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Evening (Vintage Contemporaries)by Susan Minot
A new lens passed over everything she saw, the shadows moved on the wall like skeletons handing things to each other. Her body was flung back over a thousand beds in a thousand other rooms. She was undergoing a revolution, she felt split open. In her mattress there beat the feather of a wild bird.
Where were you all this time? she said. Where have you been?
I guess far away.
Yes you were. Too far away.
They sat in silence.
You know you frightened me a little, she said. At the beginning.
He smiled at that.
You looked as if you didn't need anyone, she said.
But those are the ones who need the most, he said. Don't you know that?
I do now, she said. Too late.
Never too late to know something, he said.
Maybe not, she said. But too late to do any good.
She lifted the yellow suitcase and banged it against her leg. She dragged it over the polished floor. The ceiling of Grand Central towered above her with arches and glass panes and squares of sunlight.
She was not late and did not have to hurry. The clerk in the window bowed his forehead like a priest in confession and pushed her ticket through. Across the great domed room she spotted a redcap with a cart and though she usually would have carried her bag to save money decided this was a special occasion. She was on her way to a wedding. She signaled to him.
The redcap flung her suitcase onto his cart. Whoever you're going to meet, he said, he's a lucky guy.
The heat in New York had been terrible and the air underground at the gate was heavy and close. When the train came out of the tunnel she saw thunderheads turning the sky yellow and grey. The rain started, ticking the window with scratches then pouring over it in streams. Crowds of cat-o'-nine-tails surged in a wave as the train blew past. By the time they reached Providence the rain had stopped and it was hot again with a hot wind blowing in the open doors. The engine shut off and they waited in the station. No new passengers got on. It was as if the world had paused on this late morning in July. She held her book loosely and watched out the window.
The station in Boston was shadowed in scaffolding dark as a cave with bands of light on the paneled benches and few travelers. The redcap who took her bag was young and did not say a word. He pushed a contraption with a bad wheel and had trouble steering through the door. She came out of the damp entranceway into the brightness of the turn-around beyond where she saw among the parked cars the dark green MG. The doors were open and she saw in front Buddy Wittenborn and in the driver's seat Ralph Eastman and a third person with his back to her. The person was standing with one foot up on the running board. When she got close Ralph caught sight of her and jumped out of the car and Buddy looked over with a lazy smile. Only when she was near did the back turn around and the long leg come off the running board and she saw the man's face. He was wearing squarish dark glasses so she couldn't see his eyes. She noticed his mouth was full though set in a particular firm way, the combination of which affected her curiously. She felt as if she'd been struck on the forehead with a brick.
The person's face seemed lit from within.
Ralph Eastman gave her a kiss on the cheek asking how was the career girl from New York and Buddy Wittenborn slid off the front seat and hugged her and ducked back turning his head and pushing his glasses back on his nose. He was wearing a disheveled shirt buttoned up wrong and a belt outside the belt loops and even with the beanie on his head looked as always handsome.
Ralph tipped the redcap, taking charge of the bags. She was trying to look at any other place other than at the person in the sunglasses.
Oh, Buddy said. This is Arden.
She was far enough away from the person that not to shake his hand was not rude. She didn't dare shake his hand. Hi, she said and smiled brightly. Her handbag fell to the ground.
That's Ann, Buddy said.
Hello Ann. The person had a deep voice which came from somewhere deep in his chest. We've been waiting for you, Ann. It was also kind of rough.
She caught a lipstick rolling and looked up. The person was not smiling. She blushed and looked back down. Am I that late? We stopped for a while in Providence . . . She felt the black glasses facing her.
Ralph slammed the back hatch. A late train has been figured into the calculations.
He's sure we'll miss the ferry, Buddy said.
On the contrary, just what I plan to avoid. So let's go.
The person was walking away from the car. He bent to pick something off the ground.
Harris, Ralph called, starting the car.
The person came back on long slow legs and got into the backseat beside Ann. It was an MG station wagon and the windows tilted in. He held up some keys attached to a Saint Christopher medal. These yours? he said.
God, Ann said, taking her keys. Thank you. That was idiotic. She looked straight at him. Which is your name?
They both are.
In what order?
Which is better? The face was placid and she could not read the eyes behind the glasses.
I don't know. They're both good.
No, the person said and he smiled for the first time. One is always better.
It was 1954 and Ann Grant was twenty-five years old.
