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Authors: Susan Minot

B0042JSO2G EBOK (11 page)

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Then after you said … how you felt. I actually thought … I thought she didn’t matter. It was the surprise of my life.

It was complicated, he said.

I believed other things mattered more.

Love you mean.

That’s what I believed then.

And you don’t believe it now?

She looked as if she was about to speak but decided against it, not being able to weigh in on either side.


She kept taking trains. The windows were so wide she nearly fell out rounding the corners. The twins got off at one stop to buy tiger Popsicles but didn’t get back on and the train started without them. She sat with her father who drank from a silver flask. It was his medicine, medicine was not for little girls. They passed a snowy field with crows. A hobo walked down the aisle carrying a globe on the end of a stick. He lifted her skirt with the end of his stick, peering between her legs. I bring you the world, he said.

Then she was on a train going to Washington, D.C., to visit Ted’s mother. In the seat facing her was a little girl traveling with her father. He was clearly fond of her but had difficulty removing her sweater and didn’t notice an untied shoelace dangling as the train chugged along. Ann Stackpole leaned forward and tied it. She lifted the little girl’s hair out of the collar of her sweater and the little girl looked back at her with such a greedy look Ann Stackpole wondered if she had a mother. The father fumbled through a bag, glancing at Ann now and then apologetically. He took out a pad of paper and some crayons and poured them into the little girl’s lap hoping she’d know what to do. The little girl began to draw, fingers clenched white, oblivious of the train’s agitation. She was drawing
an animal. It looked very much like the diamond leopard pin Ann had pinned to her lapel, a birthday present from Ted. The little girl caught Ann looking, flashing up light-colored eyes at her. Ann Stackpole had by then four children of her own so her reaction was odd. It was as if she’d been pushed into a bright room, had the door slammed and was locked in. Seeing the girls light-colored eyes struck her and she thought, This is the child I would have had with him. This was our little girl.

What’s going to happen now? she said.

Something has already happened, hasn’t it? he said. His arm tightened around her as they walked back in the darkness of the wet garden.

It has. She did not look at him.

This may be the end of something for me. He sounded distressed. The end of a long thing.

Her heart was rejoicing but she hid it, out of respect. Do things end so easily? She even felt sympathetic toward the unknown girl.

Not easily.

How long have you known her?

I don’t know if I want to talk about this.

She let go of his waist. I was just wondering.

He took her hand. She’s a good person. She loves me.

Ann had noticed how a woman’s love often inspired a sense of duty in men.

Do you love her?

I do, he said. Ann’s chest cramped. But, it’s different.

Later she would learn it was always different, with each person of course it was different. But at the time this consoled her.

Where did you meet her?

Do you want to know this really?

I do. His hand was in hers as they walked up the hill.

I met her six years ago downtown on a tramcar.

Really? A stranger?

She was a girl sitting in a blue coat.

And what did you do?

I went up and started talking to her.

Do you do that a lot?

I’d never done it before. I didn’t think about it. I thought she was beautiful.

Then what?

I asked her for her number.

Did she give it to you?

No. But she gave me an address and said I could write her if I wanted. She said it as if she didn’t think I would.

Did you?

I delivered the letter myself. She lived on the North Shore.

You showed up. That was bold of you.

She said she had hoped I would. Then we fell in love. I think I fell in love first.

Then … Ann began, but thought better of it and shook her head.

Harris Arden grew thoughtful. She’s a good person, he said.

Ann did not care to hear this a third time. When does she get here?

Tomorrow afternoon, he said, and looked up at the sky. Today.

The sheets were stacked on a shelf. The first sheet she pulled out was blue which meant it was time to prepare herself for a ceremony. Next came a flat yellow sheet. The yellow sheets were to be used as envelopes and she would have to address them. Someone had stuffed back a grey sheet which she pulled out crumpled and un-ironed. This stood for the afternoon. Last came a pink sheet with a scalloped border. The pink sheet was the last sheet she’d use.

She felt someone in the room.

Who is it? she said.

It’s Margie, Mother. And Teddy, said the same voice. Teddy’s here.

And Constance, Mother. I’m here too.

And me. It was Nina’s voice.

And Nurse Brown, said Margie. She’s here. We’re all here.

Ann Lord opened her eyes. Her children stood before her, pillars not holding anything up. Yes … she said. Everyone’s here but me.

7. A P

he kept the curtains back in the day and in the night. Her parents had slept with the shades down and on the rare occasion Ann dared enter their room it was always pitch black or in the morning with slivers of light outlining the windows. Her mother wore a sleeping mask over her face cream, and earplugs. Ann’s father snored. Her mother blocked out a lot to achieve peace.

Mrs. Grant worked as a seamstress at the good shops on Newbury Street, fitting the society ladies whose names appeared in the gossip columns. The facts, Mrs. Grant knew, were always a little off. Henrietta Bradley was not in the least interested in Stitch Poor, she had her eye on Dick Drummond, and they had Louise Drinkwater splendid in violet tulle which Mrs. Grant knew having put the dress on Louise herself was blue. The Homans sisters devoted? Those two couldn’t stand each other. Never believe what you read, Ann, she told her daughter, squinting as she threaded a needle, And never believe what other people say.

