Authors: Lauren Groff
An infinite weariness comes over the mother as she
watches these children's bodies leap off the seawall. They glow palely, like angels, she thinks. Maybe it's just malnutrition.
She can't stop the thought that children born now will be the last generation of humans. Her sons have known only luck so far, though suffering will surely come for them. She feels it nearing, the midnight of humanity. Their world is so full of beauty, the last terrible flash of beauty before the long darkness.
Refusing the pleasure of a dusk like tonight's with its cool wind, its sunset, its ocean, its carousel, its ice cream, strikes her as profoundly immoral.
Now a hunger that cannot quite be located in the body comes over her, a sense of yearning, for what? Maybe for kindness, for a moral sense that is clear and loud and greater than she is, something that can blanket her, no, no, something in which she can hide for a minute and be safe.
So she stands tipsily and walks to the clump of children on the seawall and gives a nub-chested one the laminated tickets for the carousel. The child looks at the mother briefly, shoots her a gappy grin, jumps down off the seawall. The rest of the urchins follow.
And then the mother watches the little cluster run to the woman who takes the tickets, and this blonde, big-busted woman frowns at them and snatches the tickets from their hands, muttering something, then the girl says something, and the other woman looks up at the mother across the spinning carousel, and her face is folded
in contempt. The buzz-cut children don't get on the carousel. They run off.
The mother understands then that she is a fool. Those are the carousel lady's own children. The mother watches as the other woman turns away, knowing before she even looks that her own smaller son will have begun to cry because she has given away their tickets, and the older one's face will be aghast, another failure of hers that sinks to the bottom of him and that he will never forget.
They've been in Yport for ten days when, at last, she notices that there is a placard announcing free wifi in the tiny square outside the church.
She makes the older boy read a book to the little one, and he murmurs away on the curb beside her because the only bench is already occupied by pigeons and a snoozing woman.
She has thousands of emails. She goes through quickly, gets rid of the spam, the people who want things from her, notices from the boys' schools, notes from her benign stalkers. Business she puts in a folder for later, or maybe never.
There are ten messages from her husband with swiftly breeding exclamation points.
She tries Skype, muting it to keep from getting her sons' hopes up, but her husband doesn't answer, and in retaliation, she won't answer his emails. Let him dangle.
And then there are five emails from different people, all of which have the same friend's name in the subject line. This friend is the sweetest man alive. He is slender, humble, vegan, bearded; he has tattoos he drew himself in his punk-rock-commune youth; he is now a librarian, a cartoonist, a fellow writer. She always thought that he is maybe too kind to ever be a great writer, but perhaps that will change with age; she knows from personal experience that most people get meaner when they get older. Once, she was having a terrible day and he was riding his bicycle and stopped when he saw her and she confessed her sadness, her sense of futility and the doom lurking around the corner, and he hugged her, and that night he left an entire vegan chocolate cake on her front step. After her husband went to bed, she ate half of it, and although she immediately felt much worse, the friend's kindness in the moment when she opened the shoe box and saw the beautiful shining vegan buttercream inside made her feel loved.
A year ago, she went to his wedding in South Florida, where he married his high school sweetheart, who was tattooed all over like him, a thin Bettie Page in red lipstick and a white halter dress. They moved away from Florida to Philadelphia. He had a new baby. They gave the baby the name of a character from the mother's last book, in fact the strongest, toughest, best character in the book, the nexus of her community, though the naming might have been a coincidence.
The emails all say the same thing: that this good and quiet man has killed himself.
There is a sucking sound. When she looks up, the edges of the little square have blurred. It is here again. It has found her again, the dread, in Yport, this place that she thought would be too small to be noticed.
When the mother and her boys come home to Florida, there will be a memorial service in the Thomas Center atrium and the mother will stand in the heat against a cool stone pillar and feel shy in the presence of such collective grief. Her friend's widow and her teenaged daughter from a different marriage will be there; the baby will be there. The mother will touch the baby's perfect head and feel her warmth. And then she'll remember the flash of gratitude and understand the harm she's done the baby in that moment, the sin of relief that the terrible thing happened on the mother's periphery, not at her center. Because this is a grief that she could survive.
She moves over to her children and puts an arm around both. They let her hold them, wondering. They smell mealy and could do with a shower, and she should probably toss these rotten shoes. But oh, God, she thinks. Let them stink.
The mother and her sons go back to Paris for their last week in France.
But first, they pack up the Yport house and drive to
Dieppe, still scarred from World War II. Dieppe is not far at all from Calais, where, she'll read later, migrants are massing into a giant camp called the Jungle, waiting for passage to England. In their little Mercedes, the mother and the boys see none of these desperate people. The Norman countryside looks oddly depopulated. They drive down narrow roads through green and gold fields, through towns luxurious in their flowers and cleanliness, to the ChÃ¢teau de Miromesnil, where they stay in a tower room, fragrant and clean and white and peaceful and expensive. This is the place where Guy was born, though she finds that she could give no fucks at all about him anymore.
After the constant noise of the sea, the gulls and the waves and the music and the tourists, the chÃ¢teau in the warmth of its fields is almost eerily quiet.
