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Authors: Jane Smiley

The Age of Grief

BOOK: The Age of Grief
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THE AGE OF GRIEF

“Impressive.… Sharp portraits of marriages and other family-style relationships.… Smiley makes it all happen with the unobtrusive control that one comes to rely on her for.”

—The Wall Street Journal

“An absorbing collection.”

—Newsday

“The author masterfully creates convincing, sympathetic characters and compelling situations. Her graceful, sincere style illuminates delicate internal perceptions and memories, creating vivid images for our deepest fears and dreariest routines.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“Artful.… Smiley … is equally adept at probing the inner lives of her characters and simultaneously anchoring them in externalized reality.… And because she usually eschews exotic characters, most of us can comprehend what she is driving at in terms of our own lives.”

—The Kansas City Star

Jane Smiley
THE AGE OF GRIEF

Jane Smiley is the author of ten works of fiction, including
The Greenlanders, Ordinary Love & Good Will, A Thousand Acres
(for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award),
Moo
, and
Horse Heaven
. She lives in northern California.

ALSO BY JANE SMILEY

Horse Heaven

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Moo

A Thousand Acres

Ordinary Love & Good Will

Catskill Crafts

The Greenlanders

Duplicate Keys

At Paradise Gate

Barn Blind

FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, JUNE 2002

Copyright © 1977, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1987 by Jane Smiley

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1987.

Some stories in this work were originally published in the following publications:
The Atlantic, Mademoiselle
, and
TriQuarterly
.

“The Age of Grief” was originally published in
The Quarterly
, Vol. I, Spring 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Jane Smiley.

Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Smiley, Jane.
The age of grief.
eISBN: 978-0-307-78727-9
I. Title.
PS3569.M39A7 1987 813’.54 87-45120

www.anchorbooks.com

v3.1

The Pleasure of
Her Company

W
hen Florence comes up the sidewalk toward her duplex, she can see that the large Victorian house just to the south has new owners. It is the one lovely place on her otherwise undistinguished block—porched, corniced, many-peaked, and recently painted Nordic blond with piqué white trim. Each of these last few evenings she has admired, as she does tonight, how neatly the trim glows in the twilight. She threads her way past boxes and pieces of furniture the owners have left on the sidewalk. There are two piles of women’s clothing. Dishes and cutlery are stacked beside the curb, and a slender-legged plant stand supports two ferns and a grape ivy. A brown box, its lid agape, contains the
Oxford English Dictionary
, abridged edition, and two Mexican cookbooks. Draped over the back of a kitchen chair is a white dress, perhaps a wedding dress, its bodice shaped into fullness with blue tissue paper. One of its stiff lace cap sleeves has fallen off the hanger. As Florence notices this, a breeze lifts the skirt. She rearranges the sleeve on the hanger and, shy of being caught, hurries the rest of the way home. In the morning when she turns with her coffee cup to gaze out the
window of her kitchen, the items are still on the lawn. The dress has fallen off the chair and lies spread on the green grass like a snow angel.

While she is at work, everything disappears, and that night, at last, there are lights in the windows; the stained glass she has coveted for years bejewels the darkness. There is more to covet, or at least envy, when she finally meets the Howards—Philip and Frannie. Two handmade orange rugs are flung on the hardwood floors and three or four large paintings, stretched but unframed, furnish the wide walls. There are plants. Mostly, however, there is space, so much pale floor that the rooms, as she looks through to the back porch, fit across one another like layers, inexhaustible, promising, culminating in sunlight.

Frannie has copper-colored eyes, winged brows, and short, springy hair that she obviously does no more to than wash into shape. She asks Florence to sit at the round maple table for tea. Everything about Frannie, from her clumsiness with the teacups to her delight with the muffins Florence has brought for housewarming, is inviting. There is a footstep, and Frannie glances up, then takes out another plate. “Hello!” says Philip, but before he sits down, he strides around the periphery of the room, stopping twice to admire the walls and floors, to look through the open door to the front porch, to smile and put his hands on his hips. Frannie says, “Philip still can’t believe we own the place. Last night I found him out on the front porch holding on to the gingerbread and staring at the stained glass.”

Philip sits at the table and leans toward Florence on his elbows. “Have you ever house-hunted? You wouldn’t believe what some people do to their houses. I went to one place that looked rather charming from the outside, you know, but
inside they’d cut doorways where they shouldn’t have been and added on this room at the back, plastic paneling, spongy rug like fungus. It wasn’t a bad house, at one time. I went outside and threw up in a trash barrel.”

“Philip took house-hunting very seriously,” says Frannie.

“You see how people live.” He butters a muffin.

