Authors: Susan Minot
They drove past houses set up on swollen banks, houses with four windows in front and four on the side with dark shutters against the clapboard, houses with porches, sometimes with American flags. They talked about music and found themselves in agreement on a number of small points of taste which Ann Grant found surprising but which the person did not seem to.
In Waldoboro they stopped for lunch at Moody’s Diner which had green booths and Formica tables edged in aluminum. Ralph refused the clam roll fearing poison. Buddy had the meatloaf special and a hotdog and piece of pie. Harris Arden she remembered ordered a hamburger and black coffee. When his plate arrived the sunglasses came off.
He put them on the table. Ann looked instinctively away as one was taught to if there was an eclipse of the sun. Then she looked back. His eyes were very light which was a surprise with the caramel cast of skin, between light grey and blue. They squinted as if the world were too bright. He bit into his hamburger and chewed and the eyes looked for an instant at her then out the window. It was as if someone had pierced her chest. She felt it in her toes. It was a marvelous feeling. She picked up her grilled cheese with no appetite whatsoever.
Sitting in the diner among the dark shadows and gleaming curves with the bright day outside Ann Grant felt as if she were both a stranger to herself and more herself than she’d ever been. Her elbow lay on the table, the door swung open to the kitchen,
the pine shadows darkened the back window, all was dense with meaning. For no reason that she could name she was overcome with a sense of destiny. Her body carried the conviction more than her mind, the sensation came over her slowly that something important was happening, there was a decidedly new quality to everything around her, things were sharper and brighter, the air amplified sound. She had not yet pinpointed the change to her having met this person, she was being too pleasantly carried along to need to name it. But something made her feel as if she were floating and it had begun the moment she’d seen the person’s face.
You forgot, she said.
I never forgot.
Well, she said.
Don’t be like that.
How would I know you never forgot?
You should have known.
How? How was I ever to know?
Ann, he said and took her hand.
Forgetting, remembering … why should I care?
I couldn’t forget you, he said.
What difference does it make anyway? she said.
It makes a difference.
I don’t know.
You made a difference, he said. You changed my life.
And I never got to see it, she said.
Your life. I never got to see your life.
Nothing's perfect, he said.
No, she said.
They were both smiling.
he world shifted as if a piece of paper had been flipped and she was now living on its other side. Things turned transparent, the man one married, the house one lived in, the bracelet one wore, they all became equal to each other, equal motes of dust drifting by. Strange things were happening
something has already happened
. For two days a leaf the size of a ham hung in the air one foot from her face. She grew sensitive to the different shades of white on the ceiling. Her sense was not always right. The position of her arm had something to do with inviting people to dinner. She needed to move the pillow so a boat could dock there. She knew it wasn’t logical and wondered if the drugs were obscuring things then it seemed as if the drugs were making it easier to read the true meaning.
Let’s turn ourselves a bit let’s try a little lunch let’s have a little sip let’s sit a little up
I’m not hungry.
Keep up our strength, said the nurse.
A wave of nausea swept through her. This is not what she’d planned, she’d always planned to go quickly. A man’s shoulder was coming through the wall.
He’s come back, said Ann Lord.
I thought he’d forgotten.
They always come back, said the nurse.
Ann Lord had never been sick before and yet it seemed now that this was the only day she’d ever had. She’d never had any other kind of day. It was a peculiar life she led. She lay here, she slept, people came in and stood and sat in chairs. Sometimes when she woke there were new people there and sometimes no one. Her children came in carrying flowers, carrying cups, carrying babies. A needle poked her. But she couldn’t be that tiny white dot she saw in people’s glasses, that wasn’t herself. She had lived in different places, sailed boats by different islands, rode in many cars in many cities, and now as she lay staring up at the light and shadows moving above her found many things returning to her which she had forgotten. Her memory was turned inside out. It was in this frame of mind that Ann Lord chanced upon a small thing which had a most extraordinary effect on her.
It had been raining and the washed air came through the windows. Ann Lord woke to no shadows and grey air hanging over everything like the grey chiffon her mother used to leave draped over the chairs after a customer’s fitting. The door to Oscar’s room was open to the rustlings of the nurse.
Margie came in, a blur in an Indian dress, holding up something near her face. Smell this, she said. I found it upstairs in the chest.
Didn’t they have better things to do than dig up old things in the attic?
She held it out. Ann Lord turned her cheek and felt the soft burlap. It was one of those little pillows filled with balsam needles sold in gift shops in Maine. I
pine for you and balsam too
. This one had no writing and the black stencil of the pinecone was partly
rubbed off. She’d kept this thing for a reason and in a moment would remember. Yes. It was from Lila, from her wedding, a sort of joke present to her bridesmaids along with the silver perfume flask which Ann Lord still had right there on the glass shelf in the bathroom. She smelled the cushion and smelled the balsam and what happened to her then was a kind of wild tumult. The air seemed to fracture into screens which all fell crashing in on one another in a sort of timed ballet with spears of light shooting through and something erupted in her chest with a gush and in her mind’s eye she saw her hands forty years younger and heard the clink of rocks on a beach and the sound of a motorboat and rising behind that came a black night and a band playing in the trees and the smell of water in the pipes of a summer cottage and she raised her hand to keep the cushion there and breathed in and heard an old suitcase snap open.