The birds sing, but songs. The gardens are vast and dreamy, giant
so perfectly kept it makes the mother cry with misplaced tenderness. There's a wall of espaliered pear trees, heavy with almost-ripe fruit. A kind of miniature apple tree that was trained on a knee-high vine. Black dahlias, glossy eggplants, butterflies an impossible shade of minty green. The boys swing the ancient bell in the chapel, pulling on the rope with all the strength in their bodies. She takes pictures of them with a mossy stone bust of Guy de Maupassant, and in every picture, the older son scowls.
There are no restaurants anywhere near for dinner that night, and the only place open within ten kilometers
is a bakery, so they buy what is left, pastries and bread and jam, and eat in the garden, with the last of the visitors strolling through.
The boys run up and down the long alleys, careful children, touching nothing, ruining nothing. Good, smart boys. There will still be time, perhaps, at least she hopes, to make them into good men. They run back to her to finish their milk, to throw their arms around her, perhaps relieved that they aren't so cold anymore. An apple falls on the older son's head, and he looks betrayed at her, that she'd let this happen, then he relents and laughs.
There is a storm in the night, the trees lashing in the dark garden, the boys on the floor in the sleeping bags and the mother penned up with them.
The mother cannot sleep and she thinks of Laure Le Poittevin, Guy's mother. How terrible for her to outlive her two sons, both of whom died very young of secretive sex leading to syphilis, which spread through their bodies and cracked into insanity. How lonely it would be, the mother thinks, looking at her children, to live in this dark world without them.
She watches as the new light in the morning wakes them up. She is so weary. Her sons belong in their own beds. She doesn't belong in France, perhaps she never did; she was always simply her flawed and neurotic self, even in French. Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.
And yet this will not be what defines the trip.
Two things will stay longer.
The first is their last night in Yport, coming up from salted caramel crÃªpes, when the mother sees a man picking up jars from a box at his feet and heaving them into a great green container beside the casino. She laughs aloud. Recycling. Of course. When the boys are finally asleep and the streets have gone quiet, she hangs her arms with plastic bags full of bottles and runs as fast as she can down the hill, holding her breath against fire in the house or one of the boys waking in a terror and calling for her and finding nothing where she is supposed to be.
She throws the glass in all at once and bolts home. The boys are asleep, safe in their beds.
At midnight, as she finishes the last bottle of wine in the house and continues to write nothing at all, there is a knock on the door. She feels courageous, almost light, and opens it angrily. Jean-Paul is on the step, fist raised to knock, so it looks as if he is punching. She almost ducks. He seems bashful and holds another folded paper in his hand.
He pardons himself, hopes they had a pleasant stay, has something for the mother but she isn't supposed to read it until he has left.
He found the mother, he says, very sympathetic.
She is far from sympathetic.
He puts the paper in her hand, squeezes it, and is gone.
It is a poem, in rhyme. It is about the mother.
She doesn't read more than the first stanza, though she can't bring herself to throw out the poem.
She starts laughing and can't stop, even when her stomach hurts, even when her sight goes glossy. Another fucking writer; just what the world needs.
And this moment will be the one to stay with her forever: She's crouching beside her smallest son in the exposed seabed. The tide pool a miniature ocean. A snail retreats his horns when they tickle him with a feather, a red anemone pulses as the tide pulls the water away, algae with green hairs feel like satin on their fingertips. The little boy is still, sun on his brown body. The older boy is picking across the rocks, toward the cliffs. He is the size of her palm. Soon she'll call him back. Not yet.
The little one and she watch ghostly things with silver backbones nibbling at their ankles. Shrimp or fish, she doesn't know. She knows so little about this astonishing world.
If a meteor crashed down right now, would we die? the little boy says.
Depends on the meteor, I guess, she says.
Then probably, she says very slowly.
He sucks his lips in. Like the dinosaurs, he says.
The truth might be moral, but it isn't always right. She says, Well. The plus side is that we'd never know about it. One minute, we're in the sun, enjoying the ocean and ice cream and naps and love. The next, nothing.
Or heaven, he says.
Okay, she says sadly.
The older boy is now the size of a thumb. He has gone too far for her to save him in a calamity. Rogue wave, kidnapper. But the mother doesn't call for him. There is something so resolute in the set of his shoulders. He isn't going anywhere, just away. She understands.
When she looks back at her younger son, he is holding a rock over his head. He is aiming at the snail. Boom, he whispers, but he keeps his arm in the air. And he holds his fingers
Thank you: Florida, sunniest and strangest of states; Bill Clegg and Marion Duvert; Sarah McGrath, Jynne Dilling Martin, Danya Kukafka, Geoff Kloske, Anna Jardine, and the rest of the shining lights at Riverhead; Kevin A. GonzÃ¡lez, Elliott Holt, Ashley Warlick, and Laura van den Berg; the editors of the journals and anthologies where these stories first appeared; the MacDowell Colony for the gift of time; Ragdale and Olivia Varones; my parents and parentsâinâlaw; and the nannies and teachers and copy editors and good dogs and friends and readers of the world.
Thank you, Clay and Beckett. Extra thanks to Heath, my Florida baby, whose book this is.