Philip, it turns out, was in high school with Florence’s brother. Philip tells them that no two strangers in the nation are separated by more than five intermediate acquaintances. When he finds out that Florence is a nurse, he asks her if she saves a life every day, and when Frannie mentions her job, directing foreign exchange programs and charter flights for the local university, he says, “Importing exotica, exporting domestica.” He obviously expects to fill air and space, and he is quite handsome, but it is Frannie that Florence can’t help looking at. She sits smiling over the conversation like a child over a jack-in-the-box, waiting to be surprised into laughter. She makes Florence long to say something hilarious.

Florence goes next door, thinking that she really shouldn’t be visiting again so soon. She has been there every day, sometimes twice, since they moved in two weeks ago. She brings a quarter pound of a new kind of tea, knowing that it is almost a bribe, and shouts a comical “YOO-hoo!” as she crosses the threshold. Frannie giggles from the side porch and responds in kind. The giggle is a tremendous relief to Florence, because she is ready to detect signs of boredom and exasperation in Frannie’s first glance at her. The giggle allays her fears, and she grins as she pulls out a maple chair beside the maple table once again, investing the moment with her fullest, most tangible pleasure at being liked. Philip isn’t there.

Florence talks about the hospital, where she is a nurse
in pediatrics. Already, Frannie has learned the names of the doctors, secretaries, and other nurses, and her evident interest renders Florence almost eloquent. She talks about the medical student she had been seeing (too young) and the photographer she is seeing now (too self-absorbed). She talks about recipes and being on the Pill and having gained and lost thirty pounds in four months. Frannie’s questions and responses create such vivid images in her mind, and her smiles and rejoinders are so appropriate, that Florence grows ecstatic with conversation. She feels as though her words leap at Frannie before Frannie even finishes speaking. She follows Frannie around the house, talking. Frannie sweeps the floor, puts away the breakfast dishes, straightens one of the orange rugs, makes their bed. While Frannie is balling together Philip’s socks, Florence sits on the floor of their bedroom talking and fitting the soles of Frannie’s shoes along the soles of her feet. She is interested to note that all the shoes in the closet, Philip’s and Frannie’s, sneakers and heels, are jumbled together. Suddenly she stops chattering and says, “I feel like I’m invading you. Are you sure you don’t mind?” Frannie laughs and nods and tells her not to worry. “Do you promise to tell me to go home the first moment I get tiresome?” Florence asks.

“I promise!” Her mock exasperation is reassuring.

Florence says that her best friend in college was the most mysterious and beautiful woman she ever met, and the only man who ever treated her friend badly was the one she married. Marriage is something Florence doesn’t understand at all. Florence mentions that she has saved over six thousand dollars since nursing school and wants to buy a little house and plant raspberry canes, but the prices of houses rise faster than her savings account. Frannie says, “You know, it really was fascinating to look at houses with Philip. We went out
every day with the realtor, so we really lost the sense of having our own life, and began to feel like the right house was the key to everything. On the Sunday morning after we saw this one, which we both liked, and which was empty, the agent took us to one a ways out of town. The owners were there, and they had a new baby, about ten days old. The place was spotless. There were lots of windows and awnings, and arched doorways, and the place had a sort of Provençal aura about it, maybe because the cookbooks were in French. They took us all over the house, then out into the yard, where they had planted all sorts of lilacs and the dwarf apple trees and bulbs. The house was overpriced, and we would have had to replace the furnace, but Philip fell so in love that he just had to have it. Even when the realtor told him this was more of a bargain, Philip couldn’t stop talking about how he felt there—so light and springy. I kept teasing him and saying he just wanted the chance to live their life better than they were doing it.” She laughs.

“I’m glad you got this house.”

“It is beautiful. Philip loves it now.”

Florence begins to eye Frannie closely for symptoms of retreat, but Frannie’s interest and growing affection seem to meet hers at every level. Florence offers to pick up Frannie’s cleaning when she is downtown. Frannie brings home butter from the market, which she knows Florence needs. Florence drops by next door once a day. Frannie comes by only every other day or so, but comments spontaneously that she loves it when people drop by. Where they lived before, everyone was terrifically formal—always calling and making arrangements as if they expected to be entertained. Every time she sees Frannie, Florence feels intelligent. Her new powers exhilarate her.

Florence crosses the adjoining side yards on a rainy Saturday morning. Frannie is intending to meet Philip at the hardware store and is waiting for the rain to let up. She pours Florence a cup of coffee. “Won’t he be annoyed if you’re late?” Florence asks, feeling nosy because Frannie just doesn’t gossip about her husband in that way; she tells what he does, but never what he is like. Florence thinks this might be the result of so many years together.

“He’ll love the chance to moon around the hardware store planning major renovations.”

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