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The Brambles: A Novelby Eliza Minot
Let's keep him," said Florence. They were about to sign the lease. "He looks like he likes it here."
In the flowerbed, a small cement statue, two feet tall, robed, bearded, in mid-step looks down at the rounded rim of the swimming pool. In one hand he holds a spade, in the other a plume of kale or chard. The house's previous occupants had left him. Or maybe the occupants before them. A frost of green moss along an eyebrow. Part of a finger fallen off. Coin-sized circles, charcoal gray, of lichen.
"Saint Fiacre," said Arthur. He'd recently seen an article on him in one of the gardening magazines. "Also known as Fiacrius, I believe. Fiachra."
"Mmm," said Florence. She was already tearing up some weeds in the raised bed next to her hip.
"The patron saint of gardeners," said Arthur.
"And women who can't conceive," said Florence, bent over, uprooting tall grasses. "And taxi drivers."
Arthur laughed. "Nonsense."
"And potters, tile makers . . . hemorrhoids."
"Hemorrhoids get to have a saint?"
"That's what one of your magazines told me," she said. "I read it on the john." She stood up straight. "Do you think we could bring out a part of that rambler rose? Plant it right here?" She shimmied her arm up, a move from one of her dance numbers a long time ago, to demonstrate where. "A trellis?"
Arthur stood at the pool's edge, watching the water's surface get spackled with light. "I don't see why not," he said.
Florence surveyed the place, massaged her chin with her thumb and forefinger, playing the part of someone surveying, considering, left behind a soul patch of dirt underneath her bottom lip. "Can't we put bulbs in the freezer to pretend winter's happening?"
"Certainly," said Arthur.
"Those other roses," continued Florence, "the sweet midget ones, could be over there."
"Dwarf. Of course," he said.
Florence looked up to see him standing at the edge of the pool as if he might upend it. "Look at you," she said. "You'll never step foot in that pool."
"It's remarkably clean."
"It better be clean."
"I'm not looking forward to keeping it clean."
"Roy told me a young man does it for practically nothing," said Florence, ambling toward the garage. "The kids will love it."
"Sure they will," said Arthur, without irony, with true warmth, thinking of his daughters, Edie diving in, her body coated in a shaft of glass. Margaret with her new baby when it finally comes, bobbing it up and down in the water the way mothers do. He could place his son, Max, lazing in the chaise with a baseball hat on top of his face. Arthur had a hard time believing any of them would ever make the trip across the country to visit.
Florence answered him, reading his mind. "They'll be thrilled to come visit us. Who doesn't like sunlight? Who doesn't like California?"
Arthur raised his hand. "Me," he said, pointing down to himself from above. "Me."
"Too bad about you," Florence smiled.
Arthur watched his wife busying herself, familiarizing herself with this new place, how to make it hers, placing her scent everywhere. He watched her circle trees and look under plants, gently gathering tall stalks like a ponytail to inspect their roots. He watched her poke around in the garage, kicking at boxes, and peer over fences on tiptoe, imagining things to be done, things she would do. She looked the same as she always had, spry and young to him, trim and hearty as she moved gracefully about her new garden. Her white hair, her sea-glass eyes with the elfin squint lines around them.
An infomercial personality from Baltimore had bought the house they'd lived in for the last thirty years in Merrick, New York. They learned, after closing, that he was planning to subdivide it, build a Tudor thing on top of the rock garden, put a tennis court and sauna arrangement where the old lilac bushes had been. "It's just as well," Florence had said in the living room, sitting back in the old chair covered in Indian fabric with elephants all over it. She tossed a handful of peanuts into her mouth. "The house as we know it is finito."
California. A one-story house they could practically leap over. Dry green hills in the distance, spines of ridges lumpy like the backs of stegosauruses, sets for Westerns, sets for M*A*S*H, scratchy-grassed meadows that made you wonder where Reagan's ranch was, where was Neverland. A plush gray cat looking at Arthur from underneath their white rental car. The smell of menthol from the eucalyptus trees. Florence with the hills behind her, a small mountain her belled-out cape. The dusty colors flattering her tawny skin, leaping from the page of a catalog with names like ecru, stone, sand, olive, pumice, leaf, bone. The sunlight crackling on the pool's puckering surface with every breeze. Arthur watching a fuzzy seedling, a starry orb, sail from one shore to the other. Florence looking aimlessly for a garbage can, her hands full of weeds.
