wondering, how are the children?”
“They’re fine. They’re at Olive’s.”
It seemed uncertain whether he was going to ask her in. It was bewilderment that stopped him, not hostility. She had not prepared herself for this first awkward part of the conversation. So that she wouldn’t have to look at him, she looked around at the sky.
“You can feel the evenings getting shorter,” she said. “Even if it isn’t a month since the longest day.”
“That’s true,” said Rupert. Now he opened the door and stood aside and she went in. On the table was a cup without a saucer. She sat down at the opposite side of the table from where he had been sitting. She was wearing a dark-green silk-crepe dress and suede shoes to match. When she put these things on she had thought how this might be the last time that she would dress herself and the last clothes she would ever wear. She had done her hair up in a French braid and powdered her face. Her care, her vanity, seemed foolish but were necessary to her. She had been awake now three nights in a row, awake every minute, and she had not been able to eat, even to fool her mother.
“Was it specially difficult this time?” her mother had said. She hated discussion of illness or deathbeds, and the fact that she had brought herself to ask this meant that Enid’s upset was obvious.
“Was it the children you’d got fond of?” she said. “The poor little monkeys.”
Enid said it was just the problem of settling down after a long case, and a hopeless case of course had its own strain. She did not go out of her mother’s house in the daytime, but she did go for walks at night, when she could be sure of not meeting anybody and having to talk. She had found herself walking past the walls of the county jail. She knew there was a prison yard behind those walls where hangings had once taken place. But not for years and years. They must do it in some large central prison now, when they had to do it. And it was a long time since anybody from this community had committed a sufficiently serious crime.
Sitting across the table from Rupert, facing the door of Mrs. Quinn’s room, she had almost forgotten her excuse, lost track of the way things were to go. She felt her purse in her lap, the weight of her camera in it— that reminded her.
“There is one thing I’d like to ask you,” she said. “I thought I might as well now, because I wouldn’t get another chance.”
Rupert said, “What’s that?”
“I know you’ve got a rowboat. So I wanted to ask you to row me out to the middle of the river. And I could get a picture. I’d like to get a picture of the riverbank. It’s beautiful there, the willow trees along the bank.”
“All right,” said Rupert, with the careful lack of surprise that country people will show, regarding the frivolity—the rudeness, even—of visitors.
That was what she was now—a visitor.
Her plan was to wait until they got out to the middle of the river, then to tell him that she could not swim. First ask him how deep he thought the water would be there—and he would surely say, after all the rain they had been having, that it might be seven or eight, or even ten, feet. Then tell him that she could not swim.
And that would not be a lie. She had grown up in Walley, on the lake, she had played on the beach every summer of her childhood, she was a strong girl and good at games, but she was frightened of the water, and no coaxing or demonstrating or shaming had ever worked with her—she had not learned to swim.
He would only have to give her a shove with one of the oars and topple her into the water and let her sink. Then leave the boat out on the water and swim to shore, change his clothes, and say that he had come in from the barn or from a walk and found the car there, and where was she? Even the camera if found would make it more plausible. She had taken the boat out to get a picture, then somehow fallen into the river.
Once he understood his advantage, she would tell him. She would ask, Is it true?
If it was not true, he would hate her for asking. If it was true—and didn’t she believe all the time that it was true?—he would hate her in another, more dangerous way. Even if she said at once—and meant it, she would mean it—that she was never going to tell.
She would speak very quietly all the time, remembering how voices carry out on the water on a summer evening.
I am not going to tell, but you are. You can’t live on with that kind of secret.
You cannot live in the world with such a burden. You will not be able to stand your life.
If she had got so far, and he had neither denied what she said nor pushed her into the river, Enid would know that she had won the gamble. It would take some more talking, more absolutely firm but quiet persuasion, to bring him to the point where he would start to row back to shore.
Or, lost, he would say, What will I do? and she would take him one step at a time, saying first, Row back.
The first step in a long, dreadful journey. She would tell him every step and she would stay with him for as many of them as she could. Tie up the boat now. Walk up the bank. Walk through the meadow. Open the gate. She would walk behind him or in front, whichever seemed better to him. Across the yard and up the porch and into the kitchen.
