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In the Gloaming: Storiesby Alice Elliott Dark
Chapter One: In the Gloaming
He wanted to talk again, suddenly. During the days, he still brooded, scowling at the swimming pool from the vantage point of his wheelchair, where he sat covered with blankets in spite of the summer heat. In the evenings, though, he became more like his old self: his old old self, really. He became sweeter, the way he'd been as a child, before he began to gird himself with layers of irony and clever remarks. He spoke with an openness that astonished her. No one she knew talked that way — no man at least. After he was asleep, Janet would run through the conversations in her mind and realize what it was she wished she'd said. She knew she was generally considered sincere, but that had more to do with her being a good listener than with how she expressed herself. She found it hard work to keep up with him, but it was the work she had pined for all her life.
A month earlier, after a particularly long and grueling visit with a friend who'd taken the train down to Wynnemoor from New York, Laird had declared a new policy: no visitors, no telephone calls. She didn't blame him. People who hadn't seen him for a while were often shocked to tears by his appearance, and rather than having them cheer him up, he felt obliged to comfort them. She'd overheard bits of some of those conversations. The final one was no worse than others, but Laird was fed up. He'd said more than once that he wasn't cut out to be the brave one, the one who would inspire everybody to walk away from a visit with him feeling uplifted, shaking their heads in wonder. He had liked being the most handsome and missed it very much. When he'd had enough he went into a self-imposed retreat, complete with a wall of silence and other ascetic practices that kept him busy for several weeks.
Then he softened. Not only did he want to talk again; he wanted to talk to her.
It began the night they ate outside on the terrace for the first time all summer. Afterward, Martin — her husband — got up to make a telephone call, but Janet stayed in her wicker chair, resting before clearing the table. It was one of those moments when she felt nostalgic for cigarettes. On nights like this, when the air was completely still, she used to blow her famous smoke rings for the children, dutifully obeying their commands to blow one through another or three in a row, or to make big, ropey circles that expanded as they floated up to the heavens. She did exactly what they wanted, for as long as they wanted, sometimes going through a quarter of a pack before they allowed her to stop. Incredibly, neither Anne nor Laird became smokers. Just the opposite; they nagged at her to quit and were pleased when she finally did. She wished they had been just a little bit sorry. It was a part of their childhood coming to an end, after all.
Out of habit, she took note of the first lightning bug, the first star. The lawn darkened, and the flowers that had sulked in the heat all day suddenly released their perfumes. She laid her head back on the rim of the chair and closed her eyes. Soon she was following Laird's breathing and found herself picking up the vital rhythms, breathing along. It was so peaceful, being near him like this. How many mothers spend so much time with their thirty-three-year-old sons? She had as much of him now as she'd had when he was an infant — more, because she had the memory of the intervening years as well, to round out her thoughts about him. When they sat quietly together she felt as close to him as she ever had. It was still him in there, inside the failing shell. She still enjoyed him.
"The gloaming," he said, suddenly.
She nodded dreamily, automatically, then sat up. She turned to him. "What?" Although she'd heard.
"I remember when I was little you took me over to the picture window and told me that in Scotland this time of day was called the 'gloaming.'"
Her skin tingled. She cleared her throat, quietly, taking care not to make too much of the event that he was talking again. "You thought I said it was 'gloomy.'"
He gave a smile, then looked at her searchingly. "I always thought it hurt you somehow that the day was over, but you said it was a beautiful time because for a few moments the purple light made the whole world look like the Scottish highlands on a summer night."
"Yes. As if all the earth was covered with heather."
"I'm sorry I never saw Scotland," he said.
"You're a Scottish lad nonetheless — at least on my side." She remembered offering to take him to Scotland once, but Laird hadn't been interested. By then, he was in college and already sure of his own destinations, which had diverged so thoroughly from hers. "I'm amazed you remember that conversation. You couldn't have been more than seven."
"I've been remembering a lot, lately."
"Mostly about when I was very small. I suppose it comes from having you take care of me again. Sometimes, when I wake up and see your face, I feel I can remember you looking in on me when I was in my crib. I remember your dresses."
"Oh no!" She laughed lightly.
"You always had the loveliest expression," he said.
She was astonished, caught off-guard. Then, she had a memory, too — of her leaning over Laird's crib and suddenly having a picture of looking up at her own mother. "I know what you mean," she said.
"You do, don't you?"
He regarded her in a close, intimate way that made her self-conscious. She caught herself swinging her leg nervously, like a pendulum, and stopped.
"Mom," he said. "There are still a few things I need to do. I have to write a will, for one thing."
Her heart went flat. In his presence she always maintained that he would get well. She wasn't sure she could discuss the other possibility.
"Thank you," he said.
"For not saying that there's plenty of time for that, or some similar sentiment."
"The only reason I didn't say it was to avoid the cliché, not because I don't believe it."
"You believe there is plenty of time?"
She hesitated; he noticed and leaned forward slightly. "I believe there is time," she said.
"Even if I were healthy, it would be a good idea."
"I don't want to leave it until it's too late. You wouldn't want me to suddenly leave everything to the nurses, would you?"
She laughed, pleased to hear him joking again. "All right, all right, I'll call the lawyer."
"That would be great." There was a pause. "Is this still your favorite time of day, Mom?"
"Yes, I suppose it is," she said, "although I don't think in terms of favorites anymore."
"Never mind favorites, then. What else do you like?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean exactly that."
"I don't know. I care about all the ordinary things. You know what I like."
"Name one thing."
"I feel silly."
"All right. I like my patch of lilies of the valley, under the trees over there. Now can we change the subject?"
"Name one more thing."
"I want to get to know you."
"Oh, Laird, there's nothing to know."
"I don't believe that for a minute."
"But it's true. I'm average. The only extraordinary thing about me is my children."
"All right," he said. "Then let's talk about how you feel about me."
"Do you flirt with your nurses like this when I'm not around?"
"I don't dare. They've got me where they want me." He looked at her. "You're changing the subject."
She smoothed her skirt. "I know how you feel about church, but if you need to talk, I'm sure the minister would be glad to come over. Or if you would rather a doctor..."
"That you still call psychiatrists 'doctors.'"
"I don't need a professional, Ma." He laced his hands and pulled at them as he struggled for words.
"What can I do?" she a
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