Arthur smiled. "Taxi drivers, eh?"
"Do you see a trash can?"
"Does that include limousine drivers? Shuttle vans?"
"You'll have to ask the pope," she said.
"By the door, my dear. Over there."
Florence spotted it, veered with renewed purpose in its direction, a replica of their garbage cans back home, dark green plastic with flip-top lids from Sears.
"Margaret will be in San Francisco next week," said Florence. "Did I tell you?"
"No, you did not."
"If we lived here, she'd come visit. See?"
"I'm concerned that she's too pregnant to be traveling."
Arthur squinted, perplexed at why Margaret's job would bring her out of New York. "I don't understand her job."
"You don't need to, sweetheart."
"Has Edie gotten a job?"
"Let her finish school."
"She has a fine job waiting tables."
"And she's tutoring those children."
"Max might start working on a movie in Los Angeles."
"You told me. Yes."
"It would be nice if he's there and we're here."
"Now there's a job I thoroughly don't understand."
"That's because you've never wondered about how a movie gets made," said Florence.
"They get made, is all. A person films other people who act."
"I'm sure plenty of producers and directors never wondered about your job either."
For most of his life, until his recent retirement, Arthur had been the lead lawyer for a watchdog company that managed the recalling of consumer goods.
"I'm hungry," said Florence. "Let's go to that Mexican place by the beach again."
"Wonderful," said Arthur. He looked at the statue of the saint, its small hooded head looking delicately away.
Now a green garden hose winds like a snake on the lawn, uncoiled, dead, the last thing Arthur was doing when he went to sit down on the wrought-iron chair at the glass-topped table. He sat there for some time, wondering if he was having a heart attack, on top of everything else, as he stared at the rear neighbor's avocado tree on the other side of the tall stockade fence, trying to ignore the pain in his chest and abdomen.
Arthur sat still, puzzled and uncomfortable, while he mustered his strength to get up and turn off the running water that was piling into puddles on the drought-ridden grass. Then he made his way, sidestepping soft-shoe, keeping his balance, through the open back door on his way to the bedroom, not bothering or, rather, unable to wipe his feet on the doormat on the way in, thereby tracking mulch and wet dirt onto the cream-colored carpet. Florence would've shrieked at him laughing--Ack! Take off those shoes! But now, alone without her, he is concentrating pointedly on simply making it to the bed, feeling like he'll vomit or soil his pants or pass out or all three, where he lies crush down on the firm mattress, belly-flopped, head askance, the cotton against his cheek a sure and familiar comfort.
Then, dusk. All about him, circling the house, things carry on. Cars bleat along the small streets surrounding him, heading to the Shop and Save, heading home from the beach. Silver beads of airplanes Etch A Sketch across the sky. Kids on bikes shout to one another, disappear down the hill. Miniature treeless mountains stand like upthrust chests, slope-slicing into the ocean along Route 1 where traffic has stopped to watch a pair of whales in the channel spout like steamships.
The sun slips, coloring the ocean with an oily orange film. It is dusk, not day anymore, not night yet, the way life has become for Arthur Bramble these last couple of weeks, right in between, perched at the wait, one way or the other, which way to turn, until, finally, there comes the simple settling--this is the way it will be now--toward an elegant purgatory. Each day is more animal than the next, more pared down, more unmistakably stripped of future. Each day--but are they days? They blur like nights of heavy drinking or the mind's eye of a child--has taken on the mysteriousness of Africa, a velvet darkness at every periphery, what comes after we stop living, the honor of the inevitable--here he is, grown old and dying--what lies ahead? Out of the air it is coming to him. It blazes in the afterglow that glimmers wildly through the trees. It whispers through the swipes of clouds that are plastered still and scarlet against the massive sky up above. It calls to him, yoo-hoooo, in a voice he hasn't heard in a long, long time.
In the morning from his bed he hears his nurse's car come sputtering up the skinny driveway alongside the flattened house. He hears her--Alice--on the other side of the window. The thwack suction slam of a door. Through the closed muslin curtains, the shadow of her shape is elongated, distorted, Gumby-like, an alien coming to take him to space. He hears the back hatch squeak open, the girlish rustle of plastic grocery bags being collected together.