They will say goodbye and get into their separate cars and then it will be his business where he goes. And she will not phone the Police Office the next day. She will wait and they will phone her and she will go to see him in jail. Every day, or as often as they will let her, she will sit and talk to him in jail, and she will write him letters as well. If they take him to another jail she will go there; even if she is allowed to see him only once a month she will be close by. And in court—yes, every day in court, she will be sitting where he can see her.
She does not think anyone would get a death sentence for this sort of murder, which was in a way accidental, and was surely a crime of passion, but the shadow is there, to sober her when she feels that these pictures of devotion, of a bond that is like love but beyond love, are becoming indecent.
Now it has started. With her asking to be taken on the river, her excuse of the picture. Both she and Rupert are standing up, and she is facing the door of the sickroom—now again the front room—which is shut.
She says a foolish thing.
“Are the quilts taken down off the windows?”
He doesn’t seem to know for a minute what she is talking about. Then he says, “The quilts. Yes. I think it was Olive took them down. In there was where we had the funeral.”
“I was only thinking. The sun would fade them.”
He opens the door and she comes around the table and they stand looking into the room. He says, “You can go in if you like. It’s all right. Come in.”
The bed is gone, of course. The furniture is pushed back against the walls. The middle of the room, where they would have set up the chairs for the funeral, is bare. So is the space in between the north windows— that must have been where they put the coffin. The table where Enid was used to setting the basin, and laying out cloths, cotton wool, spoons, medicine, is jammed into a corner and has a bouquet of delphiniums sitting on it. The tall windows still hold plenty of daylight.
“Lies” is the word that Enid can hear now, out of all the words that Mrs. Quinn said in that room. Lies. I bet it’s all lies.
Her mother then did a very unexpected thing. She undid her own dress and took out a dull-skinned object that flopped over her hand.
Could a person make up something so detailed and diabolical? The answer is yes. A sick person’s mind, a dying person’s mind, could fill up with all kinds of trash and organize that trash in a most convincing way. Enid’s own mind, when she was asleep in this room, had filled up with the most disgusting inventions, with filth. Lies of that nature could be waiting around in the corners of a person’s mind, hanging like bats in the corners, waiting to take advantage of any kind of darkness. You can never say, Nobody could make that up. Look how elaborate dreams are, layer over layer in them, so that the part you can remember and put into words is just the bit you can scratch off the top.
When Enid was four or five years old she had told her mother that she had gone into her father’s office and that she had seen him sitting behind his desk with a woman on his knee. All she could remember about this woman, then and now, was that she wore a hat with a great many flowers on it and a veil (a hat quite out of fashion even at that time), and that her blouse or dress was unbuttoned and there was one bare breast sticking out, the tip of it disappearing into Enid’s father’s mouth. She had told her mother about this in perfect certainty that she had seen it. She said, “One of her fronts was stuck in Daddy’s mouth.” She did not know the word for breasts, though she did know they came in pairs.
Her mother said, “Now, Enid. What are you talking about? What on earth is a front?”
“Like an ice-cream cone,” Enid said.
And she saw it that way, exactly. She could see it that way still. The biscuit-colored cone with its mound of vanilla ice cream squashed against the woman’s chest and the wrong end sticking into her father’s mouth.
Her mother then did a very unexpected thing. She undid her own dress and took out a dull-skinned object that flopped over her hand. “Like this?” she said.
Enid said no. “An ice-cream cone,” she said.
“Then that was a dream,” her mother said. “Dreams are sometimes downright silly. Don’t tell Daddy about it. It’s too silly.”
Enid did not believe her mother right away, but in a year or so she saw that such an explanation had to be right, because ice-cream cones did not ever arrange themselves in that way on ladies’ chests and they were never so big. When she was older still she realized that the hat must have come from some picture.
She hadn’t asked him yet, she hadn’t spoken. Nothing yet committed her to asking. It was still before. Mr. Willens had still driven himself into Jutland Pond, on purpose or by accident. Everybody still believed that, and as far as Rupert was concerned Enid believed it, too. And as long as that was so, this room and this house and her life held a different possibility, an entirely different possibility from the one she had been living with (or glorying in—however you wanted to put it) for the last few days. The different possibility was coming closer to her, and all she needed to do was to keep quiet and let it come. Through her silence, her collaboration in a silence, what benefits could bloom. For others, and for herself.
