Authors: Susan Minot
This is her house.
The man’s head wobbled, then jerked still. You her daughter?
The man looked her up and down. You must be Margaret then.
Margie started to smile, but something prevented her. Yup, she said.
Forgive me for disturbing you at this hour. It’s terribly rude, I know. But you see I’ve just been at dinner—he glanced over his shoulder, then lurched forward—in Boston with my great old friends—the Beegins—and I’ve only just heard of your mother’s—he pressed his chin into his chest—misfortune and wanted to pay my respects.
Margie folded her arms. The guy was hammered.
I’m only in town tonight and I was hoping I could …
It’s pretty late. She’s sleeping.
The man nodded solemnly.
Of course, he said, frowning. Its much too late. He began to sway a little. I do apologize for that. I don’t know what came over me. I just thought … He looked at Margie and winced. He pursed his lips. I knew your mother a long time ago, he said. She was a wonderful singer. He bowed to the side. You can tell her—he put out a heel and swiveled his knee—oh, he said suddenly and held
out a small brown paper bag which had been hidden in the shadows. The top was bunched together and tied with a shredded purple ribbon, already used. The name’s John Winter.
The kitchen door flapped from deep behind her and Constance’s footsteps then Constance herself came up to the doorway.
An old home remedy, he said. Forgive the presentation.
Margie took the bag. It was heavier than it looked. She put her other hand under it.
This is an old friend of Mother’s, Margie said. John—
This is Constance.
Yes, I see that, he said and shook Constance’s hand.
Nice to meet you, she said, leaning out and smiling. Would you like to come in? Too late she caught her sister’s eye.
The man’s gaze flicked toward Margie’s face. Well, I … no, he said. I couldn’t. Thank you anyway. I was telling your sister I have to be off early tomorrow and just wanted to pay my respects. But it has been lovely to meet Ann’s daughters. I see her look in both of you. He was jerking his head, then freezing then swiveling, managing to keep his balance. Different, he said, but there in both of you.
Constance shot her sister a concerned look.
Oh, he said. Does she still sing?
What? said Constance.
I mean, not now, but did she keep on with her singing?
Not professionally, Constance said. But she always liked to sing.
Likes, Margie said. Still likes.
I can never hear “Summertime” without thinking of her, he said. Wonderful voice. He thrust his hand into his pocket. Well good night then.
Come back in the day, Constance said. I’m sure she’d like to see you.
He turned and stopped. His hand moved over his face. Around the mouth and jaw, he said, and he pointed at Constance.
We’ll give her this, said Margie, holding up the bag.
The man took one step down then his shoulders heaved back as if he’d heard a sudden sound and he wheeled around to face them again. Quick story, he said. I once danced with your mother, it was at a wedding, all we did was go from one wedding to another in those days, and for some reason I found myself asking for romantic advice the way one does I suppose dancing with a beautiful woman. I had just gotten engaged, and was having misgivings about the girl. I don’t know, maybe they were the natural fears. So your mother asked me if I trusted her. I said I did. She asked me if I would still like to see her when she was old and I said I thought I would. Then she asked me if we laughed together. And that stopped me. The man had become very still. Maybe he’d not been drunk after all. He now spoke clearly. Laughing was not something we did a lot of, the girl and I. But I thought about it some more and felt I loved her and did get married after all. He clapped his hands. After eighteen years we were divorced. I never forgot what your mother said. I don’t know if that’s a story or not. He looked at Margie then at Constance. Point is, I should have listened.
He raised his hand and again said good night and ambled down the path and onto the street. He hesitated. He did not seem to have a car.
Margie closed the door.
So what’s in it? Constance said.
Should we look?
Of course we should look.
It feels strange, sort of soft, Margie said.
Constance untied the ribbon and they looked inside. They could see a dark red surface rounded and glistening within the folds of some flimsy butcher’s paper.
What—that is disgusting, Constance said. I hope its not human.
What is it?
It looks like a liver, said Constance, and she shivered.
I think it’s a heart, Margie said.
Throw it away.
Is it to eat? Margie mumbled.
Get rid of it, said Constance, walking off.
Do you think Mother really said that?
I don’t know. It didn’t really sound … Constance shrugged. Sure, who knows. Maybe.
Seth and I used to laugh a lot, Margie said.
She must have been different back then, Constance said.
Margie peered into the bag.
Throw it out, Constance said at the end of the hall. It’s sick.
Really? Margie put her fist around the bag, closing the top. It doesn’t seem that sick to me.
Where’s my nurse? said Ann Grant Lord.
She’s in the other room. Do you want me to get her?
Not that one. The other one, the Irish one.
She’s off for two days, Margie said.
Where’d she go?
Home, Mother. She needed a day off.
Who’s in there? Ann Lord’s head did not move from the pillow but her eyes narrowed.
Another one filling in, Constance said. She leaned forward to whisper, I’m not sure her name.
Another nurse, Constance said loudly.
I want the Irish one back.
Mother, you had a visitor last night, Margie said. Constance and Margie looked at each other.
Ann Lord looked at her hands on the bedspread.
His name was John Winter.
The head against the pillow remained still. The hands did not move. Never heard of him.
Really? John Winter? He said he danced with you at a wedding.
I don’t know anyone by that name.
He knows you.
Yes, a lot of people say they do.