Arthur thinks of the stroll Alice must have just taken through Von's Market, entering and leaving effortlessly, pain-free and regular, passing through the automatic doors that hum open as though for royalty, framed by cheerleader pyramids of flowers, each pot wrapped in purple foil. He thinks fleetingly of how probably he will never go alone through a market again.
He hears Alice struggle with the back-door key, first locking it since it was never locked, then unlocking it, then opening the door, letting in the airy hum of the world outside.
Arthur calls to her when the door opens. "Alice?" He clears his throat. "I've been in bed since yesterday," he announces.
After a moment, a stripe of sunlight falling across her chest like a Miss America banner, Alice appears in his doorway, the weight of the groceries pulling on her arms like a prairie girl's buckets of milk. She looks at Arthur frankly, eyes him slowly with a half turn of her head. Alice hardly ever smiles, let alone laughs, which gives her an air of constant comedy since she has a fine sense of humor. Alice sighs. "Oh, Mr. Bramble," she says.
"You'll be pleased to note that I've put my pajamas on appropriately," Arthur points out, though he barely remembers when he managed to do that.
Alice looks Arthur over. He's not lying down all the way and he's not sitting up all the way. He's slouched in between, one pillow pinched under his head and another one rolled into the twirled shape of a strudel pinned between his elbow and chest like a football. "How do you feel now?" Alice asks him. She scans the room. Everything seems to be intact. A glass of water, still full, sits on the bedside table.
"You should've called me," she tells him, moving about the room. She puts the groceries down on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed and flings a fallen bedspread back into place. She opens the curtains and cracks the window to let in some fresh air.
"Well, but here you are," says Arthur, straightening himself up.
"You call me, Mr. Bramble," she says loudly. "That's what I'm here for."
"Certainly," he says.
"Have you eaten anything?" she asks. She picks up his glass of water, dumps its remainder into the potted amaryllis on the dresser, and then holds the glass daintily in front of her belly button like a ballerina.
"Yes," says Arthur. "Your marvelous pot pie."
Alice frowns at him. "I didn't leave you any pot pie," she says.
"Your marvelous pot pie," he says again with a nod.
"I left quiche. A frittata, really."
"Precisely. Your marvelous frittata."
Alice cracks one of her tiny smiles. "I'll fix you some soup. Or bacon and eggs?"
"Bacon and eggs, please."
Alice props him up better on some pillows and brings him some fresh water. She moves about him efficiently, smacking at some pillows so the dust flies up, swarming in the sunlight like sea monkeys. She wipes at the bedside table, shines it up with her bare hand, and then shakes out a blanket with a military crack.
"The most competent woman in the world," Arthur told his daughter Margaret on the phone, referring to Alice, pronouncing the word wurld, swirled up into a wet whirlpool, his ancient Boston accent sprouted like a crocus from England centuries ago, now at the end of its line like his family's money, an accent practically extinct. ("I didn't know your father was British," his children's friends would say. He's not! Arthur was always the oldest father. "Is that guy your grandfather?" his children's friends would ask. He's my dad!) "A wonderful gurl," Arthur said to Margaret about Alice. Can't get much better than that, thought Margaret, unable to recall such a compliment out of her father's mouth about anyone, including herself.
Alice brings him the newspaper. "Thank you," says Arthur, but he barely gives it a try. Reading's become a sort of carnival game. The typed words pinwheel and make him seasick.
Alice heads into the bathroom to see what needs tending to in there. She refolds a clean towel that's slipped to the floor. Some of the framed pictures on the wall are askew, tilted at cockeyed angles--what went on in here? she wonders, imagining Arthur tipping about in the dark, pawing at the walls, mussing the pictures. Alice looks them over: His daughter Margaret in a pink bikini with her husband, smiling in a pool somewhere, two toddlers clasped onto their backs like barnacles. Max and Edie as teenagers, both of them smiling on a porch, puffs of breath beside their pale faces, evergreen garlands twined around a column near their heads. In a big silver frame, Arthur's wife, Florence, young but not too young, glamorous in black and white, laughing up into the air, perfect teeth, her mouth open as though waiting for a tossed grape, in a photograph taken for a magazine.
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