This was what most people knew. A simple thing that it had taken her so long to understand. This was how to keep the world habitable.
She had started to weep. Not with grief but with an onslaught of relief that she had not known she was looking for. Now she looked into Rupert’s face and saw that his eyes were bloodshot and the skin around them puckered and dried out, as if he had been weeping, too.
He said, “She wasn’t lucky in her life.”
Enid excused herself and went to get her handkerchief, which was in her purse on the table. She was embarrassed now that she had dressed herself up in readiness for such a melodramatic fate.
“I don’t know what I was thinking of,” she said. “I can’t walk down to the river in these shoes.”
Rupert shut the door of the front room.
“If you want to go we can still go,” he said. “There ought to be a pair of rubber boots would fit you somewhere.”
Not hers, Enid hoped. No. Hers would be too small.
Rupert opened a bin in the woodshed, just outside the kitchen door. Enid had never looked into that bin. She had thought it contained firewood, which she had certainly had no need of that summer. Rupert lifted out several single rubber boots and even snow boots, trying to find a pair.
“These look like they might do,” he said. “They maybe were Mother’s. Or even mine before my feet got full size.”
He pulled out something that looked like a piece of a tent, then, by a broken strap, an old school satchel.
“Forgot all the stuff that was in here,” he said, letting these things fall back and throwing the unusable boots on top of them. He dropped the lid and gave a private, grieved, and formal-sounding sigh.
A house like this, lived in by one family for so long a time, and neglected for the past several years, would have plenty of bins, drawers, shelves, suitcases, trunks, crawl spaces full of things that it would be up to Enid to sort out, saving and labelling some, restoring some to use, sending others by the boxload to the dump. When she got that chance she wouldn’t balk at it. She would make this house into a place that had no secrets from her and where all order was as she had decreed.
He set the boots down in front of her while she was bent over unbuckling her shoes. She smelled under the whiskey the bitter breath that came after a sleepless night and a long harsh day; she smelled the deeply sweat-soaked skin of a hardworked man that no washing—at least the washing he did—could get quite fresh. No bodily smell—even the smell of semen—was unfamiliar to her, but there was something new and invasive about the smell of a body so distinctly not in her power or under her care.
That was welcome.
“See can you walk,” he said.
She could walk. She walked in front of him to the gate. He bent over her shoulder to swing it open for her. She waited while he bolted it, then stood aside to let him walk ahead, because he had brought a little hatchet from the woodshed, to clear their path.
“The cows were supposed to keep the growth down,” he said. “But there’s things cows won’t eat.”
She said, “I was only down here once. Early in the morning.”
The desperation of her frame of mind then had to seem childish to her now.
Rupert went along chopping at the big fleshy thistles. The sun cast a level, dusty light on the bulk of the trees ahead. The air was clear in some places, then suddenly you would enter a cloud of tiny bugs. Bugs no bigger than specks of dust that were constantly in motion yet kept themselves together in the shape of a pillar or a cloud. How did they manage to do that? And how did they choose one spot over another to do it in? It must have something to do with feeding. But they never seemed to be still enough to feed.
When she and Rupert went underneath the roof of summer leaves it was dusk, it was almost night. You had to watch that you didn’t trip over roots that swelled up out of the path, or hit your head on the dangling, surprisingly tough-stemmed vines. Then a flash of water came through the black branches. The lit-up water near the opposite bank of the river, the trees over there still decked out in light. On this side—they were going down the bank now, through the willows—the water was tea-colored but clear.
And the boat waiting, riding in the shadows, just the same.
“The oars are hid,” said Rupert. He went into the willows to locate them. In a moment she lost sight of him. She went closer to the water’s edge, where her boots sank into the mud a little and held her. If she tried to, she could still hear Rupert’s movements in the bushes. But if she concentrated on the motion of the boat, a slight and secretive motion, she could feel as if everything for a long way around had gone quiet.