But Ann had heard from her Aunt Joy about an old beau of her mothers. According to Aunt Joy she’d been in love with Randall Pingree, a boy from a good family in Boston. Ellen Kearney had met him on account of their mother being a schoolteacher so the Kearney sisters, Ellen and Joy, could attend private school. The way Aunt Joy told it Randall Pingree had been in love with Ann’s mother and it didn’t occur to her not to give everything to him. This had, Aunt Joy said, affected her reputation. At first it was very romantic till it became clear that the boy couldn’t possibly marry Ellen Kearney and when this became apparent to Ellen herself it was as if someone had told her she was walking on ground when all the time she had believed she was swimming in water. Aunt Joy said it changed her. She had been carrying her feeling up high like a flag flapping and meeting this barrier to her happiness she put down her flag in protest and lay it unflapping on the ground and continued forward into the battle of life with her feelings, those foolish things, no longer in the forefront. This was how Aunt Joy put it. She let herself be guided by other things, pursued her interest in clothes, apprenticed with a French tailor, no longer at the mercy of disappointment. She took satisfaction in her work and in knowing about the lives of the society ladies, who were living the life she might have had if things had been otherwise.

Ann’s father was an assistant foreman in a leather factory. Before dinner if her father wasn’t home Ann would walk on the shady side of Gray Gable Road with the evening light on the other side and turn onto Mass. Ave. where the street was wider with no trees to the middle of the block. In the summer with the doors open she could smell Patsy’s from down the street. Walking into the darkness she first saw reddish lights then the dark shapes with the bottles behind and a green glass lamp and her father’s syrupy voice saying, Here’s my angel of mercy come to fetch me. He bent down but his eyes couldn’t aim very well and his gaze sort of tumbled by. He got up off his stool. So long Ed, said the man next to him, and the man behind the counter said, Mr. Grant, as his palm came forward onto the bills left crumpled. Sometimes Ann carried his
heavy coat and they walked up the hill around the cracked ice past Mrs. Shulte in her window and sometimes saw the orange cat her father called Butterscotch Pudding though they didn’t know its real name or whose it was. His hand pressed down on her shoulder and she stayed stiff to keep steady.

What did you do today, angel? he said.

Just school.

And how was school?

Danny Block got an icicle in his eye and went to the hospital.

Did he? Good, good. Her father was always smiling after he’d been at Patsy’s.

Ann’s mother’s face was tight putting the napkins around the dining room table which was on one side of the living room.

Smells grand, said her father as Ann steered him to his chair, trying to disturb as few pieces of furniture as possible. He sat down then got up immediately and picked his way out of the room as if leaning into a gale. When he returned he held onto the door frame surprised how solid it was and trying to hide his surprise. His hair was slicked back with water and his face more alert but the gaze still wandered. He took his seat.

Ann’s mother never once said anything about her father’s behavior. She turned her opinions to other matters. She served the food and as the three of them began to eat Mrs. Grant’s stiff face relaxed and she talked. The current of her talk floated them through dinner. Ann did not always understand her innuendos—and did not ask. It gave Mrs. Grant a sort of dim glow to talk about what was happening in the neighborhood, what parties her clients had attended, who came into the shop that day. She got a faraway look harkening back to her days at parties and hinted at beaux and her desirability before she’d met Edgar Grant but strangely never mentioned Randall Pingree. She told Ann to sit up straight. They used to dance till all hours. She’d found some good lampshades at Mamie Sturges’, Ed had a piece of potato on his chin, they were a little expensive but something of good quality lasted and it was worth it for pretty things. Ed Grant nodded along with the hum of
her voice, he looked up at her, grateful that everything was being looked after and he went back to eating his stew.

The smell of bacon, the kitchen door. Ann Grant was nearly knocked over by a golden retriever as she opened the screen. Can Wallis come in? she said as the dog shot through the kitchen and disappeared inside.

The Wittenborns’ dining room was large with a sideboard and built-in shelves with blue and white Canton china, but at breakfast time they ate in the kitchen, crowding around the beaten linoleum table. Off the kitchen was a honeycomb of various pantries and larders and clutter closets growing smaller and darker as they went off to the end of the house. In a narrow closet the size of a coffin Mrs. Wittenborn in a crisp piqué tennis dress held a telephone to her ear. Uh-huh, she said. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Right. Uh-huh uh-huh-uh-huh … She rubbed her cheek nodding. Mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm.

Ann tried to look at everyone equally for Harris Arden was there among them, leaning against the counter with his ankles crossed, holding a cup of coffee. She compared this to the idea of him which occupied her before falling asleep and found him even better in the flesh with his legs longer and his arms it seemed bigger. She caught his eye for the smallest fraction of a second, reaching for a glass of orange juice and knocking it over. Lizzie Tull was there with a sponge, in her tennis whites, already having gotten in a couple of sets that morning.

There’s no wind but we should go anyway, Buddy was saying. He wore pajamas with red piping and a flyer’s cap with the flaps over his ears.

Handsome slippers, Ann said.

Christmas from Lila, he said, and tried to keep back a smile.

Gigi banged on the door, her arms full of bay branches. She was framed in the screen with bits of leaf stuck in her hair.

You look like a painting, said Harris Arden, opening the door.

So he said that sort of thing to other girls. Of course he would.
Why wouldn’t he?

These are for the church, she said, shining at him. Here.

Harris put down his cup and took the branches which turned small in his arms. Gigi reached into an upper cabinet and clattered around.

Ralph Eastman was spooning scrambled eggs onto a plate in front of Ann. Bacon or sausage? he said.

Is that Mrs. Babbage’s apron you have on?

I am the only one she lets wear it, Ralph explained.

Carl and Lila came in. The church is like an oven, he said cheerfully. He wore an old sun hat balanced on top of his head.

Lila was wearing a blue and white striped shirt and red lipstick against her white teeth. Around her was an air of peace. She always had a calm aura around her, but it was particularly striking now in the midst of the wedding preparations which were mounting with symphonic tempo.

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