You O.K.? Margie said. Her face must have been strange.
It reminds me … she began, but couldn’t say.
A dark cave was lit up and as she looked around at the shadowed inlets flickering in the torchlight she saw things and heard sounds she’d known long ago
stay like that always
the balsam smell made the torches flare up—a window full of fog footsteps on a grey porch stakes being hammered in the night. Something was dawning on her slowly, she kept the cushion on her bed, something was opening beneath her. It seemed to be her soul.
Something stole into her as she walked in the dark, a dream she’d had long ago. The air was so black she was unable to see her arms, it was a warm summer night. Above her she could make out the dark line of the tops of spruce trees and a sky lit with stars. She felt the warm tar through the soles of her shoes. The boy beside her took her hand.
Margie Katz and Constance Katz sat in chairs pulled over to the open back door of the kitchen.
Mother never really liked Seth that much to begin with, Margie said. So she thinks I’m better off now.
I never knew it had gotten that bad, Constance said.
It was pretty bad.
I never knew that.
Margie nodded. That was the whole thing really.
Luc drinks, Constance said. But only a lot in spurts. Everyone drinks in France. It’s what they do, drink wine.
Margie looked into the darkness of the garden. Well I couldn’t take it.
So you’re lucky you didn’t have children, Constance said.
Believe me, you are.
What, would you rather not have Julian?
Course not. I’m just saying it’s not always easy if you’re divorced.
I thought Will was being a good father.
He is, Constance said. He is, she added wearily. But the whole situation is confusing for Julian. He’s got an English father who’s remarried to an Italian and an American mother who works too much and everyone else around him is French.
That’s what happens when you live in France, Margie said.
Well it’s not that easy, the poor kid. Constance thought for a moment. And the man his mother lives with is half-Russian … or sort of lives with—I don’t know what’s going on with Luc. I don’t think I understand French men.
Maybe Paris is the wrong place for you then.
I love Paris. Anyway I have to stay because Will’s there and Julian has to see his father.
Children adjust to a lot, Margie said. Julian’s a good kid.
I know he is. He’s an angel. God knows how he got that way with me for a mother.
You want some more? Margie stood up and the tiny mirrors on her skirt flickered and the bracelet around her ankle jingled. She opened the freezer door. I’m just going to have a tiny bit more.
Constance gazed past her crossed feet in their slender sandals. A bowl of melting ice cream with the spoon sticking up rested in the lap of her trimly cut linen pants. When did she redo this floor? Constance said.
This floor hasn’t been redone.
It’s the same floor it’s always been, Con.
Yes. The little squares in the corner. It’s always been this floor. I promise.
I swear I’ve never seen it before.
You have too.
You’ve been away too long, Margie said, sitting back down.
Constance stared at the floor. That is very weird, she said.
Margie ate some ice cream. Those earrings from Paris? she said.
Constance touched her ears. She had short curly hair and the earlobes peeked out. These, I got these in Rome.
They’re nice. Just a little gold …
I think they’re from Morocco originally.
The sisters sat in silence for a while.
So where is he now? Constance said.
St. Kitts still.
That’s where the boat is.
That’s right. I forgot.
We’re not really officially divorced yet, Margie said. Constance remained silent. He’s still taking charters out.
My idea of a nightmare, Constance said.
It wasn’t so bad. It was bad when you had a bad client. That was bad. But sometimes it was sort of great.
The phone rang. I bet it’s Teddy, Constance said.
Margie got up slowly and answered the phone. Yah, hi. She nodded at Constance. Fine. Yup, she’s fine. I mean, you know, the same. Sleeping. No, me and Con. I took Nora to the Square. She
to take the subway. She’s been here ten days without a break, she had to go home. I know, she’s great. Another one, not the one who comes at night—what’s her name? You know, the other one—
Gabby, Constance said.
Gabby. That’s her name. Gabby.
Margie looked annoyed and kept talking. She discussed the nurses’ payment and when Teddy was coming the next day. After she hung up she said, One of the babies was screaming in the background the whole time.
The sisters burst into laughter.
We are bad, Margie said. This made them laugh harder.
Poor Teddy, Constance said and quieted down after a while, chuckling a little. God I am exhausted. Why? What have I done all day?
This is exhausting, Margie said. Let’s face it.
I have to go to bed. Constance did not move.
What was that? Margie said.
I didn’t hear anything.
The brass knocker thumped at the front door.
Couldn’t be, Constance said.
Who is that? said Margie.
Do we have to answer?
The lights are on.
The lights could be on.
The knocker thumped again.
It’ll wake her, said Constance.
O.K. I’ll get it. Margie stood up lazily. She pulled the tie out of her hair, rebunched it in a knot and wound it up with deft fingers. Her bare feet slapped gently down the hall.
She opened the door to a white-haired man in a light-colored suit standing on the porch. Behind him the shadows from the streetlight made a mottled pattern on the empty street and there was the occasional lit window hiding among the black leaves.
I’m looking for Ann Grant, the man said. His suit was wrinkled and a pale tie had a yellow egg-like stain on it. His halo of hair surrounded a large weathered face. He did not look like one of their mother’s usual friends.