They drove north. She liked being the girl in a car with three boys. They drove through Revere where the water was purple at the shore and the highway was raised above the tract houses, past gas stations with enormous signs shaped like horses, and miniature golf courses with waterfalls and orange dinosaurs. They passed motels with teepee cabins and restaurants shaped like pagodas and restaurants shaped like barns with plastic cows outside. They exited to Danvers winding past steeples and fudge stores with pink script writing back onto the highway where green countryside flickered out the window behind the person's profile. His name was Harris, Ralph was the one to say, Harris Arden. She sat beside Harris Arden in the backseat and they talked and now and then he turned toward her. He'd grown up in Virginia, was born in Turkey, had lived in Switzerland. His father was a diplomat, raised in St. Louis, his mother was Turkish which explained his coloring. Harris Arden lived in Chicago now, he said, and worked in a hospital.
Then Ann Grant realized who he was. He was Doctor R, Carl's friend, whom he'd served with in Korea. But it wasn't Doctor R as she had thought but Doctor Ar for Arden. She had pictured someone older.
You're the musician, she said.
Not so much anymore.
Isn't your band playing at the wedding?
What's left of it.
And you're a doctor too? Buddy said, prying open a beer with a Swiss Army knife. Who wants a cold one?
No one took him up on it. The person didn't seem to hear and stared out the window.
Ann sings, Ralph said, facing forward driving.
Does she? The person looked interested.
Just for fun, Ann said. Just in little places.
In New York little places are pretty big.
These really are little, she said. It's not even my job.
Ann's a pretty good singer, Buddy said.
I'd like to hear her sing, said the person in the sunglasses looking ahead.
Have you moved her?
She was sitting up this morning. Mrs. Lord.
The smell of rose water.
I'm sorry I'm late, said Ann Lord. We stopped for a long time in Providence.
Mrs. Lord, you have a visitor.
Ann Lord opened her eyes. No he's not, she said. It wasn't a visitor, it was Dr. Baker.
Afternoon Ann. Mercifully Dick Baker did not shout at her. His sleeves were rolled above the elbows, a stethoscope hung around his neck.
Afternoon, she said. I look a fright.
Nonsense, he said. You've never looked a fright. He came in every other day. Dick Baker was a friend of the Lords' and used to come often to dinner parties when Oscar was still alive--they had entertained more then--and as he held Ann Lord's wrist he remembered once watching her leave the dining room and disappear down the dark hallway toward the kitchen. She'd been wearing a dress with a pink sheen to it and the sheen had retained the light after her legs and arms and head had disappeared in the gloom. He checked her pulse against his watch, remembering the sheen.
After a while she said, Where am I?
You're in Cambridge in the house on Emerson Street. His dry fingers pressed near her ears. He wasn't looking at her, feeling around the way doctors do, as if they're blind.
I don't mean that, she said, fixing him in her gaze. That's not what I mean.
You're doing fine.
He had bent over the beds of many patients, but it was always different when you knew the person. It had an extra dimension to it. Dr. Baker was not a spiritual man. He considered himself a practical man. His job was simply to figure out what the heck the problem was and do his damndest to fix it and if he couldn't then move on and hope with the next one he could. He had been as straightforward with her as he was able. The treatment might give her some time but as far as curing this type of cancer . . . no that wasn't likely. There was no doubt about it when you knew the person the job changed. He felt less effectual when he knew more of the person's life. Not that he knew a great deal about Ann Lord. She was one of those mysterious women, not that he knew a great deal about women either. He knew she'd been married three times--the children came from the different husbands--and there was a hint of a racy life singing in nightclubs in New York which Dick Baker had never heard her mention and then that tragedy with her son. . . . His wife Bertie said Ann Lord was just like other women, maybe a little more stylish if you had to say something, but like other women. Bertie frankly found her a little distant and cold. Dr. Baker found them all mysterious to a point and Ann Lord had her own brand of mystery. She always looked well turned out and was a little cool then she would surprise you with a little jolt of something witty and inviting. It was nearly flirtation and challenged something in him. Of course he did not relate that to his wife. He knew that much about women.
How long Dick, she said.
It was not the first time she'd asked. They didn't always want to know. More often than not they didn't want to know the truth.
Dick. Her hand took his sleeve.
Dr. Baker glanced back at the nurse who gave a sort of nod and cast her glance to the side. He leaned down.
Let's just say you won't see the leaves change this year, he said.
When's Nina coming?