The line between her dreams and waking life disappeared. She had no idea what day it was. They said it was July. A month had gone by since the last of the tests. A chilling phrase: run some tests. They made her drink poison, poked and prodded, pulled blood out in purple threads, then came Dick Baker’s casual voice, Could she come into the office. She felt like hell, silence on the line. Why don’t I stop by on my way home? he said, in this way telling her. Then the days at the hospital which is no place for sick people. There you blurred into something else in rooms with brown stripes down the halls and plastic under the sheets and curving aluminum bars and windows that didn’t open. People wore crumpled masks and the furniture rolled. She lay under the machine shaped like a bull’s head and needles were taped into place and needles pulled out. Visiting hours were over. In the middle of the night buzzers went off and in the morning when you rolled your I.V. by the next room saw the empty bed with the blank clipboard and no more bald woman named Gwenivere. She had brought her own nightgown not to wear the dreadful tie-things they gave you and always spilled her orange juice peeling off the top. No there was no question of her going back to the hospital.
There were days when it was true then it was not true then it was true again. After the treatment stopped she felt better then worse then she saw there was nothing to make it better. It quickly got worse. Dinner at the Welds’ they were discussing war with dessert and Ann Lord got up from the table and found an armchair past the pocketdoors where she could still see them talking, she just couldn’t listen anymore. It had come blasting up into her head and she couldn’t hear anything. She tried to push at it with her will but it roared and roared. She was no match for it. Clare Weld came toward her holding a tilting coffee cup. Clare was not an affectionate woman, reserved with her husband and children, so it surprised Ann Lord when she put her coffee cup down, sat on the arm of Ann’s chair and very naturally put a confident arm around her
and kissed the top of Ann’s head. Illness brought out surprising things in people.
She closed her eyes and saw sunlight in squares on the Turkish rug and didn’t know if she was in a dream or not. Then she heard the wind and the sound of water and knew she was at the shore. The shore was never silent.
he woke before dawn coughing. She could make out the shape of the glass of water on the table but it was too far to reach and after a while she managed to stop coughing without drinking.
She lay still as the room grew light. The blue ceiling turned grey then light grey. It was thoroughly quiet. It seemed to be the beginning of something more than just day. For a few long moments she lay and felt—what was it? The dawn light put her in mind of creation. It must have been this way on the actual first day of the world. A thin yellow light spread out and all the sorrows which sat in her seemed suddenly to lift up and fly off and were replaced with the most inappropriate hope. For what had she to hope for? A swift end perhaps. And yet her whole spirit was lifting, she felt hope not only for herself, but—it did sound absurd—for all humanity. She lay here on a trembling leaf and thought of all the other people lying on their leaves waiting for the sun to come up
and it seemed that if they were quiet and patient what each of them wanted would eventually come. She was sure of it. An orange glow filled the room.
The glass on the bedside table began to sink. She closed her eyes for a moment to concentrate and the pain got worse. This was the darkness she would be looking at for a long time. She opened her eyes. The glass continued sinking. She could not see the water in it, only the top rim. She struggled to keep it in sight. The glass was going very slowly, but it was important that she see it the moment it disappeared. She smelled the pillow beside her.
A yellow suitcase came flying out of the fog, it was dragged over loose stones, thrown into a car, hauled over a polished floor. It lay open on a suitcase rack at the foot of a bed. She walked through stripes of light and shadow, something rattled, there had been rain in New Haven and a hot wind off the platform in Providence. They were waiting for her in Boston. Her lipstick rolled on the ground and the face with the sunglasses was luminous.
She sat in the backseat beside him with the windows down. Buddy drank more beer and fell asleep and Ralph refused any offers to drive because if anything happened to his father’s car he’d be disowned and he drove on in silence.
Do you always talk to people as if you were slicing them with a knife? Harris Arden said. He flicked his ash out the window, his cigarette small in his hand.
The road took them through towns where rows of elms met overhead and threw blue shadows on the roofs. Clotheslines fluttered on upper porches, two boys fished in a river, steel cranes rose up above the docks at Bath. Off the road were signs for sea lavender, eel, fresh mackerel, live lobsters, blueberries, corn picked today and in a pickup truck a little girl selling jam and pies. The sky was bleached behind torn clouds. Ann wondered what it would be like to kiss his mouth. By Wiscasset the mudflats swirled and shimmered under the bridge and further on was a hillside scorched by
fire with black spindly trees. A man stood with his hands on his hips staring at a barn door. An apple tree floated beside a yellow farmhouse. Harris pointed to a wreath of flowers at a turn near Thomaston and memorials on town greens were polished wedges cut from local granite. They passed a church with a black door and houses with fish-scale shingles and dormer windows and slate roofs. Cement steps led up to brick storefronts with trucks parked diagonally outside. Restaurants had orange claws over their doors and drive-in dairies had children sitting backwards at picnic tables eating soft ice cream. Motels were named Waters Edge, Light House, Sea View, Moody’s.
Ann had grown up on a street outside of Boston with sidewalks and no lawns and spent summers on the South Shore and the air feathering by the window now smelled of the sea and recalled her childhood and long days on the beach. She felt far from that childhood sitting in the woody but the distance between her and it seemed suddenly voluptuous and she wondered if it showed and if the person beside her had any idea of the happiness and contentment which had so suddenly and surprisingly taken possession of her.
The birds were loud in the morning then loud again at night just before evening. A few chirps then silence, then a long trill. She heard a car door slam and hum by below on Emerson Street. A dog barked and was answered by another dog closer. The plumbing ran at the far end of the hall and a heaviness filled her as the pain moved in.