She can't come till Friday. She's in rehearsal.
I'd think she'd want to be here, said Aunt Grace. Constance has come all the way from Paris. I'd think Nina could make it from New York.
Mother understands, Margie said.
I hope she's right.
I think so, Constance said. Fergus, down.
Fergus, stop bothering Constance. She thinks she's a person, Aunt Grace explained, gazing fondly at her terrier. I just hope Nina doesn't regret it later.
It's Nina's big break supposedly, Margie said.
There'll be another break, said Aunt Grace. If she's good. Something else will come along. Your mother won't. Aunt Grace was an unlikely ally of Ann Lord's. Her younger brother had been Ann's second husband and when Ted Stackpole left her a widow Grace had stepped in to help. Having no family of her own she had the space to do it. She had never married and lived alone with her dog.
She'll be here this weekend, Margie said.
Let's hope Ann is lucid.
What do you mean? She's been lucid.
So far, said Aunt Grace mysteriously.
When Teddy came downstairs he looked as if he'd been away on a long trip.
He's been up there an awful lot, Aunt Grace said. I hope he can handle it.
He's doing fine, Constance said.
So different from his father, said Aunt Grace. Teddy was Ted Stackpole's son. His father couldn't stand sick people.
She lay on her back staring up at the canopy. Her thoughts went round and round and it was like spinning staring up at the trees the way she used to when she was young. She could not focus or stop or hold on to a thought for very long. She watched things blur by and now and then a bright light like the sun flashed through the leaves. She saw the water lying in lozenge shapes in the marshes past Portland and a face like a mask with dark glasses on it. He was asking her where she worked. Where . . . she could not remember. It was either the bookstore or the auction house or doing errands for Mrs. Havemeyer or cataloguing for Mr. Stein. She remembered the plaid shirt Buddy Wittenborn had been wearing and the rattle of the MG with the windows open and how the summer light threw a fuzzed screen over the trees. She saw a tilted field of purple lupin, a sign which said Free Beets Monday but she could not remember which job she'd been at the day before, the jobs were all folded together, or which little apartment she'd been in, they were folded together too, the one on Sixty-eighth Street with the bay window and geranium, the one with the slanted floor above Madison, there was a punch-out clock in the basement of Scribners', a navy wool jacket she wore, the slippery rugs in Mrs. Havemeyer's foyer, smoke hanging in the air at Sling's, Fiona fishing an onion out of a martini glass, the streets Sunday morning Fifth Avenue deserted . . . it all floated by, random and nearly transparent. They were the props of her life but she had no more sense of them than one does for the stage scenery of a play one saw ages ago then forgot. No doubt at the time they affected her, stirred some reaction, irritated or pleased her, but now most of them gave off neither heat nor cold and she watched them drop into the gaping dark hole of meaningless things she had not forgotten, things one level up from the far vaster place where lay all the unremembered things.
Now vivid before her was the sight of a road narrowing up a hill with humps of trees on either side like a gate and the frame of a windshield thrumming and the back of Ralph Eastman's tidy haircut being blown in fingerprint gusts and Buddy swigging from his beer, lips sideways. The car was moving forward but encased in memory it seemed still and suspended, as if the configuration in the car, the person beside her with his elbow resting on the window, his hand dangling, the skin darker at the knuckles, the window framing a sky of indistinct clouds and tall grasses flashing by, as if it were a delicately rendered structure wired and bolted together reflecting mirror-like the configuration of her heart.
She opened her eyes not knowing where she was. The room had gotten dark. The pain rose in her and she remembered. That's right, this is what she was now. In her sixty-five years Ann Lord had kept herself busy and was not particularly reflective but now forced to lie here day after day she found herself visited by certain reflections. Life would not hold any more surprises for her, she thought, all that was left was for her to get through this last thing. But her eyes were as sharp as ever and she saw everything that went by.
She knew the room. It had been her room for some time. She had known other rooms and lived in other houses and been in other countries but this was the last room and she knew what was coming to her in it. It was coming to her slowly and the room remained indifferent. The bedposts rose up with notched pinecones at the end and the narrow desk stood there shut with the key in the keyhole and on the bureau were the silver frames with her children in little squares and little ovals. The windows faced two ways, toward the beech tree and the high fence with spear tips separating it from the next yard and the near corner facing down to the end of the garden and lawn and all the time she felt the engine chugging quietly beneath her manufacturing pain ceaselessly. It was not going fast enough. She wanted it to speed up but whenever she urged it forward the effort only bound her faster to life. So she pretended she wasn't trying, pretended she was being borne along at whatever speed the wheels wanted to take her, pretended indifference. She ought to be good at pretending, she thought, she'd had a lifetime of doing it.
Then she saw in the murky light the tombstone shape of a large bird sitting on the windowsill. It looked like an owl or a hawk. When it lifted to fly away it spread its wings and flapped once and glided out on stiff wings which seemed held up by string. Its round heavy body soared upward and she watched it with a beating heart till the canopy above her intervened and the bird was blocked from her sight.
So she had them remove the canopy. Constance and Margie rolled off the white ruffled cover while she sat tilted but erect in the armchair by the window in her Dior nightgown. Constance had done her hair like Empress Josephine with gold string and Margie looked like a gypsy with her long skirt and tangled hair. They clapped the wooden slats together like Chinese instruments and yanked up the bowed pieces bridging the posts. When she resumed her position in bed the room had opened up and she could see more. There were not so many things open to her now and she was not going to miss the few which were. She could see the upper windows and the upper walls and the whole of the ceiling.
She felt herself being drawn up. She left behind the making of plans and the wondering about the future and a strange anticipation visited her. Something was calling to her. She heard soft paws crossing the floor above her. A blur passed by the window, a cloud of fidgeting butterflies. She smelled sea water, she smelled burnt sugar. Someone was making a cake. The sound of fingernails scraped the wainscoting behind the bamboo bookshelf. She scanned the shelves of her life. First she was Ann Grant then Phil Katz's wife then Mrs. Ted Stackpole then Ann Lord. Bits of things swam up to her, but what made them come? Why for instance did she remember the terrace at Versailles where she'd visited only once, or a pair of green and white checkered gloves, a photograph of city trees in the rain? It only demonstrated to her all she would forget. And if she did not remember these things who would? After she was gone there would be no one who knew the whole of her life. She did not even know the whole of it! Perhaps she should have written some of it down . . . but really what would have been the point in that? Everything passed, she would too. This perspective offered her an unexpected clarity she nearly enjoyed, but even with this new clarity the world offered no more explanation for itself than it ever had.
They drove past houses set up on swollen banks, houses with four windows in front and four on the side with dark shutters against the clapboard, houses with porches, sometimes with American flags. They talked about music and found themselves in agreement on a number of small points of taste which Ann Grant found surprising but which the person did not seem to.
In Waldoboro they stopped for lunch at Moody's Diner which had green booths and Formica tables edged in aluminum. Ralph refused the clam roll fearing poison. Buddy had the meatloaf special and a hotdog and piece of pie. Harris Arden she remembered ordered a hamburger and black coffee. When his plate arrived the sunglasses came off.
He put them on the table. Ann looked instinctively away as one was taught to if there was an eclipse of the sun. Then she looked back. His eyes were very light which was a surprise with the caramel cast of skin, between light grey and blue. They squinted as if the world were too bright. He bit into his hamburger and chewed and the eyes looked for an instant at her then out the window. It was as if someone had pierced her chest. She felt it in her toes. It was a marvelous feeling. She picked up her grilled cheese with no appetite whatsoever.
Sitting in the diner among the dark shadows and gleaming curves with the bright day outside Ann Grant felt as if she were both a stranger to herself and more herself than she'd ever been. Her elbow lay on the table, the door swung open to the kitchen, the pine shadows darkened the back window, all was dense with meaning. For no reason that she could name she was overcome with a sense of destiny. Her body carried the conviction more than her mind, the sensation came over her slowly that something important was happening, there was a decidedly new quality to everything around her, things were sharper and brighter, the air amplified sound. She had not yet pinpointed the change to her having met this person, she was being too pleasantly carried along to need to name it. But something made her feel as if she were floating and it had begun the moment she'd seen the person's face.
You forgot, she said.
I never forgot.
Well, she said.
Don't be like that.
How would I know you never forgot?
You should have known.
How? How was I ever to know?
Ann, he said and took her hand.
Forgetting, remembering . . . why should I care?
I couldn't forget you, he said.
What difference does it make anyway? she said.
It makes a difference.
I don't know.
You made a difference, he said. You changed my life.
And I never got to see it, she said.
Your life. I never got to see your life.
Nothing's perfect, he said.
No, she said.
They were both smiling.
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